Overlapping Hands - a Jacks or Better Quiz

            We’ve all been there.  Up comes 5 cards.  You turn to your spouse or a friend or maybe a complete stranger and you say, ‘Which should I hold?  The Low Pair or the Straight?  The Low Pair or the Flush?  Should I go for the Royal?’

            The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Video Poker hands require very little decision making.  Once you realize you’re not playing Table Poker and there’s no reason to keep ace kickers, most hands are pretty obvious as to what to keep and what to throw. 

            There are, however, some frequently occurring hands that leave most novices and even many experienced players wondering.  It’s not necessarily because the choices are of nearly equal value as much as each hand looks so tempting.  In reality, there is usually little true decision making skill required for these hands.  Once you have made up your mind to let Expert Strategy be your guide, it simply comes down to knowing which play has the higher Expected Value. 

            So, let’s take a look at some common ‘overlapping’ hands.   Assuming we are playing Full-Pay (9/6) Jacks or Better, how would you play the following hands:

A)        10§     J¨        Jª        Q©      K§
B)        2¨       5¨       8¨       K¨      Kª
C)        2©       2§       3¨       4ª       5§
D)        10ª     10¨     J§        Q©      Kª
E)        10ª     10¨     J§        Q©      Aª
F)         2©       5©       5§       8©       10©

            The 4 card straight in Hand A has an EV of .85, while the High Pair has an EV of 1.54.   Playing anything but the High Pair would be a big mistake.  High Pairs beat ALL 4 Card Straights.   4 Card Straight FLUSHES beat ALL High pairs.

            The 4 card flush in Hand B has an EV of 1.19, while the EV of the High pair is again 1.54.  Once again, High Pairs beat ALL 4 card flushes.  The only types of hands we discard a High Pair for are 4 Card Straight Flushes (inside or outside) and 4 Card Royals.

            Hand C makes us choose between a Low Pair and a 4 Card Straight with no High Cards (STR4H0).  This type of straight has an EV of .68, while the Low Pair has an EV of .82.  A little closer than some of our other examples, but still a clear choice exists.  Play the Low Pair.

            Hand D is similar to Hand C, but the Straight now has 3 High Cards (STR4H3), which makes it the highest ranking 4 Card Straight.  Its EV is .87 which puts it ABOVE the Low Pair.   A 4-card Straight with 2 High Cards (STR4H2) would be a 9,10, J, Q has an EV of .81.  This is one of the more complex strategies to remember with regard to Low Pairs.  Play a Low Pair over ALL 4 Card Straights EXCEPT a Pair of 10’s versus a 10, J, Q, K straight.  In this ONE case, its preferable to play the straight.  It should be noted that there are only a few hundred (out of nearly 2.6 million possible hands) when this particular hand will show up.  While we can’t advocate playing the Low Pair against ALL 4 Card Straights, it won’t cost you a lot in the long run… about .001 of the total payback.  We do recognize the advantage of keeping the strategy table easier to remember.

Hand E is a choice between a Low Pair and a 4 Card INSIDE Straight with 3 High Cards.  The EV of this hand is a mere .53 and is the LOWEST playable 4 card straight.  Its EV is well below the EV of the Low Pair of .82 and thus we play the Low Pair.

Hand F illustrates a 4-Card Flush with a Low Pair.  In this example, the 4-Card Flush has an EV of 1.15, well above the Low Pair’s EV of .82.  This 4-Card Flush has the lowest EV possible for a 4-Card Flush.  The more High Cards the Flush has, the higher the EV.  Of course, if a Flush has 3 High Cards, it becomes a 3-Card Royal and would outrank the 4-Card Flush. 

Let’s sum up what we’ve covered.  High Pairs outrank ALL 4-Card Straights and 4-Card Flushes, but do NOT outrank ANY 4-Card Straight Flushes.  Dealing with Low Pairs is a bit more complex.  Low Pairs are outranked by ALL 4-Card Flushes.  Low Pairs outrank ALL 4 Card INSIDE Straights, and ALMOST ALL 4-Card Straights.  The one exception is a 10, J, Q, K straight.

These rules apply based on this analysis ONLY for Jacks or Better Full Pay machines.  They may very well apply to other, if not MOST other pay tables, but it cannot be assumed that the strategy for one version of Video Poker will apply to other versions or other pay tables.  This is why it is suggested that you limit yourself to one or two versions of the game and become an expert at it before moving on to other versions.

Of course, these are not all the cases that make you turn to your friend and say “Which should I hold?’, but these are among the most commonly occurring and probably among the most commonly misplayed.  Nothing stated here can’t be easily determined by reading the Strategy Table for the particular pay table you’re interested in.  In a future column, I’ll review more common ‘overlapping’ hands.