I've spent 3 out of the last 4 weeks discussing Soft Hands in the games of blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch. I did this for two reasons. The first is that it is nice to write about something other than video poker once in a while. The second is that it is frequently easier to illustrate important concepts by using games with more straightforward differences. If you read my column this past month, you probably can understand why you don't use the same strategy for Soft Hands for these different games. While they may be all blackjack based games, the differences created by removing the 10's (Spanish 21) and by having a Dealer Bust of 22 (Blackjack Switch) pushing against Player hands change the math, which in turn changes our strategy.
One thing that these games have in common, for the most part, is the payouts. A win is a win and you get paid even money. Spanish 21 has its bonus hands and its Charlie payouts (which also effects strategy), but you don't have to worry about looking for a paytable to know what to do. You just have to know which game you are playing. I must admit that a very, very long time ago, I sat down at a Spanish 21 table not realizing for about 30 minutes that I wasn't playing regular blackjack! When it finally hit me, I'm sure I turned a nice shade of red, something I don't do very often.
The bottom line is that from my little detour on blackjack we learn that rule changes can and will change our strategy. What we have to learn directly from video poker is that paytable changes can do the same thing. One could argue that there really are no rule variations across virtually all video poker machines. You are dealt 5 cards. You decide which ones you want to replace. You draw that many cards. Games like Multi-Strike and some of the attempts at a 7-Card Stud game do manage to cross the rule line, in my opinion. In the gray area are the games that use Wild Cards (Jokers and/or Deuces). Are these really rule changes or paytable changes? It really doesn't matter once you realize that both can have the same impact to our strategy.
If I pick up a copy of Winning Strategies for Video Poker, I will find 27 different paytables JUST for jacks or better. Admittedly, some of these paytables are pretty tough to find these days, but these paytables were considered to be the 'full-pay' paytables in a number of jurisdictions when the book was revised 15 years ago. It purposefully left out many of the short-pay machines that are some of the most common both then and today. There are probably 50-60 paytables in use today just for jacks or better.
Of course, in an ideal world, none of you reading this column would actually play any of the inferior paytables if given an opportunity to play one of the better ones, but that is not likely the reality. Also, in order for this to happen, each of you would have to know how to determine which are the better paytables to actually play. I'll save that for another column.
Today's column is about understanding how the strategy changes as a result of a paytable change. With dozens of paytables out there, each game could potentially have its own strategy. This doesn't mean that if you bring your strategy from one game to another that you'll be committing bankroll suicide, but you won't be helping yourself either. In some cases, you might add another 1-2% to the house advantage by using the wrong strategy for any particular paytable.
So, what is a Player to do? First, you can't try to master every paytable out there. I'm guessing there are not a lot of Experts who play regular blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch on a regular basis. It is too easy to get parts of the strategy confused and then you start making mistakes. Very quickly, 3 games each with paybacks of 99%+ become not nearly as strong for the Player. The same is true of video poker. After a while you're going to forget which games a 3-Card Straight Flush with 1 High Card outranks a 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards.
The key is to target a single game. It should be a full-pay machine with a strong paytable. Then, go out and learn the strategy. Read a book. Buy some software. Practice at your desk. ONLY when you have mastered the strategy should you venture out to the casino and play using real money. Before you jump to play a different game, repeat the entire process all over again.