Last week, I discussed the importance of knowing which games to play. Casino game paybacks vary from about 80% all the way up to 100% (and sometimes even more). If you spend your time playing the 80-95% games, you're going to find it hard to win even in the short run. The cost of playing in a casino is going to be far greater than if you try and find those 97% and up games. To this end, when talking video poker, you are looking for full-pay machines. These are the ones that are commonly found and generally have the highest possible payback for that particular type of machine.
The most common of all games is still jacks or better and its full-pay paytable is generally known by the payouts for Full House and Flush which are 9-6, respectively. The paybacks for Straight down to Pair of Jacks rarely changes from 4, 3, 2, 1. The payback for Four of a Kind and up change relatively rarely as well from their usual 25, 50, 250/800. Once in a while, you'll see a casino shave some of the payouts up here.
With this paytable, you are playing a 99.5% game and while there are higher paying games, you can't complain about what paying this high. If you are playing quarters at max-coin and play 600 hands per hour (which is a bit more than leisurely playing), your video poker habit will cost you (on average) about $3.75 per hour. There's not a lot of entertainment that costs less than that per hour.
Unfortunately, as common as this paytable is, you will NOT find it in every casino, or at least not on every machine in every casino. The more tourist oriented the casino, the less likely it is going to offer these paybacks. Casinos that rely on nearly everyday players (i.e. 'locals' casinos) will tend to offer these paytable with far greater frequency. So, where does this leave you? If you've come to Las Vegas and you are staying on the strip, you probably don't want to take a taxi to a locals casino. Contrary to what might be a popular misconception, local casinos are NOT old or small or ugly. I happen to live not far from Red Rock Station, which I happen to think is a gorgeous hotel/casino/entertainment complex. (I'm still getting used to walking my kid through the casino just to go to the movies or bowling, but that's just life here in LV!) That said, I do understand what might be your desire to stay closer to the fountains of Bellagio rather than trek to Summerlin.
But, you have to understand that your decision comes at a cost as well. The question is how much of a cost. As I said earlier, the majority of the variation in paytables for jacks or better comes in the Full House and/or the Flush. Just how much does stripping a unit of payout for these hands affect our overall payback?
There's a relatively simple formula used in virtually all games to determine the payback of a game. We take the probability of a winning hand and multiply it by the payout of that hand. We sum up these values to get the payback. The tricky part (in most games) is figuring out the correct probability of each winning hand. Fortunately, analysts like me have already done this for most games, including video poker. Helping to prove how different video poker is from table poker, you might be surprised to find out that the probability of a Straight, a Flush and a Full House are all pretty similar in video poker. Part of this reason are the paytables themselves that cause Players to target certain hands when they have a choice of what to do. The probability of each of these hands is just over 1%. So, if we multiply the payout of the Full House (9) by this probability we get a number between 9% and 10%. If that payout drops to 8, then this number drops by about 1% and the overall payback drops by 1%. The same is true for the Flush. So, a paytable of 8-5 reduces our payback by just over 2%. A paytable of 6-5 reduces the payback by over 4%, down to 95.5%. While these reductions will cause some slight strategy changes that will recover small portions of this, it is not enough to make a significant difference.
So, what's the big deal about playing 8-5 or 6-5 vs the full-pay 9-6. Earlier, I said that it would cost about $3.75 per hour playing a 9-6 machines. This goes up to $18.75 per hour playing the 8-5 and $33.75 if you choose to play the 6-5. If you've come to Vegas for the week and play 20 hours at 6-5 instead of 9-6, you can expect your loss to be $600 more. In my mind, this is enough reason to spend a little energy and time to find better paytables, even if this involves at least an occasional trip to a place like Red Rock.