The Straight and Narrow

            When my father passed away in 1998, he was just about ready to place an order for the 2nd printing of the 2nd edition of his book Winning Strategies for Video Poker.  It was with a little bit of trepidation that we went ahead and ordered the full 2000 copies.  I'm not sure how many copies were sold in total before he passed away, but based on what records I can find plus the fact that the full 2000 sold out and I have had it reprinted yet again, I'd say it is fair to say that somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 copies were sold, which is absolutely remarkable for a self-published book from what I'm told.


            Winning Strategies was his 2nd full length book.  It wasn't for novices as it did little to explain the game, but rather provided the strategy tables for 61 of the most popular (at the time) video poker games all around the country.  If you were a beginner, you had 2 other choices.  You could read Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas (or the Atlantic City version) or you can go for America's National Game of Chance: Video Poker.  The former walks you through video poker step by step explaining everything about the game.  The latter is roughly 200 pages of my dad's articles, anecdotes, quizzes that guide you through learning how to play the game.  In all honesty, I have always thought it was his best work.  It too, sold several thousand copies (at least), but we sell far fewer of these than Winning Strategies nowadays.


            For inspiration for columns, I often find myself going through America's National Game of Chance and today is one of those days.  A them my father covered often in his columns is the lack of respect that the Straight Flush gets when playing video poker.   Admittedly, the paytable has something to do with this.   A Royal Flush pays 800.  A Straight Flush pays 50.  A Royal Flush is really just an Ace High Straight Flush.  There are 10 possible types of Straight Flushes, so a Royal makes up 10% of them.  Yet, it pays 16 times as much.   As such, we find that when playing Expert Strategy on a full-pay jacks or better machine, you should get a Royal about 1 in 40,400 hands and a Straight Flush about 1 in 9,200 hands.  The Straight Flush is about 4-5 times more frequent even though there are 9 times as many of them.


            I don't know of any video poker machine or casino loyalty card that provides you with the actual stats of your play.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that many very good Players if they good review their stats would find that they are getting Straight Flushes only 1 in 15,000.  This isn't because the math is wrong or because the machines are rigged.  This is because Players simply MISREAD their hands and miss the partial Straight Flushes within and/or they simply are unaware of the power that partial Straight Flushes have. 


            Most video poker Players are geared to look for High Cards.  We want those sure winners so we need Jacks through Aces.  We want Royal Flushes so we need Jacks through Aces.  The natural reaction if we see 5 cards below a Jack is to throw all 5 of them - especially if we don't see at least a 4-Card Straight or a 4-Card Flush.  But, the 3-Card Flush of every variety is a playable hand.  Not helping the cause is that video poker machines don't allow Players to re-arrange the cards in rank order.   Admittedly, when I use an example, I tend to put the relevant cards together as in:


4♦        5♦        8♦        2♣       10♠


            It is easier to see the 3-Card Straight Flush if the cards are displayed as above instead of:

10♠      5♦        2♣       8♦        4♦


            So, the first step is you have to realize that you have a 3-Card Double Inside Straight Flush (with 0 High Cards).  This is the lowest ranking 3-Card Straight Flush and STILL it outranks throwing all 5 cards.   Admittedly, if we turn that 10 into a Jack, then we 1 High Card and that is the proper play.  BUT, if we turn that 8 into a 7 at the same time, we now have a 3-Card Inside Straight Flush with 0 High Cards and this outranks any hand with ONE or TWO High Cards.  So even if that 2 was a King and the 10 was a Jack (but not of the same suit) we would play the 3-Card Inside Straight Flush.


            But, what if we have a 3-Card Straight Flush AND a 2-Card Royal?   What if we have suited 4-5-6 and a suited (different suit) J-Q?  Surely we don't keep the 3 little cards and forgo any chances for our Royal?  Well, if you want to maximize your payback you do.  While it is close, a 3-Card Straight Flush with 0 High Cards slightly outranks a 2-Card Royal even when it is the highest ranking 2-Card Royal (consisting of JQ, JK or QK).  It only gets more skewed if it is a 2-Card Royal consisting of A-X or 10-X. 


            So, it would appear that there are 2 key steps to getting the right number of Straight Flushes.  The first is recognizing the partial Straight Flushes in your hand and the second is learning the right way to play them.