The Right Strategy

            Last week's column was all about how to beat Video Poker.  As I discussed last week, and numerous other times, this is not about 'taking down the house'.  You're not going to bankrupt the casino.  You're not going to walk out with wheelbarrows full of money.  Beating the house simply means winning instead of losing.  For many of you, it might simply mean losing a little instead of losing a lot.  I don't peddle schemes for how to beat the house.  I offer strategy on how to maximize the payback of each game.  If you do this, you give yourself the best chance to win in the short run.  There are also some games that give you a chance to eke out a small gain over the long haul.


            The foundation to all of this is Expert Strategy.  This involves three key components.  Play the right games,  know the right strategy and know what to expect.  It doesn't take a lot to learn which are the right games to play.  You find video poker machines with full-pay paytables and you'll be playing games at about 99% or better.  When you throw in the comps and cashback, you'll be very close to 100%.  Again, with some of the games, you'll be over 100%.


            Learning the right strategy takes a good deal more work.  This does not involve some sort of betting scheme that works 9 out of 10 times, but is a disaster the 10th time.  Those betting systems have all been proven to be hoaxes thanks to the use of computers.  Learning the right strategy for video poker is akin to learning when to hit/stick/double/split in blackjack.  No one disputes that.  Sure, there are some people who count cards and go one step further.  But, no respectable blackjack Player is going to tell you split 10's.  They'll tell you that you have to hit that 16 looking into a 9, even though it means you'll bust more times than anything else.


            They tell you this because the math dictates what to do.  If I were to tell you that I created a program to simulate a particular blackjack hand 1 million times and it shows that you'll win that hand 55% of the time when you hit and only 42% when you stick, would you question what to do?  Blackjack is a nearly binary game.  You either win or you lose.  When you win, you win even money (except blackjacks).  About 90% of the time, the only wager in action is the original wager you make.  Explaining the right play is also relatively easy as it usually comes down to only 2 or maybe 3 choices out of Hit/Stick/Double/Split/Surrender.


            Video Poker is far more complex in nearly every respect.  Technically, there are 32 different choices the Player can make on every hand, ranging from keeping all five cards to discarding all five cards and everything in between.  Realistically, there are only 2, 3 or maybe 4 ways to play the hand.  Adding to the complexity is that payouts can range from a push to paying 800 for 1.  So, looking purely at win frequency doesn't do us much.  We need to look at how much we win for each potential winning hand and what the probability of attaining that hand is. 


            We have a tendency to 'chase' Royals because of their 800 for 1 payout.  That's why we if dealt three unsuited high cards where two ARE suited, we keep the two Suited cards instead of the 3 unsuited cards.  We reduce our chances for a Straight, but increase (from zero) our chance of a Royal. It's long odds, but with an 800 for 1 payout, those odds are worth it. 


            The good news is that you don't have to sit there and compute the probability of all the possible winning hands for all the possible ways you can discard cards.  I don't think anyone could sit at a machine and do this on the fly for each hand.  People like me have already done all the work, thanks to the help of a computer.  We have calculated the results of playing each of the possible 32 ways you can draw on each of the 2,598,960 unique deals.  We know exactly how many Royals, Straight Flushes, Quads, Full House, Flushes, Straights, Trips, Two Pair and High Pairs you would get if you played ALL the possible draws for ALL of the possible ways you can discard for ALL of the possible 5-card deals.  I've never computed how many total hands we are really looking at, but it's a lot!


            From these numbers, we can take any paytable and figure out the exact average amount you can expect to win from each way to draw each deal.  The way which provides the Player the highest return, what we call expected value, is the proper way to play each hand.  All of these results are summarize into what is called a Strategy Table.  These tables contain about 30-40 'hands' or 'partial hands' in order of expected value.  When you are dealt a hand, you simply need to start at the top of the strategy table and work your way down the table until you find a hand that matches a portion of what you are dealt.  It is in this way that we know we play a High Pair over a 4-Card Flush, but we play a 4-Card Flush over a Low Pair.


            You could sit at the machine with a strategy table in hand, but this would lead to some slow play and some casinos may not allow it.  Instead, you will have to spend time at home memorizing the order of the hands on the strategy table and matching them up to the hands you are dealt.  It may sound daunting, but with a little bit of practice you can learn this.  Many of the hands are very obvious.  The rest just takes time practicing with either a deck of cards of some video poker software.


            I'd like to tell you that there is a shortcut, but there isn't.  One of the reasons why video poker offers paybacks so close to 100% is because most Players don't bother to learn the strategy and the casinos can count on their errors to increase their net win.  As a result, you have the opportunity to play these games at their theoretical paybacks with the casino very content to let you do so.