Another classic, screen-driven ‘casino machine’ that’s still in demand at land-based clubs and has also proved a hit with online casino players, is video poker. Although based on the traditional hand ranking rules of five-card poker, it is a simpler game to play than other tournament and casino pokers yet brings an element of skill into play that can make it extremely rewarding for players willing to explore its strategies.
Besides being one of the few online casino games that involve some skill (rather than pure luck like slots and Roulette), video poker also offers the tantalising prospect of some of the very lowest house edges possible at an online casino if you can master a little strategy.
If you’re wholly new to video poker online we’ll get into the basics of this fascinating game shortly, but if you know your stuff already and simply want some recommended online casinos to get stuck into straight away, here are some fine options.
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Here’s how to play video poker: the essential aim is to build the best ranking ‘poker hand’ possible from five cards dealt from a standard deck of playing cards, and with one chance to replace all or any of them. This means you need to know the traditional hand rankings for poker so, for the sake of completeness, here they are from highest to lowest:
- Royal Flush: A, K, Q, J, 10 of the same suit.
- Straight Flush: Five cards in straight sequence of the same suit.
- Four of a Kind: All four cards of the same rank, e.g. 4 Queens.
- Full House: Three of a Kind with a Pair.
- Flush: Any five cards of the same suit, but not in continuous sequence.
- Straight: Five cards in continuous sequence, but not of the same suit.
- Three of a Kind: Three cards of the same rank.
- Two Pairs: Two different Pairs.
- Pair: Two cards of the same rank.
- High Card: The highest-ranking card if no higher ranking hand possible.
Armed with this knowledge, we can now progress to the actual mechanics of playing typical video poker games.
Staking: Typically, you can stake between one and five ‘coins’ on the next deal, with a paytable at the top of the screen showing the wins possible for each level against each hand ranking. The ‘coin’ value is normally flexible too, allowing plenty of options to play at the level you can afford.
Setting Your Hand: Once you’re happy with your bet, play begins with five standard playing cards being dealt to you on screen. You now have the choice to ‘hold’ any of the displayed cards that you think will achieve the best final result once the game finishes. This is where strategy comes in, and we will go into more detail on this later in this article. Any cards you choose not to ‘hold’ will then be, at your command, discarded and replaced with fresh cards from the virtual deck. This is the point where the game finishes and if you’ve achieved a hand that ranks on that game’s paytable, the appropriate win is paid out.
All video poker games have a minimum threshold hand to win a game, so you will need to achieve that if you are not to forfeit your bet. For instance, ‘Jacks of Better’ games require you get at least a Pair of Jacks to win.
Mentioned in our introduction, part of the appeal of these games is the excellent odds they offer players who can master optimal playing strategy. This game can deliver the leanest house edges possible in a land-based or online casino, and hence the highest RTP figures you’re likely to see. By way of example here are three of Microgaming’s sixteen basic online video poker slots listed with their advertised RTP figures for optimal play.
- All Aces – 99.92%
- Jacks of Better – 99.54%
- All American – 99.38%
Return to Player – By way of comparison most online slots have RTP figures between 90 to 95% and European Roulette offers 97.30%. Video poker certainly looks very attractive when the RTP figures are compared like that! However, you do need to remember two things about these percentages; (1) you do need to play with optimal strategy to achieve the best possible RTP from a video poker game, and (2) that percentage is calculated over the long-term. A player cannot expect to get back 99% of wagers on every single session they play – some will show profit, others losses, and the average expected result is what the RTP figure is intended to show.
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Knowing that good strategy is the key to getting the best advantage, what is a good strategy?
Video Poker Strategy: If you’re hoping for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy to rush off and start playing with, we’re afraid we’re going to have to disappoint you. The different game variations require modified strategies to reach optimal play, but don’t let that discourage you for there is a good basic strategy for Jacks or Better games that is a great place to start, and can help you assimilate other games’ strategies a little quicker. The following is that Jacks or Better strategy as a list of ‘plays’ ranked in order of which cards to ‘hold’ from the initial deal in a game:
- Four of a Kind, Straight Flush of Royal Flush.
- Four cards that could be completed as a Royal Flush.
- Three of a Kind, Straight Flush or Full House.
- Four cards that could be completed as a Straight Flush.
- Two Pairs.
- High Pair of Jacks or better.
- Three cards that could be completed as a Royal Flush.
- Four cards that could be completed as a Flush.
- Low Pair of 10s or below.
- Four cards that could form an ‘outside’ Straight*
- Two cards, Jacks or better, or the same suit.
- Three cards that could form a Straight Flush.
- Two cards, Jacks of better, of different suits.
- 10 with same suit Jack, Queen or King.
- One Jack or better.
- Hold nothing.
(*An ‘outside’ straight is one where the missing card needed to complete the hand is one rank lower than the lowest held card, or one rank higher than the highest held card. e.g. holding 8, 9, 10, J needing a 7 or Q to form the winning straight.)
To use this strategy when playing Jacks or Better, assess your initial five cards to determine the viable ‘plays’ from the list above, then choose the highest ranking ‘play’ from those options to give you the best probability of winning.
One final tip to help you get comfortable with playing with this strategy is to find a free play version of Jacks and Better to learn the ropes with a few sessions of risk-free games. Free video poker games are widely available on the Net and many of our recommended casinos allow their selection of games to be tried in demo mode too.
Playing without using a mathematically proven strategy isn’t exactly madness but you can probably expect to lower the theoretical RTP by a good few percent by doing so, which – let’s face it – isn’t the smartest move when looking to beat the house!
We’ve mentioned that there are many game variations beyond the Jacks or Better game we’ve used as an example to explain the genre. The following is a non-exhaustive list covering some of the more common versions you’ll find at the best online casinos:
Aces and Eights: This adds extra unique pays on the paytable for Four of a Kind with aces, eights or sevens.
Deuces Wild: Here all ‘twos’ are wild, adding extra unique pays for Five of a Kind, Wild Royal Flush, and Four Deuces.
Double Bonus: This variation of Jacks of Better adds bonus pays if you play for the maximum five coins, for Four of a Kind with aces, twos, threes or fours.
Deuces and Jokers Wild: Played with a 53-card deck, the Joker adds an extra wild to play, creating a video poker with a win paying more than a natural Royal Flush. Getting all five wilds (all the Deuces and the Joker) typically pays a huge 10,000 coins for the five-coin bet.
By now it should be clear that video poker is not only a very rewarding game to learn, but also it’s pretty deep compared to the majority of casino games. There’s a whole world of strategy to master if you want to, but don’t think that’s essential to enjoy this game alongside some of your other online casino favourites.
This article is only intended to give you a flavour of the charms of video poker and help you get started if your interest has been piqued. Tackling a Jacks or Better free video poker game at one of our recommended casinos is an excellent way to dip your toe in the water, and if you want to dive in deeper there’s no shortage of free expert advice on strategy for other popular variants.
In many respects, if you’re already a fan of Blackjack, video poker offers a complementary game that brings the same thrill of using skilful strategic play to get some of the best odds anywhere in a casino but with greater volatility. And slots players who love volatile games may also find this game a wild ride, but with a new angle of skill and even better RTP possible. Considering all that, it seems like video poker’s got lots to offer the majority of casino players who’ve not yet done a deal!