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How Video Poker Works

The Universal Truth about Video Poker Game – How the Machines Work

The majority of video poker games are based on five-card draw poker. In five-card draw, players are initially dealt five cards and can throw away any of them to try to improve their hand. New cards are dealt to replace the discarded ones, and the final five cards decide your fate. When playing the most popular video form of five-card draw, known as Jacks or Better, you win if your final hand has at least a pair of jacks or better (get it?). Jacks or Better was actually the original video poker game, and although there are now many more flavors, including Jokers Wild, Deuces Wild, Bonus Poker, and even Double Bonus Poker, well focus our attention on Jacks or Better because it not only has the widest appeal, it is probably the easiest of the bunch to learn.

Instead of beating your opponents hand or bluffing as you do to win a live poker hand, in most of the video versions you win whenever you hold any of the five-card winning combinations listed in the hierarchy of winning hands shown in Table 19.1. In Jacks or Better, for example, you wont be paid for a pair of 10s or a pair of 2s, but you will be paid for any hand higher than a pair of 10s, including a pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces, and any two pairs of anything, right up the line to the most regal of hands—the royal flush. Video poker games often differ in terms of what the lowest-paying winning hand is and what it might pay, but you can find out by reading the payout table posted on the machine or the video screen. Nowadays you can even press a Help button (on some of the multi-game video machines) to learn the rules of each particular game.


A payout table, or schedule, is a posting somewhere on the front of a video poker machine, or on the screen itself, that tells you what each winning hand will pay for the number of coins or credits played.

The Hierarchy of Poker Hands (for Jacks or Better Video Poker)

What Makes It Popular?

All video poker machines (and video gambling games in general) work on the same principles of technology on slots. But in a nutshell, a computer chip containing many computer programs usually governs the operation of a video poker machine.

One program contains all possible five-card combinations that can be dealt from a 52-card deck, along with the odds of actually hitting each combination. It also contains the payoff schedule for each winning combination. Another program tells the machine whether to let you win, depending on how you play the hand. Of course, you cant be allowed to win every hand—even if you make all the right choices. But, if you should happen to get back-to-back royals (or even four straight flushes in one day, as I once did) its the second program that you need to thank.

Best Bet

Video poker machines are so popular that many slot clubs video poker players as, well. If youre an avid player, you can probably earn comp credits and collect your freebies while playing your favorite game. Then, run to the nearest slot-club promotion desk to sign up.

When Youve Played One, Youve Played Em All

A typical video poker machine is about the same size as a regular slot machine and comes in a tabletop configuration or the standard desktop unit. Some of the newer models are wrapped in multi-game packages in which youre also likely to find a number of the latest video poker, blackjack, keno, and even slot games. You can find nickel, quarter, dollar and even $5 video poker machines, and no matter which machine you play, its basically the same. After you insert your money, either as a bill in the cash slot or as coins in the coin drop, you select the game you want, which in this case is Jacks or Better. If you inserted cash and are working off credits, press the BET 1 CREDIT or MAX CREDITS button to place your bet. (MAX CREDITS automatically wagers the maximum number or coins/credits the game allows.)

Once you make your bet, press the DEAL button. If youre playing one of the old Dakota machines youll be amused by the deep sucking sound that the machine makes as it deals each card. (Maybe Ross Perot plays Dakotas, too?) Anyway, once all five cards are dealt, some machines automatically tell you which cards to hold. If you dont like the selection (and you probably wont once you get the hang of it), press the HOLD button under the card that the machine machine has suggested you hold, in order to disengaged the hold.

Best Bet

Whenever you insert a bill into a cash/credit machine, make sure you receive the proper amount of credits for the denomination of bill. Sometimes these cash machines mess up. Don’t worry – if there’s a mistake, a slot machine or technician will spot it easily, retrieve the bill and fix the machine. Just ask a change person to locate someone who is authorized to fix the machine

(If youre on one of those old Dakotas, the exact opposite of true: You have to tell the machine which cards to discard not which card to hold. If you dont like the hold selection press the DISCARD button under the cards you want to get rid of, and the hold suggestion will be ignored.)

If your machine doesnt make a selection for you, consider yourself lucky and make your own. On most machine involves pressing the HOLD button under the cards you want to keep, or tapping the card(s) you want to keep a multi-game touch screen. After you make your decision (and dont worry—well give you plenty of advice about that later), the word Held or Hold will appear above card(s) you want to keep, indicating that it will not be discarded with the rest of the trash youre throwing away.

Now, press the DEAL button again to get your replacement cards. If your replacement cards worked, you may hear bells and whistles, or maybe just see a small flash the screen that tells you youre a winner and how youve won. If youre working off credits, they will be added to the credit count. If youre into coins clanking, I hope its a long and loud one! (By the way you can usually turn the coin-clanking off by switching to credit play, if your machine is so equipped. Just press the CREDIT button until it lights up. When youre ready to quit, press CASH OUT or COLLECT before the credits are gone.)

If you didnt win, youll probably see Game Over displayed on the screen, and, refusing to be beaten by some stupid machine, youll do what many people are prone to

Press the appropriate BET button (or drop in more coins) and do it again. Repeat this procedure approximately 40,000 times and youre likely to wind up with a royal (royal flush). Of course there are no guarantees, and if youre not playing to win, a royal might not even get you ahead. Well show you why next!

Bet You Didn’t Know

It used to be widely believed that video poker machines dealt five replacement cards at the same time that they dealt your original five cards. When you discarded a card, the replacement was waiting behind into be called into play. With the variety of machines on the market today, this is no longer always the case. Some deal you the replacement cards in sequential order, using the first card in the replacement line to replace your first discarded card, and so on.

It really makes no difference which way your particular machine works. Its just that sometimes, as you sit there playing and realize that the first two replacement cards would have given you a royal had you discarded different cards, you cant help but wonder how these things work and whether the machine is really playing you!

The Big Secret

Its hard for someone whos played as much video poker as I have to believe that professionals actually earn a living doing it. But they do, and although it may take a heavy bankroll to get the same results, theres a lot that recreational players can do to get an edge. According to Stanford, there are only two ways to win at video poker:

  • Pick your machines very carefully.
  • Use the basic strategy that well show you soon, and play max coins.

Make no mistake about it. You can get lucky sometimes, and you can enjoy yourself every time, but unless you play the right machines—the right way—you wont get even or win in the long run!


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