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Russell Hunter 
Publishing Inc


Evaluating Video Poker Hands

The following is taken from the manual - Power Video Poker -

We will be playing with video poker machines which deal five cards.  You, as the player, must chose which, if any, of the five cards dealt you will keep.  You may keep one, two, three, four or all five of the cards dealt.  Or you may decide not to keep any of the cards dealt you and discard all five cards.  After making your choices of which cards to hold and which to discard, you will be dealt enough cards to bring your total number of cards back to five, and you will win or lose based on this final hand.

You get two shots at winning each hand.  You first get a shot at a win based on five random cards dealt you by the machine.  If this hand contains a winning poker hand, then you have a win "locked up" regardless of any cards you draw.  The second draw, where any cards discarded are replaced, gives you your second, and final, chance of winning.

At the start of each hand, you will insert coins or use machine credits to indicate the amount you will wager.  The wager is usually from one to five coins.  After making your wager, the machine will deal you five cards.  You will make your decision on which cards to hold and which to discard.  The final cards will be dealt, and the hand will be settled.  You will be paid if you have a winning hand.

Video poker hands are ranked the same as the card version of poker.  The relative values of each hand are based on how rare the hands are.  Thus a Full House, which requires three cards of the same kind plus an additional pair of matching cards, always beats a pair because a Full House is more difficult to achieve

Table 1 shows the rank of video poker hands with an example of each hand.  All decisions we will make in video poker will be based on how our decision helps or hurts us in our attempt to achieve one of these winning hands.


                       Table 1.  Rank of Video Poker Hands


  Description of Hand

Example of Hand

Royal Flush

The top five cards all of the same suit.


Straight Flush

Any five cards in sequence and of the same suit


Four of a Kind

Four matching cards


Full House

Three matching cards plus a pair



Five cards of the same suit



Five cards in sequential order, but not of the same suit


Three of a Kind

Three matching cards


Two Pairs

Two pairs of matching cards



Pair of matching cards


No Pair Hand

Hand with no pairs or other poker hands


Notes:  The following cards were abbreviated:

            Ace = A

            King = K         

            Queen = Q

            Jack = J

            Ten = T

So far, if you have any experience playing poker at all, you probably feel pretty smug.  All Table 1 shows are the standard poker hands, the first thing anyone learns who plays the game.

So let’s talk poker strategy.  You are playing five card draw poker (the same kind of game the video poker machines offer) and are dealt the following cards:  5¨5©Aª6§8¨.  Evaluating this hand quickly, you decide to discard the 6 and 8 and keep the low pair of 5s and the Ace.  You reason that keeping the Ace with the low pair may improve your chances of winning the hand.  The Ace is your kicker card.  Also, by discarding only two cards it appears that you may be holding 3 of a kind, thus deceiving your opponents.

I won't slight your strategy at your Saturday night poker game.  But holding that kicker will cost you dearly in video poker.  Look at the odds against improving a hand drawing three cards to a pair as shown below.


     Odds Against Improving a Hand Drawing 3 Cards to a Pair

Odds against any improvement                                           2.5 to 1

Odds against making 2 pairs                                                  5 to 1

Odds against making 3 of a kind                                             8 to 1

Odds against making a full house                                           97 to 1

Odds against making 4 of a kind                                          359 to 1

These are the odds you face when you hold just a pair.  Continuing our example, if you hold the pair of 5s, you only have one chance in 97 of drawing a full house.

As bad as these odds are, just look at the odds you face when you decide to hold the Ace as a kicker.

Odds Against Improving a Hand Drawing Two cards to a Pair and a Kicker

Odds against any improvement                                                     3 to 1

Odds against making 2 pairs                                                        5 to 1

Odds against making 3 of a kind                                                12 to 1

Odds against making a full house                                              119 to 1

Odds against making 4 of a kind                                           1,080 to 1

By holding the Ace as a kicker, our chance of making 4 of a kind, which has a high payoff in video poker, has dropped from one in 359 to only one in 1,080.  This is the kind of edge we can never afford to give up in video poker.  

I could review different combinations of hands involving holding a kicker.  If you hold three of a kind and keep a kicker, your odds against improving the hand are 11 to 1 against improvement.  However, without the kicker, your chances of improving the hand are only 8.5 to 1.

Remember that holding a kicker will always reduce your chances of improving your hand and winning.  There are no exceptions to this rule.

When you are playing against a microprocessor controlled machine, bluffing and hiding cards from your opponent have no effect on the machine, and keeping a kicker will always reduce your chance of winning.

Lets take a look at straights and straight flushes.  Many players tend to underestimate the difficulty of making these hands.   The odds against making a straight or straight flush vary dependent upon the number of ways that a hand can be made.

Consider the following poker hand: 3©4¨5§6ª9¨.  If we discard the 9, we can make the straight by drawing either a 2 for a straight of 2 3 4 5 6 or a 7 for a straight of 3 4 5 6 7.  This straight is considered open ended or an outside straight as there are two ways of making it if we discard the non-matching card.

Now assume that our hand consists of a 3©4¨6ª7¨9¨.  With this hand, we decide to discard the 9.  But now we can make this hand only one way, by drawing a 5.  This straight is now considered an inside straight as it is only by drawing one card in the inside of the straight that we can make the hand.  Since there is only one way to make this hand, we are less likely to be successful in turning an inside straight into a winning hand.  A hand like A 2 3 4 is also considered an inside straight as it is only by drawing a 5 that we can make the straight.  Look at the odds summarized below:

               Odds Against Completing a Four Card Straight

Odds against making a straight open at one end or in the middle  11 to 1

Odds against making a straight open a both ends                          5 to 1

Can you see why we might be more inclined to attempt to complete a four card straight open at both ends than one only open in the middle or at one end?  The open ended straight is a potentially more valuable hand in that we have a greater chance of turning it into a paying hand.  

We face the same consequences in trying to make straight flushes.  Assume that our hand is:  3©4©5©6©9¨. If we discard the 9, we can make the straight flush by drawing either a 2© or a 7©.  This straight flush is considered open ended, as there are two ways of making it.


Now assume that our hand is 3©4©6©7©9¨.  If we discard the 9, there is only one way to make this straight flush, that is by drawing a 5©.  This straight flush can only be made in one way and is considered an inside straight flush.  The odds against making an inside straight flush are considerably greater than making an open ended straight flush as shown below:


          Odds Against Completing a Four Card Straight Flush

Odds against making a straight flush open at one end or in the middle -  46 to 1

Odds against making a straight flush open at both ends - 22 to 1

Some of the most difficult decisions in video poker entail making hold and draw decisions for three and four card straights and straight flushes.  And, as you can see, the number of ways available for making the hands varies greatly, dependent on the number of ways we can make the hand.  These decisions are especially important in playing long-term video poker strategies.  With short-term play, we tend to discount many of the potential straight and straight flush hands as "not feasible" and go for hands which are easier to make.

Lets assume that we are dealt the following hand:  5©6©7©8§8¨. There are at least four ways that we can consider playing this hand.

We can keep just the low pair of 8§8©, discarding the 5, 6 and 7.  This hand does not pay off as is, as virtually no version of video poker pays for only a low pair.  However, by keeping the low pair and drawing three new cards, we can hope to draw two pair, three of a kind, a full house or even four of a kind.

Another way to play this hand is to play the hand as a four card straight, discarding one of the 8s.  We could keep a hand of 5©6©7©8§.  Here a draw of either a 4 or a 9 would complete the straight.  This hand looks very tempting as the straight is open ended and the hand looks makeable.

Or should we go for the higher paying hand.  We recognize that if we keep 5©6©7©, discarding both 8s, we have a possible straight flush.  Maybe this is the hand we should try to make.

We actually have a fourth option.  We could decide to discard all five cards and hope for a better hand.

This hand is not unusual in video poker.  Yet there are four identifiable ways we can consider playing this hand.  We can work with improving a low pair, or making a straight, or making a straight flush or discard all the cards.  Most of you with any poker experience will recognize that discarding all of the cards is not a very good choice, but do you know which of the other options is better?

Making these kinds of decisions is critical to becoming a winning video poker player.  In this particular case, there is one clear-cut decision for most versions of video poker.  The question you must learn to answer is which one?

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