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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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When Is It Best to Dump a Starting Hand in Video Poker?

24 August 1998

Video poker buffs are often beset by a bugaboo against abandoning entire hands. If you're among the afflicted, you can save some grief - money, too - by learning to recognize when your cards are so bad you're better off trashing than playing them.

Here's an example. You're at a joker's wild machine. The lowest winning hand is two pairs. Your initial deal shows 3-D, 6-C, 9-D, 10-S, Q-H. Many solid citizens would keep the queen, imagining face cards to be special. Other than owing to the remote chance of filling a royal with A-H, K-H, J-H, 10-H, the queen is no more desirable than the low cards. In fact, 10-S offers the same chance of a royal and a better shot at a non-royal straight or straight flush. This hand is weak, no matter what you do; the best move is to dump it, hoping for a gift in five new cards.

Here's an illustration involving jacks-or-better, nothing wild. You start with 3-C, 4-H, 6-D, 8-S, 10-C. Hmmm... three possible inside straights. Should you keep 4-H, 6-D, 8-S, looking for a five and a seven? How about 6-D, 8-S, 10-C, hoping for a seven or a nine? Aha! It would be better to hold 3-C, 4-H, 6-D, trying for a five and either a two or a seven. Sorry, folks. None of these is worth keeping. Chances are best disposing of the entire hand.

Strategies for holding and discarding in video poker aren't just a matter of opinion, or of watching a bunch of games and seeing what works, or of knowing how the machines are set by the manufacturers or the casino high muckety-mucks. They're based on the "expected value" of a hand - a number found using pencil-dulling calculations involving the odds of achieving various final results and the associated payoffs. The optimum decision in any situation is that with the highest expected value.

The good news is it's not necessary to do the arithmetic to play like an pro. All you have to do is memorize the rules. The bad news is the rules can get hairy, and differ according to factors such as wild cards and payoffs for certain results - including bonuses and the size of the jackpot in progressive games.

There are some serious video poker fans. These are people who play frequently, pump big bucks through the slot, and are more focused on earning profits than accumulating points toward tasteless merchandise or coupon upgrades from the food court to the all-you-can-eat cornucopia of cholesterol. These aficionados do their homework. They usually specialize in one type of game. They learn the corresponding rules by studying a good book (not one promising "secrets the slot bosses don't want you to know" or "guaranteed to win"). And they know how to interpret the payouts printed on the belly glasses of different machines so they can home in on the units with the greatest theoretical payback.

Say you're more of a casual gambler. A few trips per year. A moderate budget. Smart enough to know that video poker goes beyond pure luck. But, before today, you were barely aware there were reliable books about the game. Or, perhaps you have a manual but don't play regularly enough to remember the fine points.

All is not lost. When the initial deal is promising, guesses based on normal poker values won't lead you too far astray. And here are a few simple rules of thumb to help recognize weak starting platforms, when it's best to junk the kit and caboodle.
Jacks-or-Better draw poker: hold a four-card straight or flush, single high card, three-card straight flush, or anything better; dump anything worse.
Deuces wild: hold a pair, three-card straight flush, four-card straight or flush, two same-suit high cards, or anything better; dump anything worse.
Joker wild: hold a pair, three-card straight flush, four-card straight, two same-suit high cards, single ace, single king, or anything better; dump anything worse.

You may not get rich at video poker just by knowing when to abandon hands with no redeeming value. But this insight can help avoid becoming poor. As Sumner A Ingmark, the poker player's poet, proclaimed:


Those who can salvage some good from a wretched lot,
Have a great skill that's desired but seldom taught.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.