Jacks or Better Video Poker Strategy

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The Video Poker game known as “Jacks or Better” is probably the most familiar and most played in the world. It follows the rules of basic Draw Poker and rewards the player for forming any hand with at least a pair of Jacks, which worth even money (1:1). Higher payouts are made for eight types of “premium” hands. On a “full pay” machine, the awards are: two pair (2:1), three of a kind (3:1), straight (4:1), flush (6:1), full house (9:1), four of a kind (25:1), straight flush (50:1) and Royal flush (250:1).

As in all games of Video Poker, the objective is to win by meeting or exceeding the minimum threshold requirement, i.e., a pair of Jacks. In this game, a losing hand—one containing less than a pair of Jacks—can be expected on about 55% of all deals. A single pair of Jacks, Queens, Kings or Aces paying even money—neither winning nor losing—will come up about 21% of the time. That means only 24% of all hands—roughly one in four—actually results in a premium hand and earns a profit.

Making Threshold Decisions

When any of the eight premium hands is dealt as the initial five cards, the player has just one decision to make: should the winning combination of cards be kept or is there an advantage to trying for an even higher ranking hand? In six cases—two pair, three of a kind, a full house, four of a kind, a straight flush or a Royal flush—the answer is simple: “always keep the winners.” Breaking up the winning combination should not be considered.

However, for a straight or a flush, the answer is to keep the winners with one exception. If four of the cards form part of a Royal flush, discard the fifth card and attempt to improve the hand to a Royal. For example, when dealt the A-K-Q-10-9 of spades, discard the 9 and attempt to draw the missing Jack of spades. The probability of success is just 1-in-47, but the potential payout is 250:1, making the discard a mathematically correct decision.

When holding a high pair—Jacks Queens, Kings or Aces—it is also correct strategy to keep the winners with one exception. If four of the cards form a suited run (such as Js-Jd-10d-9d-8d) or an inside straight-flush draw (such as Qd-Js-Jd-9d-8d), discard the fifth card (the off-suit Jack of spades) and attempt to improve the hand to a straight flush. Again, the potential payout (50:1) exceeds the odds of success, which are no less than 1 or 2 in 47.

All Other Decisions

The vast majority of deals do not produce Jacks or better, so the player must establish priorities that guide decision-making. For initial hands below the payout threshold, always hold three or four cards to a Royal flush or four cards to a flush, even if it means breaking up a low pair. Otherwise, keep the low pair and discard the other three cards.

If no pair is dealt initially, keep four cards to a possible outside straight, such as off-suit 10-9-8-7-2 (discard the 2) or A-7-6-5-4 (discard the Ace). Otherwise, keep two suited high cards if they are dealt, or else keep three cards to a possible straight flush. All other decisions relate solely to the best way to handle high-card combinations, and the order of preference is as follows: keep two unsuited high cards (the lowest two if three are dealt); keep the suited J-10, Q-10 or K-10; or else keep on high card, a Jack or better.

Any hand that does not fit one of the patterns described above should be considered “garbage” and disposed of in its entirety. That includes any three-flush without straight flush potential and any four-card inside straight draws. Remember that a straight only pays 4:1 and the odds of catching an inside straight are 4 in 47, or almost 12-to-1 against success. If this strategy is followed exactly, the player can expect a return rate of 99.4~99.5%.

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