Perhaps we’ve noticed the form of poker known as “video poker” in our online or local casino. We may have wondered how it differs from regular poker played against other players.

For example, does being a good poker player increase our chances of making money at the video poker?

How possible is it to play video poker profitably in the long run?

These are just a few of the questions we’ll address in this article along with several others that will help you determine whether or not to jump on the video poker tables.

Table of Contents

Slots or Poker?

Most similarities stop with the name. In fact, video poker is more of a poker-themed slots machine than actual poker.

One significant difference is that video poker is engineered to ensure that the house makes a profit over the long run. Similar to slot machines, video poker machines are configured to offer what’s known as a specific “payback percentage”. For example, a video poker game with a payback of 95%, means a player will receive $95 back from the machine for every $100 he invests on average (assuming he plays perfectly).

The outlook for playing professionally is on the grim side, but there are still potential ways for the especially astute to turn a profit (as we’ll discuss a little later).

The Skill Element

Although video poker machines can vary significantly depending on the specific software, most offer some sort of draw variant of poker. Players are dealt 5 cards and allowed to discard any number of them in an attempt to improve their hand.

This means there is a skill element to video poker. A player will be able to achieve the maximum payback percentage by picking the mathematically correct option for each draw. However, regardless of how well the player plays, it won’t generally increase the long-run payback percentage to above 100%, otherwise, the casino would risk making a loss.

There are exceptions to this, however, with some casino’s occasionally offering payback marginally above 100%. This would presumably make professional play possible, but large amounts of skill would be required.

Video Poker Variations

Different types of video poker are offered, so it’s worthwhile checking out the exact rules before investing.

Here are some common variants -

Jacks or Better – The most common type of video poker, often simply called “Draw Poker”. It is named such since payouts begin if a player makes a pair of Jacks or better.

Tens or Better – It’s in the name, this machine pays out with a pair of tens or better.

Jokers Wild – Jokers are dealt as wild cards. A joker can substitute for any other card in the deck (whichever results in the strongest possible hand). Jokers wild also offers a “five of a kind” type hand. This is typically considered one of the tougher video poker games to master and receive the maximum payback.

Deuces Wild – Deuces are wild in this variant. This format of video poker has been known to run (albeit rarely) with payback yields as high as 100.8%. Of course, the edge is marginal, variance would be high, and let’s not forget, it requires a perfect strategy of a somewhat complicated game.

Vultures and Progressive Jackpots

Some formats of video poker offer progressive jackpots. The progressive jackpot is something that builds over time, making huge jackpots potentially possible.

Although this does not increase the expectation of playing the machine, in the long run, the expectation at any given time will be linked to the size of the progressive jackpot. This means that favourable long-run win rates become possible (in the short term) if the progressive jackpot is high enough. Some casinos even advertise when the progressive jackpot is above a particular value in an attempt to attract traffic.

Other forms of video poker offer larger payouts for certain types of poker hands when a certain number is reached. The payout for a flush might be significantly higher for every fourth flush hit (depends on the exact software).

This feature brings in players known as “vultures” who try and time their approach to various video poker machines. They wait until another player has hit three flushes and hope to swoop in quickly after he leaves. Arriving at the machine right before the higher paid hand allows that playing session to temporarily carry a positive expectation (at least until the next flush is hit).

So technically with a combination of:

a) Targeting big progressive jackpots
b) “Vulturing” specific machines
c) Finding machines with a payback of over 100% and playing perfectly

It would be possible to play video poker with a positive expectation, even professionally.

However, it would clearly be a difficult feat to pull off, and some would argue, not worth it. Certain practices such as “vulturing” may even be considered unethical and in extreme cases can get you thrown out of a casino.

Even playing a game of video poker perfectly for hours on end could, unfortunately, make us the target of suspicion from the casino floor staff. 

Timothy "Ch0r0r0" Allin is a professional player, coach, and author. Since the beginning in 2006 he has built his roll from the lowest limits online without depositing a single dollar. After competing in some of world's toughest lineups (and winning) he now shares his insights and strategies with the 888poker magazine.