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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Deal Me In: Feed the right machine the right strategy

16 October 2009

Dear Mark: When playing video poker would you suggest staying with Jacks or Better or are there better machines to play? Tim F.

There are more than a hundred different video poker variations to choose from, Tim, games like Jacks, Joker Poker, Deuces Wild, Double Bonus, Double Double Bonus, etc., and all of them have different pay tables necessitating distinct playing strategies.

Given such a supermarket selection of machines, I recommend learning and limiting your play to two. And which two are they? Well, Tim, what it really boils down to is playing on a machine that has the highest return to the player. It's all about the pay tables, Tim, and using a correct strategy for your chosen machine.

Your biggest advantage in playing video poker is that you can determine the "Expected Return" (ER) of a machine just by looking at the pay table on the front of thing.

Some video poker games even offer an over-100% return in concert with the correct playing strategy. Although most of the games with a "Positive Expectation" (100% payback) are offered where gaming is competitive, e.g. Nevada, there are plenty of full-pay video poker machines that offer decent returns in many other gaming jurisdictions. When you couple a full-pay video poker machine with incentives like cash back, free play, and other comps and goodies, video poker can become a winning proposition.

To learn how to identify decent pay tables and the proper strategy for them, an appropriate Google search might be: "poker pay tables, strategy." If you're not interested in learning proper strategy, Tim, or seeking out liberal pay tables, then plan on video poker becoming a disappointingly expensive form of gambling.

Dear Mark: In regards to your column last week on whether a dealer can offer suggestions, I ran across one of those dealers who worked in a casino where he couldn't give advice, but I did ask him as I was leaving what he thought of my game. As I left the table he said my game was OK, but that I should be taking some extra hits when it came to soft hands. So, Mark, any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Terrance T.

Players make more mistakes with soft hands (a hand which includes an ace that can be used as a one or an 11) than with any other hand in blackjack. You wouldn't misplay them quite so often if you commit to memory these two simple rules:

First, you can never bust a soft hand with a one-card hit. If you have a soft 15, such as ace-2-2, and draw a face card, you can only make it a hard 15, with the ace now being used as a one.

Second, soft hands of 17 and lower cannot win outright unless the dealer busts. So. Terrance, if you can't bust your own hand with a one-card hit, and you're sitting on a hand that can't win unless the dealer busts, the question becomes, why would you stand? With a soft 17 or lower, the decision is whether to hit or double down our your first two cards, and not whether to hit or stand.

But that's not to say you should hit all soft hands. You want to stand on a soft 19, 20 or 21, and on occasion, a soft 18. The soft 18, Terrance, is the tricky one. Most players figure it to be a decent hand, but unfortunately, a soft 18 is not a winner in the long run if the dealer's up card is a 9 or higher. So, Terrance, hit a soft 18 if the dealer's up card is a 9, 10-value or ace. Stand on soft 18 if the dealer is showing a 2, 7 or 8, and double down if their face-up card is a 3, 4, 5 or 6.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "I won't say he's dumb, but when he won a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker, he was so proud of it, he had it bronzed." –VP Pappy

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.