How Video Poker Pay Tables Work
Understanding how video poker pay tables work is the first step in becoming a smart gambler-at least if you like gambling machines. How much money you get as a payout for each hand is the determining factor for the overall payback percentages for the VP machines.
The goal of this page is to explain what a payback percentage on a gambling machine is, how the payback table on a video poker game determines that percentage, and what all of this means to your gambling bankroll.
What Is a Payback Percentage?
We've explained on other pages of our site what the house edge is and how it works.
But we'll cover it again briefly here, because it relates strongly to a gambling machine's payback percentage.
The house edge is a theoretical percentage of each bet that a gambler mathematically expects to lose over the long term.
In roulette, the house edge is 5.26%. This means that if you place enough bets (thousands+), you can expect to lose $5.26 for every $100 you wager.
In the short run, anything can happen. You might bet on a single number and hit, winning 35 to 1 on your money. More likely, you'll miss, and you'll lose 100% of your bet.
But if you average out your losses over an extremely large number of spins, you'll eventually start getting close to the theoretical average.
Gambling writers use house edge when talking about table games.
But when they talk about gambling machines, they talk about payback percentage.
This is the expected percentage of each bet that you'll win back over a lot of trials.
One of the reasons for this distinction is because table games pay off at X to Y odds, while gambling machines pay at X for Y odds.
Here's what that means:
If you bet $100 on a single number at the roulette table and win, you get paid $3500. That's 35 to 1. You keep your original bet and get the winnings on top of it.
But if you buy $100 in credit on a slot machine or video poker machine and wager that entire amount on a single spin or hand, you don't get your wager back. It's included in the winnings.
You bet $100 on a hand of video poker and get a pair of jacks. That payoff on that hand is 1 for 1, which means you win $100.
But you don't get your original $100 back.
In other words, the lowest paying hand in video poker is a break-even proposition.
As a result, when you talk about gambling machines, you talk about payback percentages.
If a slot machine has a 96% payback percentage, you can expect to win back 96 cents for every dollar you wager over time.
The Big Difference Between Slot Machines and Video Poker
Slot machines and video poker are remarkably similar. Both games deal with combinations of symbols on a payline. Both games have payouts for specific combinations.
The difference is that on a video poker game, we can calculate the probability of getting a certain hand. That's because video poker bases its random number generator on a deck of cards.
We know the possibilities available with a deck of cards:
- You have a 1 in 52 chance of getting a specific card.
- You have a 1 in 13 chance of getting a card of a specific rank.
- You have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a card of a specific suit.
But on a slot machine game, you have no way of knowing the probability of getting a specific symbol. It could be 1 in 10, 1 in 20, or 1 in 200.
If you know how much a result pays off, you can compare that with the probability of getting that result to get an expected return for that combination.
In jacks or better, you win 1 for 1 if you get a pair of jacks or higher. You'll see that hand roughly 20% of the time, so the expected value for that hand is about 20 cents on the dollar.
You can calculate that for every possible outcome, including outcomes where you win nothing (50% of the time). Add those numbers together, and you have the theoretical expected return (payback percentage) for that pay table.
On slot machines, you're missing that crucial piece of information-the probability.
This is the big advantage video poker has over slot machines.
The secondary advantage is that video poker payouts are almost always better than slot machine payouts.
An average video poker game has a payout percentage of 96% or higher.
An average slot machine game has a payout percentage of 95% or lower.
You'll rarely find a video poker game with a payback percentage lower than 90%.
But it's easy to find slots with payback percentages in the 75% - 80% range. Just visit a bar, a supermarket, or an airport in Las Vegas.
The Importance of Strategy and How It Relates to Video Poker Pay Tables
The other thing to keep in mind about video poker is that the expected return for a game assumes you're playing each hand correctly. When you decide which cards to discard and which ones to keep, you're making 1 of 32 decisions. And only one of those decisions has the highest expected return.
Suppose you have a hand which includes a pair of jacks, but it also includes 4 cards to a royal flush.
The pair of jacks is a 100% winner of even money.
To fill the royal flush, you only have 1 card out of 47 which can fill your hand. For simplicity's sake, we'll call that 2%.
But if you hit the royal flush, you'll win 800 for 1.
Would you rather have a 100% chance of winning $1, or a 2% chance of winning $800?
The mathematically correct say to make that decision is to multiply the odds of winning by the size of the jackpot. That's your expected return for that decision.
In this case, 100% X $1 is an expected value of $1.
2% X $800 is an expected return of $16.
Since $16 is clearly more than $1, the choice if obvious.
The reason we call this example "super-simplified" is because it doesn't account for the possibility of getting other hands.
If you keep the pair, you also have the possibility of getting 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, or a full house.
If you keep the royal flush, you also have the possibility of getting a high pair again on the draw.
But the odds of those are so small that you can safely ignore them. Drawing to the royal flush is correct in this case.
You'll find more about video poker strategy in our comprehensive guide.
Specific Pay Tables for Specific VP Games
We obviously can't list all the possible pay tables for every possible video poker game on a single page. But we can provide some specific examples to illustrate the concepts you need to be familiar with.
We'll start with a classic pay table for Jacks or Better video poker:
|Coins/Hands||1 coin||2 coins||3 coins||4 coins||5 coins|
|4 of a kind||25||50||75||100||125|
|3 of a kind||3||6||9||12||15|
|Jacks or better||1||2||3||4||5|
The columns list the payoffs for how many coins you've wagered if you get a specific hand. All the payoffs save one are multiplied by the number of coins you've wagered. That's an important distinction.
The royal flush is the top hand in almost all video poker variations. The games are programmed to pay off at 800 for 1 for that hand, but only if you wagered 5 coins on the hand. If you wager fewer than 5 coins, the payoff for that hand is only 250 for 1.
This has a huge effect on your bottom line. In fact, it's the first rule of video poker strategy:
This isn't true for most slot machine games-although it is true for some.
But it's always true for video poker games.
You give up so much expected value for paying for fewer coins that you're always better off playing for 5 coins at lower stakes than playing for 1, 2, 3, or 4 coins at higher stakes.
The other thing to notice about the Jacks or Better pay table is the payoff for the full house and the flush. You'll notice that the full house pays off at 9 for 1, and the flush pays off at 6 for 1.
On most Jacks or Better video games, the only variables on the pay table are those 2 hands. In fact, this specific pay table is called a 9/6 Jacks or Better pay table. An 8/5 Jacks or Better game has the same payouts on all the hands except those two, which pay off at 8 for 1 and 5 for 1 respectively instead.
You can find other variations, but they're rare enough that most people don't worry about that.
But here's the key number for a 9/6 Jacks or Better game:
That's the payback percentage if you're playing with correct strategy on every hand.
This means the house edge for this game is only 0.46%. That's better than almost any other game in the casino. It's even better than the house edge for blackjack, which hovers around 1% at most casinos.
The payback percentage for this game drops dramatically as the payoffs chance for Jacks or Better:
- 8/5 Jacks or Better pays off at 97.3%.
- 7/5 Jacks or Better pays off at 96.15%.
- 6/5 Jacks or Better pays off at 95%.
How the Payback Percentage Affects Your Bottom Line
Casino managers and game designers like to forecast what kind of money a specific game will make them over time.
As luck would have it, the math for this is easy enough that even someone like me (and you) can understands it.
You simply multiply the average bet size by the number of bets per hour to get the amount of action the game sees per hour.
You multiply that number by the house edge to get the amount the casino expects to win (and you expect to lose) per hour.
An average Jacks or Better player probably gets in 600 hands per hour. (It's a fast-paced game.)
Let's assume you're playing a dollar machine at max coin, so you're putting $5 into action per hand.
This means you're putting $3000 per hour into action.
On a full-pay (9/6) game, you're expected to lose 0.46% X $3000, or $13.80.
That's not bad for an hour of entertainment at a casino.
Deduct the cost of a couple of free premium liquor drinks from the cocktail waitress, and you're playing a close to even money game.
But how much can you expect to lose per hour on the 8/5 game?
The house edge for this pay table is 2.7%, which means you're expected to lose $81 per hour.
That's a huge difference in your bottom line.
Play the 6/5 game, and you're expected to lose $150 per hour.
And that's still a better deal than most slot machines.
You can find pay tables for individual video poker games on the game guides page on this site. We also offer specific strategy advice to help you get close to the expected return for those games.
If something about our explanation of these concepts (pay tables, payback percentages, and payouts) wasn't clear, please us and let us know so that we can update this page accordingly.