There are general similarities between video poker and slots, but there are many contrasts.
International Game Technology, commonly known as IGT, manufactures the vast majority of video poker machines and the software inside. IGT has had strong market share for decades by enabling single machines to run many software variants; therefore, players can experience different games at different denomination levels from the same seat.
History and development
Video poker appeared on the gaming scene in the 1970s when the technology arose to combine primitive computer technology and a TV monitor.
For those who recall what TVs were like in the mid-1970s, the VP monitor was certainly no LED flatscreen. Players used a row of buttons below the monitor to hold the cards that appeared on the screen before drawing to a final poker hand.
By 1979 and into the ‘80s, IGT made video poker, beginning with its title Draw Poker, one of the most popular new games in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. IGT then released Jacks or Better, still a popular version of video poker today, and became a booming, publicly traded company.
As technology progressed in the following years, the appearance of VP machines stayed about the same; however, touch-screen capability relieved players of having to hit physical buttons.
One of the most popular VP terminals in the world is IGT’s Game King. The machine represented the pinnacle of digital casino technology for decades and remains a favorite of regular video poker players. The Game King allowed casinos to offer multiple VP variants and denominations in a single terminal.
Ultimately, expect to find a variety of video poker variants on one machine. Some of the most popular are Deuces Wild, Double Bonus, Double Double Bonus, and Ultimate X. Remember that not all video poker is created equal, so check the pay tables and freshen up on the optimal strategy for the respective VP variants.
Finding the best video poker games
Where can one find the best video poker payback? Brick and mortar, as well as online, casinos offer high return (99 percent or better) video poker.
As mentioned previously, an exceptional slot club can turn a lower payback game into a better option for players. For traditional land-based casinos, the general rule of thumb is that casinos with competition nearby — like in Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and to some extent Kansas City, Biloxi, and Tunica — offer better-paying video poker.
Off-strip, “locals” casinos in Las Vegas offer Deuces Wild, Double, and Double Double Bonus games that offer between 99.96 and 100.27 percent payback with optimal play. Online resources have free guides to help novice players learn basic strategies that can get a player’s theoretical payback percentage fairly close to these numbers.
The important thing to remember is that the math and strategy calculations have already been done for the different VP games. The player’s job is to select the best one for him or her and review the pay schedules. Pay schedules are visible by simply tapping the machine without the commitment of any money.
The most common way for casinos to alter payback percentage is to change the number of coins flushes and full houses pay. For example, in Double Double Bonus full houses pay 50 coins and flushes pay 30 on a five-coin max bet. This is known as “10/6” DDB because of the 10x and 6x payout for the respective poker hands. This game returns 99.96 percent, while “9/6” DDB returns 98.9 percent. Suffice it to say, “10/6” Double Double Bonus is a rare game to find.
Regular VP players take caution to ensure the game they’re preparing to play returns a reasonable payback percentage. Jacks or Better is a simple and very popular game when it comes to VP, yet some casinos have been known to stingily and heartlessly offer customers “6/5” versions, returning less than 95 percent. This author would rather play roulette.
The trickiest question to answer when it comes to video poker is how much it contributes to general gaming revenue.
Unfortunately, the Nevada Gaming Control Board neither reports nor asks licensees (casinos) to record video poker revenue. It is simply lumped in with slot revenue, and the only breakdown is by slot denomination.
Empirical data shows how important video poker is to the overall slot revenue of a casino. It’s especially important for its prevalence in jurisdictions that limit many forms of gaming, namely racinos, bars, saloons, and small gaming parlors around the world.
Newer gaming jurisdictions like Louisiana and Illinois have published data specifically on video poker revenue. In 2013, Louisiana’s adjusted gross video poker revenue was over $600 million. Video poker represented 20 percent of the state’s net daily revenue.
In Illinois in 2013, video poker revenue was about $300 million relative to about $1.5 billion in adjusted gross revenue, which is essentially total casino gaming win for Illinois casinos that year.
Video poker machines are everywhere in Nevada, including gas stations and convenience and grocery stores — and yes, these machines do see action.
The worth of video poker in larger Las Vegas or Reno casinos is disputed because its payback is generally more advantageous to the player than the average slot machine. Video poker also attracts more grinders, or professional players of sorts.
In theory, skilled video poker players can turn a 99-percent payback machine (with optimal play) into a profitable venture because of promotions, mailers, and slot club loyalty earnings. Therefore, slot directors and casino managers commonly have varying and opposing opinions on the worth of video poker machines to casinos.
Video poker overall makes money for casinos, but some slot directors would rather see a slot machine in a VP terminal’s place. Clearly not every VP player plays an optimal strategy. A casual video poker player may play a game with a poor pay schedule (not all VP is created equal), and just like with other casino games, can turn a moderate house edge into a significant one through unskilled or unknowledgeable play.
Gaining an edge at video poker
Professional video poker players do exist. Similar to professional slot players, these pro-gamblers wait for the right conditions to strike before investing time and capital in a game.
What makes a video poker game profitable? Generally, it’s the combination of inherently high payback married with generous promotions and a player-friendly loyalty club program that can turn a slightly negative expected value game into something worth a positive hourly rate of return.
Here’s a hypothetical: That rare 99.96 percent “10/6” DDB game sits in a corner of a casino during that casino’s promotional car giveaway. Play in this casino, and earn entries to win a new luxury vehicle. On top of that, the slot director has forgotten to exclude some of the highest returning VP machines from not just this promotion but also the standard 1 percent cash back the slot club offers. What’s more, enough play will yield complimentary meals and rooms.
With this perfect storm, yet not necessarily uncommon occurrence, a machine that was supposed to take a $25 per spin player for a penny on each spin is now realistically worth $20-$50 per hour to a well-practiced player. It also depends on the value of the car and the number of entries. Note that the referenced car is just part of the example, and casinos regularly offer many promotions of value such as free cruises or vacation packages too.
The outlook is always bright for video poker. Game developers have kept the flow of new VP games steady, supplementing classics with newly releases, like Super Triple Pay Jackpots, Powerhouse Poker, and Triple Wheel Poker.
Known as G2E, the Global Gaming Expo, an annual trade show of casino gaming in Las Vegas, had some interesting video poker finds last fall.
Magic Deal Poker, a 10-coin per line game, offers the occasional “magic” card once every several deals. Rarely, two or even three magic cards appear. The value of the magic card is determined after the deal, meaning that the machine will choose the best card in the deck for the player to complete a hand.
A slightly more expensive (90 coin total) VP variant called Ultimate X Spin Poker merges two popular games into one.
This version, like its parent games, is all about multipliers. What starts out (penny denomination) as a 90-cent spin quickly becomes pricy, yet large jackpots at the top multiplier may appear attractive. Multipliers in video poker are not new, stemming from the “double up” or “double or nothing” feature of prior video poker software.
A game with aggressive multipliers seems exciting but opens the doors to disappointing casual gamblers who don’t realize the risk and variance they’re about to encounter even at the lowest denominations. Finally, leaving a machine in the middle of a multiplier attracts casinos’ seedier customers, hovering around players and looking to swoop in on a potential advantage.
Bonus Streak Ultimate X is another 10-coin-per-line IGT creation where multipliers reach as high as 12x. A key difference here is that players earn multipliers for the next several hands. Optimal strategy is different than for the traditional Ultimate X, and the game is much harder to play correctly. Capture a big hand during one of the initial multipliers, however, and celebrate a big payday.
IGT could see much more success with the “mystery card(s)” theme. Flip and Pay Poker is a 10-coin-per-line game where one card “flips” to another card of the same suit, only one rank higher or lower to improve a player’s hand.
For example, if dealt 7c 8c 9c 6c 4c, the 4c switches to the 5c resulting in a straight flush. Remember, a video poker deck, just like standard playing cards, is composed of 52 cards with 13 ranks and four suits. Players might get upset to see Ac Ah Ad Kh 9d not get “flipped” to four-of-a-kind aces, and, with a racing heart, flag down a slot employee, only to be explained that the Kh cannot be flipped because the Ah was already dealt — there is only one Ah per deck.
Firstly, there are numerous online resources to help players practice and improve their video poker skills for free. Remember that there are many variants of VP available both online and in brick and mortar casinos.
As VP novices hone their skills on one of the more common games, like Jacks or Better or Double Double Bonus, they can begin to strategize how best to attack the more complex variants.
Video poker translates well to the online gaming sphere because the software is simple to design and implement. Players deal, hold, and draw as they would in a live setting.
Online casinos offer an easy environment to switch between a wide range of denominations and games. Overall, online logistics make it possible for casinos to offer more games and better pay tables. One area that might be lacking is the perks of a multi-property casino’s loyalty club program; however, that does not keep regulated online casinos from integrating online play into their slot club programs.
Tablet and mobile versions of the game present many advantages to the regular VP player. For some, the comfort and assurance of their game always being available makes mobile video poker an attractive proposition.
The newest licensed and regulated online casinos open to American players incorporated video poker into their strategic platforms right away.
Though older internet gaming software may appear antiquated compared to the fashions of newer VP machines in casinos today, having video poker on tablets and smartphones makes the experience nearly as realistic.
The touch-screen feature, important to some, if not many VP players, highlights the realism of playing. Mobile apps can offer popular video poker variants in lower denominations not generally found in real casinos. With the added comfort and convenience of how, when, and where to play makes playing video poker in today’s digital world an exciting opportunity.