When I write about house edges and game strategies, I try to leave no hidden assumptions. When I tell you 9-6 Jacks or Better video poker returns 99.5 percent, I'm careful to add "with expert play." If you don't play at expert level, you won't get 99.5 percent.
I don't just tell you that blackjack has a house edge of half a percent in a six-deck game. I add that it's half a percent against a basic strategy player, and that the edge can be a little more or less depending on house rules. If you don't know basic strategy, you're fighting a bigger house edge, and if the blackjacks pay only 6-5 instead of 3-2 … well, don't play.
But there are times when I make assumptions and don't even realize I'm doing it. One I've been thinking about has to do with video poker strategy. When I detail strategy for holding and drawing cards, I make an assumption that you're betting maximum coins --- five on most machines --- and getting the best the machine has to offer.
That assumption isn't always warranted. A friend of mine recently told me he was in a casino that had 9-6 Jacks or Better --- paying 9-for-1 on full houses and 6-for-1 on flushes --- on its dollar games, but its quarter Jacks or Better games had 7-5 pay tables. That's a huge difference. With expert play, the 9-6 Jacks games pay 99.5 percent, while the 7-5ers return only 96.2.
What's a player on a budget to do? My friend chose to play one coin on a dollar game, knowing full well that if a royal flush turned up, he'd get only $250, as opposed to the $1,000 bonanza for a royal if he bet $1.25 on the quarter game. He figured he'd get a higher payback percentage on the dollar game, even with the smaller bets ruling out that jump from a 250-for-1 royal jackpot to the 800-for-1 you get with a five-coin wager.
He was right. With a one-coin wager, 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 98.3 percent with expert play --- not as good wagering five coins on a 9-6 game, but better than maximum coins on 7-5 Jacks.
Problem is, expert play when wagering one coin is not exactly the same as when you wager five. The smaller return on royals dictates some strategy changes. Let's try a few sample hands:
10 of spades, King of spades, Queen of spades, five of spades, 8 of diamonds
Wager five coins, and your best play is to hold King-Queen-10, hoping for a two-card draw to a 4,000-coin royal while leaving open the possibility of smaller payoffs for high pairs, two pairs, three of a kind, straights or flushes. With a one-coin wager, the chance of a 250-coin royal isn't enough to chase. Holding all four spades brings an average return of 1.277 coins, compared to just 0.874 for holding the three high spades.
Jack of spades, Queen of spades, King of hearts, Ace of clubs, 5 of hearts
Two cards to a royal is a nice building block, if you're wagering five coins. With short-coin play, other options can be better. If your instincts are telling you to hold Jack-Queen of spades, you have the right stuff for maximum coin play. With a one-coin wager, though, holding Ace-King-Queen-Jack of mixed suits, hoping for a 10 to complete a straight or to pair up a high card to get your money back, brings an average return of 0.567 coins, compared with 0.596 for holding Jack-Queen.
Jack of spades, 10 of spades, King of hearts, 8 of diamonds, 5 of hearts
Even Jack-10 of the same suit is a pretty good start to a hand if you're betting the max. The best play with a five-coin wager is to hold the two spades. But with short coin play limiting the value of a royal, that 10 is practically just another low card. Bet one coin, and holding Jack-King of mixed suits will bring an average return of 0.486 coins, compared with 0.459 for Jack-10.
9 of spades, 10 of diamonds, King of hearts, Queen of hearts, 5 of hearts.
You're probably thinking this is a no-brainer, that the King and Queen are the cards to hold. But when we take away the possibility of that 4,000-coin royal, holding suited high cards is much less valuable. Bet five coins, expert strategy is to hold just the King and Queen. Bet only one coin, and holding all three hearts, King, Queen and 5, will bring an average return of .547 coins, to .545 for holding King-Queen.
Betting less than maximum coins on video poker won't get you the best the game has to offer. But when the state of your bankroll leads you to one coin play, don't just make the assumption that your usual strategy will do.