Video poker is the game of choice for many gambling enthusiasts since it largely offers simplified gameplay and good odds of winning. Unlike most other casino games, the outcome of a hand in video poker is influenced by both chance and the player’s decisions. This is one of the few casino offerings where the house edge can be reduced to zero as long as the players apply a good strategy.
Video poker gained prominence in the 1970s when the first machines of this type appeared across landbased casinos. The game’s popularity caused a number of video poker variations to be devised, each one having its own oddities and paytable. Most of those borrow their basic rules from Jacks or Better, which is said to be the prototype of video poker as we know it today. Once you have learned the rules of Jacks or Better, you can easily master all other popular variations of the casino game.
We have witnessed a resurgence in video poker in the last two decades after the game was added to the gaming libraries of online casinos. All major gambling operators would offer Jacks or Better along with other commonly played varieties of video poker, with gamblers having the opportunity to play via a range of desktop and mobile devices. This article will take players through the basics of Jack or Better, its rules, hand rankings, and the optimal strategy for the game that can improve your odds of bagging a payout.
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Play and Rules
Jacks or Better plays in the same way as five-card draw poker. Unlike standard poker, here you are not competing against other players, you are competing against the machine itself. Therefore some of the betting actions you would see at a poker table, like bluffing or raising, are absent in Jacks or Better.
A full deck of 52 cards is in play and each coup consists of two rounds. The software reshuffles the cards after each coup. The standard ranking of hands is used and the hand of the lowest value is a pair of jacks or better, hence the name of the variation. The player starts by choosing the number of credits they want to bet as well as their denomination. In most online variations of Jacks or Better, you can stake anywhere between 1 and 5 coins per coup. The player then posts a bet of their desired amount and gets dealt five random cards from the pack.
The next step involves evaluating the strength of the starting hand and deciding which cards you want to hold and which ones you want to substitute in order to potentially improve the hand. There is the option of discarding all five cards you have received after the initial deal but you can also choose to hold them all if you are dealt a pat hand.
Once you have arrived at a decision, you click on the draw button to have the desired cards replaced. If your final hand qualifies, the machine will reward you with a payout depending on its ranking and the number of credits you have staked. The more coins you risk, the bigger the payout you receive for qualifying hands.
The majority of Jacks or Better variations you can play for real money at online casinos would give you the option to gamble your profits on winning hands. You are again dealt five cards and the first one of those is the dealer’s card. The other four are dealt face down and you need to choose one of them – if it of a higher value than that of the dealer, your profits on the last hand will be doubled. If you win, you are usually granted another guess and if it is again correct, your prize gets quadrupled.
The Ranking of Hands
As we mentioned in brief, Jacks or Better uses the hand rankings all poker players are familiar with. In order to receive a payout, your aim is to obtain two jacks or a superior pair which is in fact the lowest-paying hand in the game.
This is followed by a Two Pair and the name itself says it all – you need two sets of cards that are of the same numerical value, for instance two kings and two nines. Next in line is the set, commonly called Three of a Kind, where you need three cards of equal value while the other two cards in the hand are irrelevant. An example of a set would be three queens.
The set is followed by a Straight, which is a hand consisting of five off-suit cards in consecutive order, for example, [5c][6d][7d][8h][9c]. The Straight is followed by the Flush, which is a hand consisting of five cards of the same suit whereas their numerical value is not taken into consideration, like so [5s][Ks][As][2s][10s]. Next comes the Full House and it is made of a pair and a set. An example of a Full House would be [Qs][Qc][Jc][Jh][Jd].
Next in ranking is the Four of a Kind, also called quads in the poker lingo. A Four of a Kind comprises four cards that are of the same numerical value and an irrelevant card, like four tens and a king. We have progressed to the Straight Flush, which is a hand consisting of five consecutive cards of the same suit, for example, [7s][8s][9s][10s][Js].
The title of the highest ranking hand in Jacks or Better, and in poker in general, goes to the Royal Flush. Also called a natural, the Royal Flush comprises the five cards of the highest value in the pack that are also suited – [Ac][Kc][Qc][Jc][10c]. In video poker, all four suits are of equal rank so it matters not whether you have a Royal Flush of clubs or a Royal Flush of spades.
There is a very substantial discrepancy in the payouts for Royal Flushes when you bet four credits and when you bet five credits. Because of this, the players are generally advised to bet the maximum number of credits because if they happen to form a Royal Flush, it will return 4,000 credits. In comparison, those who bet only four coins will get only 1,000 credits back for a Royal Flush.
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Full Pay Variations
If you decide to play video poker, you most likely will come across the term “full-pay” games. The full-pay version of Jacks or Better is a game which awards 9 credits for a Full House and 6 credits for a Flush at the first betting level of one credit per hand. Because of this, full-pay variants of the game are frequently called 9/6 Jacks or Better and are estimated to give back 99.54% of all wagers placed on such machines.
The full-pay Jacks or Better would commonly return 4,000 credits at the maximum betting level of five coins if the player has a Royal Flush. On very rare occasions, players can come across full-pay Jacks or Better variants where the Royal Flush would return 4,700 credits at the maximum bet level which further reduces the advantage of the house, causing an increase in the average payback to 99.89%. These variations are, however, scarce as hen’s teeth and most online casinos would offer the standard 4,000-coin payout for a Royal Flush.
It is possible to come across many different Jacks or Better variations where you are offered smaller payouts for the Flush and the Full House. There are games where only the payout for the Flush is reduced to 5 credits instead of 6. In others, the payout for the Full House has suffered a reduction of one credit, offering you only 8 coins at the first betting level. There are even versions of the game where the payouts of both hands are reduced by a unit, sometimes even by two.
“Why does it matter?”, you may wonder. At first glance, a reduction of a single unit in two of the payouts may not appear like such a big deal but you would be surprised to learn how much these minuscule changes may affect your overall return in the long-term. These tiny adjustments increase the house edge and decrease the long-term RTP of the games, which logically is not beneficial for the player.
A 9/5 Jacks or Better game has an average RTP of 99.45% whereas a 8/6 variation would offer a long-term return of 98.39%. It gets even worse if both payouts have suffered a reduction. By way of example, a 8/5 variation of Jack or Better has a substantially reduced payout percentage of 97.50%. Because of the negative effect the adjustment in the payouts has over your long-term return, you should always strive to invest your money into full-pay Jacks or Better variations.
Jacks and Better Cheat Sheets
One of the main reasons why video poker is so widely preferred by gambling fans is that it is the only positive-expectation casino game, i.e. apart from some progressive video slots. However, positive expectation can be achieved only if the players adopt optimal strategy and never deviate from it.
There are numerous strategy cards, also called “cheat sheets” by some players, that you can find online. Some of those are specifically designed for Jacks or Better video poker variations. A strategy card enables you to play each video poker hand perfectly and is legal to use in both landbased and online casinos. It contains all the hands that qualify for a payout ranked from the strongest to the weakest as well as the number of cards you are expected to discard.
For example, if you receive four cards to an open-ended Straight on the deal, the chart would tell you to keep them and discard the fifth card in the starting hand in an attempt to complete the Straight. Another example would be to keep suited J and Q and replace the other three cards.
The cheat sheets basically show you which cards you need to hold and which ones to discard in order to improve your chances of forming a hand. Using one such card chart could not be easier since all you need to do is find the cards your starting hand consists of and replace the ones that are irrelevant to the hand.
Some strategy charts are more specific as they tell you precisely what to do in different situations. For example, you initially get dealt [As][Ks][Qs][2s][3d] in a game of Jacks or Better and are wondering whether to discard the [3d] and try to complete your Flush. At first glance, this is the correct course of action but the table would tell you to keep only the [As][Ks][Qs] and try to complete the Royal Flush because it gives greater value with its higher payout.
We would like to finish off by reminding players that all video poker variations have their own optimal strategy and therefore, it would be nonsensical for you to use a cheat sheet for say Deuces Wild when you are playing Jacks or Better. The bottom line is following the strategy to the tee can considerably increase your potential long-term return.
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