There are not many games in the casino that willingly offer you information about the exact house edge on the game you are about to play. In fact, there's really only one such game. And by now you've probably guessed what it is based on the title above and the nice pictures and whatnot. This game is video poker.
Nuts and bolts of video poker
I'm sure you already have a decent understanding of regular 5-card draw poker, so I'm not going to go too much into that. You don't have to be a regular in the poker room to know the ranking of poker hands, such as high card, a pair, two pair, three of a kind, a straight, a flush, a full house, etc. Video poker takes that classic draw poker game and, well, you know, puts it on a video.
There are a gazillion different video poker games out there now, but nearly all follow the same basic rules: You bet 1-5 coins at a time, you're dealt 5 cards, you hold the cards you wish to hold and discard the others, you're dealt the number you discarded to get you back to 5 cards, and then the machine pays you relative to the value of your hand. That's it. No additional betting. No raising. No bluffing. Sounds pretty straight forward, right?
This is why the game has had great staying power since it was introduced back in 1979. Its popularity in large part increased because it was a nice alternative to slot machines without the intimidation of a table game. It also has strategy, a low house edge, the opportunity for a jackpot, and constant game interaction.
Let's get back to that house edge discussion. Remember when I said earlier that the casino offers you information about the exact house edge of a video poker machine? Well, that's sorta true, but the casino doesn't come right out and say "There is a .05% house edge on this machine." That'd be too easy. Instead, it offers you the pay tables applicable to that game, which give you all the information you need.
You're probably all like, can you give me an example? And I'm all like, sure. See right.
The pay table for this Jacks or Better machine (one of the most popular video poker games) is what is considered a "Full Pay" pay table. This game, when played perfectly and at max coins, returns 99.54% for a little tiny house edge. In reality, though, the general public plays it around a 97% return due to mistakes and playing for less than max coins. Remember, you can play up to 5 coins per bet. So if you're betting quarters, it's $1.25 per hand. If you're betting dollars, it's $5 per hand.
So how do casinos fluctuate house edge? It's not like slot machines where they can just dictate how loose the machine is. The casino also can't alter how often high hands are hit. It's all random. The only thing they can do is change this pay table to make it pay less for those random hands. We mentioned earlier this pay table returns 99.54% when played with the correct strategy. Let's assume we're betting max coins (5) and we hit a flush. We get paid 30 credits for that. Now we get up and move to another machine and on our first hand we get a flush. This time, though, we only get paid 25 credits. What happened? We sat down at a machine with a worse pay table, probably one that pays back closer to 96% than 99.54%.
For a good resource on pay tables and what to look for, check out vpfree2. Unfortunately, on the Vegas Strip, it's nearly impossible to find a really good pay table. You'll have better luck downtown or an off-strip property catering more to locals.
Playing a game that is different from Jacks or Better, such as Deuces Wild, will also have a completely different pay table. Again, vpfree2 is a great resource to check pay tables for all your games so that you know you're sitting down at a machine giving you the best chance to win.
Take some time to review how pay tables work so that when you get to the casino, you know what machines to avoid and what machines to stalk. Even a small percentage change in house edge between two machines will have a large impact in the long run.
Quick Note on Coins
We'll get to strategy later, but as a general rule, you should always play max bet. If you can't afford max bet, find a lower denomination (e.g., if you can't afford $5 a hand, play quarters where it's $1.25 a hand). Let me explain why max bet is important: See the pay table above. If you get a straight flush, you get 50 for one coin, 100 for two, 150 for three, 200 for four and 250 for five. All equal in steps up per coin. The same goes for all other paying hands except for the royal flush. It jumps from 250-500-750-1000 all the way to 4000 for the royal flush with max bet. This difference, while seemingly small, affects the house edge considerably. Always play max bet.
DOs and DONTs
1. Practice makes perfect! Download a smart phone app that corrects your play as you go so you can learn optimal strategy for the games you'll be playing. (My favorite iPhone app is WinPoker, but there are several options out there).
2. Once you get to the casino, shop around. Don't just sit down at the first machine you see. Look at pay tables for the games so you can find your best chance of winning.
3. Always bet max coins, as we discussed above.
4. When you're playing, always use a slot or promotional card for that casino. Often, because the return for video poker is so high (assuming you're sitting at a good machine) combined with the casino's promotion, you might be playing a positive expectancy game (over 100% return).
5. Start slow. Don't sacrifice good play because you're trying to speed through your selections. Some people fly through hands without really making sure the moves they're making are accurate. Your speed will increase with time.
6. There's always video poker around the casino bar. Order an expensive drink and ask what level of play you need to have going on the video poker machine for it to be comped. Sometimes losing $20 in a video poker machine but getting a $15 cocktail for free makes it all sorta worth it.
Some notes on strategy
Because there are so many different video poker games out there with different pay tables and other variations, it is impossible to provide enough information related to optimal strategy in this Video Poker 101 blog post. However, what I can do is point you in the direction of some very smart folks that have put together optimal play cheat sheets for all the different video poker games.
For instance, take a visit to Wizard of Odds' page on Jacks or Better Simple Strategy to get an idea of how to start playing video poker and get a 99%+ return without memorizing every single rule. If you're playing a different video poker iteration, visit the Wizard's main video poker strategy page to help you get where you need to go.