Breaking down ‘high card’ draws in video poker

When my father developed the first strategies for video poker, a few surprises definitely showed up. Playing 4-card Flushes over Low Pairs was not such a surprise, but playing the Low Pair over 4-card Straights was.
One of the other significant surprises was how to play the numerous hands that contain High Cards. If you had three High Cards of the same suit, it wasn’t much of a surprise to hold all of them. Even if one of those high cards was only a 10. A 3-card Royal is a pretty strong hand, even if it takes a bit of a long shot to actually hit the Royal.
Without the mathematical analysis of video poker to guide the player, most found themselves holding on to all cards Jack or higher. This would probably be the right play if you were sitting at a poker table.
When playing poker, there is little benefit to drawing a Royal over a Straight or a Flush. All are very likely to leave you a winner and the amount you win will not change based on your final hand value. In the meantime, you’ll increase your chance (or will you?) of grabbing a High Pair, which may be enough to win the hand.
But video poker is not table poker and a Royal has a good deal more value than a Straight or a Flush (-200 to 130-plus times as much). This makes taking the risk of getting the Royal far more worthwhile in video than table poker.
As a result, the decision of what to do when you’re dealt a J-hearts, Q-diamonds, A-hearts is not as clear as one might think. Let’s take a look at the detailed analysis.
If the player holds the three High Cards, there are 1,081 possible resulting draws. It comes to 32.2% of the time that the player will wind up with a High Pair. If the player holds only the two suited High Cards, he will wind up with a High Pair 30.3% of the time. So, the probability is a little less, but we’re not talking a huge difference.
The player may only have two High Cards instead of three, but he will draw three cards instead of two, helping to even things out a bit.
Moving on, with the three High Cards, the player will draw a Two Pair about 2.5% of the time. With the two High Cards he will pull a Two Pair about 4.4% of the time. The score has been quickly settled with the High Pair frequencies.
As often as the player will wind up with fewer pairs he will have more Two Pairs. Given Two Pairs pay twice as much, this puts the two suited High Cards in the lead. The pattern continues with Trips, with the player drawing about twice as many by holding onto only the two suited High Cards.
Things turn around when we look at Straights. It should be no surprise the probability of drawing a Straight goes way up when you hold three High Cards as compared to two. The exact probabilities will be impacted by the specific cards, but in this particular case the probability with three High Cards is about 1.5% vs. 0.3% for two.
For the three High Card hands, the hands stop there. There is zero chance of drawing a Flush, Full House, Quads, a Straight Flush or the Royal. For the two High Card hand, we still have a 1% chance of drawing a Flush and slim, yet possible, chances to get a Full House, Quads or the elusive Royal.
In this particular case, there is no chance for a Straight Flush, but if I had chosen a suited J-K for my example this would exist as well.
If we were to ignore all the hands Flush and above, the two hands would have nearly identical expected values, with the three High Card hand slightly higher. However, there is no reason to ignore these hands.
In fact, we play the two High Card hand for the specific reason that we have the opportunity to draw all these relatively high paying hands simply by discarding the one off-suit card, all while barely impacting the overall expected value of the lower hands.
As a result, the decision is not really a hard one to make, even if it was an originally surprising part of the strategy. Our two-card Royal with an Ace has an expected value of about 0.58. Our three High Card expected value is a mere 0.46%.
This type of hand is a fairly common one and repeatedly playing it the wrong way will take a bite out of your bankroll. This is why the “seat of your pants” approach or using table poker strategy can be quite ruinous to your results. Sometimes, two can be better than three.

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