Video Poker Math: Play Full-Coin or Play Small, But Don’t Play Four


To load, or not to load: That is the question. And it’s a big one for many video poker players who sometimes play with less than max coins inserted. Everyone knows that it’s a sucker move to play less than full-coin, right? Not so fast. From a strict mathematical point of view, full-coin isn’t necessarily optimal. In fact, if the goal is to play at the lowest loss-rate per hand, it almost never is.

To see this, you have to determine the expected loss per hand, which is done by multiplying the casino advantage times the coin denomination times the number of coins played. For playing five coins on a machine with a 97 percent return (about what you face on the typical schedule you’ll encounter in a bar), it works out to a loss of 3.75 cents per hand. When you play less than full-coin, you lose the bonus for the royal flush, which decreases the return by about 1.5 percent. But even with the lower return percentage, betting one, two or three coins is less expensive than betting five. Don’t play four coins, though—at that point the reduced-royal penalty catches up, and you’re better off loading it up.

Does this mean that you should always play short-coin? For many the answer is probably no. One of the reasons for playing in a bar is to get free drinks, and most bars don’t comp for less than max-coin play. Add in the price of drinks and the extra loss per hand is easily made up for. Plus, betting less than the max leaves the door open for the dreaded short-coin royal.

I’ve seen this happen many times, but one stands out in my memory: A woman was playing a quarter machine at the Golden Nugget, and she hit a royal. Her machine was across the aisle from a huge line for the buffet, so there were lots of bystanders. People love to see royals, and all of the usual congratulations and backslapping commenced. That is, until someone realized that the woman had played only one coin.

Instead of $1,000, she’d won “only” $62.50. Not only did the celebration cease, it turned to laughter and ridicule. The poor woman, having gone from hero to goat in seconds, scooped up her coins and skulked off.

Interestingly, the situation changes drastically as a machine’s return percentage goes up. For example, if you happen to be in a casino playing 9/6 Jacks or Better with a 99.54 percent payback, playing five coins is better than playing two, three or four, though it’s still not better than playing only one.

Since you usually won’t be playing a game this good, you don’t have to worry about it (except for hitting that royal). Go ahead and play one, two or three coins if you want to slow things down. Just don’t play four.

Anthony Curtis is the publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor and