Poker may be one of the most famous and most popular of all gambling games, but it’s also one of the few gambling games that isn’t purely a game of chance. In fact, if you play it right, it’s much more about skill than chance.
The catch is, though, that this mostly applies to playing actual poker in the real world against other players. That’s because the primary skill of poker has little to do with the cards you’re dealt or even how you play them, but with how you play the other players. Poker, especially on a professional level, is all about being able to “read” the other players while stopping them from “reading” you. You need to be able to tell whether someone else is bluffing or really has a great hand, while at the same time making sure that either they can’t figure out what you have or, if you’re really good, making them think that you have what you don’t.
Obviously, this doesn’t work when you’re playing video poker, Video poker is, in fact, as much a game of chance as something like online slots and despite a very different user interface, it’s basically the same thing as online slots under the hood. Cards aren’t drawn in video poker, but are determined by a random number generator: the same engine that drives everything from online slots to many free-to-play mobile games.
When it comes to video poker, though, there is actually one area in which it is not entirely beholden to chance. Where a certain amount of strategy needs to be applied. And that’s what is known as a holding strategy.
What Is a Holding Strategy
For those less familiar with poker, the way the game works is that after an initial hand is dealt and bets are placed, players get a chance to discard some of their cards for new ones in the hope of making a better hand. This is called “holding”, as it refers to the cards you keep rather than the ones you discard, and it is common to all forms of poker and is certainly a staple of video poker. You can hold all of your cards, hold onto none of them, or hold on to as many as you wish of that initial hand.
The big question, though, is what and when you should hold, and this can be more complicated than it looks. Let’s take a look at two opposing examples and see if we can draw out some basic principles to base your strategies on.
Remember, first, that though video poker games should be entirely fair as the cards generated should be completely random, there are crooked machines out there that can very easily cheat the player, not least by constantly dishing out hands that are perfect except for one card, but discarding that one card absolutely never actually pays off. If you see this sort of behavior from the game you’re playing, immediately stop playing and avoid playing anything from that online casino or manufacturer again.
Which brings us to our first example:
Opening Hands That Are Just Short of a Straight or Flush
This can include anything from having four Spades and a Heart to having a 10, Jack, Queen, Ace and a 2. These hands are just one card away from forming one of the best hands in the game. In both of the above examples, it’s definitely holding onto the cards of a similar suit or those that are just one short card away from a straight or royal flush, and discarding the “odd card out”, that is the best play.
It’s important, however, to remember which hand is worth more between, say, a flush, a straight or a royal flush when deciding on which cards to hold. The payout will always be more if you get a royal flush (10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace of a single suit) rather than a regular flush (any consecutive sequence of cards of the same suit), and any flush beats a straight (a consecutive sequence of cards of different suits).
Things become more complicated when the opening hand already includes a pair, especially a high pair. So, for example, say you have an opening hand of 10, Jack, Queen, Queen and King of Hearts. If you discard one of the Queens, you may well end up with a flush, but you may just as easily end up with nothing – the latter is significantly more likely, in fact. On the other hand, if you keep the Queens and decide instead to hold onto only the Queens or perhaps the Queens and the King in the hopes of forming two pairs of a three-of-a-kind, even if you get none of the cards you want, and even if straights or flushes offer much higher payouts than even a three-of-a-kind, you will still have a very solid hand of two Queens, at the very least.
How you play this is up to you, but it comes down to playing safely vs playing bravely.
Opening Hands Without Even a Pair of 2s
This, obviously, is the complete opposite of the previous example. This would be like getting a hand made up 2, 5, 7, 8, and a Jack of mostly different suits. In this case, you may want to discard anything from 3 to all 5 of your cards in the hope of getting something bigger.
These hands need to be dealt with on a case by case basis. As a general rule, though, you probably shouldn’t discard all your cards – but should look for which one or two cards to hold onto that might potentially yield decent results.
In our above example, you’ll notice two potential moves that you can make to optimize the likelihood of salvaging the hand. First, you can just keep the Jack, because it’s always a good idea to hold onto one of the royal flush cards, and hope that you might draw another Jack, two Jacks or even in the rarest of rare circumstances, miraculously draw a royal flush.
Second, you may notice that 5, 7 and 8 are only two cards away from forming a straight. You may therefore want to hold them in the hope of drawing a 6 and either a 4 or a 9. This play is somewhat more risky than your first option, but it’s still not a bad bet as your first prize would be a straight, but you may well end up with two pairs or even a three-of-a-kind.
This same basic strategy would also apply if, for example, your opening hand includes a low pair (say, two 2s) – see if there are any better possibilities that might come from the rest of your hand and then decide if you want to keep a guaranteed hand that will beat, at least, an empty hand, if nothing else, but may even become a three or four of a kind, or to discard it in the hope of getting something better (say, if you’re also holding a King and an Ace and can create much stronger pairs with each of them).
Whatever you do, holding strategies don’t actually have hard and steady rules, but always come down to what kind of player you are: any hand you’re dealt will present safer options and riskier options and it’s up to you to decide whether the risk is indeed worth the reward.