Will There Ever Be a Better Video Poker Game Than Jacks or Better?

Jacks or Better

In my time as a professional video poker player, I’ve dabbled in various offshoots like Deuces Wild and Double Double Bonus, but my heart belongs to Jacks or Better.

Specifically, the 9-6 “full pay” version of Jacks or Better that spits out a 99.54 percent payback rate and a 4,000-coin win for max-bet royal flushes. This game has been my bread and butter for two decades and counting now, helping me to put food on the table and keep the lights on.

And even though I’m well aware of the fact that a few games – including full pay Deuces Wild and its absurd 100.71 percent payback rate – are more lucrative from the player’s perspective, I’ll go to war defending 9/6 Jacks or Better.

That’s because there simply won’t ever be another video poker variant like it.

The game designers can keep on tinkering, and they surely will, but it’s impossible to replicate the elegance and efficiency of Jacks or Better. This game doesn’t need exotic poker hand rankings like five of a kind that can’t be made with a standard 52-card deck. No wildcards are needed to spice up the proceedings, nor side bets or any other bells and whistles.

No, when you play Jacks or Better, you’re playing video poker distilled to its very essence. One man, one machine, 52 cards in the deck and five of them dealt randomly onscreen. From there, it’s up to the player to piece together a puzzle comprised of 2.5 million possible starting hand combinations.

That may sound like a tall order at first glance, but that’s the beauty of Jacks or Better – once you get the hang of things, those 2.5 million combinations become akin to second nature.

Seriously, take a moment to observe a video poker shark in their natural setting and you’ll see a sight to behold. The best players are capable of instantly assessing their five-card starting hand and determining the optimal play. From there, it’s only a matter of second before their fingers flash across the screen to input that play. The whole scene is reminiscent of a conductor leading their orchestra, a blend of intense focus and artistry that you won’t see very often on the casino floor.

And when that screen locks up after the perfect runout, four aces or even the coveted royal flush frozen in place for all to see, the energy is infectious to say the least. Watching a Jacks or Better jackpot winner collect their hand pay – a whopping $4,000 for $1 bettors wagering the maximum of five coins per hand – is a thrill second only to winning one for yourself.

Continue on to learn more about Jacks or Better, and why I still love the game so much after 20 years of clicking buttons and collecting payouts.

Simple Rules and Hand Rankings

Right off the bat, Jacks or Better appeals to a wide cross-section of the gambling public based on its rudimentary rules and gameplay structure.

This game is a far cry from the feverish pace and insider lingo found at your average casino craps table. On a Jacks or Better machine, all you need to know is how a standard 52-card deck works within the context of poker.

That means remembering a basic list of poker hand rankings, as found below:

Jacks or Better Hand Rankings

Hand Example
Royal flush  10-J-Q-K-A “Broadway” straight, with all cards of the same suit
Straight flush  Any straight (3-4-5-6-7; 9-10-J-Q-K), with all cards of the same suit
Four of a kind Four cards of the same rank (8-8-8-8-X)
Full house Three of a kind PLUS one pair (8-8-8-A-A)
Flush Any five-card string of the same suit (3s-5s-9s-Qs-As)
Straight Any consecutive five-card run (2-3-4-5-6; 8-9-10-J-Q)
Three of a Kind Three cards of the same rank (8-8-8-X-X)
Two Pair One pair PLUS another one pair (8-8-K-K-X)
One Pair Two cards of the same rank (J-J-X-X-X)

To play a hand of Jacks or Better, all you need to do is choose a coin denomination (nickel, quarter, dollar, etc.) to wager on each hand. Next up, you’ll decide how many of those coins to bet on each hand, and in this case, you should always be betting the maximum of five coins. This max-bet ensures that you’ll be paid out the jackpot sum of 4,000 coins when you beat 1 in 40,000 odds to land a royal flush (more on this down below).

In terms of actual gameplay, Jacks or Better couldn’t be simpler. After placing your bet, the virtual dealer will dole out five cards face up randomly from a shuffled 52-card deck. With these five cards onscreen, you can elect to hold or discard any combination of them, before drawing replacements. This discard / draw round provides the game’s pivotal decision point, as players are trying to form the best possible five-card poker hand using the above rankings.

The goal of the game is to form the highest ranking hand, with the following payouts awarded for qualifying hands (at least one pair of Jacks or Better):

Jacks or Better Full Pay Table

Hand Payout
Royal flush  800
Straight flush  50
Four of a kind 25
Full house 9
Flush 6
Straight 4
Three of a Kind 3
Two Pair 2
Jacks or better 1
All Others 0

Of course, knowing how to give yourself the best chances of making those high-paying premium hands up top is what separates the best from the rest in Jacks or Better.

And that’s where basic strategy comes into play…

Simple Basic Strategy

No matter which five-card starting hand combination you receive on the deal, there will always be one discard / draw decision that offers the highest expected return.

You won’t always wind up winning the hand, mind you, but making the optimal play at all times ensures your payback rate reaches its peak 99.54 percent potential. Any mistakes or deviations from basic strategy, on the other hand, can cause that payback percentage to drop off precipitously.

Check out the table below to see how Jacks or Better basic strategy shakes out:

Jacks or Better Basic Strategy

Rank Pre-Draw Hand(s) Correct Draw
1 Four of a kind, straight flush, royal flush Hold pat hand
2 Four cards to a royal flush Draw one card
3 Three of a kind, straight, flush, full house Hold pat hand
4 Four cards to a straight flush Draw one card
5 Two pair Draw one card
6 One high pair (Jacks or better) Draw three cards
7 Three cards to a royal flush Draw two cards
8 Four cards to a flush Draw one card
9 One low pair (Tens or lower) Draw three cards
10 Four cards to open-ended straight Draw one card
11 Two suited high cards(Jack or higher) Draw three cards
12 Three cards to a straight flush Draw two cards
13 Two unsuited high cards* Draw three cards
14 Suited J-10, Q-10, or K-10 Draw three cards
15 One high card Draw four cards
16 Five unconnected low cards Draw five cards

To make use of this 16-step strategy guide, simply scan your five-card starting hand to determine which hands and/or draws you currently hold. From there, find the highest ranking hand or draw on the list and make the corresponding discard/draw decision.

The goal here is to give yourself the best odds of hitting a certain hand, given the drawing possibilities presented by your starting hand.

Most players know that drawing to a royal flush requires beating 1 in 40,000 or so odds, but you can use the table below to see how the lesser hands stack up:

Jacks or Better Odds and Ends

Hand Prize Combinations Probability Return
Royal Flush 800 41,126,022 0.000025 1.98 percent
Straight Flush 50 181,573,608 0.000109 0.55 percent
Four of a kind 25 3,924,430,647 0.002363 5.91 percent
Full House 9 19,122,956,883 0.011512 10.36 percent
Flush 6 18,296,232,180 0.011015 6.61 percent
Straight 4 18,653,130,482 0.011229 4.49 percent
Three of a kind 3 123,666,922,527 0.074449 22.33 percent
Two Pair 2 214,745,513,679 0.129279 25.86 percent
Jacks or Better 1 356,447,740,914 0.214585 21.46 percent
All Other 0 906,022,916,158 0.545435 0.00 percent
Totals 1,661,102,543,100 1 99.54 percent

Juiced Jackpots for Betting Big Before a Royal

Finally, the key reason Jacks or Better has become such a hit among gamblers is the jackpot payout for royal flushes.

Take a look at the pay table below, which is used on any standard 9/6 full pay Jacks or Better machine:

HAND 1 COIN  2 COINS  3 COINS 4 COINS 5 COINS
Royal Flush 250 500 750 1000 4000
Straight Flush 50 100 150 200 250
4 of a kind 25 50 75 100 125
Full House 9 18 27 36 45
Flush 6 12 18 24 30
Straight 4 8 12 16 20
3 of a kind 3 6 9 12 15
Two pair 2 4 6 8 10
Jacks or better 1 2 3 4 5

As you can see, the payouts for all hands – from one pair through to a royal flush – follow a symmetrical pattern when you wager one, two, three, or four coins. That is to say, doubling your coin denomination from one to two causes the payout for a straight to double in kind (from 4 to 8).

This incremental escalation stays true across the board, except in the case of a five-coin max bet. When you do bet the maximum five coins, the payout for a royal flush suddenly skyrockets, moving from 1,000 to 4,000 coins in a single leap. Without the jackpot element included, this payout should stand at 1,250 coins, meaning lucky players who score a royal flush on a max-bet hand earn an extra 2,750 coins on the house.

By virtue of the royal flush jackpot, players enjoy a healthy payback rate of 99.54 percent on Jacks or Better, putting it on par with blackjack as one of the most favorable games on any casino floor.

High Payback Rate + Slow Play = More Value

Speaking of that sterling 99.54 payback rate, Jacks or Better players get a great deal in terms of bang for their gambling buck.

Because the machines come equipped to offer various coin denominations, even as low as a nickel per hand, players of all bankroll level can still enjoy themselves. When you think about a game like blackjack – which offers a similar payback percentage while requiring a $5 per hand minimum wager – spending $0.25 per play max-betting a nickel machine is a tremendous bargain.

Even better, video poker is played solo, so players can enjoy the game at their own pace without feeling pressured. Let’s say you only have $100 to work with and you’re looking to get a few hours of play out of the proceedings.

At the blackjack table, you’re only bankrolled for 20 hands. Coupled with a dealer who has a mandate to get as many hands in per hour as possible, and you could find yourself down to the felt in no time flat.

Take that same c-note to a Jacks or Better machine, however, and the world is your oyster. Here, you can dial the coin denomination back to nickels, so even a max-bet of five coins means you’ll have just one quarter at risk per hand. That equates to 400 hands of play with your $100 starting bankroll, which offers plenty of time to weather the swings of variance in search of premium hands.

More importantly, there’s nobody around to dictate the pace of play. You can click “DEAL,” consider your basic strategy chart – handheld charts are perfectly legal on the casino floor – and input your discard / draw decision at your leisure.

Afterward, maybe you’ll sip on your cocktail or send a text before playing the next hand. With no external pressure to play quickly, Jacks or Better enthusiasts can stretch their gambling dollar out to extract full value from any gambling session.

Player’s Club Points Provide Instant Rebates

Another big reason why I love Jacks or Better above all other games is the opportunity to collect comps and freebies from the house.

Unlike table games, which rely on a pit boss to “rate” your play using arbitrary metrics, machine games like video poker are tracked by the casino’s computer. So long as you’re using a Player’s Club card while you play, every wager placed and payout earned will be tracked by the in-house system.

That system sorts through variables like length of session, coin denomination, coins bet per hand, and total wagers placed, to distribute a wide array of casino comps. You can earn free rooms, discounted tickets to the hottest shows, buffet vouchers, and even free-play coupons good on the machines.

Jacks or Better players in the know are fully aware of how their casino’s comp system works, so they work hard to extract every possible comp from the house. By doing so, losing sessions can be written off as a breakeven experience, with the freebies serving to subsidize monetary losses.

All things considered, gamblers who like the idea of getting even with the house have every incentive to build up a quality Jacks or Better rating through regular play. In the end, you’ll soon discover that the array of comps awarded to your account mitigate even the coldest of losing streaks.

Conclusion

It’s no wonder why 9/6 full pay Jacks or Better remains the most popular video poker game ever invented. Beginners need only a cursory knowledge of kitchen table poker to get started, but any player willing to memorize the basic strategy table is capable of playing like an expert.

And when you go for the gusto with a maximum five-coin wager, the game rewards you with an increased 4,000-coin payout for landing the elusive royal flush. This “jackpot” element has become a Jacks or Better calling card, and for good reason, as every gambler loves the notion of turning a few bucks into a four-figure score.