Should You Hold a Low Pair in Video Poker?

Video Poker Hold Low Pair

Imagine this – you’re playing video poker, and you’re dealt a low pair alongside a single high card.

  • Do you hold that high card to secure a qualifying pair?
  • Do you hold that low pair, hoping to build a better hand on the draw?

This is a widespread problem in video poker, even for experienced players. Our brains seem hardwired to prefer the shiny face card over the boring unqualified pair.

What is the right move here?

This post is determined to answer that question in a way that convinces even the greenest video poker players to always hold low pairs over a lone high card.

Why Hold High Cards?

The impulse to hold high cards over a low pair is completely understandable.

Under the standard rules of video poker, only pairs of Jacks or better result in a win. When you hold a low pair, you can only win if you get a good deal and your low pair becomes Two Pair, a Three-of-a-Kind, a Full House, or a Four-of-a-Kind.

The theory behind holding high cards goes something like this – if I hold this pair of 6s, and I don’t get a good draw, I win nothing. But, if I hold this Queen, I’m liable to draw another Queen and form a qualified pair.

What do people have against holding a low pair? They lose too often. Nobody likes losing a lot. Holding a low pair results in a loss 71.3% of the time.

If you’ve spent any time following game strategy, holding your low pairs, and hoping for that ideal draw, you’ve felt the impact of that 71.3%. It feels like you’re losing a lot more than 7 out of every 10 hands, and it doesn’t make for the most fun gambling experience.

There’s some psychological edge held by face cards.
People just feel better holding those fancy portrait cards and Aces. Our brains, immaculate pattern-recognition machines that they are, just can’t make sense of holding a pair of 2s over a nice juicy King.

Unfortunately for those of us that feel in our bones that it’s better to hold a high card over a low pair, we’re dead wrong. The next section explains why.

Low Pairs are More Valuable than High Cards

Let’s start with a quick reminder of the ideal Jacks or Better paytable.

We’re not even going to look at the whole paytable, we’re just going to look at part of it.

Here’s the famous 9/6 Jacks or Better paytable. This game gives the house an advantage of just 0.46% when played according to optimal strategy. I’ve listed the payouts at a max bet of five coins.

  • Four of a Kind – 125
  • Full House – 45
  • Three of a Kind – 15
  • Two Pair – 10

The payouts listed are the only four hands you can form from holding a low pair. To work out if it’s better to hold a low pair or a high card, we need to know how often players holding a low pair will see these results.

Below is a table of the relevant hand frequencies for Jacks or Better when holding a low pair:

  • Four-of-a-Kind – 45 out of 16,215 possible hands – 0.3% chance
  • Full House – 165 out of 16,215 possible hands – 1% chance
  • Three-of-a-Kind – 1,854 out of 16,215 possible hands – 11.4% chance
  • Two Pair – 2,592 out of 16,215 possible hands – 16% chance
  • Losing Hand – 11,559 out of 16,215 possible hands – 71.3% chance

Earlier, I talked about the frustration of losing 71.3% of the time. It may surprise people to see relatively high numbers for other hands. When you hold a low pair, you’ll win with a Three-of-a-Kind or Two Pair more than 25% of the time, for 15 and 10 credits per win respectively (at a max bet).

A big 125-credit Four-of-a-Kind win will happen about twice an hour if you’re playing at average speed.

A player who holds a face card will win more often than a player who holds a low pair, thanks to the 26.38% chance of drawing to a qualifying pair. But the payout for a Jacks or Better pair, 5 credits at a max bet of 5 coins, isn’t sustaining. Relative to the income provided by regularly holding low pairs, it doesn’t make sense to hold a high card.

Holding a Low Pair vs. Two High Cards

I dug up an old video poker strategy card I bought on one of my trips to Harrah’s in New Orleans and noticed something interesting.

This strategy card has two sides:
One of them contains details on paytables and rules, the other side has a simplified strategy guide ranking all non-winning hands. These hands are ranked from 1 to 22, and the idea is that you move down the card until you find your hand, and build to the hand suggested. What this means is that this strategy card has ranked every non-winning hand in terms of its likelihood of winning.

Right there, in black and white, you can see that a low pair is one of the most powerful non-winning hands in video poker. “A pair of tens or lower” is ranked #5. You have to go all the way down to #20 to find “one high card,” which is only one hand better than a hand you should discard and redraw.

In other words:

  • Holding one high card is one of the worst strategic plays in the game.
  • Holding a low pair is among the best.

Does this strategy change when you’re dealt two high cards? Should you hold two high cards over a low pair?

The strategy card says “No.”

The only four non-winning hands that are better than a low pair are:

  • Four cards toward a Royal Flush
  • Four cards toward a Straight Flush
  • Three cards toward a Royal Flush
  • Four Cards toward a Flush

In short, there’s no game situation involving a one- or two-high card hand that also includes a low pair where you aren’t better off holding that low pair and going for a good draw.

Please Note:
The only situations where you’re better off ignoring a low pair are extreme examples where you don’t need a strategy card to show you the ideal play.

If you’re dealt suited Queen, King, and Ace as well as a pair of 2s, you’d have to be pretty out of it to ditch three cards to a Royal in favor of a loss that’s more than 70% likely.

The same goes for a hand like this:
3 clubs – 3 diamonds – 5 diamonds – 8 diamonds – King diamonds

The upside of chasing that flush is so much higher than the upside of chasing a less-than-1/3 chance of a small payout that I don’t think most people need me to tell them to ignore the low pair here.

Two Examples of Holding a Low Pair

I fired up my friendly neighborhood https://www.thesportsgeek.com/casino-apps/video-poker/ online video poker game to see if I could come up with some real-world examples to illustrate my point further.

I chose to play their full-pay Jacks or Better game just for the sake of ease.

I’m playing with virtual money, though I’m not usually shy about playing video poker for cash. I think it’s best if I’m a bit removed from the results, so I’ll play with pretend cash.

My second draw fits the bill perfectly. Here’s how it went:
Queen Diamonds – 8 Spades – 8 Clubs – 5 Spades – 10 Spades

I ran this through a simulator and found that my best expected return (to the tune of 0.823) came from holding those two 8s. So I did that. And, as expected, I didn’t win. Remember – the odds are more than 70% in the house’s favor when you hold a low pair.

What was the expected return for holding just the Queen?

The simulator says 0.382, less than half what I’d expect from holding the low pair. If I’d held just the three Spades, my return would be about the same as the high card hold – 0.327.

About ten hands later, I drew this:
3 Clubs – 3 Diamonds – Jack Diamonds – 4 Diamonds – Queen Spades

The simulator produced results nearly identical to the hand above, indicating that holding the two 3s would produce an expected return of 0.823, meaning I’d win about $0.82 for every dollar bet. That was my best odds – if I held the two high cards, my expected return was $0.51 on the dollar, or about $0.47 on the dollar if I held either of my high cards.

Just for fun, I held the Queen … and drew a straight.

My expected return on holding that Queen was 0.47, so you can only call this the luck of the draw. I bet 5 units to win 20, for an actual return of 4, or just about 8.5 times what that goofy move was expected to produce.

Conclusion

I like how my real-world examples proved that even optimal strategy has its limits. Luck plays a big part in video poker. It’s a skill game, for sure, but a skill game with a massive luck element and a lot of variance.

Please Note:
While I was happy to win 20 fake credits – more fake video poker play in the future! – I was a little upset that I couldn’t prove in just a few short clicks of the mouse that holding a low pair is always better.

If you like holding a high card, and you can afford to win a little less money over time, there’s no harm in it.

The best move, strategy-wise, is to hold a low pair in hopes of bigger payouts, instead of keeping a high card for a slightly-more-certain low prize.
Rex Hoffman / Author

Rex Hoffman is a passionate sports writer, with over five years of experience covering sports journalism in line with the Vegas betting landscape. His favorite subjects include football, basketball, and baseball. As a Las Vegas resident, he enjoys finding an edge against the local sportsbooks and aims to share his extensive knowledge with both beginners and experienced bettors. Rex also dabbles in horse racing wagering and enjoys typical casino fare like blackjack and poker in his spare time.

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