Video Poker Endowment – Gambling With An Edge

You’re playing dollar pNSU Deuces Wild, the 15-9-4-4-3 pay schedule also called Airport Deuces, five coins at a time, and you’re dealt W W W 7♦ 9♦, where each W indicates a wild card. Specifically, a deuce. This is a dealt straight flush, worth $45 in this game. Congratulations!

Your two choices on this hand are to hold all five cards or to just hold the deuces. (My late father took the attitude that, “If God didn’t want me to keep a straight flush, He wouldn’t have given me a straight flush!”) Any decent strategy will tell you to just hold the deuces. If you have software available, you can see that holding the deuces is worth $71.47 and holding the straight flush is worth $45 — which again tells you to just hold the deuces. End of story for me — and many other players. 

But not all. This is not an EV (Expected Value) of $71.47 versus an EV of $45. This is an EV of $71.47 against a guaranteed $45. Just holding the deuces requires some gambling. Holding the straight flush doesn’t. With this dealt hand, you’ve been endowed with $45. That $45 is now yours to do with as you please. Do you keep it, or do you “gamble it up?”

Despite the fact that the odds for gambling it up this time are definitely in your favor, you could lose. Let’s look at how often you will lose by doing this, and by how much:

Net Win/
of Total
4-of-a-Kind $20  ($25) 820 75.86%
Straight Flush $45  0 109 10.08%
5-of-a-Kind $75  $30  66 6.11%
Wild Royal $125  $80  40 3.70%
Four Deuces $1,000  $955  46 4.26%
Totals 1081 100.00%

Starting from three deuces you can’t end up with less than 4-of-a-kind. So, the most you can lose by gambling it up is $25, which is the payout of the guaranteed $45 minus the $20 payout of the 4-of-a-kind. But this happens more than 75% of the time! You make this play, and it will usually not pay off!

Is this relevant? Not to me. I don’t care much about the results of specific hands. I care far more about how I’m doing for the year or for my career. But to some players, receiving an endowment and then giving more than half of it away more than three-quarters of the time is traumatic! 

Now let’s look at a different hand in the same game: K♣ Q♣ 4♦ 6♦ 8♦. Here the best three plays, in order of value, are: holding the diamonds (worth $2.07); holding the clubs (worth $1.73); and throwing everything away (worth $1.61). Each of these three plays will have some takers.

For me, it’s a simple play. The strategy says hold the diamonds, and hold the diamonds I do. Period. That’s the way I roll. But this hand is fundamentally different than the previous one. This time there is no endowment. You must gamble it up. The only question is which gamble do you wish to take?

The most classic endowment hand is one like K♥ Q♥ J♥ T♥ 9♥. You’ve been endowed with a straight flush, but you’re oh so close to a royal flush. Most competent players know that in most games you should keep the straight flush, but in Deuces Wild variations the correct play is to toss the 9, say a prayer, and go for the royal.

There are players who will always keep the endowment, no matter which game they are playing. They can’t stand throwing away guaranteed money. Others will always gamble it up, again no matter which game they’re playing. They didn’t come to the casino today for a lousy straight flush. They’re here for a royal! In my classes, I referred to these two groups of people as “chickens” and “gamblers.” Neither strategy is the right one if you do it for all situations in all games! 

Thinking of video poker in terms of endowments allows me to understand why certain players make so many mistakes. In general, people like sure things. When you give up a sure thing, it can feel like a loss. And since losses feel bad, many people try to avoid them.

Avoiding losses can work in many aspects of life. Applying that to video poker, however, frequently leads you to a less-than-optimal result.