Gambling Tips > Video Poker

How to Play Straight and Pairs

By Henry Tamburin

Most of the hands that you receive in video poker are no brainers in the sense it’s fairly obvious which cards you should hold and which ones you should discard. But then there are the not so obvious hands in which you must choose between two possible plays. For example, suppose you are playing jacks-or-better or a bonus poker game, and you are dealt the following hands. How would you play them?


1.      2d        3h        4s         5h        3c

2.      Jd        10h      8c        9s         Jc

3.      10h      Kd       10c      Qs        Jc


The dilemma in hand #1 is that you have a four-card outside straight (2-5) and a low pair (pair of 3s). Should you hold the four-card straight and draw one card hoping you get an ace or 6 for a straight? Or should you hold the pair of 3s and hope you draw one (or more) 3s for trips or quads, or possible draw a different pair or three-of-a-kind for two pair or a full house respectively?


Nowadays, it’s not that difficult to determine which play is the right one. All you need is one of the popular video poker training software programs and a personal computer and you can quickly determine which playing option – keeping the low pair or the four-card outside straight – has the higher average return or expected value (EV). For hand #1, the EV is 82 cents per dollar bet when you hold the pair of 3s and only 68 cents per dollar bet if you hold the four-card straight. Therefore, holding the low pair is a better play than holding the four-card outside straight.


How did you play hand #2 above? This answer is fairly obvious. If holding the low pair is the best strategy for hand #1, than certainly holding the high pair in hand #2 has to be the best strategy over holding the four-card outside straight. And it is to the tune of 82 cents per dollar wagered (the EV of the high pair is $1.54 and the straight is 72 cents).


As an aside, do you know why the EV of the four-card straight in hand #2 (8-J) is slightly higher than the four-card straight in hand #1 (2-5)? That’s because the four card straight in hand #2 has a high card (the J) so if you were to hold the straight and drew another jack you would have at least a high pair.


As you can see, having a high card in your four-card outside straight increases its EV from 68 to 72 cents per dollar bet. An obvious question to ask is this: If you had a four card straight containing two or three high cards, will its EV be higher than the EV of a low or even a high pair?


Before I answer this question, let me ask you ... how did you play hand #3 above? Did you hold the low pair (10s)? Or did you hold the four-card outside straight (10JQK), which contains three high cards?


I won’t keep you in suspense ... here are the EV’s per dollar bet for the two choices:










Notice that it doesn’t matter which four-card outside straight you hold ... they both have the same EV, which is 5 cents higher than the EV of holding the pair of 10s.


So, we learned something, didn’t we? Normally you should hold the low pair over the four-card outside straight if you are playing Jacks-or-Better or Bonus Poker but if the four-card consecutive straight contains three high cards, specifically 10JQK, then the latter is preferred over the low pair.


What about a four-card outside straight that contains only two high cards? Is it better to hold it over the low pair? Here’s an example of this hand:



10h      9d        10c      Qs        Jc


The EV’s are:







109QJ or




As you can see from the EV’s in the table, a four-card outside straight containing two high cards doesn’t have quite enough EV to make it a better play that holding the low pair.


Thus far we’ve been talking about a four-card straight with no gaps. What happens if you have a four-card straight with a gap and also a low pair, such as:


1.      9d        9s         Jh         Qs        Kc


2.      8s         8c        9h        10s       Qd


3.      6c        6d        7h        8s         10c


With four-card straights with a gap the general rule is this: You should never hold a four-card straight with a gap if it has fewer than three high cards. Therefore, in all three hands above you would hold the low pair. (Note: Even though hand #1 contains a four-card straight with a gap and three high cards, its EV is less than the low pair.)


Lastly, we have the special case of a four-card straight flush.  This is a powerful hand even when it contains a gap (because of its relatively high payoff of 50 coins per coin wagered), and as a general rule you should always hold any four-card straight flush (with or without gaps) over a high pair (and certainly over a low pair).


If we constructed a simple hierarchy table for four-card straights and pairs (jacks-or-better and bonus poker), it would be the following with the best play listed highest in the table:



Any Four-Card Straight Flush

High Pair


Low Pair

Four-Card Outside Straight

(2-5 through 9-Q)*

Four-Card Straight with Gap and Three High Cards

*The straight A234 is not an outside straight

 and it has a lower EV.


If you follow the above table when you are dealt pairs and straights in the same hand you’ll never make a playing mistake.


Is the above strategy the same for Double Bonus and Double Double Bonus games? Unfortunately, it is not, and I’ll cover the strategy for these games in a future column.