Gambling Tips > Video Poker

Understanding Penalty Cards

By Henry Tamburin

Penalty cards are a controversial topic amongst video poker players (and writers). Some say it’s important to include penalty cards into your playing strategy while others say it’s “not worth it.” Before I add my two cents to this ongoing disagreement, let me first explain what they are, and show you a few sample hands of how penalty cards can affect your playing strategy.


A “penalty card’ is a card in your initially dealt hand that if you were to discard it, it would adversely affect the expected value of your draw. If this sounds Greek to you, stay with me and I’ll show you with some sample hands what this means.


Look at the following two hands. The game is Jacks or Better. How would you play each hand?


Jh  Ks  6d  5h  10h

Jh  Ks  6d  5s  10h


As I discussed in my column in last month’s issue of Strictly Slots, the basic playing strategy for both hands is to hold the J-10 of hearts and draw three new cards. However, when you take into consideration penalty cards, a better play for the top hand is to hold the unsuited J-K. Here’s why.


If you look carefully at both hands, the composition of the cards is the same except the top hand contains a 5 of hearts while the bottom hand contains a five of spades. The five of hearts in the top hand is known as a “flush penalty card” because if you were to discard it, it would decrease your chance of getting a flush on the draw (because you discarded a card in the suit that you need in order to get a flush on the draw when you hold the suited J-10). In other words, the presence of the flush penalty card decreases the value of holding the J-10 of hearts just enough so that the unsuited J-K becomes a slightly better hold; therefore, the 5 of hearts is a flush penalty card to the J-10 of hearts.


Here’s another example of a hand that contains a flush penalty card.


Ad  Ks  Qh  Jh  2h


The basic playing strategy is to hold the suited Q-J of hearts over holding all four high cards (A-K-Q-J). However, the 2 of hearts is a penalty card that decreases the value of the suited J-Q. (Can you see why?) Therefore, a better hold for this hand is to hold the A-K-Q-J.  


Sometimes a hand can have a flush and straight penalty. For example, how would you play this hand?


Kd  10d  2h  9s  6d


The basic playing strategy is to hold suited K-10 over just holding a K. However, when you hold the K-10 of diamonds and discard the 6 of diamonds, you reduce the possibility of ending up with a paying flush. Likewise, when you discard the 9, you reduce the possibility of getting the straight 9-10-J-Q-K. Therefore, the penalty card strategy for this hand is this: If the hand contains both a flush penalty card anda 9 straight penalty card, hold the K (over suited K-10).


Some video poker games have very few penalty-card hands while others have more. For example, the advanced playing strategy contained on the popular Dancer/Daily strategy card for 9/6 and 8/6 Jacks or Better lists six holds involving a penalty card strategy (see below for a summary of four of these holds).





Suited K-10

Hold K-10 over K

Hold K when both flush and 9 straight penalty

Suited Q-10 with unsuited A

Hold suited Q-10

Hold unsuited A-Q when flush penalty

Suited J-10 with unsuited K

Hold suited J-10

Hold unsuited K-J when flush penalty

A-K-Q-J where only Q-J is suited

Hold suited Q-J

Hold A-K-Q-J when flush or straight penalty


In some situations, penalty cards affect the Expected Value (EV) of the game enough to alter the strategy but in other situations, the gain in EV is relatively small. Also, keep this in mind: playing strategies that include penalty cards are usually more difficult to master for most players compared to the basic playing strategy.


My recommendation on penalty cards is this: If you are a high-stakes player ($1 denomination and up), and you play a lot of video poker, than you should consider learning penalty card strategies for your favorite game. Likewise, if you are the type of player that strives for perfection, than you’ll achieve the maximum EV by learning the penalty card strategies. For all other recreational players, using the basic playing strategy accurately when you play should suffice (although learning the above penalty card strategies for Jacks or Better, for example, is not that difficult to master).


The Video Poker for Winners training software has a unique feature that allows you to list all the penalty card situations for a game. You select whatever game you are interested in analyzing (click on Games button, top right), then at the top of the page click ANALYZE, and then in the drop menu click on STRATEGY and then SHOW REPORT. You’ll see a table that shows the (basic) strategy play and corresponding perfect play (i.e., penalty card strategies) for different hands, how many times the hand occurs, and the total value of the difference between the basic strategy vs. penalty card (i.e., perfect hand) strategy.