My favorite ways to gamble in a casino can be ranked in the following order: poker, sports betting, table games, and last and most certainly least, machines.
While I have found some very entertaining slot machines, it is one of my least favorite gambling activities, simply because there is no decision making of any consequence. I like to use my mind when I gamble; I want my knowledge (or lack thereof) to have an impact on how likely I am to win a wager.
That's why, if I'm going to be feeding my hard-earned money into a machine, it's almost always going to be a video poker machine. In fact, I've been known to while away some time at the bar while playing video poker.
There are dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties of video poker. Here are a few that I find interesting and challenging, sampled thanks to the supply of games offered at www.videopoker.com.
10. Trade Up Poker
This variation gives a player who is dealt a starting hand of three-of-a-kind the opportunity to "Trade Up" to get twice as many opportunities to make a full house or four of a kind. For instance, if you're playing a three-handed game, you'll get six chances to improve your hand. The penalty for doing so, however, is that you don't receive any payout on hands that don't improve -- hands that would have been paid 3x the triggering bet.
9. Jacks or Better
The most well-known variety of video poker, Jacks or Better is a five-card draw game that pays out when a player makes a hand of (you guessed it) a pair of jacks or better. Payouts climb as high as 4,000 coins if you hit a royal flush and play five coins. The strategy for the game is pretty straightforward and you can become a very proficient player with a few hundred hands of practice. Get to the point of being an expert and you'll trim the house edge to less than 0.5 percent, so long as you stick to machines that pay 9x for full houses and 6x for flushes.
8. Ace Invaders
In this game the player is dealt three video poker hands. The first (or bottom hand) is a traditional Jacks or Better draw game, and the other two are 5-Card Stud (no draw) hands. Payouts are the same for each of the three hands, with a higher payout for four of a kind with aces.
If that were all there was to this game, it would offer terrible odds since you are playing two of the three hands without a draw. However, the "Ace Invaders" can help you out. If one of the hands above another has an ace in a position where it can improve the hand below it, that ace will drop down or "invade" that hand. Players can even cascade their wins, with aces dropping down from the second stud hand to the first stud hand, and then down to the draw hand. For that reason, you can get five aces at a payout of 500 per coin, up to 2,500.
The game requires a slightly different strategy than standard Jacks or Better, however. I'm not a video poker expert and haven't run all the numbers, but I do know that in standard Jacks or Better, a player dealt A-Q-J-7-5 should keep the queen and the jack and throw away the ace. However, in this game, keeping the ace would most likely be a better play, as an ace in the hand above will provide an extra opportunity to win.
7. Double Down Stud Poker
This game features just one simple decision and it all boils down to how much a player likes his hand after four cards. This five-card stud game starts by revealing four cards face up, then the player chooses whether or not he'd like to double his bet, then the fifth card is revealed.
Since there's no draw, payouts begin at a pair of 6s or better, and the payoffs are all quite a bit higher than standard Jacks or Better. In fact, hitting a pair of jacks through aces pays 2x the bet, while a flush pays 10x, a full house pays 15x, and a royal flush is worth 2,000x.
Most decisions are fairly simple: If you hit a qualifying hand with your first four cards, definitely double. If you hit a four-card flush or an open-ended straight draw, you should probably double. Otherwise, don't pay the extra money and just see the last card.
6. Pick a Pair Poker
In this variation, players start with the first two cards of their five-card hand and can pick between two options for their third card. Once that card is selected, the final two cards are revealed.
Since there's no draw in this game, the payouts for winning hands are more generous. Pairs of nines or better pay 2x, two pair pays 3x, and three of a kind pays 5x and so on, all the way up to a 6,000-coin pay for a royal flush.
5. Chase the Royal
If you like chasing the big payouts offered by royal flushes, this game is for you. Get a starting hand with a pair of jacks, queens or kings and you can choose to dump all your cards and start over with three cards to a royal flush. The game then draws the two additional cards, offering double payouts on straights and on flushes.
4. Good Times Pay Video Poker
Played as a variation of any other video poker game, Good Times Pay adds a random multiplier to every hand in the game. The price you pay for this multiplier is twice the standard bet (10 coins vs. 5 coins). However, if you make a winning hand, it can be worth up to 7x the standard payout.
Half of the time, the hand will be worth 1x, which means that in a standard Jacks or Better game, you'll need to hit at least two pair to break even. One in three hands is worth 2x, which reverts payouts to standard for the number of coins you play to be eligible for the multiplier bonus. However, one-in-six hands will be worth at least 3x and up to 7x the standard payout, giving the player a big advantage over the house in those hands. Hit a full house at 7x and you'll get a whopping 315 coins.
3. Dream Card
After being dealt the first four cards in this video poker variation, sometimes the game offers the player a chance to receive a "Dream Card" in the fifth spot. This card is one that will help the player achieve the best hand possible. For instance, a player dealt two aces in the first two cards will receive a third ace when the dream card is activated. A four-card flush turns into a flush, or three of a kind becomes four of a kind -- all before the draw!
The Dream Card comes at a price; the bet required to activate the feature is twice that of a standard video poker game. But the game also pays slightly better than the same version of video poker generally pays.
2. Multi Strike Poker
This video poker variation gives the player the chance to climb a ladder of four hands with increasing payout multipliers. The first hand is worth 1x, the second is 2x, the third is 4x and the fourth is 8x. In order to climb to the next hand, the player must either make a winning hand or get a free pass with a "Free Ride" card." The game requires a much bigger initial bet -- at least in terms of credits. It's 20 credits to play a single hand if you want the best payouts, so a quarter machine costs a whopping $5 per hand, compared to just $1.25 a hand in standard Jacks or Better. But you also have the chance to hit a big combination of hands to cash in big. Just hitting a pair of jacks or better on all four hands pays out a tidy 75 credits -- not too shabby for a minimum payout on all four hands. If you're lucky enough to hit a big hand on one of the upper tiers, you'll really cash in.
1. Deuces Wild
Another classic video poker game, Deuces Wild gives the player the opportunity to utilize any deuce as a wild card, thereby giving the player many more chances to win, especially when a deuce is dealt before the draw.
Payouts for Deuces Wild are quite a bit lower, as it's easier to make a good hand. And a player doesn't get paid until he makes at least three of a kind. However, a full-pay game (one that offers 5x pays on four of a kinds and 9x pays on straight flushes) gives players one of the few opportunities to play a game where you can have an edge on the house. Optimal play will return 100.76% of a player's bets on full-pay machines, but beware: strategy in Deuces Wild is quite a bit more complex than that of Jacks or Better. And it's pretty hard to find a full-pay machine.
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.