One of the most fundamental video poker variations was adopted from slot machines—the progressive jackpot. In the beginning, all video poker machines had a fixed jackpot for a royal flush—4000 coins (or $1,000 on a 25 cent machine). This is still in common usage although as you’ve seen in our discussion of video poker variations there are a growing number of exceptions to this long-standing rule. For the most part, however, the 4000 coins for a royal flush without deuces is standard on video poker machines.

A progressive jackpot is simply a jackpot that is not fixed but rather increases as people play a specific machine or more often a group of machines (referred to as a ‘bank’ of machines). The more money that players wager, the higher the jackpot goes until someone hits it. At that point, the process starts over—the progressive jackpot usually begins right around the same level as a jackpot on a non-progressive machine and goes from there. The starting amount of a progressive jackpot is called the ‘reset‘.

With the exception of how the jackpot is paid, there’s no difference between progressive and non-progressive video poker machines. They look the same, though progressive machines will often have a big tote board on each machine or bank of machines with the current jackpot figure. Gameplay is identical, payout odds are identical, so on and so forth. Typically, a progressive machine will have a slightly less advantageous paytable to a similar non-progressive machine (but not always). For example, a progressive Jacks or Better (JoB) machine might have an 8/5 paytable while a nearby non-progressive JoB might offer a 9/6 pay table.

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Some of the sharper readers might have already figured out something about progressive jackpots—at some point, the jackpot can get high enough to make a machine ‘positive EV’ (positive expected value). Once a machine enters into positive EV territory (often referred to as ‘going positive’ by video poker hardcores) it becomes one of the best theoretical wagering values in the casino.

So when does a machine ‘go positive’? It depends on the specifics of the pay table but on an 8/5 Jacks or Better machine you’ve reached 100% EV when the jackpot hits $2166.50. On a 9/6 JoB progressive it’s $1220.00. You can do the math yourself if you’re ambitious but there’s plenty of resources online that have already done it for you.

One thing that is important to remember—just because a machine has gone ‘positive’ from the jackpot reaching a specific level DOES NOT MEAN THAT A ROYAL FLUSH IS MORE LIKELY! This is a very common misunderstanding of a crucial concept. I’ve heard misinformed players go so far as suggest that once a jackpot hits a certain level the machine ‘tries‘ to give out a royal flush as quickly as possible. This is not the case. The machine doesn’t have to be ‘programmed’ a certain way because the math does the work. A JoB machine will deal a royal flush approximately once every 40,000 hands. This is true regardless of denomination, pay table or jackpot format.

That being said, some video poker experts advocate making minor adjustments in strategy once a progressive machine is in ‘positive’ territory. For example let’s say you’ve been dealt the following hand: Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Clubs, Queen of Diamonds, King of Diamonds, King of Clubs. In most cases, the correct play is to hold the two Jacks and two Kings—you’ve got two pair and can draw to a full house. With a positive EV royal flush jackpot, however, many experts would suggest holding the Jack, Queen and King of Diamonds. Keep in mind that even among experts there isn’t a ‘consensus’ strategy in this situation. Some professional video poker players even use different strategies for different EV levels, each more aggressively chasing the royal flush.

So which is better? Progressives or non-progressives?

There’s not a clear answer—much depends on your personal preference and playing style. Progressive jackpot machines require more work if you’re going to play them profitably. You’ll have to scout around to monitor jackpot levels—this requires time and effort plus you’ll have to have access to a number of ‘outs‘. That’s the primary reason that most serious video poker players live in Las Vegas—the sheer number of machines available. Once you find the right game with the right jackpot you have to be ready to play. This might be more effort than a recreational player wants to deal with.

Another issue with progressives versus non-progressives is the strategy. As noted above, there’s a good argument for using a more aggressive strategy in a positive EV situation but you need to understand what constitutes a proper strategy and situation. There’s a fine line between adjusting a strategy and playing without a strategy. If you’re unsure about what to do in changing situations you’re better off sticking with non-progressive video poker.