Game play begins by placing a bet of one or more credits, by inserting money (or in newer machines, a barcoded paper ticket with credit) into the machine, and then pressing a "Deal" button to draw cards. The player is then given an opportunity to keep or discard one or more of the cards in exchange for a new card drawn from the same virtual deck. After the draw, the machine evaluates the hand and offers a payout if the hand matches one of the winning hands in the posted pay schedule.
On a typical video poker machine, payouts start with a minimum hand of a pair of jacks. Pay tables allocate the payout for hands based partially upon how rare they are, and also based upon the total theoretical return the game operator chooses to offer.
Some machines offer progressive jackpots for the royal flush, (and sometimes for other rare hands as well), thereby spurring players to both play more coins and to play more frequently.
Newer video poker machines may employ variants of the basic five-card draw. Typical variations include Deuces Wild, where a two serves as a wild card and a jackpot is paid for four deuces or a natural royal; pay schedule modification, where four aces with a five or smaller kicker pays an enhanced amount (these games usually have some adjective in the title such as "bonus", "double", or "triple"); and multi-play poker, where the player starts with a base hand of five cards, and each additional played hand draws from a different set of cards with the base hand removed. (Multi-play games are offered in "Triple Play", "Five Play", "Ten Play", "Fifty Play" and even "One Hundred Play" versions.)
"Jacks or Better" is the most common variation of video poker available. Payoffs begin at a pair of jacks or better. Full pay Jacks or Better is also known as 9/6 Jacks or Better; the 9 refers to the payoff for a full house and the 6 refers to the payoff for a flush. Full pay Jacks or Better has a theoretical return of 99.54% when played with perfect strategy.
"Deuces Wild" is a variation of video poker in which all twos are wild. (Wild cards substitute for any other card in the deck in order to make a better poker hand). In Deuces Wild, the payout for a four of a kind makes up approximately ? of the payback percentage of the game, and a four of a kind occurs on average approximately every fifteen hands. Deuces Wild can be found with pay schedules that offer a theoretical return as high as 100.762%, when played with perfect strategy.
"Bonus Poker" is a video poker game based on Jacks or Better, but Bonus Poker offers a higher payout percentage for four of a kind. The player is dealt five cards and can then choose which cards to keep or discard. New cards are dealt accordingly. The final hand must consist of a pair of Jacks or higher in order to win.
Many casinos offer free memberships in "player's clubs" or "slot clubs", which return a small percentage of the amount of money that is bet in the form of "comps" (complimentary food, drinks, hotel rooms, or merchandise), or sometimes as cash back (sometimes with a restriction that the cash be redeemed at a later date). These clubs require that players use a card that is inserted into the video poker machine to allow the casino to track the player's "action" (how much the player bets and for how long), which is often used to establish a level of play that may make a player eligible for additional comps.
Comps or cash back from these clubs can make a significant difference in the theoretical return when playing video poker over a long period of time. In some cases, usage of a club card can even add enough value to the pay schedule of a video poker game with a negative theoretical return to make that same game have a positive theoretical return.