Are Jackpots in Poker Cash Games Worth Chasing?
At a Maryland casino poker room, I was busily typing notes into my phone. In the background, two players announced "all in," pulling my attention back to the table at which I was sitting.
The board read and both players tabled flushes. A hot wave of red flashed across my face as I realized I had folded on the flop when it had become clear my bottom pair was no good. Not only did the large pot go to another player, I also missed out on a $1,000 high hand jackpot.
Many players have a story like this. If only... I would have...
Jackpots are exciting, providing big payoffs for high hands, bad beats or royal flushes. They draw players into poker rooms and keep them seated longer. The room buzzes when a jackpot is paid, and players agonize over near misses.
But are jackpots worth chasing? Should you adjust your play to try to win a jackpot?
The "House" Point of View
Jackpots are funded through a dollar or two taken out of each pot and kept separate from the rake. The rake belongs to the house. Jackpot money belongs to the players and strict accounting for these funds is required of public casinos.
When you win a jackpot, the house neither wins nor loses — they merely handle the money. So in one sense the house doesn't really care about paying out the winners.
Yet looking at it another way, the house actually cares very much. With fixed jackpots (for example, $1,000 for the highest hand in the room every hour), the house wants lots of winners. More winners creates more buzz and more word-of-mouth advertising that helps attract new players.
Other jackpots are progressive, growing every day there is no winner. Like the multi-state Powerball lottery, the buzz comes when the jackpot gets bloated and "hey, somebody's got to win that thing!" The house wants progressive jackpots to grow as large as possible, with palpable anticipation as more players enter the room.
Most of all, the house cares deeply about players chasing jackpots. As soon as you enter a pot solely because of the allure of a jackpot, the house wins. More players means more chips in the pot which means a higher likelihood of maximum rake.
Adjusting Preflop Ranges
Before considering any adjustments, take a moment or two to consider why you play poker. Here in the strategy section of PokerNews, we mostly tend to assume every poker player always strives to make the most money possible. While that's laudable, many poker players are at the table for other reasons.
For those who play poker primarily because they like to gamble, enjoy the social experience, have time to kill, or some other reason that makes losing over the long run acceptable, it's perfectly fine to loosen up preflop ranges to improve the chances of winning a jackpot. Possible jackpot hands include all pocket pairs and all suited cards with no more than three gaps. Feel free to limp or call modest raises with these hands from any position. (While you're at it, don't forget to buy some Powerball tickets, too!)
But if you play poker to make money, tune out the jackpots and don't adjust your ranges at all. A starting hand that isn't worth playing still isn't worth playing when there are jackpots to be won! You simply won't win a jackpot often enough to recoup the value leaked by unnecessarily putting yourself in difficult, unprofitable situations.
Perhaps the most important preflop consideration is whether other players are chasing jackpots. If so, you may need to put some additional hands in their ranges.
Make sure you know the qualifying rules, which tend to vary from one poker room to another. Sometimes the flop will give you a draw to a jackpot qualifying hand, or even better will get you there right away. Even if you made no preflop adjustments, you'll want to be prepared.
Here are a few examples of possible postflop adjustments to make:
High Hand with vulnerable kicker — You have in the big blind and no one raised. The flop is , giving you quads. The display monitor shows the current high hand is quad 9's and there are five minutes remaining until a $500 high hand jackpot is paid. If the rules require you to use both hole cards, but do not require you to have a pocket pair for your quads to count as a high hand, you should go all in right away. Your kicker is vulnerable and won't play if a jack, king or ace comes on the turn or river.
Flopped set of aces — You have and get an ace-high flop. Is the current high hand already quads or better? If not, aces full will often hold up for a high hand jackpot. On most boards, you should play passively to make sure you see the turn and river cards. With a wet board and multiple opponents, however, a continuation bet should get called by at least one opponent.
A bad beat jackpot could occur if the final ace appears and you either lose to a straight flush or beat a lower four-of-a-kind. As rare as this is, you probably don't need to adjust your play. The player who flops a lower set or a straight flush draw isn't going anywhere.
Other flopped sets — When you flop a set lower than aces, your only chance to win a high hand jackpot likely requires making quads. You have one out. You will improve to quads approximately 4% of the time, so you can add 4% of the jackpot amount to the EV of playing passively. Let the texture of the flop be your guide. With wet boards, don't let the jackpot lure you into a passive approach where the potential value to be gained by betting is far greater.
Straight flush draws — Look at the texture carefully to see if two straight flushes are possible. If you have 8-7-suited and the flop includes the J-T, J-9, T-9, 6-5, 6-4 or 5-4 of your suit, filling a straight flush could win a high hand jackpot, and there's also a chance of another player making a straight flush to trigger a bad beat jackpot. With such long odds, note that playing more passively than you otherwise would is going to be a negative EV approach. And try not to lose all your chips if you make a regular flush and run into a higher flush or full house!
Royal Flush draws — Royal Flushes are rare and special. I've been fortunate to make four of them in live Texas hold'em play, though I know many players who are still waiting on their first Royal. No one will ever blame you for chasing a Royal Flush, and you'll enjoy telling the story of your first Royal Flush for years to come.
While jackpots are exciting, chasing them leads to weaker preflop ranges and passive postflop play. You usually miss and the chase is costly.
When the flop brings jackpots into play, be sure you know the qualifying rules and adjustments to make to maximize these opportunities while minimizing the EV leakage along the way.
David Bass mostly plays in live no-limit hold'em cash games and has been writing about poker since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @KKingDavidPoker or enjoy his blog, They Always Have It.
The photo above comes from a crazy $1/$2 cash game hand played at the Casino Del Sol in Tuscon, Arizona, which you can read about here: "Bad Beat on the Bad Beat Jackpot: Straight Flush over Quads over Quads."