The first rule any casino player should follow is “Never overbet your bankroll.”

If short-bankrolled players need to bet less than maximum coins and get less than optimal paybacks on video poker and some slot games, then that’s the way it has to be. No one should money needed for food, rent or other necessities of life.

But sometimes betting a little bit less is penny wise and pound foolish, costing you more money than it saves.

That’s the case in standard video poker games, where one thing you should NEVER do is bet four coins per hand. 

Understand this: A four-coin bet gives the house its maximum profit, while betting the maximum fifth coin takes a little back for players.

Standard video poker games give players the highest payback percentages on maximum-coin bets. On most single-hand machines, that’s a five-coin bet.

The reason is the big jump in royal flush paybacks when you bet the max. If you bet less than maximum, royals on most games return 250 coins per five coins wagered. So you get 250 coins if you bet one, 500 for two, 750 for three and 1,000 for four.

But if you draw a royal flush with a five-coin bet, your payoff is 4,000 coins. That brings the payback on a royal to 800 per coin wagered. 

You can also look at it as a 3,000 coin payoff for wagering the fifth coin, with 250-coin pays for each of the first four coins wagered.

With that knowledge, you can break down the payback percentage on a per-coin wagered basis.

Let’s use 9-6 Jacks or Better as an example. With expert play, it returns 99.5 percent to players. Royal flushes occur an average of about once per 40,391 hands.

We can break that down, assuming the same expert strategy you’d use for a five-coin bet. Serious short-coin players can do a little better with an adapted strategy that is less aggressive about chasing royals. We’ll come back to that after walking through the basics.

If you bet five coins per hand for 40,391 hands, you risk 201,955 coins. At 99.5 percent payback, your return is 200,945.225 coins – these are average returns, so we will have to deal with fractional returns.

The average loss per five coins wagered is the risk minus the payback, and that comes to 1,009.775 coins.

Of that, return, 4,000 coins comes from the royal flush. That leaves 196,945.225 coins coming from other winners, with 1-for-1 pays on pairs of Jacks or better at the bottom of the pay table and increasing to 250-for-1 for straight flushes, the next step below royals.

We can put all that on a per coin basis. By dividing 196,845.225 by five, we see that the payoff from non-royal hands is 39,369.045 coins.

If you wager only one coin, you risk 40,391 coins and get back 39,369.045 coins on lesser hands plus 250 coins on the royal flush. That’s a total return of 39,619.045 coins.

Divide 39,619.045 by 40,391, then multiply by 100 and convert to percent, and your average payback percentage with a one-coin bet is 98.1 percent.

With two-, three- and four-coin wagers, the payoffs are proportionate. You add payback  39,619.045 coins, including 250 for a royal, for each coin wagered for those 40,391 hands. 

So the payback percentage is 98.1 percent, regardless of whether you bet one, two, three or four coins. By not betting the five-coin max, you’ve taken 1.4 percent off your average payback with expert play.

It’s not until you bet the fifth coin and get an additional 3,000 coins for the royal beyond the 1,000 for a four-coin bet that you really get the best the game has to offer.

On that fifth coin, you get the same 39,369.045-coin return from non-royals as you get for each other coin wagered. But instead of adding 250 for the royal, you add 3,000. 

That brings your total return on the fifth coin to 42,469.045. The payback percentage? Try 104.9 percent.

You read that right. The fifth coin is profitable for players.

If you could bet only the fifth coin with the applicable pay table, the game would be a moneymaker for players, a loser for the casinos, and would  disappear from casinos floors.

Of course, that’s not the way it works. You have to bet the first four coins, which are profitable for the house, before you get that fifth-coin bargain.

For short-bankrolled players who can’t afford maximum bets, the average loss per coin wagered becomes important.

As we’ve seen, with one coin wagered in our 40,391-hand sample, the average return is 39,619.045 coins. Subtract the return from the wagers, and the average loss for the set is 771.955 coins.

With a two-coin wager, the average loss doubles to 1,543.910 coins, then increases to 2,315.865 coins with three coins wagered and 3,087.820 for a four-coin bet.

But on the fifth coin, the added wager is another 40,391 coins, and the return is 42,469.045 coins. That’s a player PROFIT of  2,078.045 coins. That brings the total loss down to the 1,009.775 coins mentioned above.

If you bet one coin, your average loss is lower than if you bet the maximum five. For short-bankrolled players who can’t afford to bet the max, one-coin bets are the best deal they can get.

But with two, three and four-coin wagers, the average loss is higher than if you bet the max.

That’s particularly egregious with the four-coin bet, where your average loss per 40,391 hands is more than 2,000 coins higher than it would be if you bet the extra coin.

If, on a 25-cent video poker game, your budget can’t handle the difference between a $1 four-coin bet and a $1.25 max bet, you should either drop to single-coin wagers or choose a less expensive game. Betting four coins just maximizes what the casino can win from you.

As mentioned earlier, you can do a little better on short-coin play with specialized strategies. But even optimal strategy for short-coin play takes the payback on 9-6 Jacks or Better only to 98.4 percent.

The same goes for all other common video poker games. The 99-percent return on 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker breaks down to 97.8 percent while betting fewer than five coins and using an adapted strategy, and 103.8 percent on the fifth coin. On 8-5 Bonus Poker, the 99.2 percent overall breaks to 97.9 percent with short-coin play, then 104.2 on the fifth coin.

On nearly all games, even at reduced pay tables, the maximum profit for the house comes with a four-coin bet. Then the fifth coin pays more than 100 percent and your average result improves.

It’s worth stretching the budget to a fifth coin if you can afford it. If you can’t, then drop to one coin or change to a lower coin denomination. But NEVER make a four-coin bet. That gives the house all the best of it.