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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Fun and (Table) Games: Try Three-Card Poker

11 January 2005

Three-card poker appeared in the casinos a while ago, then was withdrawn but since brought back. This, not surprisingly, sparked rumors that the early version gave players an edge over the house. Cynics suspect that the casinos reinstated the game because the loophole was closed. Bettors who believe in secrets the bosses don't want anyone to know insist the defect is still present, but has been offset by a new rule.

There never was and isn't now a flaw of this type. The casino always had an edge. And the new rule is really a ploy to get more money into action.

Casino fledglings might want to try this game anyway. It's fun. It offers a shot at a decent payday. It's easy for anyone knowing standard poker rankings to follow. And it rewards those assiduous enough to learn a simple strategy by reducing house edge and also providing the satisfaction of playing optimally.

Follow the usual procedures to buy-in. Grab a seat. Wait for the dealer to finish a round by paying or taking bets and collecting all cards. Then drop your money on the layout and scoop up the chips the dealer slides toward you. Later, when you quit, wait for a round to end then shove your chips to the dealer and ask for "color." Your low-denomination chips will be converted to fewer highs, for convenience in carrying to the cashier.

Action starts with players betting then each receiving three cards. The dealer also gets three. The game has two distinct bets. In most casinos, players must make both (that's the ploy), although a few joints continue to book either as well as the two.

"Pair Plus" is the simpler of the bets. Place at least the table minimum in the clearly marked spot on the layout. You win 1-to-1 for pairs, 4-to-1 for flushes, 6-to-1 for straights (straights are harder to get than flushes with three cards), 30-to-1 for triplets, and 40-to-1 for straight flushes. Some solid citizens think Pair Plus favors players. Would that it did. It doesn't.

"Ante/Play" is the more interesting bet. Wager at least the table minimum on Ante before the deal. Look at your hand. If it's junk, fold and lose the Ante. Otherwise, make a Play bet, equal to the Ante. Three factors then determine the outcome. 1) Whatever the dealer's hand, you win 1-to-1, 4-to-1, or 5-to-1 on Ante alone for a straight, triplets, or a straight flush, respectively; this is the "Ante Bonus." 2) If the dealer doesn't "qualify" with Queen-high or better, Ante pays even money and Play is a push. 3) If the dealer qualifies, Ante and Play both win 1-to-1 when your hand is better, lose when it's worse, or push when they're equal,

Work out a few situations in advance so you'll be ready for the payouts at the table. For example, say you bet $5 each on Pair Plus and Ante, get triplets, and put $5 on Play. If the dealer doesn't qualify, you win $150 on Pair Plus, $20 on Ante Bonus, and $5 on Ante ?? $175 in all. If the dealer qualifies with less than your triplets, you win $150 on Pair Plus, $20 on Ante Bonus, $5 on Ante and $5 on Play ?? $180 total. If the dealer qualifies and beats your triplets, you win $150 on Pair Plus and $20 on Ante Bonus but lose $5 each on Ante and Play ?? a net of $160.

Some folks bet on Play regardless of their hands, hoping the dealer won't qualify so they'll "steal" the Ante. Others fold with anything under a pair. Between this rock and hard place is an optimum strategy which minimizes house advantage on Ante/Play. It's to bet on Play with Q-6-4 or above and fold below.

One more thing. When players can and want to make just one bet, they usually choose Pair Plus. For four reasons: they can bet less, payoffs for good hands are bgger, strong starts don't get waylaid by lucky dealers, and the house edge on money at risk is lower. On the downside, Pair Plus wins less often than Ante/Play. It's ultimately a matter of personal preference. If you can't avoid agonizing over the decision, go to a movie not a casino. For, as the irascible inkslinger, Sumner A Ingmark, intimated:

The gambling spirit's well prepared,
To tread where weaker souls are scared.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.