by John Grochowski
Three Card Poker has become the most successful of recently developed table games – those that have risen since the expansion of legal gambling outside Nevada and New Jersey that began in the late 1980s.
It’s a casino standard offered in nearly every American casino that has table games. It checks all the boxes that operators want when evaluating a new game: Three Card Poker is easy to play; has a clean layout that’s easy for players to understand; it’s easy to deal; and it has house edges high enough to be profitable for the house but low enough to keep players coming back.
There are two standard parts to the game: ante-play and Pair Plus. Ante-play, in which your hand must beat the dealer, has a 2.01 percent house edge based on total action. That’s on the low side, not as good as player or banker bets in baccarat, the best bets in craps, or blackjack for skilled players, but better than roulette, tie bets in baccarat, many craps bets, and blackjack for those who haven’t learned basic strategy.
Pair Plus, which pays on any pair or better, has a higher house edge. The most common version checks in at 7.28 percent. Its attraction is in the chance at a large one-hand payoff, with 40-1 on a three-card straight flush usually topping the pay table.
Three Card Poker is not difficult. Just about anyone could learn the game within a few hands.
Three Card Poker Basics
Three Card Poker is played at a blackjack-sized, seven player table. Each player position is marked with three betting spots, usually arranged in a column. Closest to the dealer is a spot for the Pair Plus bet. Behind that is a spot for your ante in the ante-play portion. Closest to the player is a spot marked “Play,” for those who want to continue in the ante-play portion after they’ve seen their cards.
The ranking of hands is slightly different than in five-card games. In Three Card Poker, flushes occur more often than straights, so straights outrank flushes – the opposite of their rank in five-card hands.
A single deck of cards is used, freshly shuffled for each hand. Most Three Card Poker tables use automatic shufflers, but games can be dealt by hand.
At most casinos, you don’t have to play both ante-play and Pair Plus. You can choose either or both. But to start a hand, players place chips in their Pair Plus and/or ante box.
Next, each player and the dealer get three cards face down. Players may look at their cards. Any ante-play players who like their cards then may make a play bet equal to their ante. Those who do not want to make the play bet must fold and lose their antes.
Pair Plus winners are paid according to a pay table. Ante-play winners are paid even-money if they beat the dealer, and collect an ante bonus on straights or better.
Let’s look at bets and payoffs in more detail, along with an explanation of ante-play strategy.
Pair Plus Bet
You don’t have to beat the dealer to win at Pair Plus. You just need your hand to include a pair or better.
Before getting into payoffs and the house edge, let’s look at the frequency of hands.
There are 22,100 possible three-card combinations in which card order doesn’t matter. Of those, 48 are straight flushes, with 52 three of a kinds, 720 straights, 1.094 flushes, 3,744 pairs and 16,440 non-winners.
That gives you a 1 in 460 chance at a straight flush, frequent enough that anyone who plays often will occasionally get the top-paying hand. Chances are 1 in 425 for three of a kind, 1 in 31 for a straight, 1 in 20 for a flush and 1 in 6 for a pair.
Under the most common pay table, these are the payoffs:
Straight flush, 40-1.
Three of a kind, 30-1
That pay table carries a 7.28 percent house edge.
When Three Card Poker was introduced in the early 1990s by U.K. game developer Derek Webb, flushes paid 4-1. Occasionally online and more rarely in brick-and-mortar casinos, you’ll still see that pay table. It’s a much better deal for players with a 2.14-percent house edge.
Other pay tables sometimes are used. Some add a three-card royal – Ace-King-Queen of the same suit. That usually pays 50-1, though versions with 100-1 paybacks have been spotted.
A game that has the common 40-30-6-3-1 pay table but adds a 50-1 mini-royal at the top has a house edge of 7.10 percent.
Understand that unless you find that rare Pair Plus game that still pays 4-1 on flushes, you get a much better deal on ante-play. Proceed with caution.
As noted earlier, ante-play bettors must start with an ante. After cards are dealt, you may look at them. If you don’t like your chances, you fold and lose your ante. If you want to stay in the game, you must make a “play” bet equal to your ante.
If you win, both your ante and play bets are paid at even money if the dealer’s hand “qualifies”. In order to qualify, the dealer must have a queen high or better. If the dealer’s hand does NOT qualify, the play bet is a push and is returned to the player.
In addition, if you have a straight or better, you win an ante bonus. You don’t have to beat the dealer to win the bonus, which in the most common version pays 5 times your ante for a straight flush, 4 times your ante for three of a kind and even money for your ante on a straight,
To win on the main ante-play bets, your three-card hand must beat the dealer’s. The poker hand ranks listed above decide the hands. Example: If you have a flush but the dealer has a straight, you lose. If you have a pair and the dealer has no pair or better, you win. If you both have pairs, the higher pair wins.
If neither you nor the dealer has a pair or better, the decision starts with comparing high cards. If your highest card is an Ace and the dealer’s highest card is a King, you win regardless of what the other two cards are. Ace-5-2 is a higher-ranking hand than King-Queen-10.
If your highest card ties the dealer, then the first tie-breaker is the second-highest card. For example, if you have King-10 and any lower card, you beat King-9 and any lower card.
If you and the dealer tie on the high and second-high cards, then the tie-breaker is the bottom cards in each hand.
Exact ties push.
Ante-Play Strategy and the House Edge
Three Card Poker strategy couldn’t be easier to master.
Make the “play” bet if your hand is Queen-6-4 or better. Fold lesser hands.
The “better” part includes all pairs, flushes, straights, three of a kinds and straight flushes. If your hand is a winner in Pair Plus, it’s a “play” hand in ante-play.
With no pairs or better, hands are judged from the high card first, Queen-6-4 is a better hand than Jack-10-8.
Given that strategy, the house edge is 3.37 percent of your ante, or 2.01 percent of the total action on ante and play bets.
You’re betting the most money on the hands that give you the best shot to win, and that drives down the house’s overall edge.
With an easy strategy and a reasonable house edge, Three Card Poker has a loyal following. Good luck and have fun.
John Grochowski has been covering casinos and casino games for nearly 40 years. He is the author of six books and his work appears in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world.
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