Three Card Poker 101

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Could you please explain the new game I just saw called Three Card Poker? Is there any strategy to playing the game that will increase my odds of winning? How does it compare to Let It Ride? Gary G.

I noted this past weekend, Gary, players (I was one of them) lining up two-deep trying to take their best shot against the MotorCity Casino in Detroit on this newly introduced table game. Compared to Let It Ride, Three Card Poker is a better play, as the house edge is between 2.0 and 3.4%, depending on your wager and play decisions as you’ll see below.

The structure of the game is surprisingly simple. You wager that your three-card poker hand, as dealt with no draw, will beat the dealer’s three-card poker hand. Or, instead of going head-to-head against the dealer, you can bet that your three-card hand will have at least a pair or higher. This wager is called Pair Plus, automatically winning if your three-card hand contains a pair or better, or losing if it doesn’t have a matched pair.

To begin the game, you decide whether you want to wager against the dealer’s hand or to bet that your hand will be at least a pair or higher; you can also make both wagers. If you want to challenge the dealer’s hand, you lay your wager on the betting spot called Ante. If you want to wager that your three-card hand will be at least a pair or higher, your money goes onto the circle called Pair Plus.

Using a single deck, the dealer will deal each player and herself three cards. You then determine whether you want to stay in action or fold. If you want to continue, you must make another wager, equal in value to your initial wager, placing it on the betting spot named Play. If you do not want to continue, you place your cards face down toward the dealer to indicate that you are folding; with this decision, you automatically lose your Ante bet.

After all the players in the game have chosen to stay or fold, the dealer checks her three cards to see whether they contain a queen or higher. If the hand has at least a queen, the hand “qualifies” and the dealer will compete against the players remaining in the game. If a player’s hand has a higher poker hand than the dealer’s, the player wins both his Ante and Play wagers at even money (bet $10, win $10). If the dealer’s hand is higher, the player loses both the Ante and Play wagers. If the dealer’s hand does not qualify by having at least a queen, the dealer automatically pays each remaining player even money on the Ante wager and pushes the Play bet.

Players who make an Ante wager are also eligible for a bonus payout whether or not the dealer’s hand qualifies, and regardless of whether the player’s hand beats the dealer’s hand. Here, a straight flush pays 5 to 1, three-of-a-kind, 4 to 1, and a straight, even money. With the alternative wager, pair plus, the higher the poker hand, the more lucrative the payoff. With a straight flush, you receive 40 to 1, three-of-a-kind gets you 30 to 1, a straight hands out 6 to 1, a flush 4 to 1, and everybody’s friend, the lowly pair, 1 to 1.

The only playing decision involved in Three Card Poker is whether to make the Play wager or fold. One easy strategy is to just shadow the dealer. If your hand contains a queen or higher, play it; if not, fold. Another approach, suggested by Stanley Ko in his pamphlet Mastering the Game of Three Card Poker, is to make the Play wager only if your hand consists of a Queen-6-4, or better. Even I, Gary, can memorize his optimal playing strategy, which will drop the house edge down to 2%.

Gambling thought of the week: Gambling is a principle inherent in human nature. -Edmund Burke, in a speech before the House Of Commons (1780)

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