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# Three Card Poker

27 October 2009

Three Card Poker has one of the easiest strategies among table games. In the Pair Plus portion of the game, where you're betting that your three-card hand includes a pair or better, there is no strategy at all. Just wait to see what the cards bring.

The strategy comes in the ante-bet portion, where your hand has to beat the dealer. There, the best play is to make the bet equal to your ante whenever your hand is queen-6-4 or better, and fold with less. Folding forfeits your ante, but at least you're not risking the additional bet with a weak hand.

I explained that to a seminar group, and that led to the following exchange with a gentleman who was unclear on just what "queen-6-4 or better" meant. While all this may seem pretty basic to those who have played poker in its many forms, I get similar questions every time I talk or write about Three Card Poker.

"What if I have something like queen-4-4?"

That's better than queen-6-4 because you have a pair of fours. In poker games other than lowball, pairs are better than an unpaired high card, so you'd bet that hand.

"Any pair? So I'd bet even with a pair of twos?"

Any pair, yes.

"What about queen-jack-2? That's one card higher and one card lower than the 6 and 4."

Poker hands with no pairs or better are judged first by their highest card, and next by their second highest card. Your second highest card, a jack, is higher than the 6 in queen-6-4. That makes queen-jack-2 a higher-ranking hand, so you make the bet.

"One more. Queen-6-5."

Starting with queen-6, the hand is judged by the third highest card. The 5 is higher than a 4, so queen-6-5 is a hand to bet.

Hands that you do not bet are queen-6-3, queen-6-2, any hands with no pairs or better in which the highest two cards are queen-5, queen-4 or queen-3, and any hands with no pairs or better in which the highest card is a jack or lower.

"Can you explain the 'or better' part there? What would be better than a pair in a hand that starts queen-5?"

If would be better than a pair if all cards are the same suit. Queen-5-2 of hearts, for example, would be a flush, so you'd bet. You also bet straights, so something like 9-8-7 is a hand to bet.

"And if I do this, it'll make me a winner?"

I didn't say that. Like all casino games, Three Card Poker was designed to give a mathematical edge to the house. It's a fairly low one in the ante-bet portion at 3.4% of the ante or 2% of total action when both your ante and bet are taken into account.

But the only players I've ever heard of getting an edge on the house were in Las Vegas a few years ago, at a table where a dealer was exposing the bottom card of his three-card stack. Knowing one of the dealer's cards changes both odds and strategy — you're not going to bet queen-6-4 if you know the dealer has a king or ace.

But that's a rare situation. Mostly, Three Card Poker is a game that gives us a pretty good shot to win, with the understanding that losing sessions will come more often than winners.

** ** * ** **

The no-strategy portion of Three Card Poker, Pair Plus, is a case of let the buyer beware. In its original version, it's one of the better bets among table games, with a house edge of 2.3%. Payoffs are 40-1 on straight flushes, 30-1 on three of a kind, 6-1 on straights, 4-1 on flushes and even money on pairs.

That pay table is become increasingly rare. Nowadays, the version I see most often drops the payback on straights to 5-1, and increases the house edge to 5.6%.

There are other pay tables with other house edges, all higher than the original. You can find several pay tables at Michael Shackleford's wizardofodds.com, a great resource for gambling odds.

While there is no playing strategy for Pair Plus, there is a not-playing strategy. My recommendation: If you see reductions from that original 40-30-6-4-1 pay table, don't play.

** ** * ** **

One question that always comes up when I mention Three Card Poker pay tables is, "Why do straights pay more than flushes? Don't flushes outrank straights?"

In five-card poker games, flushes do outrank straights. But with three-card hands, straights are less common than flushes, so straights are the higher-ranking hands. The 22,100 possible three-card hands include 48 straight flushes, 52 three of a kinds, 720 straights, 1,096 flushes, 3,744 pairs and 16,440 no-pair hands.

Since the odds are higher against your being dealt a straight than a flush, straights are the higher-paying hands.

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Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

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John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.