How to Play Three Card Poker

Since its invention in 1995 by poker player Derrick Webb, Three Card Poker has zoomed in popularity in casinos around the world. According to Roger Snow, Director of Game Development for Shuffle Master Inc., “Three Card Poker is the number-one specialty game with 1,500 tables in casinos around the world.” The reason for its popularity, according to Snow, is because, “it’s easy to get a hand that has a relatively high payoff so you don’t have to hit a super jackpot to walk away a winner.” In addition, Shuffle Master Inc. has launched a National Three Card Poker Championship Tournament with a million-dollar prize.


Three Card Poker does not contain any complex rules or strategies, which makes it an easy game for players to learn and play (which is another reason for the game’s popularity). A standard 52-card deck is used, and the game is played on a blackjack-size table with up to seven players. There are three betting spots on the layout in front of each player. Closest to the player is a betting spot labeled PLAY, above it is a spot labeled ANTE, followed by PAIR PLUS.


Three Card Poker is actually two games in one. You can either bet that your three card poker hand will beat the dealer’s three card hand (Ante & Play Bets), or you can bet that your hand will be at least a pair (Pair Plus Bet). These two betting propositions are independent of each other. (Note: the regulations in Atlantic City allow casinos the option to require a player who wagers on Pair Plus, to also wager on the Ante.)


Some hands that occur in five-card poker games do not occur in Three Card Poker (such as four-of-a-kind, full house, and two pair). Also, the hand rankings of three-of-a-kinds, straights, and flushes are reversed, because three-of-a-kind occurs less often in three-card hands and therefore is ranked higher than a straight (likewise a straight occurs less often and is ranked higher than a flush).


Table 1

Three Card Poker Hand Rankings (highest to lowest)


Straight Flush – Three cards of the same suit in consecutive ranking with ace, king, queen the highest straight flush, and three, two, ace the lowest-ranking straight flush.

Three-of-a-Kind – Three cards of the same rank regardless of suit with three aces the highest and three twos the lowest ranking three-of-a-kind.

Straight – Three cards of consecutive rank regardless of suit with ace, king, queen the highest and three, two, ace the lowest-ranking straight.

Flush – Three cards of the same suit regardless of rank.

Pair – Two cards of the same rank regardless of suit with two aces the highest and two twos the lowest ranking pair.

High Card – The high card of one hand is compared to the high card of the dealer’s hand with the highest-ranking card winning. If the high cards are the same rank, the second- high cards in each hand are compared, and if they are the same rank then the third-highest ranking cards are compared.

Play begins with each player wagering on Ante, or Pair Plus, or both (the amount you wager on both spots doesn’t have to be the same). The dealer will then deal three cards face down to each player and herself. Each player looks at his cards and determines based on the strength of the hand whether he wants to fold or continue to play.


If you want to fold, place your cards face down on the layout toward the dealer. The dealer will remove your cards and you lose your Ante bet.


If you decide that you want to play, you must make another wager in the Play betting spot equal to the amount you bet in the Ante.


The dealer then faces her cards and checks if her hand qualifies by containing at least a queen high or better (includes pairs, flushes, and higher hands). If her hand does not qualify, she will pay you even money on your Ante, and your Play bet is a push (meaning the dealer returns your original Play bet to you with no payoff).


If instead the dealer hand qualifies, she will face each player’s hand that is still in the game (i.e., those players who made the Play bet) and compare the rank of each hand to her hand. If your hand has a higher poker rank than the dealer’s hand, you win your Ante and Play wagers at even money (if you bet $5, you will win $5). If instead the dealer’s hand outranks the player’s hand, you lose the Ante and Play bets.


Players who make an Ante wager are also eligible for a bonus payout that will be paid regardless of whether the dealer qualifies or whether your hand beats the dealer’s hand. The latter point is not trivial. Many players are turned off to Caribbean Stud Poker because if the dealer doesn’t qualify they get nothing for having a premium hand. This is not the case with Three Card Poker. If you have a straight, three-of-a-kind, or straight flush you will automatically be paid a bonus. Payoffs for the Ante Bonus can vary from one casino to another but the four most prevalent pay tables and their corresponding house edges per hand are listed below (note that Pay Table A is the most player friendly).


Ante/ Bonus Pay Tables


Hand

Pay Table A

Pay Table B

Pay Table C

Pay Table D

Straight Flush

5

4

3

5

Three-of-a-Kind

4

3

2

3

Straight

1

1

1

1

House Edge

3.37%

3.83%

4.28%

3.61%

The best playing strategy for the Ante is simple and easy to remember: make the Play wager only when holding a Q-6-4 or higher rank hand, otherwise fold. This strategy results in the house edges listed above.


I have seen players make the Play wager with less than a Q-6-4 in the hopes that the dealer will not qualify and they win even money on the Ante. This is a poor strategy that will cost you dearly, so don’t even think of using it.


To summarize, the variables that result in a payout for your Ante wager are:

  1. Whether you fold your hand

  2. Whether the dealer hand qualifies

  3. Whether your hand is higher in rank than the dealer’s hand, and

  4. Whether your hand contains a straight or better (Ante Bonus payout)

If you don’t want to compete against the dealer’s hand, your other betting option is to wager on the Pair Plus. When you bet on the Pair Plus you are merely betting on the value of your hand and hope that you are dealt at least a pair or better (there is no strategy for Pair Plus). If you get lucky and get a pair or better, you will win an amount based on the Pay Table for the Pair Plus (see below). If your three-card hand is less than a pair, you lose your Pair Plus wager. Also, if you wager on Pair Plus and the Ante, and you decide to fold your hand, you lose your Pair Plus wager as well as your Ante wager.


According to Snow, the casinos can pick any one of ten different Pair Plus Pay Tables, with the most common ones summarized below. Pay Table A is the most player friendly but D is quite common in Las Vegas. I usually check the payoff for the flush – if it’s 3-1, I pass on making the Pair Plus wager.


Pair Plus Pay Tables


Hand

Pay Table A

Pay Table B

Pay Table C

Pay Table D

Straight Flush

40

40

40

40

Three-of-a-Kind

30

25

30

30

Straight

6

6

5

6

Flush

4

4

4

3

Pair

1

1

1

1

House Edge

2.31%

3.50%

5.60%

7.30%



If you want to practice playing Three Card Poker for free at home, go to www.wizardofodds.com and click on the Free Play Games (then Three Card Poker), or to www.bodog.com and click on Casino then Tri-Card Poker then Practice. By practicing at home, you’ll get a feel for how the game plays before you risk any of your money in a casino. If you want to learn more about Three Card Poker, read Stanley Ko’s book, Mastering the Game of Three Card Poker.



The Math of Three Card Poker.

  1. Your Pair Plus bet will win about a quarter of the time, or once every four hands.

  2. About 9 out of every 20 hands will win an Ante Bonus.

  3. The dealer will qualify about 7 out of 10 times.

  4. You will fold about a third of the time and win slightly less than half of the hands in “competition.”

  5. A three-card straight flush will occur once in every 460 hands.

  6. You stand to lose about 8.6% of your original Ante wager but win back 5.3% on the Ante bonus.

  7. Your average bet for the Ante/Play will be 1.674 betting units.

  8. Sometimes the house edge on the Ante/Play is quoted as 2.01%. This is based on the total amount wagered on the Ante and Play and is equivalent to the 3.37% house edge per hand quoted in this article.


History of Three Card Poker

Derek Web, owner of Prime Table games, and a successful poker player based in Great Britain invented the game in 1994. Derek worked with the British Casino Association to invent a new poker game for the British casinos. His basis for the new poker game was “Brag,” which is still popular in Britain. In early 1999, Web sold the marketing rights for Three Card Poker to Shuffle Master Inc.