Three Card Poker

Three Card Poker (TCP) is one of the newest casino games to have successfully found some traction on the casino floor, and you can now find this game on gaming tables all over the world. Unsurprisingly given its name, TCP is based on regular poker, but the game has been reworked and reimagined to make it suitable for play against the house.

Typical poker games such as Seven Card Stud, Texas Hold’em, and Razz/Lowball, all of these games are played by a group of players who are all competing against one another. These games are still profitable for the casino, of course – in “cash games”, where each hand is an independent game, the house takes a share of the pot at the end of the hand, called the rake. In tournament poker, every player pays a set fee to the house on top of their contribution to the tournament pot.

Adding some excitement back into the game

So, the casinos are making money from every hand, or every player who wants to play. It may sound as if the casinos already have the poker market worked out, and there’s no doubt that poker rooms can be very profitable for land-based casinos.

While other people were busy playing Texas Hold’em on the casino, Derek Webb was deep in thought, working out how to create a poker game that would allow players to compete against the dealer, just as in Blackjack and Baccarat.

Derek had become frustrated with the slow pace of a typical poker game – every time you receive bad cards so choose to fold your hand immediately, you might be waiting several minutes for the remainder of the hand to play out. Derek was sure there had to be a better way.

The History of Three Card Poker: Creating the game

Derek was a veteran of the casino industry. He knew everything there was to know about how casino games worked, and kept a careful eye on the development of other new table games such as Caribbean Stud and Let it Ride.

Derek enjoyed both these games, and yet when he sat down to play them at the casino, he would be lucky to find more than one other player sitting at his table.

Derek had many thoughts and ideas about why these games were struggling – the pace was slow, some of the rules could be difficult to understand, and the house edge was very high compared to established games such as Blackjack and Baccarat.

Webb came up with three core principles that would define the overall feel and direction of his new game:

  1. The game rules had to be easy to understand. Webb felt that observers should be able to follow the game after watching four or five hands, as long as they had SOME previous exposure to any other form of Poker!

 

  1. The paytable had to feature some big wins around the middle of the table, rather than tying up all of the RTP in a single jackpot prize. Jacks or Better is a prime example of this – the house edge may be low, but all of the payout potential is locked away in the Straight Flush and Royal Flush. I’ve only ever hit one royal flush in my life, and I have played a LOT of video poker.

 

  1. It can’t all be about pleasing the players – the game has to offer the casinos something too if they are going to give away valuable floor space to a new, untested game. This doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a massive house edge, either. The faster the action flows, and the more hands can be played per hour, the more money the casino will make.

With these principles in mind, Webb set about creating his table game poker variant. It wasn’t long before he had worked out what he felt was a fun, entertaining game that would please both the players and the casinos, but then he hit on his next problem: His location.

Who would take a chance on this new game?

Derek was based in the UK, where casino games are very tightly regulated, and even testing his game on the casino floor would be illegal. The British Casino Association (BCA) reviewed his new game, noting its similarities to Three Card Brag, the speed of each hand, and the option to place bets on three different occasions. The BCA told Webb he had a hit on his hands and recommended he take the game to the United States.

Webb followed their advice but was repeatedly knocked back by casinos in Reno, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City – they weren’t certain that Three Card Poker would be successful on the casino floor, and refused to donate their valuable table space to this new and unproven table game.

Despite these setbacks, Webb never gave up. He kept on improving his sales pitch, learning from every knockback he suffered. In the end, after weeks of searching and pitching, Derek Webb had a meeting with Barry Morris, the Vice President of the Grand Casino Gulfport in Mississippi.

The casino managers in Vegas and Atlantic City had expressed concern around the issue of training staff to deal the cards correctly.  In response to this, Webb assured Morris that he would help to train the dealers himself, agreeing to attend to the casino every day to ensure that the game was being played correctly.

Is it Three Card Poker? Or is it Casino Brag?

Derek had first begun designing Three Card Poker in 1994, but it took him roughly three years to perfect it and find a casino that was willing to offer the game. In 1997, Derek applied for a patent on TCP, which was granted successfully.

Webb had set up a business named Prime Table Games to promote Three Card Poker in both the United Kingdom and the United States. By 1999, TCP was being played at many casinos in both Las Vegas and Mississippi, but it hadn’t quite taken off in the way Webb had expected yet.

When Webb received notification that he was about to be sued for patent infringement, he realized he was out of his depth. On the one hand, Webb felt certain that he hadn’t infringed anybody else’s patents, and that the forthcoming lawsuit was frivolous. On the other hand, he didn’t have either the money or knowledge that would be required to adequately defend himself and his game in a US court.

Webb decided to sell the rights to his game outside of the British Isles to Shuffle Master for an undisclosed sum. I’ve searched high and low for the details of this transaction, but it seems that the information was never published.

Shuffle Master tweaked the game a little bit, then took steps to ensure the game was being marketed as Three Card Poker at every casino. Derek had originally favored the name Casino Brag, and there were a handful of casinos still using this name.

Shuffle Master knew that establishing a single, rock-solid brand was essential. Furthermore, American Gamblers are huge fans of Poker – Shuffle Master felt sure that just by having Poker in the title, many more players would be willing to give the game a try.

Three Card Poker is an Instant Hit, Triggering Lawsuits

The first legal problem TCP faced came from Progressive Gaming International Corporation (PGIC), who were the owners of Caribbean Stud Poker. PGIC claimed that Three Card Poker infringed on their patents, and Shuffle Master had agreed to fight this case as part of the deal they made with Webb.

Shuffle Master showed in their countersuit that the PGIC litigation was based on invalid patent claims, which resulted in PGIC settling the case for $20 million. The next year, Derek Webb’s company Prime Table Games eventually filed a suit against Shuffle Master – their current owner. I had no idea that a company could do this, and it honestly makes me laugh at the state of the US legal system.

As I mentioned earlier, we have no idea how much Derek Webb was paid by Shuffle Master for his game, but these events suggest that it probably wasn’t very much. The issue was that Webb felt sure Shuffle Master had not disclosed to him their knowledge which invalidated PGICs patent claim before they purchased the rights for TCP from him.

Had Webb been informed of this information, he would have been able to defend the suit himself rather than selling the rights to his game to Shuffle Master. This suit was, once again, settled out of court – Shuffle Master gave Webb a further $2 million on top of the undisclosed sum he had received in 1999.

Fast Forward to Today – The Current State of Three Card Poker

After many years on the casino floor, Three Card Poker has become the most successful proprietary table gamne in the history of the casino industry. Derek Webb has now retired, selling his company Prime Table Games to Galaxy Gaming.

Shuffle Master, now known as SHFL Entertainment, inc, continues to have worldwide rights to Three Card Poker, as well as Let it Ride, Blackjack Switch, and Casino War. The game is now offered at thousands of casinos worldwide, both land-based and online, and the game is one of the most popular choices at Live Dealer casinos.

It’s extremely difficult to come up with a brand new table game that will capture the imagination of players whilst also providing an acceptable amount of income for the casino.

It’s already been around 25 years since Derek came up with Three Card Poker, but unfortunately, he is now retired and not interested in trying to come up with any more new game concepts. Let’s hope that somebody else can pick up the mantle soon, and create a brand new casino game for the 21st century!

Example Hand

The felt at a Three Card Poker table can look a little bit busy, but don’t let that put you off as the game is really easy to play! Fig. 1 below shows an example of the felt you might find at a land-based casino (or an online live casino) offering Three Card Poker:

 

Fig. 1: Example felt design at a Three Card Poker table

Three Card Poker is effectively two games in one. You can choose to place a bet on the Ante box, or the Pair Plus circle. Some casinos require you to place the Ante bet if you wish to play the Pair Plus bet. You should try and avoid these casinos, as this dramatically increases the house edge.

The Ante bet is the most straightforward option, but the most you can win is even money – similar to playing Blackjack. The Pair Plus bet is far more “poker-like”, as you are betting that you will have a better three-card hand than the dealer.

For this example, we will assume that we have bet $10 on the Ante, and $10 on the Pair Plus bet. The dealer will then begin to hand each player a stack of three cards directly from the shuffling machine. As in other games of Poker, a “Dealer” button moves around the table in a clockwise fashion at the end of each hand, which determines the player who will receive their stack of cards first on the next hand.

Once every player has received their cards, you may examine your hand. You now have two choices – firstly, we can choose not to play the hand. If we do this, we will forfeit both our Ante and Pair Plus bets. If we want to proceed with the hand, we’ll need to make a further wager on the “Play” box, which must be equal in value to our Ante bet.

Payouts

On this occasion, we got lucky! The dealer handed us three sequential cards – a 7, an 8, and a 9. This is an excellent hand, so we place a further $10 chip on the Play area. Note that if we hadn’t placed an Ante bet, we wouldn’t need to do anything at this stage.

To recap – we now have a total of $30 on the table – $10 on each of the Play, Ante, and Pair Plus bets. Place your cards face down in front of you, either beneath or to the side of the “Play” box. If you place your cards in front of the “Pair Plus” circle, this indicates that we wish to fold and the dealer will take our cards and place them in the discard pile.

Once every player has made their decisions, the dealer will turn his three cards face up. If the dealer does not have a Queen or higher amongst his three cards, he does not qualify and the hand ends here. I will explain two theoretical scenarios to give you an idea of what might happen next:

  1. The dealer has 7-9-3. He does not qualify, so all players who did not fold will now be paid even money on their Ante wager. Any bets placed on the “Play” space are returned to the player as-is.

If you placed an Ante bet and your hand contains a straight, three-of-a-kind, or a straight flush, you will also be paid an Ante Bonus. This bonus is paid regardless of if the dealer qualifies, and even if your hand loses to the dealers.

A straight flush will usually be paid at either 5/1 o 4/1. Three of a kind is usually paid at 4/1 or 3/1. A hand with a straight, such as our 7-8-9, pays even money on our Ante bet. The house edge of the Ante bet is largely determined by how much is paid for this bonus.

The higher numbers (5/1, 4/1, and 1/1) result in a house edge of 3.4%, whilst the lower figures (4/1, 3/1, 1/1) give this bet a house edge of 6.8%.

 

  1. The dealer has K-9-9. The dealer now qualifies, as he has a card higher than a Queen. The dealer will now ask each player in turn to reveal their cards. If the player’s hand beats the dealer’s hand, even money is paid on both the Ante and Play bets.

In our case, our straight beats the dealer’s pair of nines. We receive even money on our Ante and Play bets for a total of $40, as well as even money on our Ante bet, making it up to $50.

 

Next, there is the Pair Plus bet to consider. Table Fig. 2 below shows the four most common paytables you will find at casinos offering Three Card Poker. Pay attention to the order of the hands, as it differs significantly from other forms of Poker. This is a result of you receiving just three cards rather than the usual five. I’ve added the probabilities to the right of the table to help illustrate this.

 

Common Paytables:
Hand Paytable A Paytable B Paytable C Paytable D Combinations Probability
Straight Flush 40/1 40/1 40/1 40/1 48 0.2172%
3 of a Kind 30/1 25/1 30/1 30/1 52 0.2353%
Straight 6/1 6/1 5/1 6/1 720 3.2579%
Flush 4/1 4/1 4/1 3/1 1096 4.9593%
Pair 1/1 1/1 1/1 1/1 3744 16.9412%
House Edge 2.32% 3.49% 5.90% 7.28% 16440 74.3891%

 

Fig.2: Common paytables for the Pair Plus bet in Three Card Poker. The highlighted cells are included to let you know just know many worthless combinations there are, as well as the probability that you will receive one o these garbage hands – a massive 75%!

If a casino is using Paytable A or Paytable B, it is likely they will be using the higher payouts for the Ante Bonus as well. Unfortunately, most land-based casinos tend to use Paytable D nowadays. Online, you are much more likely to find better tables.

Note that you cannot simply add the house edge from the Pair Plus game to the house edge of the Ante/Play Game. The two bets have to be treated as separate, independent games.

Whilst I was researching for this article, I learned that despite the house edge potentially being lower for the Pair Plus bet, the element of risk is much higher. I have to admit I found this quite confusing – surely the bet with the lowest house edge Is the better bet?

The Wizard of Odds, a respected gambling mathematician from Las Vegas, insists that this is not the case. The reason is that the ratio of expected loss to the total amount bet is much higher for the Pair Plus bet, meaning you are likely to lose more money throughout a session if you play only the Pair Plus bet. If you are still unsure how this works (as I was!), see the strategy section below for more details.

Playing Three Card Poker Online

There are two types of TCP offered at online casinos. The first is a computer-generated, one-on-one game, where just you and the dealer will battle it out according to the same rules described above. The second option is the live dealer game, where you can pull up a seat (virtually) at a real table with other players from around the world.

Many players prefer to play the live dealer version of the game. There are many reasons for this, but a significant number of players simply do not trust the random number generators used at online casinos and prefer to see real cards being dealt by an actual person.

These fears are completely unfounded – as long as you are playing at a legitimate, fully licensed, and regulated online casino there is absolutely no chance the game is “rigged”. Trust me, none of these companies are going to risk their license for the sake of ripping you off for $10 on their Three Card Poker tables!

Nevertheless, Live Dealer games undoubtedly feel much closer to the real casino experience, and you will usually have the option to chat with both the dealer and the other players participating at your table, which adds a social aspect to your experience.

The Live Dealer game is much slower than its computer-generated counterpart, which is a good thing for you as the player – a fast game means you are likely to lose your bankroll faster. If you are impatient though, the live dealer game might not be for you. Whilst TCP is a very fast game, you can still end up waiting quite a while between hands if there is a full complement of eight players gathered at your table.

Strategy

Three Card Poker has one of the easiest strategies to master if you want to ensure you receive the absolute maximum possible return. Firstly, you should choose to play only the ante/play bets, although as the Pair Plus bet does at least offer a reasonable house edge, it can be worth playing if you want to make the game a little more interesting.

If any other side bets are offered, ALWAYS disregard these completely. Common TCP side bets include:

  • Millionaire Maker (House Edge 18.10%!)
  • 6-Card Bonus (House Edge 15.28%)
  • Prime Bet (House Edge 3.62%)

When playing the Ante bet, your decision of whether to raise (make the play bet,) or fold, is extremely easy – if you have Q-6-4 or better, then you should play (irrespective of the paytable in use)

Just so we are clear, a hand of Q-6-4 or better means you have at least a queen with a 6 and a 4 as kickers. You may well be wondering why Q-6-4 is so much better than, for example, Q-6-3. Performing a combinatorial analysis on all of the outcomes possible in TCP reveals that if you raise with Q-6-3 you can expect to lose 1.00255 betting units – more than the 1 betting unit lost by simple folding.

On the other hand, if you raise on Q-6-4, your expected loss drops to .993378 – lower than what you would lose by folding.

Some players like to mimic the dealer, by raising on any hand where they hold a Queen. This strategy does work but increases the house edge to 3.45%. If you choose to simply raise on everything, or play blind, the house edge jumps to 7.65%.

Three Card Poker – Your Questions, Answered (FAQ)

As I understand it, the correct basic strategy for Three Card Poker is to only play the Ante/Play bet, and to raise if I have Q-6-4 or higher, otherwise I should fold. Have I got this right?

Yes, that is the most profitable way to play TCP if you are only interested in getting the best possible return throughout your session. Unfortunately, playing this way does make the game far less interesting than playing the Pair Plus bet.

You mentioned that it is always a bad idea to play the side bets, however, the Prime Bet looks like a good deal with a house edge of 3.62%. Why shouldn’t I play it?

Perhaps I should have added a caveat, which is that if the casino is offering the lower Ante Bonuses (4/1 for a Straight Flush, and 3/1 for three-of-a-kind) then the Prime Bet might be worth considering if you want to add a little extra excitement to your session. Be sure to have a look at the odds for the Prime Bet – if the casino is already doubling the house edge of the regular game, they may have reduced the 4/1 and 3/1 payouts for the prime bet too.

I’m still confused about the house edge of Three Card Poker – can you make it simple by comparing it to Atlantic City Rules Blackjack?

The Atlantic City Blackjack rules are some of the most liberal you will find anywhere. They use eight decks, double on any two cards, double after split, late surrender, and split to four hands. These rules result in a house edge of just 0.36% with optimal play.

I’d wager that AC Blackjack has the lowest house edge of any game in the casinos where it is offered. Three Card Poker doesn’t even come close, in all honesty. Things work very differently in TCP – the house edge is not static and is determined by which bets you choose to play during each hand.

Place a bet on the Ante and the house edge will be either 3.4% or 6.8%, depending on the payouts the casino has set for the Ante Bonus. This is explained in detail in the “Payouts” section on this page. If you also choose to play the Pair Plus game, the house edge for this varies between 2.32% and 7.28%.

Unfortunately, most land-based casinos are now using the 7.28% paytable. Thankfully, online casinos are much less greedy, and it is relatively easy to find TCP at 2.32%, even in the live dealer format.

What is meant by the dealer “qualifying”?

If the dealer does not hold a Queen or higher amongst his three cards, he fails to qualify. When this happens, your Ante bet will be doubled by the dealer. Your play bet does not win anything in this scenario and will be returned to you without any additional winnings.

When the dealer does qualify, they will turn over their cards and begin to compare them to the hands held by each of the players. The order of hands is slightly different in Three Card Poker, which can be seen in Fig. 2 above. Note that you always receive the Ante Bonus, irrespective of if the dealer qualifies or not!

What happens to my Pair Plus bet if I lose my Ante/Play bet against the dealer?

Absolutely nothing. This is what I was referring to when I said that Three Card Poker was effectively two games in one. This is great for the casino, as more bets tend to be placed.

Whenever you place chips on the Pair Plus circle, you have a chance at winning a much bigger prize than during the regular game. Most land-based casinos use the paytable with a 7.28% house edge, as shown in the common paytables section above.

Again, remember that you are still be entitled to collect an  Ante Bonus if your car hand is good enough – even if the dealer has beaten you already.

Upon looking at the order of hands in the table shown in Fig. 2, a straight is shown as being higher than a flush. Is this correct? In every other form of Poker, the flush is a much better hand than a straight.

Don’t worry this isn’t a typo! In Three Card Poker, the fact that you only have three cards from which to make a hand changes the odds and the game beyond all recognition. In Texas Hold’em you effectively have seven cards to choose from. Likewise, if you are playing 5/7 Card Stud, you again have many more cards available to you.

If you are interested in the math behind this change, the number of ways you can end up with a flush in TCP is 4*(combin(13.3)-12) = 1096. The formula used to calculate the number of ways to make a straight is a little easier to understand – 12x(43-4) = 720.

As you can see, with only three cards in play, your chances of hitting a straight are much lower than those of hitting a flush. In numerical terms, a flush is around 33% more likely than a straight when only three cards are in play. This is the reason why a straight features higher up the paytable in Three Card Poker.

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