Three Card Poker

Three Card Poker is a betting game played in casinos throughout the world. Unlike most forms of poker, the player wins when they can manage to beat the house, as in Blackjack and Mini Baccarat. Accordingly, Three Card Poker tables are usually located in the blackjack pit, not in the poker room.

Unlike most games played with traditional cards, Three Card Poker is a proprietary game. It was originally marketed by ShuffleMaster, a company which made and supplied automatic card shufflers to casinos. Due to a chain of acquisitions, the game is now owned by Scientific Games. Scientific Games still licenses the rights to the Three Card Poker name, as well as selling layouts and specialized shufflers that can also be programmed to deal three-card hands for each player.

Object of Three Card Poker

The object of Three Card Poker is to hold a hand higher than that of the dealer, or walk away when they feel they are unlikely to do so.

Setup

Unlike many casino table games, Three Card Poker is played with only one standard, 52-card deck of playing cards. Happily, that means if you’re wanting to play a home game, you can use your favorite deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards. You’ll also need chips to bet with.

Casinos spread the game on a felt table with a printed layout that facilitates the placing and payout of bets. Each player position has three betting boxes, typically laid out as shown at right. Because Three Card Poker is a proprietary game, pre-printed felt layouts are not as readily available as those found in games such as Blackjack. If you’re playing at home, you will most likely have to get creative, making a betting layout for yourself.

All players place a bet (which must be between the posted table minimums and maximums) in the Ante box on the layout. If they wish, they may also place an additional bet in the Pair Plus circle. Shuffle and deal three cards face down to each player, including the dealer.

Game play

Rank of Three Card Poker hands

Because there are only three cards involved, the hands available in Three Card Poker and their ranking differ from traditional poker. The hands are, from highest to lowest:

  1. Straight flush: Three cards of the same suit, in sequence.
  2. Three of a kind: Three cards of the same rank.
  3. Straight: Three cards in sequence.
  4. Flush: Three cards of the same suit.
  5. Pair: Two cards of the same rank, plus one unmatched card.
  6. High card: Three unmatched cards.

Competing pairs are evaluated by the rank of the pair, with the kicker (unmatched card) breaking ties. All other hands are evaluated by comparing the top-ranked card, then the second-highest, then the lowest. Cards rank in their usual order, with aces high (although A-2-3 is a valid straight).

Play of the hand

Each player picks up their cards (touching the cards is allowed in Three Card Poker) and examines their hand. They now make the only decision in the game—whether to raise (play) or fold. If the player folds, they surrender their cards to the dealer, who collects their money from the Ante and Pair Plus circles. If they raise, they place another bet, exactly the same amount as their Ante wager, on top of their cards (which are placed in the box overlapping the Play box, such that a bet placed on top of the cards ends up being in the Play box).

When all players have acted, the dealer reveals their hand. If the dealer’s hand is queen high or better, they are said to qualify. Should the dealer fail to qualify, the hand ends immediately, with each player being paid even money on their Ante bet and the Play bet pushing. (It should be noted that, so long as the player hasn’t folded, the Ante bet always pays when the dealer fails to qualify, even if the player’s hand is lower than the dealer’s.)

If the dealer qualifies, each player’s hand is compared with the dealer’s. Starting with the player to their right, and proceeding counter-clockwise around the table, the dealer reveals each player’s hand. If the player’s hand is higher than the dealer’s, they are paid even money on both the Ante and Play bets. When the dealer’s hand is higher, both bets are lost. If the dealer and player tie exactly, both bets push.

Pair Plus and Ante bonus payouts

If the player holds a high enough hand, they may get paid no matter what the dealer holds. Usually, this will happen because they made the Pair Plus bet, which operates entirely independently of the other two bets. If the player has a pair or higher, they are paid according to the hand they hold; otherwise, the bet is lost. A player holding a straight or better also receives a bonus on their Ante bet (regardless of if they played the Pair Plus bet).

Pair Plus bet and Ante bonuses are paid according to the following paytable. Note that these are typical values; some casinos may pay different rates.

Hand Pair Plus Ante bonus
Straight flush 40 to 1 5 to 1
Three of a kind 30 to 1 4 to 1
Straight 6 to 1 even money
Flush: 3 to 1
Pair even money

Three Card Poker strategy

According to Michael Shackelford of the popular Wizard of Odds gambling probabilities site, the mathematically ideal strategy for Three Card Poker is to play hands of Q-6-4 and higher and to fold hands of Q-6-3 and lower.

It should be noted that the house edge on the Pairs Plus bet is 7.28%. This is not much better than betting on a slot machine. However, to many players, the chance to catch a straight flush and win $200 on a $5 bet is too great a temptation to resist…

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