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First of all, as three card poker is a house edge game, there is no legitimate strategy that can be employed that will switch the odds in favour of the player. However, unlike other casino games, roulette for example, there is a strategic element to the game. Learning to play the correct strategy will both minimise the house edge against the player and as a result of that help to maximise their enjoyment of the game. Both are desirable outcomes, the playing of casino games should primarily be to have fun for as small a cost as possible. Anyone planning on playing this fast and exciting game will benefit from first familiarising themselves with the right strategy.

Basic Game Strategy: It’s as easy as Q-6-4

Correct play in three card poker hinges around the one decision point the player has in each hand. Namely whether to post the play bet or to fold and lose only their ante. This is a crucial element of the game. In the basic game the houses edge largely results from the fact that the player must act before the dealer when it comes to playing or folding. Consider how much easier the game would be if the dealer acted first and simply folded his cards when he had a poor hand, paying the player out on their ante bet regardless of what they held. That is effectively what the player is doing every time they fold before placing the play wager.

So the play wager should always be made right? Well not quite. Remember that the dealer will only pay out on both the ante and play bets if he himself has a hand queen-high or better. In the instances where he has a hand weaker than this he will pay out the ante bet but the play bet will be a push. Playing this raise on anything strategy results in a high edge for the house of some 7.65%.

When is it correct to play and when should a hand be abandoned at the ante stage? If the dealer is only going to play with queen high or better wouldn’t the playing field be evened up by adopting the same strategy? This logical approach does in fact come close to being the optimal strategy for the game. The “any queen will do” method significantly reduces the house edge to 3.45%. Not bad, but it can still be improved and without too much effort.

When playing a queen-high hand it helps to have a reasonable chance of beating the dealer when he also holds only queen-high. Not all queen-highs are created equally, Q-J-9 is far stronger than Q-3-2, but what is the cut-off point? Which queens should be kept and the play bet posted, and which should simply be folded? From computer analysis of all possible three card permutations the player may hold, combined with all possible dealer hands, it turns out that this key cut-off hand is Q-6-4. Any hand worse than this and it is better to fold in the long run, any hand this strong or better and it is beneficial to post the play bet. It should be noted here that posting the play bet with Q-6-4 is still a negative expectation play, i.e. the player will lose money in the long run by doing it, however, were they to fold the hand they would lose more. Playing Q-6-4 or better reduces the house edge – albeit only slightly - to 3.37%.

3.37% is by no means extortionate but does not compare favourably with the 2.70% edge of roulette for example and is certainly nowhere near the house edge of less than 1% which is standard in most blackjack variants where optimum strategy is employed. However the 3.37% refers to the percentage of the ante stake lost when playing optimal strategy. A more accurate comparison would be to look at the percentage of total money staked lost when playing the Q-6-4 system. Every time the player is dealt worse than Q-6-4 they stake only their ante. Every time they are dealt Q-6-4 or better they stake an additional amount on the play bet. The ante bet is effectively a random bet, but the play bet is based on the knowledge of the quality of hand held. As such when placing the play bet the odds can at times be significantly in the gamblers favour. The value of choosing when and when not to place the play bet reduces the house edge to only 2.01% of total money staked.

The Ante Bonus

Three card poker has the additional attraction of the ante bonus. This is paid out to a player regardless of the dealer’s hand. Without this element, the house edge would be appreciably higher and thus less appealing to the gambler. The standard ante bonus payouts are:

  • Straight: Even Money
  • Three Of A Kind: 4/1
  • Straight Flush: 5/1

The Pair Plus Bet

Unlike the basic ante-play game, there is no strategic element to the pair plus side bet. It is simply a bet on the quality of the three card hand dealt to the player. There are various pay tables in use around the world in casinos and online. The most commonly used is detailed below. Playing the pair plus bet in a casino offering these odds results in a house edge of 2.32%.

Standard Pair Plus Odds

  • One Pair: Even Money
  • Flush: 4/1
  • Straight: 6/1
  • Three Of A Kind: 30/1
  • Straight Flush: 40/1

There has been much debate about which bet offers the better value. The standard ante-play or the pair plus. The maths shows that the ante-play is better. There isn’t all that much in it though and many players feel the additional excitement offered by the pair plus is enough to compensate for the extra 0.31% edge against them. This is a recreational game after all, rather than a sure-fire way of making money, although fun and profit are, of course, linked for almost all players.

Three Card Poker: What to Expect.

So you have sat down at the table or logged into your favourite online casino, placed your ante and pair plus wagers and the dealer is shuffling up. How often should you expect to receive each of the possible hands? The percentage chance of being dealt each of the playable hands is as follows?

  • Queen High or better: 69.59%
  • Pair: 16.94%
  • Flush: 4.96%
  • Straight: 3.26%
  • Three Of A Kind: 0.24%
  • Straight Flush: 0.22%

From the above table we can see that the player will have a playable hand over two thirds of the time. This results in frequent head to head showdowns between the player and dealer which is what the game is all about and why it is a hugely popular game in both online and real-world casinos.