I came up through the ranks as a casino player learning the classics, receiving my education in blackjack and video poker through practice, repetition, and patience.
And while I had a few pals to show me the ropes as a rookie, my tutelage was largely spent studying at the school of hard knocks. Rough runs, and truly unbelievable swings in short-term – although those slumps never do fee short, now do they? – helped me to refine my strategic approach until I became capable of beating the house consistently.
Nowadays, I’ve transitioned from student to teacher. Gambling has grown by leaps and bounds since my youth, with millions of people whose parents wouldn’t be caught dead on the casino floor happily enjoying table games, slots, poker, bingo, keno, and more.
With a massive influx of new players taking to the casino – both the brick and mortar and online / mobile variety – the house enjoys more of advantage than ever before. That’s especially true with the advent of newer table games like Three Card Poker, which combines the random results inherent to a game of chance with one pivotal element of skill to create the perfect casino gamble.
If you just got your start playing Three Card Poker, or you’ve never even taken a hand in your life, here’s the game in a nutshell.
Players place an Ante bet to start – along with an optional side bet called the Pair Plus that you’ll learn more about later in the page – before taking three face up cards at random. The dealer also gets three cards dealt face down. After assessing the relative strength of your three-card poker hand – you won’t be taking additional cards through the draw, or doing anything to change your initial holding – the game’s sole decision point asks you to “Play” or “Fold.”
To play means putting up a second wager equal to the first, while folding obviously means forfeiting the hand right then and there.
If you decide to make the Play bet, the dealer then exposes their own hand and you’ll compare them to see which one ranks higher. These are three-card poker hands, mind you, so something like 7-8-9 is good for a straight, and the Q-K-A of the same suit is known as the Mini Royal Flush.
Nonetheless, you’ll inevitably see the same Three Card Poker regulars stacking up newfound chips, while the same lifelong losers (in the casino setting only of course, I’m sure they’re great people in real life) bleed chips and walk away emptyhanded.
That’s because, despite its deceptively simple appearance, Three Card Poker is actually subject to an essential skill element. If you’re interested in becoming a better Three Card Poker player, read on to discover three rules and strategies about the game that most players don’t know about.
1 – You Only Need to Remember One Rule to Play Three Card Poker Perfectly
If you’ve ever studied blackjack before, those detailed color-coded charts advising you how to make every possible decision perfectly might just give you nightmares.
After all, with 190 unique inflection points to consider – your A-5 against the dealer’s 6, whether to split 9-9, etc. – memorizing and mastering basic strategy for blackjack is quite the mental exercise. Some players might call it a “chore” too, what with all the razor thin margins between the correct play and all the other options that seem to be right.
As it turns out, the static deal – meaning, players can’t change their starting cards – combined with a sole decision point makes Three Card Poker strategy a breeze.
All you need to remember in order to play this game to perfection is one simple cutoff point – Q-4-6.
With any hand ranked at Q-6-4 or higher, you should always make the Play bet and go toe to toe with the dealer. And with any hand ranked Q-6-3 or worse, you should always fold and live to fight another day.
Don’t take my word for it though, just listen to what longtime casino game analyst and mathematician Michael Shackleford has to say on the subject:
“I have no doubt that Q/6/4 is the optimal strategy for three card poker.
Stanley Ko independently came up with the same advice. This strategy is based on a computer program which analyzes all 22,100 possible combinations of the player’s three cards, and for each one the remaining 18,424 possible combinations of the dealer’s three cards.
If you follow the dealer’s strategy, then you will be folding on some hands which have an expected return of more than -1 (the return by folding).”
To save you the advanced math, game theorists have run every conceivable combination of three cards through a supercomputer. By examining every single hand’s unique expected return, and dividing all hands into positive and negative plays, Q-6-4 represents the exact cutoff point where Three Card Poker hands become profitable over the long run.
By using the Q-6-4 strategy, sharp players shave their house edge on the Ante and Plus bets down to 3.37 percent – which is better than close table game cousins Let It Ride (3.51 percent) and Caribbean Stud Poker (5.22 percent)
2 – Hunting for Quality Pair Plus Pay Tables Can Save You Tons in the Long Run
The big bugaboo for bad Three Card Poker players is the Pair Plus side bet.
At first glance, paying a few bucks to give yourself a shot at premium payouts climbing to 40 to 1 seems like a steal. And indeed, when you score a topline Pair Plus payout, it can be tough to envision every playing this game without the side bet working.
But one look at the table below should show you why the Pair Plus bet is almost always a sucker play:
Three Card Poker Pair Plus Side Bet Pay Tables (No Mini Royal Flush)
The game originally used pay table #1, with a 40-30-6-4-1 alignment creating a house edge of 2.32 percent. But these days, the casinos largely use pay table #8, because that slightly adjusted 40-30-6-3-1 structure balloons the house edge to 7.28 percent.
You’ll find the same discrepancy on Pair Plus pay tables that incorporate the Mini Royal Flush:
Three Card Poker Pair Plus Side Bet Pay Tables (With Mini Royal Flush)
Whenever you see house edge rates climb over 5.00 percent and approach 10 percent, you should consider the wagers to be nonstarters.
You might hit a few here and there, but when you realize those straight flush payouts only arrive 0.2 percent of the time, the Pair Plus side bet quickly loses its appeal.
3 – Successfully Hole Carding the Dealer Can Actually Produce a Healthy Player Edge
On a final note, the “flow” of live casino gambling is never set in stone, so the best players are always on the lookout for any extra edge they can find.
And at the Three Card Poker table, extra edges arrive whenever the dealer is lazy with their hole cards. A tired or bored dealer will occasionally flash their own cards during the deal. And whenever you can get a glimpse of their cards, even just one or two, this additional information makes your Play / Fold decision much easier.
If you’re able to “hole card” the dealer – this isn’t cheating, by the way, so don’t worry about taking advantage when it happens – the house edge of 3.37 percent becomes a player edge of 3.48 percent.
Three Card Poker strategy might sound simple when you first hear about the Q-6-4 rule, but that’s only the beginning. Understanding how the various Pair Plus and Ante Bonus pay tables really compare, crunching your house edge numbers to determine whether a particular pay table is worth playing, and avoiding the temptation to make sucker side bets are all essential skills. You’ve come this far, which means you’re fully prepared and ready to tackle the Three Card Poker tables by playing the game perfectly on every deal.