Back during my days as a tournament Texas Holdem dealer at the Orleans in Sin City, I can’t tell you how many times the following scene played out.
An eager tourist, in town to play a little Three Card Poker, wanders into the crowded room and starts looking around. They see Holdem games running, along with Pot-Limit Omaha and even Seven-Card Stud – but not Three Card Poker. Eventually, after inquiring at the floor desk, these folks sheepishly walk out in search of the table game pit.
While both games share a familiar foundation, Holdem and Three Card Poker couldn’t be more different. For new players venturing out to a Las Vegas Casino for the first time, the following guide will introduce you to two of the most popular poker-based gambling games ever devised.
Basic Rules and Game Play
To describe the full spectrum of Holdem rules and gameplay would take an entire page of its own, so head here for a comprehensive breakdown.
For a down and dirty rundown, however, here’s how Holdem works. In a cash game, players bring their own money to the table and exchange it for chips. Each table will have its own minimum and maximum buy-in, along with minimum and maximum betting limits, and preset “blind” bets.
For example, most casino poker rooms revolve around $2/$5 No-Limit Holdem, with those denominations referring to the small ($2) and big ($5) blinds. You can buy in for as little as $100 or as much as $1,000, and up to nine players can sit at any one time.
From there, each player assesses their hand and decides whether to call the current bet, raise it up, or simply fold. Once this initial round is completed, the dealer puts out three community cards known as the “flop.” Another round of betting commences, followed by the “turn” card, and the process repeats itself until the “river” card completes the board.
Players combine their hole cards with the community cards to form the best possible five-card poker hand. You can win the pot by showing down the best hand, or by betting players out in a bluff.
Holdem can be played in the Limit or No Limit style, or in the tournament format popularized by the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and World Poker Tour (WPT) on TV.
As for Three Card Poker (TCP), the game is entirely different, as it resembles other table games like blackjack where players are trying to beat the dealer.
After placing a forced Ante bet, along with an optional “Pair Plus” bet (more on this down below), the player receives three cards face up. The dealer also takes three cards face down, and now the player must decide whether to place a second “Raise” bet based on the strength of their three-card hand.
TCP doesn’t allow for drawing, so the cards you get are the cards you’re stuck with. The only strategy involved here is deciding when making the second Raise bet is appropriate.
To do so, the basic strategy for TCP calls for a Queen/6/4 threshold in order to Raise. That is to say, with any hand ranked Q-6-4 or better, players should always Raise, while folding is the right play with any hand ranked Q-6-3 or worse.
Beating the dealer is good for an even money payout on your Ante bet, but you can earn additional payouts via the Pair Plus and the Ante Bet Bonus pay tables.
In the next section, you’ll learn about the various TCP hands, the probabilities of landing them, and the payouts awarded when you do.
Odds, Probabilities, and Payout Structure
Below you’ll find the hierarchy of TCP hands, along with the probability of hitting each one on a random deal:
Three Card Poker Hand Probabilities
|Three of a kind||52||0.23%|
|Ace High or Less||16,440||74.39%|
Whenever you land a straight or higher and beat the dealer, you’ll earn an extra Ante Bet Bonus payout based on the following paytable:
Three Card Poker Payouts on Ante Bet Bonus
|Straight flush||5 to 1|
|Three of a kind||4 to 1|
|Straight||1 to 1|
And while it’s a long shot, the Pair Plus bet pays out as follows:
Three Card Poker Payouts on Pair Plus Bet
|Straight flush||40 to 1|
|Three of a kind||30 to 1|
|Straight||6 to 1|
|Flush||3 to 1|
|Pair||1 to 1|
Finally, the following tables display various Holdem probabilities for starting hands, improving on the flop, and completing draws:
Holdem Hole Card Probabilties
|Pocket Aces||1:220 (0.451%)|
|Pocket Aces or Kings||1:110 (.906%)|
|Q-Q, K-K, or A-A||1:73 (1.37%)|
|Any Pocket Pair||1:16 (5.89%)|
|Any Suited Connector*||1:46 (2.12%)|
|Any Suited Hand**||1:3.3 (23.51%)|
*6 Spades – 7 Spades
**A Diamonds – 10 Diamonds
Holdem Flopping and Drawing Probabilities
|Flopping Set Holding a Pocket Pair||1:7.5 (11.82%)||6-10-Ace flop when holding 6-6|
|Flopping Flush Holding Suited Hole Cards||1:7.5 (11.82%)||5d-10d-Jd flop with Ad-2d|
|Flopping Flush Draw Holding Suited Cards||1:8.1 (10.92%)||5d-10d-Jd flop with Ad-2d|
|Flopping Straight Holding Connected Cards||1:76 (1.33%)||4-5-6 flop with 7-8|
|Flopping Open-Ended Straight Draw||1:9.3 (9.69%)||5-6-X flop with 7-8|
|Completing Flopped Open-Ended Straight Draw||1:4.9 on Turn (17.0%)||7 or Q after J-10-x flop|
|Completing Flopped Gutshot Straight Draw||1:11 on Turn (8.50%)||10 after J-7-x flop with 8-9|
|Completing Flush After Flopping 4 of a Suit||1:14.2 on Turn (19.1%)||Any diamond after 5d-10d-Xx flop with Ad-2s|
|Completing Open-Ended Straight Flush Draw||1:2.1 on Turn (31.9 %)||7s or Qs after Js-10s-Xx flop with 8s-9s|
And if you’re looking for specific matchup probabilities – like pocket pairs against two overcards or Aces against Kings – any number of Texas Holdem Odds Calculators can be found online. These handy tools let you program a virtual starting hand matchup like the classic A-K suited taking on pocket Queens.
Using the calculator, you’ll find that this common scenario – particularly in the late stages of a tournament – sees the Queens hold up on 53.59% of five-card boards. No matter what the hole cards happen to be, however, these invaluable calculators let you simulate every possible Holdem probability scenario.
House Edge Players Are Up Against
When using the standard paytable described above, TCP offers a combined house edge of 3.37% on the Ante + Play bets.
For table game players, the term house edge describes the casino’s statistical advantage – on average and over the long run – on any given wager. In layman’s terms, the 3.37% figure simply means that for every $100 a player puts up on the Ante + Play bets, the house can expect to win $3.37.
As for the optional Pair Plus bet, you’ll face a much steeper house edge of 7.28% when backing the long shot.
At the Holdem tables, however, the house edge metric doesn’t apply because players aren’t competing against the house. Instead, traditional poker players take one another on in hopes of taking one another’s chips. Thus, the statistical disadvantage the average Holdem player must overcome is based simply on their own skill level relative to the rest of the table.
With that said, you can use the “rake” – or the small percentage of the pot collected by the dealer during each hand – to generally gauge the house’s stake in the game. By and large, you’ll want to research your local Holdem games to find out where the rake is lowest. Over the long run, playing with a lower rake means more money stays on the felt – and potentially in your pocket.
General Atmosphere and Table Dynamics
When you take a seat at a typical TCP table on The Strip, you just might be flying solo. While the game enjoyed quite the heyday after its introduction in the ‘90s, TCP’s popularity has waned a bit in recent years.
The rote, mechanical gameplay, and relatively high house edge have since been improved upon by similar poker-based table games like Caribbean Stud and Let It Ride.
With all that said though, TCP is still a staple in any table game pit, so you’ll always find a game running. And if you wait for peak hours, you can sit down with a packed house and enjoy a little action with like-minded gamblers.
By and large, TCP games are a loose and lively affair. Players will encourage one another to take the plunge on long shot side bets like the Mini-Royal. Regulars aren’t shy about helping newbies learn the ropes. And you’ll seldom see angry souls who just lost big bucks “steaming” about their bad luck, a la most Holdem games.
All in all, TCP offers the perfect venue for casino gambling beginners to get their feet wet.
Over in the traditional poker room, however, the table dynamics come a dime a dozen depending on random variability. You might catch a break and find a few fast friends at a happy-go-lucky low-stakes cash game. Step into the tournament arena though, and expect to see sullen, stone-faced “grinders” who look down on inexperienced “fish.”
Holdem tables offer a grab-bag of sorts when it comes to who you’ll meet. And honestly, for my money anyhow, that’s all part of what makes playing this great game so much fun.
Our Final Thoughts on This Comparison
For the uninitiated, the term “poker” serves as a catch-all to describe all variety of games played using the old 52-card deck. But just like video poker machines bear little resemblance to WSOP action on ESPN, Texas Holdem, and Three Card Poker are far from close cousins. Instead, think of the games as two completely unique branches which have long since grown far from their original family tree.
Texas Holdem pits players against one another in an intense mental battle for gold and glory.
Three Card Poker is a casual table game where players follow a single, simple rule to try and out-luck the dealer.
Which one will become your game of choice remains to be seen, but at least now you’ll be fully prepared to try both out for the first time.