Protect your Alternative Card Games: Know the Strategies

Blackjack isn’t the only card game in town that can threaten a casino’s profitability. How much does your supervisory team know about the strategy of card games more related to poker than to blackjack? If your answer is “not much,” it’s time for a refresher course, says table game guru Bill Zender.

Protect your Alternative Card Games: Know the Strategies

Blackjack isn’t the only card game where floor supervisors and surveillance operators need to know the game’s “basic strategy.” All alternative card games that require a strategy decision, either to wager and stay in, to check, or to fold, also are subject to a “best” method for playing the hand. What is surprising is the number of floor supervisors, managers, and surveillance operators who do not know the different strategies for the games they offer.

At this year’s World Game Protection Conference, during my C.O.R.E. presentation on investigating winning players, I asked a large class of mostly surveillance professionals and table game managers if they knew the computer perfect, but very simple strategy for the alternative game of Three Card Poker (TCP). Only about 20 percent of the attendees raised their hands. This was somewhat surprising to me since the game of TCP is very popular and has been offered on the casino floor for more than a decade.

Casino professionals, both from table games and surveillance, tend to focus more on games such as blackjack and baccarat, the games where customers wager the largest sums of money. An overwhelmingly number of player reviews I have been requested to analyze over the years is evenly divided between blackjack and baccarat, with an occasional Pai Gow tiles or alternative game thrown in.

Has anybody been to a course offered by the U.S. Secret Service on identifying counterfeit money? The first thing the agent teaches the class is how to identify real money. The government’s position is that if you cannot identify real money, how can you spot bogus bills?

The same applies to casino card games. If you do not know what “good” or “common” play looks like, how can you be expected to spot “bad” play. If your floor and surveillance personnel do not know the game’s basic/common strategy, it will be very difficult to spot forms of hole-card, marked card, and player information sharing. Don’t you want your people to identify unusual game strategies and investigate early in the play, or do you want to wait until the player has won several thousand dollar and left your premises?

Following are some of the more common Alternative table games presently offered in the casino industry and the associated strategies.

Three Card Poker (TCP)

The strategy for Three Card Poker (TCP) is very simple. The player relies only on the information of the three cards in his or her hand. Depending on the value and sometimes suit of those three cards the player makes the decision to either fold and surrender the ante, or “call,” wagering the exact amount of the ante, and stay in the hand.

The computer perfect strategy is “call” with a three-card hand of Queen-6-4, and it provides the house with a 3.4 percent mathematical edge. Most players use the strategy of Queen or better which only increases the house edge by a faction to 3.5 percent.

If you observe a TCP player who is wagering a “significant amount of money” while consistently staying in hands of less than Queen, the player may be receiving other card information such as being able to see one of the dealer’s hole-cards.

Note: If the player is able to see the bottom card of the dealer’s three-card hand while it is being removed from the shuffling machine, the player will stay in with any three-card hand if the dealer’s seen hole-card is anything other than an Ace, King, or Queen (qualifying card).

Ultimate Texas Hold’em (UTH)

While TCP is subject to a simple strategy, Ultimate Texas Hold’em (UTH) operates from a more complex set of decision options.

Making a raise decision while only seeing two cards allows the player to wager 4X the ante. Any raise made during the subsequent two betting rounds can only be made at 2X and 1X (call) the ante wager.

Following is the recommended strategy during the opening betting round when holding two cards. Raise 4X with:

  • Ace with anything
  • King with 5 thru Queen (2 thru 4 only if suited)
  • Queen with 8 thru Jack (6 & 7 only if suited)
  • Jack with 10 (8 & 9 only when suited)
  • Pairs of 3’s or higher
  • Any other combination the player should “check”

Any deviation from this strategy could be the result of a novice player not knowing the strategy, but it could also mean the player using information not available during normal play. Look for a player wager a “significate” size ante/blind. This indicates someone who has played UTH before and should have a good understanding of the opening two-card strategy. In some cases, players that show a pattern of making decisions outside the previously noted two-card strategy are doing so because they are receiving additional card information. This information can be acquired when the dealer is “sloppy” and inadvertently exposes the bottom card of the dealer’s two-card hand hole-card and/or the bottom card of the five flop/turn/river cards (community cards).

Strategy changes which indicate addition information are:

  • Raising with two non-suited separate rank cards. The player could be seeing one of the flop/river cards and have an unseen 4x qualifier. This information would allow the player to immediately raise 4X instead of 2X or 1X during later betting rounds.
  • Checking with a hand that should be raised. This could occur if the player sees a dealer hole-card that is higher in value than either of the player’s two cards. This information could allow the player to be more cautious with his hand and “check” instead of raise during a hand that has a strong chance of eventually being a loser.
High Card Flush (HCF)

High Card Flush is considered a what-you-see-is what-you-get card game. Each player receives seven cards and must make a bet/fold decision on those cards only.

The strategy for HCF is simple but convoluted in the sense that there is a grey area for decision making since no one has run the true calculations all the way to the conclusion. There are several experts that have calculated what they believe is the optimal strategy. The more common strategy used is one that has been established by game mathematician Charles Mousseau. The Mousseau strategy suggests that the player raise the maximum allowable wager with a three-card flush of Ten-8-6 or higher. Any hand less is folded.

The use of any additional information would be the result of shared information of all six players at the table (also known as player collusion). To gain a mathematical edge over the house, the players would have to see the value of 42 cards to determine whether the dealer has a possibility of holding more flush cards than anyone of the six players. This collusion advantage play does not focus on the dealer qualifying (9-high three card flush). Attention should be paid towards a table of six players wagering a “significant” amount of money, who take time to decide on how to play a four-card flush hands or less.

Note: A common deterrence strategy is to block or eliminate one of the six betting positions on the table. This reduces the number of cards available to thirty-five and will not provide the advantage players with enough information to mathematically overcome the game.

Mississippi Stud Poker (MSP)

The game of Mississippi Stud Poker is more like playing a video poker machine than a beat-the-dealer game. The players are not trying to beat the dealer since the dealer does not receive a hand. The object is to wager the opening betting round on the two cards that the player originally received. The player will bet or fold based on his two-card, and then a spread of three community cards that are turned over one at a time. What makes MSP interesting is the players ability to wager up to 3X the original ante wager on three different betting arounds. A player starting with a strong two card hand can wager as much as an additional 9 units.

Note: Obtaining a hand containing a pair of Sixes through Tens is an automatic “push” while a hand containing at least a pair of Jacks through Aces is a winner.

Like other alternative games, the most important strategy to remember is how the player raises or folds with his opening cards. Based on a strategy calculated by game designer Joseph Kisenwether, the player should raise his opening wager (and subsequent wagers) by 1X or 3X ante:

  • Raise 3x with any pair.
  • Raise 1x with at least one high card (Jack thru Ace) or two medium cards (six thru ten).
  • Raise 1x with 6/5 suited.
  • Any two-card hand other than these three combinations should be folded.

Because the player could wager as much as 9X the ante during the three betting rounds, knowing the value of future, unexposed cards is extremely significant. The most common reason for a card in the community spread to be exposed is again due to a sloppy dealer exposing the bottom card of the three community cards group when removing them from the shuffling machine.

Future card knowledge could be indicated if the MSP player who is wagering a “significant” amount, raises 3x time with folding hands or with hands normally raised only 1X.

DJ Wild Poker

The “D” stands in DJ Wild Poker for Deuces and the “J” stands for Joker; all five of those cards being totally wild. This 53-card poker style game starts when a player makes an equal ante and blind wager. The player will make the decision to fold or to raise (2X ante) based on his or her five-card hand.

The mathematics behind this game, like many poker-based card games is complex, but the fold or raise strategy is somewhat simple.

  • Raise with a pair of Fours or better, otherwise fold the hand.
  • The only exception is when holding a pair of Fours and one of the other three cards is a “three”, the hand should be folded.

The common strategy used by the players is to raise with a pair of Fours with no exceptions.

Player shared information is a possibility since the “wild” cards are very powerful in this game. Even with the possibility of only sharing information on thirty cards, if most of the outstanding cards are wild, marginal ranked hands would be folded. If the game is filled with players wagering a “significant” amount of money (or at least one of those players), watch for money hands holding medium pairs (Four’s through Ten’s) that fold.

Articles by Author: Bill Zender

As former Nevada Gaming Control Agent, casino operator, professional card counter and casino consultant, Bill Zender has been involved in various areas of gaming and hospitality since 1976. In the past, Zender has instructed courses on game protection, card counting, advantage play and gaming operations at various colleges and institutions throughout the country. As a member of JMJ, Inc., Zender was an owner and operator of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino and has additional operational experience in card room casinos in California and is considered an expert in Asian gaming. Besides his practical gaming experience, Zender holds a bachelors in hotel administration and a masters in business. As a gaming author Zender has penned seven non-fiction books on gaming including Card Counting for the Casino Executive, and the Casino-ology series. Owner/consultant of Bill Zender and Associates, Zender spent was general manager at a major California cardroom casino from 2018-2019. For more information, visit