It’s understandable, and the reasons are many: a strange game layout with writing and numbers on its felt; an unfamiliar face handling money and directing newcomers and the table’s actions; and potentially worst of all, other casino patrons all with their own (often misguided or unfounded) approach to how to play a particular game. Nerves and social anxiety kick in. Nobody wants to be viewed as foolish or slowing down the game.
Most importantly, real money is at stake. Why not prepare a little and increase comfort levels, so that next trip to the casino is as fun as possible?
Starting with the most profitable table game at (in terms of revenue) the world’s biggest gambling destinations like Las Vegas and Macau, baccarat is a simple game with three primary wager types:
The game has a storied past around the world, most notably in Asian communities. Though the same game, titled Punto Banco, is played in many countries around the world.
After placing a wager on the corresponding (labeled) spot on the game felt, the dealer does all the work from there. Hands move quickly relative to how other players behave at the table. This is noteworthy because players are allowed to touch the cards dealt to them, but not the dealer’s cards, of course.
Superstition and cultural practices make the squeezing or peeling back of dealt, face-down cards common. Don’t be surprised to find lots of scratches and bent corners. As one might assume, playing cards in a baccarat game don’t last very long. They are replaced with more regularity than in other table games.
Gameplay and odds
There are only three wagers one can make in baccarat. All wagers are final before any cards are dealt. Chips or plaques, something that signifies value, are placed on the respective areas of the felt titled Player, Banker, or Tie. Some casinos have attached side games to baccarat, yet these have decreased in popularity.
This article will briefly cover how some side bets have given players an advantage in the game. Because of this, though, most casinos have eliminated the side bets from the felt. Main gameplay simply focuses on three wagers. The house advantage is low in baccarat with the exception of the Tie bet. It’s 1.24 percent on the Player bet, 1.06 percent on the Banker bet, and 14.36 percent on the Tie. Don’t play the tie in baccarat for this reason.
Baccarat is usually dealt from a shoe consisting of eight decks of playing cards. Sometimes six are used. Traditional 52-card decks are used (no Jokers), and cards are assigned the following values: aces count as one; two through nine represent their face or pip value; 10s, Jacks, Queens, and Kings are assigned a value of zero.
The best possible score in baccarat is nine. There is no busting like in blackjack. Winning “Player” wagers pay even money. Winning “Banker” bets pay even money minus a five percent commission (or 19/20). Ties pay 8-1.
Getting started in baccarat
With a freshly shuffled shoe, a game of one or many (up to a dozen in some instances) players buy into the game as one might any table game. In return, they get chips or plaques adding up to the corresponding buy-in value. The dealer will flip over the first card from the shoe. That card determines how many cards the dealer is to burn (discard face down) before beginning the first deal.
Aces (counting as one) through nines are self-explanatory. Turning over a 10, Jack, Queen, or King means the dealer burns ten cards. A cut card is placed in the back of the shoe in a spot where reaching the cut card instead of the first card of a round means the dealer can continue to deal one more complete round.
A round of baccarat
The dealer will deal two cards face up for the player and two for the banker after all bets are set. Hand totals range from zero to nine, and in the case of the sum of two cards totaling more than 10, only the second digit of that number matters. For example, a King and a Queen equal zero while a five and a six equal one.
Most rounds require only two cards each for the player or banker. But when either side’s total is five or less (an eight plus seven for example), a potential third card is dealt. Unlike blackjack, casino patrons do not designate whether they want a third card. This action is determined by set rules of the game.
If a player’s total is five or less, a third card is drawn. In the event the player has a hand value of six or seven and stands, the banker will hit on a total of five or less. The rule that supersedes all is that if either the player or banker has a total of eight or nine, both sides stand.
How to gain an edge
Though many have tried different theories and strategies, gaining an edge in baccarat traditionally comes from reduced commission on the banker. Baccarat is not a countable game like blackjack.
In fairly current events, world famous gambler Phil Ivey entered a legal battle with both an American and British casino by edge-sorting. This is an advantage play that uses slight manufacturer defects on the back of cards that hint whether a card might be a Jack, Queen, King; an Ace; a two or three; or a four through nine.
By having this information, a player can have a significant advantage over the casino — much greater than card counting in blackjack.
Craps is potentially a much more complex table game even though everything comes down to the roll of the dice (two six-sided dice). The reason why is that there are many potential bets. These bets often cancel each other out, and there’s a variety of odds to consider.
Fortunately, craps is a game staffed by at least two casino employees there to help and ensure proper payouts and control of the dice.
The Boxman oversees the action for security and accuracy. The Stickman controls the dice and the bets. At a standard craps table, these individuals stand opposite each other. This is the bare minimum. Often, at a busy, full-sized table, two other employees, traditional dealers, move chips around and pay off bets from opposite ends of the felt.
Craps is a game with its own language. Understanding a few key terms will help novice players make much more sense of it. Though not all bets are related to it, the number that drives the action in craps is called the point.
This is marked by a puck, white with “ON” on one side and black with “OFF” on the other. Before a point can be established the shooter must roll the dice to try and establish the point. This is called the come out roll. In order to shoot on the come out roll, a player must have a wager on either the pass line or don’t pass line.
The entirety of craps terminology is not something that can be summarized in a fraction of an article; however, this author will introduce more terms as they are related to bet options.
A shooter rolls the dice until a point has been established. These point numbers are four, five, six, eight, nine, and 10.
Remember how a shooter has to have a line bet in order to roll the dice? Before a point is established, a pass line bet wins on a come out roll of seven or 11. It loses when the dice turn up a total of two, three, or 12. On the flip side, a shooter with a wager on the don’t pass wins on two or three, pushes on 12, and loses on seven or 11.
After a point has been established, players have the opportunity to place a variety, at least dozens, of other bets. The shooter will continue to shoot until a seven is rolled before the point. Seven is the most important number in craps because it is the most common combination of two six-sided dies.
Probability dictates that a seven will be rolled one sixth of the time. A player keeps rolling point after point regardless of whether they bet the pass or don’t pass. After a point has been established and a player rolls a seven, a moment is taken to clear (or sometimes pay) bets on the table. The dice are “washed” or mixed up on the felt, and the next shooter to the last shooter’s left picks exactly two dice out of the mix of six or eight.
House edge and the odds bet
The line bets are the most common craps bets because they are fundamental to the function of the game. They also have the lowest house advantage with an inherent advantage. An important concept, the odds bet, is the only bet on the table that does not have a house advantage. It is correct to say that on the odds bet, a wager that supplements a line bet, the casino has zero advantage. Odds bets are placed either immediately behind a player’s pass line bet or to the right of their don’t pass bet.
Odds wagers mitigate the overall house advantage of craps. On average, a line bet with standard Las Vegas odds makes craps a game with a one percent casino advantage. For promotional purposes, some casinos offer 10x odds or more (meaning max odds of 10x the line bet); however, standard Las Vegas craps odds (sometimes referred to as “racetrack” odds) are 3-4-5.
This means that the max odds one can place to back up their pass line bet is three times on points of 4 or 10, four times on points of 5 or 9, and five times on points of 6 or 8. The same limits mean that don’t pass odds can be up to six times the don’t pass line bet.
Other craps bets
“Horn high yo. Big red. Hard eight back up. C & E…” Lingo is commonly heard from the rail of a rowdy craps table. As previously mentioned, the game affords players numerous ways to bet. A red chip ($5) player can easily find him or herself with hundreds of dollars in action. Seemingly small stakes yield no shortage of risk for players who like to reap the rewards or rue in the pain on all outcomes of the dice at any given moment.
COME bets are just like line bets on a second point (and can only be placed after a point has been established). FIELD bets are one-roll bets where, depending on house rules, a roll of 2 and 12 pay either 2:1 or 3:1 (one or the other but not both): three, four, nine, 10, 11 pay even money.
While having action all around the layout is prudent for some, the line bet and max odds are simply the best bets for the player.
Three Card Poker
Three Card Poker tables are intimate with a maximum of five player seats. Don’t let all the writing on the felt be intimidating. As the name implies, Three Card Poker, or 3CP for short, is a table game loosely tied to poker in terms of hand rankings.
Wagering in 3CP is fairly rudimentary. A player places an ANTE wager simply to participate in a hand. A common secondary wager a player might make concurrently is the PAIR PLUS bet, a wager which pays out solely based on the ranking of a player’s poker hand. The rankings and payouts are printed on the felt. A pair pays even money, while a straight flush pays 40-1. Some but not all casinos deal 3CP where royal flushes have an even higher payout on the pair plus bet.
The rules of 3CP are easy to learn, and the dealer does virtually all of the work. Players have only a few opportunities to affect the outcome of a hand. The dealer (often from a shuffling machine built into the table) will deal each player three cards face down and him/herself the same. 3CP is a multi-wager game in the sense that to continue the hand, a player must decide whether to “fold” or “raise.” Folding forfeits the player’s ante bet and ends the hand at that point for that player. To continue, the player must place an equal bet on PLAY. Basic strategy will be discussed later in this article.
At this point, the exposed dealer’s hand must qualify with Queen-high or better. If the dealer does not qualify, players win their ANTE bet, and the PLAY bet pushes (ties).
Players’ hands are compared to the dealer’s qualifying hand. If the player has the better poker hand, he or she wins both the ANTE and PLAY bets. Conversely, if the dealer’s hand is better, the player loses both wagers. A tie results in a push.
The PAIR PLUS wager plays solely on the poker value of the player’s hand — an opportunity for a big payday!
Strategy and house advantage
Three Card Poker is not the friendliest game for players in terms of casino advantage. Overall, the house advantage is just above five percent. The house advantage on the PAIR PLUS wager is over seven percent alone.
A general basic strategy can help players’ realize a lower casino edge. Poor strategy can turn 3CP into quite the carnival game, which is not very fun for casino patrons in the long run.
What hands should one fold? Any poker hand that is Queen-high with a 6 and 3 or worse should be folded. Play Queen-high with a 6 and 4 or better. Remembering this basic strategy rule will help players have the best long-run experience playing 3CP.
One of the oldest gambling games on Earth, pai gow is a player vs. banker (dealer/house) game, like baccarat. It’s played in two forms, Pai Gow Poker, and the traditional version with 32 dominoes or tiles. The concepts are the same, so do not hesitate to give pai gow a shot.
In Las Vegas, some of the best places to play are the luxurious Strip casinos. Although high rollers have been known to play pai gow for giant stakes, a casual daytime gambler can find relatively low stakes compared to craps or blackjack.
Moreover, the pace of the game is on the slow side, like a traditional 9- or 10-handed live Texas Hold ‘Em poker game, and many hands result in a push (tie). These factors lower a player’s risk of ruin, allowing for a buy-in to last a long time. Because there are fewer pai gow tables in North American casinos than blackjack or baccarat, for example, pai gow dealers welcome the opportunity to show first-timers the ropes.
Rules and hand rankings
The game is played with 32 dominoes making 16 pairs. The tricky part to the unfamiliar eye is that only 24 look identical. The dealer and each player are given four dominoes, regularly called tiles, to start a round of pai gow. Casino patrons have the opportunity to rotate between player and banker depending on casino rules.
Players separate their tiles to make one low and one high hand. Player and dealer hands are compared, and points are tallied. As in baccarat, points are the sum of the tile values where only the second digit (if ten or greater) matters. For example, five plus five equals zero points.
Exact pairs beat a 2 or 12 tile with a 9 tile, called a Wong. A Wong beats a 2 or 12 tile with an 8 tile, called a Gong. If none of the above occurs, the more points the better. One tricky part with the tiles is that the 3 score domino and the 6 score one are in a sense “wild” or multipurpose to make a pair or the best score (high or low).
As mentioned, pai gow is a game with a lot of ties and not only because of splits high and low. Note that a 0-0 tie always goes to the banker (player loses). The tie-breaking scenarios are as follows. If both player and banker have a Wong, Gong, or tie with one to nine points, the highest tile in either side’s hand breaks the tie. If that doesn’t break the tie, the win goes to the banker.
Money: winning and losing
Again, there are a lot of pushes. If a player wins one of either the high or low, the player’s wager is pushed back. The hand is considered a wash. If the player wins both hands, he/she will win even money on the wager minus a five percent commission. The banker has to win both high and low tile sets for a player to lose his/her wager.
Strategy and house edge
Overall, pai gow is a game with a low house edge of just above one percent, but there are some strategy tips that improve a casino patron’s chances, therefore getting as close as possible to realizing the low house edge.
Since pairs are ranked highest, look to make pairs before splitting up potential. Don’t try and make a 6-point low and 8-point high when you can make two 7-point pairs. Making a 6 pair, 7 pair, 8 pair, or 9 value pair is better than making a Wong or Gong. In these cases, arrange 2, 10, 11, and 12 value tiles as necessary to make pairs.
Pai gow is not an easy game to quickly pick up. You can review some visuals of the tiles and strategy to help make sense of what might be a foreign game to some.
Mobile and online
Baccarat, craps, 3CP, and pai gow can all be played online and in mobile formats.
The simple PLAYER, BANKER, TIE felt in baccarat and lack of player ability to affect an outcome make this game the easiest to convert into an online casino / mobile format.
The craps felt is much more complex. Players will have a few more options when it comes to wagering types and sizing. Though online casinos offer the game, some players may enjoy clicking or tapping less than rolling physical dice in a brick-and-mortar casino.
3CP might be the best table game out of the four to play in an online or mobile version. Programming ability allowing for small software adjustments to format the PAIR PLUS payouts in a more player-favorable way should make the game more exciting and competitive among regulated, online casinos. A lower house edge and higher jackpots for royal flushes would be an improvement over the typical brick-and-mortar version.
Pai gow is certainly a complex game. There are also plenty of rules to program. Some of the fun in traditional casino settings is that a low roller can make relatively large wagers knowing the high probability of ties and pushes. A digital version of pai gow may gain popularity with a reduced (4.9 percent vs. 5 percent for example) commission on player wins. Yet, like rolling the dice in craps, setting tiles, and the physical part of the gambling experience is something that may not translate well with typical gamblers.