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Only once in her life has my wife sat down and played an actual table game in a casino. She’s never been a big gambler and plopping $5-$15 per hand on a table game just doesn’t sit well with her. Given how much fun we had that one night, I’m surprised she didn’t want to do it again. Maybe this is just an example of a gambler who quit while she was ahead!

It was probably about a decade ago. We decided she would give Three Card Poker a shot. We had practiced at home – not that it takes much – and gone over the strategy. Q-6-4 or higher, you play. Anything less, you fold. When you practice at home, though, even if you are using real chips, you don’t usually draw the circles, squares and diamonds found on a real casino table on your layout at home!

So, when we sat down, my wife turned to me and asked “now what do I do?” Before I could answer, the woman sitting on the other side of my wife answered the question. She explained how you “usually” stay in with a Queen High, but once in a while you can beat the dealer with a Jack.

My wife so desperately wanted to look at the woman and say, “Do you have any idea who my husband is? He literally wrote the book on Three Card Poker!” But, we discussed how I never tell anyone in the casino who I am or what I do. I’m not worried about how the casino will react. I’m more concerned about the players.

Needless to say, about an hour or two later, the woman had burned through her few hundred dollar bankroll and asked the pitboss if they could comp her a buffet, which he joyfully did. She thought she got comped. I figure she spent $200-$300 on her buffet!

We all know casinos win oodles of money. They don’t manage to build $1 billion casinos because they don’t make that money from their customers! Almost every month, I get a flier from a certain casino announcing their new contest for the upcoming month. For August, they are giving away full bottles of vodka each week. This must add up to a tidy sum of money.

Now, for some people, these promotions are free – either based on your level of play in the prior months or maybe to entice a potential player. For others, you must earn a certain number of points on the day in question. This brings us back to the $200 “comped” buffet.

It is possible that woman playing next to my wife was going to lose that money even if she played using perfect strategy? During the night in question, I probably paid attention to how badly she was playing. You should fold about one-third of your hands, and a fair amount of these will be with Jack High.

In Three Card Poker, you can’t beat the dealer with less than Queen High. If the dealer has a Jack High or less, he doesn’t qualify. You might win some money, but you didn’t beat him. Your odds of winning money are essentially the same with a J-10-8 as with a 5-3-2.

Had this woman played for 2-3 hours and lost $20, would the casino have given her a free buffet? I have no way of knowing. But would you rather lose $20 and pay the $10 for the buffet or lose $200 and get a free buffet? I hope everyone reading this opts for the former! A similar equation happens with many of these promotional “free” items.

If while earning your 100 points, you lose $50 to get your free bottle of vodka, did you get a free bottle of vodka or did you pay $50 for a $10 bottle of booze? If you were going to play anyhow and just so happen to get the free bottle, you might still consider the bottle to be free. But that is only half the answer.

What if you could have just as easily earned the 100 points while losing only $5? Now we have three options. Would you rather pay $10 for the bottle (at the store), lose $5 and get a free bottle or lose $50 and get a “free” bottle? We might be able to argue between the first two options for a while, but I’m pretty sure we’ll all agree that third choice is not the one to pick.

Here’s how casinos can offer up millions of dollars in prizes per month. First, it doesn’t really cost them all those millions anyhow. Giving you a $5 food credit may mean you spend $20 when you weren’t going to in the first place. It was worth $5 to you, but it didn’t really cost them $5.

Then there are all the prizes that get awarded but unused. Some people get a $5 food credit but don’t use it for some reason. The second half of the answer is that a lot of people pay for these prizes way more than necessary. With so many players losing $50 instead of $5 to get a $10 bottle of vodka, the real cost to the casino may be less than zero. In other words, they are actually making money off of these promotions.

If you learn the right strategies behind all the games, you can profit along with the casino by being one of the people who spends $5 to make $10 and not one of the ones who spends $200 for a $10 buffet!

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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