The Sahara, one of the few Las Vegas casinos willing to try new table games, is giving 7-Card Thrill a shot.
The game is a slimmed-down, speeded-up version of pai gow poker. From a deck of 52 cards plus a joker, players are each dealt seven cards. They must make their best five-card poker hand, using traditional rankings. As in pai gow, the joker is used as an ace or to fill straights and flushes.
"I love playing pai gow, but the game is too slow," says 7-Card Thrill inventor Henry Lo. "I figured I could come up with a faster version that players would like."
The game debuted at the Sahara last Friday. It features two bets. The main bet pits the player’s hand against the dealer’s. It pays even money. The second is a side bet that rewards a pair of aces or better. You don’t have to beat the dealer to win the side bet.
The house advantage is low for a novelty game: 2.2 percent on the main bet, 1.8 percent on the side wager. Unlike traditional pai gow poker, winning bets don’t pay commissions.
Lo says he purposely kept the house advantage down. "I think it’s better for the game," he says. "If players win more often, they will play more often."
The Sahara certainly hopes so. The venerable casino at the north end of the Strip has opened its pits to new game inventors looking for a break. Some sizzle, some fizzle, but don’t look for the Sahara to stop trying.
"We go over every new game with a fine-tooth comb," says shift manager Fred Roach. "If the game looks like it’s fun for the player and will be a good revenue generator, we’ll give it a chance."
Making it onto the casino floor is only half the battle for any new game.
"It has to get play," Roach says. "If it does, we’ll keep it around. You never know ”” we might end up with the next Let it Ride on our hands."
More than a year ago, the Sahara gambled with something called No Bust 21, a blackjack variation that gives players a second chance after they bust. Today, it’s one of the casino’s most popular and most lucrative games.
"It’s been very strong for us," Roach says. "Players love it. It’s strong for the house. That’s what we hope happens with 7-Card Thrill."