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Turning the tables

Jun 22, 2004 6:53 AM

(This is the second in a two-part series)

While the popularity of standard table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette has remained relatively constant over the past few years, new games such as Casino War, 3 Card Poker and Spanish 21 have attracted new players who haven’t yet devoted themselves — and their bankroll — to the almighty slot machine.

These games are called "proprietary" games because, unlike blackjack and craps, they must be leased from the licensed manufacturer or patent holder.

Today, proprietary games take up about 20 percent of the casino’s pit area, double what it was five years ago, which was double what it was five years before that.

"Table games are now becoming more inspired and perhaps we will see a resurgence in table games as a result of the new games," says Kim Stoll, corporate director of advertising/publicity at the Peppermill Hotel Casino in Reno.

Last week GT counted down the 10th through 6th Top 10 proprietary table games (based on number of units operating). This week we roll out the top five games.

No. 5 — Four Card Poker (Shuffle Master, debuted 2002, 100 games): Four Card Poker is the first table game to reach 100 installations since Three Card Poker in 1998. That’s six years and 200 (at least) new games ago. Nearly all of those placements, according to Shuffle Master, have occurred in the past 12 months, although the company began marketing the game in late 2001.

This is the sister game of Crazy 4 Poker, another Shuffle Master offering, that was 10th on our list.

The game is played in most major North American casino markets, including California, New Jersey, Mississippi and Washington. In Nevada, Four Card Poker just finished its field trial and should receive regulatory approval in late July.

Of all the games in our countdown, Four Card Poker is the most volatile. And the most barbaric. According to Roger Snow, the game’s inventor, nothing matches Four Card when it comes to wild swings, bad beats and big wins.

Here’s how it works: Players ante and receive five cards to make a four-card poker hand. After seeing their cards, players either fold or make a Play bet. This is where the fun — or terror — starts. Four Card is the first game to offer unstructured betting. That is, players may wager one, two or three times their ante. In Caribbean Stud and Three Card Poker, two similar games, such betting is structured. In Caribbean, you must wager twice your ante; in Three Card, you can only match it.

Four Card uses a primitive method for giving the house its advantage: an extra card. The dealer gets six cards to make his four-card hand, which means his average hand is higher than the player’s. Of course, players can fold and the dealer can’t — in fact the dealer always qualifies — and players can bet three times their ante whenever they wish.

The game has a low house edge (1.5 percent), but the skittish need not apply. It’s like boxing: In order to land a big punch, you must put yourself in position to get hit with a big punch. And if you get knocked down, you have to get up and launch a few haymakers of your own.

No. 4 — Spanish 21 (Masque Publishing, debuted 1995, 375 games): Spanish 21 is the most successful blackjack variation on the market. Not only that, but the game has endured for nearly 10 years and has spawned numerous imitators and competitors.

This is also the only game on our list that uses a modified deck of cards. All the 10s are removed (the jacks, queens and kings remain). This, along with the inherent edge of traditional blackjack, puts players at a disadvantage. Fewer 10-value cards means fewer blackjacks; plus, it weakens doubling down and makes dealer busting less likely.

So why would anyone want to play such a one-sided game? Spanish 21 can actually offer an array of liberal rules. Players can do just about anything — surrender anytime, double down on any number of cards. Plus, hands like 6-7-8 and 7-7-7 suited pay automatic bonuses.

Surprisingly, Spanish 21 has the lowest house edge of any game in our countdown, less than 1 percent. But you can shred that blackjack basic strategy card: It’s a whole new ball game. Fortunately for players who want to get the best of it, Spanish 21’s popularity has led to several strategy books. You can find them on-line or in bookstores that cater to gamblers.

Most casinos offer Spanish 21. Its stronghold, however, is Washington, where it is the most popular specialty game.

No. 3 — Caribbean Stud Poker (DP Stud, Mikohn, debuted 1990, 600 games): Caribbean Stud is the granddaddy of all proprietary table games. It was the first, and for the longest time — until about 2002 — the undisputed champion. The game’s popularity has faded in recent years, but it is still a staple of the casino industry.

Two companies distribute the game: DP Stud, which controls Nevada rights, and Mikohn, which controls the game everywhere else.

Caribbean Stud features head-to-head play versus the dealer and a progressive bonus bet. Players ante and receive five cards to make a poker hand. The dealer also receives five cards. Players may fold or stay in the game by making a call bet of twice their ante. The dealer then reveals his hand and — assuming he qualifies — pays winners and takes loses. Certain hands pay bonuses on the call bet — again, assuming the dealer qualifies.

Caribbean is the only prominent table game to feature a progressive jackpot. Players participate in the jackpot by wagering $1. A percentage of that dollar increments the meter, and when someone hits a royal flush, the top hand in poker, he wins whatever is on the jackpot.

Depending on the payouts for lower-level hands, the progressive can become huge. It’s not uncommon to see a Caribbean Stud table sporting a $100,000 or $200,000 jackpot. Many casinos say players watch the meters from property to property and only play in the one with the highest jackpot.

Caribbean Stud has yielded several less successful offspring. They include Caribbean Draw, Wild Aruba Stud and Tropical Stud. None has approached the prominence of the original.

No. 2 — Let it Ride (Shuffle Master, debuted 1993, 625 games): Let it Ride is a five-card poker game that features big bonuses and electronics. Unlike most poker games in our countdown, it is played against a paytable — players do not compete against the dealer.

The game, which Shuffle Master founder John Breeding invented to help sell single-deck shufflers, followed in the footsteps of Caribbean Stud. Until recently, it stood in Caribbean’s shadow as well. But while Let it Ride has slipped from its high of 650 games in the field, it has treaded water well enough and long enough to surpass its longtime nemesis.

For the first half of its life, Let it Ride was known for its annual tournaments, which attracted players from around the country. Players qualified by making a $1 bonus bet and then receiving a premium hand. The winner of the tournament, which was held at a different casino each year, won $100,000.

Shuffle Master dropped the national tournaments in 1997 and changed Let it Ride’s bonus into a classic side bet — casinos paid qualifying hands at the table. The company, however, continues to sponsor tournaments at individual properties. The Flamingo Laughlin conducts the biggest tournament, drawing more than 1,000 players each December.

No. 1 — Three Card Poker (Shuffle Master, Prime Table Games, debuted 1996, 1,500 games): No surprise here: Three Card Poker in 2002 became the No. 1 proprietary game in history. Two years later it has lapped the field. Three Card has more placements than Let it Ride and Caribbean Stud combined, and the game shows no signs of slowing down. Virtually every casino in North America and the United Kingdom offers Three Card Poker; some offer as many as a dozen.

Three Card Poker lets players compete against the dealer and against a bonus paytable. The bonus bet, called Pair Plus, is key to the game’s popularity. It’s so strong that several other games borrow it — 3-5-7 Poker, Boston 5 and Pai Gow Mania. Shuffle Master even offers a version of Let it Ride that lets players wager on their first three cards.

Players win the Pair Plus bet if their three-card poker hand contains a pair or better. Payouts increase for hands like flushes, straights and three-of-a-kinds. The top hand, a straight flush, pays 40-1. And unlike bonus bets in five-card games, Pair Plus winners are easy to get. For instance, players will receive a three-card straight flush once ever 650 hands. By contrast, in five-card poker, a straight flush occurs once every 72,000 hands!

The game against the dealer is simple, although devoid of aggressive betting as in Four Card Poker. Players ante and receive their cards. They may fold or make an additional bet equal to their ante. The dealer then reveals his hand. If he qualifies (queen-high or better), the dealer pays the winners and takes the losers. If the dealer doesn’t qualify, players win their ante and the secondary bet pushes.

Of the 1,500 Three Card Poker games around the world, Shuffle Master controls about 1,200 of them. The rest — the ones in the United Kingdom — belong to Derek Webb, the game’s inventor and owner of Prime Table Games. (Webb sold the game to Shuffle Master in 1999; at the time, there were fewer than 200 in the market, mostly in Mississippi and Nevada.)

Three Card Poker will likely have a long reign, perhaps longer than Caribbean Stud’s 12-year dynasty. Of the other games in the top five, only one — Four Card Poker — is riding an upward trend. The rest are flat or fading.

Thus it’s possible that Three Card Poker will remain king forever. Or at least until the next great innovation hits the casino floor.