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Best of John Grochowski
Play Four Eases Woes of Almost Hands2 June 2003
In any stud poker-based casino game, the "almosts" will drive you crazy.
Hands that are almost a flush or almost a straight will have you forfeiting antes on Caribbean Stud and depleting your bankroll with final-bet losses in Let It Ride.
That's something Larry Kekempanos and Jim Kenny had in mind when they devised Play Four Poker, which made its debut with a single table at Jack Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.
Kekampos, of Kings Gaming, Inc., in Oak Lawn, and Kenny, a pit manager at Horseshoe, have moved to ease the woes of "almost" by dealing five-card hands, but designating one as a discard. Payoffs are made on the basis of the best four-card hand, as Kenny explained to me while I played a few hands at a training table before Horseshoe went live with the game.
"We don't even use the fifth card to break ties," Kenny said. "The game is a four-card game. If the player and dealer tie with four cards, the hand is a push."
Instead of being disappointments, four-card flushes and straights are winners.
Play Four plays much like Three Card Poker. There are two ways to play, and the player may choose either or both. The pair of Jacks or better bet is just that--the player is wagering that the hand will include a pair of Jacks or better. The dealer's cards don't matter here. If the player has a pair of Jacks, Queens, Kings or Aces, the payoff is even money, with a 2-1 payoff on two pair, 3-1 on three of a kind, 4-1 on either a four-card straight or flush, 25-1 on a straight flush, 75-1 on four of a kind or 200-1 on a four-card royal flush--Ace through Jack of the same suit.
Note that unlike most poker-based games, the payoff is larger on four of a kind than on a straight flush. That's because of all the four-card straight flushes that are useless in a five-card game, but are big winners when five cards are dealt but only four are used.
Play Four also features play against the dealer, similar to Caribbean Stud and Three Card Poker. The player starts by making an ante. After looking at the cards, he or she may either fold or stay in the hand by making a "play" bet equal to the ante. If the dealer does not have a qualifying hand of King-Queen or better, the player is paid even money on the ante and nothing on play. If the dealer does qualify, then hands are compared. If the dealer wins, the player loses both ante and play. If the player wins, the ante and play are both paid at even money.
There is also a bonus feature to play against the dealer. Regardless of whether the dealer qualifies or whether the player wins the basic bet, a 3-1 bonus is paid for a straight flush, 8-1 for four of a kind or 20-1 for a royal flush.
Most players would do well to follow a basic strategy of making the play bet on any hand of Ace-10 or better, and folding anything less. Those who want to step up a notch will stay with Ace-10-6-3-2 or better. For the real fanatics, there are 113 exceptions, based on suit composition. We'll leave those exceptions alone.
The house edge is 5 percent on the Jacks or Better option, and 3.22 percent of the ante or 1.88 percent of total action on play against the dealer. Compared with Three Card Poker, Play Four's Jacks or Better has a higher house edge than the 2.3 percent on the best version of Three Card Poker's Pair Plus. That's offset a bit by the possibility of a 200-1 jackpot in Four Play, compared with a maximum 40-1 in Three Card Poker.
In play against the dealer, Four Play has the lower house edge, with Three Card Poker checking in at 2.01 percent in its optimal version. Both are slightly lower than Caribbean Stud (5.2 percent of the ante or 2.6 percent of total action) and Let It Ride (3.5 percent of one bet or 2.8 percent of total action).
Play Four is easy to learn--a couple of hands and you'll be playing like an old pro--and figures to be a fun way to take the frustration out of those "almosts."
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While we're on the subject of stud poker-based games, a while back I wrote about a game called Boston Stud. It's a five-card game involving an ante and a bet twice the ante's size. Players win as many hands as they lose, but are paid only on the bets when they win, while the house takes both the bets and antes when the dealer hand wins. There's also a bonus pay table, bringing any extra payoff whenever the player has two pair or better.
When I first wrote about the game, I calculated the house edge at 3.33 percent if the player stayed in every hand, and suggested that some judicious folding might lower that a trifle. As it happens, the folds don't help. The best strategy is to stay in every hand. The outstanding Web site www.wizardofodds.com lists the house edge at 3.32 percent--apparently I was off a fraction.
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Best of John Grochowski