The object of the game is to hope your three-card poker hand beats the dealer's three-card poker hand (the classic "you against the dealer"). Or, if you do not want to bet against the dealer, you can bet instead that your three-card hand will be at least a pair or higher.
The game is played on a blackjack size table using a single deck of cards. Prior to the cards being dealt by the dealer you must decide whether you want to bet against the dealer's hand or bet that your hand will be at least a pair or higher. You also have the option of betting both ways - against the dealer and against the pay schedule.
If you want to compete against the dealer's hand you must make a bet on the Ante. If instead you want to bet that your three card hand will be at least a pair or higher, then you would wager on the Pair Plus. The betting spots for making these wagers are located directly in front of each player.
Let's assume that you wager on the Ante. Here's what happens next. The dealer will deal each player and himself three cards face down. You pick up your cards, look at them, and decide whether you want to stay in the game or fold. If you want to stay, you must make another equal wager in the Play betting spot. If you decide instead to fold, you would place your cards face down on the layout toward the dealer. If you fold, the dealer will remove your cards and you lose your Ante bet.
After every player has decided whether to fold or Play, the dealer will face his cards and check whether it contains at least a queen or higher. If it does the dealer's hand is said to "qualify" and he will then face each player's hand that decided to stay in the game. If your hand has a higher poker rank than the dealer's hand, you win your Ante and Play wagers at even money (if you bet $5, you will win $5). If instead the dealer's hand beats the player's hand, the player's Ante and Play wagers are lost.
What if the dealer's hand doesn't qualify? This occurs if the dealer's hand does no have at least a queen or higher. When this occurs, the dealer will automatically pay each player who stayed in the game (i.e. wagered on the Play) even money on the Ante wager and return the Play wager to the player (it's a push)
Players who make an Ante wager are also eligible for a bonus payout that will be paid regardless of whether the dealer qualifies or whether your hand beats the dealer's hand. The latter point is not trivial. Many players are turned off to Caribbean Stud Poker because if the dealer doesn't qualify they get nothing for having a premium hand. This is not the case with Three Card Poker. If you have a straight, three-of-a-kind or a straight flush you will automatically be paid a bonus according to the following schedule
Ante Bonus Hand Payout
If you don't want to compete against the dealer's hand, your other betting option is to wager on the Pair Plus. You win if your three-card hand contains at least a pair or higher. The higher the poker rank, the greater the payout. You lose the Pair Plus bet if you end up with less than a pair.
Pair Plus Payouts Hand Payout
As mentioned earlier you could wager on both the Ante and Pair Plus from the get go. In fact if you play both, you can bet different amounts. However, keep in mind this rule. If you decide to fold your hand, you would not only lose your Ante wager but also your Pair Plus wager if you made it as well. That seems like a bummer but in actually it's not because if you had a pair or higher and thus eligible for the Pair Plus payout you should not fold these hands.
The only playing decision involved in Three Card Poker is whether or not to make the Play wager or to fold. A simple basic playing strategy is to just mimic the dealer, that is make the Play wager if your hand contains a queen or higher, otherwise fold.
Stnley Ko in his excellent booklet Mastering the Game of Three Card Poker mathematically computed a more optimum playing strategy. He recommends making the Play wager only if you hold a Queen-6-4 hand or better. Since it's not that difficult to memorize Q-6-4, I'd suggest using Ko's optimized strategy.
The casinos edge for the Pair Plus is 2.3 percent and for the Ante wager it's 3.4 percent based on the initial bet, or 2.0 and 2.3 percent respectively based on the total money bet. Compared to the similar Caribbean Stud Poker and Let it Ride poker games, Three Card Poker is a better gamble.