Last month we began a quest—a quest to identify which table games charge commission on winning bets, a quest to understand the mathematical and historical rationales behind it, a quest to balance the pluses and minuses of its practice, and, ultimately, a quest to determine—if that’s what you want—the best way to 86 this 5 percent once and for all.
Stuff that up your windmill and spin it, Don Quixote.
Having already waxed on (and on and on and on) about baccarat and pai gow poker, let’s now train our focus to pai gow tiles, Three Card Baccarat and Fan Tan.
Unlike the mass-market juggernaut pai gow poker, the tile version is more of a cult hit. Not as in the Manson Family; more like as in The Addams Family. True, this ancient game is played in most major casino markets, but there are only about 250 tables around the world. Pai gow poker, a relatively recent derivative, has muscled up to 1,500 placements.
Here’s a crash course: You get four tiles (aka, dominoes) and arrange them into a high hand and a low hand of two tiles each. To win, your high hand must beat the dealer’s high hand and your low hand must beat the dealer’s low hand. To lose, just do the opposite of that.
Winning bets are paid 1 to 1, but the house will claw back 5 percent. This, along with taking “copies” (exact hands) is how the house maintains its advantage.
How can you kill commission? Let us count the ways: 1) Players push if the dealer’s high hand is 5 points or lower; 2) they push if the dealer’s low hand is 2 points or lower; or 3) they automatically lose if their highest tile is 6 or lower.
See? Easy as pai.
THREE CARD BACCARAT
Now we’re delving into the deep tracks. Unless you’ve been to the top of Resorts World in Malaysia or the back of Greek mythology in Macau, or—a little closer to home for most of us—Ameristar Casino in East Chicago, Indiana, you’ve probably never heard of Three Card Baccarat.
Traditional baccarat and this game share a surname and are sort of similar, like Pamela Anderson and Loni Anderson. Baccarat is a common-outcome game, where more than one player can have the same cards, while Three Card Baccarat, which sometimes goes by the alias “Three Kings,” in reference to the highest hand you can get, is more like blackjack. Players get their own hands and compete individually against the dealer. The game uses the same scoring system as baccarat, with 9 being the highest result and 0 being the lowest, but it incorporates a tie-breaking system based on the number of face cards in your hand, and collects 5 percent on every winning hand.
Hmmm. Maybe it’s more like Pamela Anderson and Louie Anderson.
As with the other games we’ve discussed, methods abound to resign this one from its commission. You can take a specific winning outcome and make it a push. Or you could borrow the dealer qualifying rule from poker-style carnival games: If the dealer has less than 3 points, players automatically win 1 to 2.
You have to see Fan Tan to appreciate it. Or believe it actually exists. There’s truly nothing else like it, a game and a setting so surreal that you wonder if you’re in a legitimate casino or the back room of a Chinese laundromat.
In the ’80s.
Most table games are played with cards, dice or a ball of some sort. But not Fan Tan. It uses buttons. Yes, buttons. Small, white ones, ones you might find on an Oxford shirt. Or beans. Yes, beans. Small, white ones, ones you might find at a Trader Joe’s. And then, for some non-obvious reason, the dealer starts the proceedings by ringing a bell—one like they have at the front desk of a hotel—before the start of each round.
Then it really gets weird.
The dealer takes a bowl and covers a random portion of buttons, 50 or so, from the pile of a few hundred on the table. Players then bet on how many buttons will remain after the dealer removes them in groups of four. The dealer doesn’t touch the buttons by hand because that would be, uh, ridiculous; instead, he uses a metal wand and separates them out of the pile four at a time, like a pharmacist filling a prescription of Zoloft.
Fan Tan is all about the remainder. After the dealer removes the buttons four at a time, there will be zero, one, two or three remaining. That’s what you bet on. Guess correctly and you win 3 to 1, minus a 5 percent commission.
Fittingly, Fan Tan, the oddball, the misfit, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of table games, is also the one member of the commission club that will never get out. How would you do it? How can you infrequently punish the player in order to eliminate the 5 percent vig?
Best we can come up with is this: Drop the standard payouts to 2 to 1, which will make the house edge 25 percent. Then, randomly—once everyone has bet, of course—trigger some electronic gizmo that may randomly increase the payouts; for example, winners this round pay 5 to 1, 10 to 1, whatever to 1. You’d just have to calibrate the frequency and the amount so you land on the appropriate mathematical edge.