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Mark Pilarski

Mark  Pilarski
Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the gambling trenches, working for seven different casinos. He now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer, and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.

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The fast and furious shuffle and chop-chop pai gow

16 Jun 2006

By Mark Pilarski
Dear Mark,
How big of a disadvantage does the blackjack player who counts cards have against continuous shuffle machines? How about online play? How often do they shuffle cards? Jack M.

Casinos thwart card counters by using different countermeasures. They can use more decks, which decrease the player's advantage, or they can shuffle prematurely. The downside to frequent shuffling against a suspected card-counter is that it takes time, and if the dealer isn’t pitching cards to non-counting players and putting their kiss goodbye chips in the tray, the casino’s losing money.

Casinos can speed up play, and simultaneously curb counters with automatic shuffling machines.

Some shuffling machines shuffle-up one set of cards while another is in play. Others, known as continuous shuffle machines, allow the dealer to simply return used cards to a single shoe, which allows play without any interruption. Because continuous shuffle machines essentially allow minimal deck penetration, the advantage of traditional counting techniques is completely lost.

As for online casinos, the deck is reshuffled at the start of each hand, giving the card counter zip advantage. You will see some online casinos show an animation of the dealer shuffling the cards intermittently to give the illusion that the cards are being shuffled infrequently, but the cards are nonetheless actually shuffled after every round. It’s for show, Jack, not for wrapping you in dough.

Dear Mark,
Have you ever heard of an abbreviated game of pai gow poker that uses less than the traditional seven cards? Gary B.

Pai gow poker is a seven-card poker game played with a standard 52-card deck and a joker. The art of the game is to skillfully arrange your cards into two poker hands, one of five cards and the other of two. To win, both your five-card hand and your two-card hand must beat the banker’s corresponding hands. When setting your hands, remember your five-card hand must have a higher poker ranking than your two-card hand. Winning one hand while losing the other is a push or tie, where you neither win nor lose.

Your question, Gary, describes a nifty little game called Pyramid poker, a simplified version of pai gow poker, where, instead of seven cards, three cards are dealt to each player. Pyramid poker also uses a standard 52-card deck but does not include a joker.

Both the dealer and player are each dealt three cards, which are arranged into a two-card hand and a one-card hand. As in pai gow poker, the one-card hand must have a lower value than the two-card hand. The hand rankings are just as in poker except there can be no straights or flushes with the two-card hand, and aces are always high.

Once the player sets his two hands, the player’s one-card hand is compared to the dealer's one-card hand, and then the player's two-card hand is measured against the dealer's two-card hand. In order to win, both hands of the player must be higher than both of the dealer's. If only one hand is higher and the other loses, then the bet is a tie, or push. You lose only if the dealer wins both hands.

If hands are of equal face value — say for instance you both have a queen in your one-card hands — it’s called a copy, which automatically goes to the dealer, giving the casino a built-in house edge of approximately 3.5%.

Although you can find Pyramid Poker in some of the larger gaming jurisdictions, it’s not yet here in the woods of Northern Michigan, but I have, Gary, given it a kitchen table workout. It’s fun, and faster than pai gow poker, and probably worth adding to my play list among friends, but that 3.5% casino advantage by way of copies is a bit steep for me.

I’m short on space, Gary, but I will do a Q&A on optimal playing strategy in the future if someone writes in with an interest.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "If you got talent, Las Vegas is the land of milk and honey. If you don't, it's a burial ground." --Benny Binion

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