Winning Strategies for Caribbean Poker

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Trying to get an edge and keep your money in Caribbean Poker (a.k.a. Caribbean Stud) is no small feat. The house has a solid edge backed up by a couple rules that will prove frustrating if you play for very long or for serious money.

The Truth of the Game

Despite its name, Caribbean Poker is a table game, more akin to Blackjack than Poker. But don't think that Caribbean provides the same opportunities for the shrewd player that Blackjack does, 'cause it most certainly does not. The house has a solid 5.2% edge over the player and that's close to the worst odds you'll find in the casino. (See The Wizard of Odds Caribbean Strategy for a different perspective on these odds). As to its relation to Poker, the only thing they have in common is that Caribbean uses the Poker hands for scoring.

There are only three decisions a player needs to make in Caribbean Poker. The first is how much to bet. The second is whether to Raise or Fold after the dealer's one-card flop. And the third is whether take the Side (a.k.a. Progressive) Bet.

Betting

There are a few factors in this game that recommend the smart player place small bets. The first is the house edge which there is simply no getting around and in the long run that means you're going to lose money. Better to lose small than big, no? The second is that most Caribbean tables limit the payout. You may bet $100 a hand and Raise your $200 and think you've hit a $6,000 jackpot when you come up with 4-of-a-Kind with its 20-1 payout. But if the Maximum Payout at your table is $5,000 then that's all you're going to get. So know your table's Max and bet accordingly.

Basic Strategy

Simply put, the basic strategy in Caribbean Poker is to Raise on A-K-J-8-3 or better and Fold otherwise. That is called the "beacon hand" and it's the lowest break-even hand in the game. While this won't make you a long-term winner, it will help slow your losses. It's the paying hands, a pair or better, that will net you the good wins. Trouble is that the dealer must qualify (A-K) in order for you to get the real payoffs and those opportunities are annoyingly infrequent in Caribbean Poker. More on this later.

If you've spent any time looking around, you'll know that there are many varieties and variations of this strategy. Using them will help you shave the house edge by teeny amounts, but they're hardly worth the effort. Even if you played the mathematically optimal strategy you'd only improve over the basic strategy by a few tenths of a point. Is it worth it? On paper maybe, but the bottom line is that you're playing a losing game so getting deep into it in order to shave a couple tenths is an effort of dubious worth.

Side Bets

In most of the Caribbean Poker games I've played online there's a little meter running showing you the amount of cash in the Progressive Pot. The idea is that for a $1 Side Bet you'll have a crack at some or all of that Pot if you win a hand with a Flush or better. Guess what, it's a sucker bet with the house edge around 22% or more. The gurus say don't do it, and if you must do it, wait until the Pot is $150,000 or better. Don't worry, you'll be losing your money fast enough in Caribbean Poker to have any need to speed up the process by placing Side Bets.

The Killer in Caribbean Poker

In my opinion there is one rule in Caribbean Poker that needs very close examination by the would-be player. The fact that the dealer must qualify with an A-K or better before the player gets a proper payout on a winning hand hangs over the game like a black cloud. Let's dream a little and assume that every hand you get beats the dealer. Only 54% of the time will the dealer qualify and that means that 46% of the time you'll only get paid for your Ante bet at 1-1 no matter how good your cards are. Let's make this a little clearer with examples taken from recent play experiences of mine.

Let's say you're playing $10 a hand, you pull a Pair of 4's , and Raise. If the dealer qualifies with an A-K, you win and get paid out at the 1-1 odds on both the Ante and the Raise, pulling back $30 on the hand. But if the dealer failed to qualify you only get paid on your Ante at 1-1. No big deal you say? Let's take another look.

Same $10 hand but you pull Four-of-a-Kind and Raise. Needless to say, in real Poker this hand would probably set you up for a serious win. Even in Caribbean you'll rake back $410 because of the 20-1 payout on Four-of-a-Kind, but if and only if the dealer qualifies. But if the dealer doesn't qualify (again, 46% of the time) do you know what you win? $10 because of the 1-1 Ante Payout, and that's it. It could've been a Royal Flush and all you'd get is that $10. "Heads I win, Tails you lose" is what this sounds like to me.

Where's the Beef?

By now you've probably gathered that I'm not much of a Caribbean Poker fan. In fact, I pretty much agree with the experts when they say it's a mindless game with terrible odds. The question then is why is it popular at all? I think the answer lies somewhere in the way the game plays. You're sitting there, losing most of the time and on the rare occasion when you get a good hand and the dealer has qualified, you get a nice payout. You anted $10, using the Four-of-a-Kind example above, and pulled back $410. Not bad, and you kind of want to bet again, right?

I think this follows what I call The Pain Rule, named after what an old friend of mine said when I asked him what he liked about long-distance running. "It feels so good to stop". You feel so relieved when the pain is over that you think you actually enjoyed doing the thing in the first place. In Caribbean you lose so often, or rather the dealer failed to qualify so you could win, that it feels great when you actually do rake in a real payoff. Pick your poison.




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