I just wrote a post about Mississippi Stud, which is one of these new poker-based casino games that are slowly replacing blackjack tables in casinos throughout the world. The other new-ish and popular game of this ilk is Ultimate Texas Hold’em, which is a trademark of Bally Gaming, Inc. This post has no association with Bally—it’s just meant to be purely informational and educational.

Learning how to play Ultimate Texas Hold’em isn’t hard. It’s an easy game, similar, in fact, to Mississippi Stud. I’ll cover the rules, the strategy, and the house edge for Ultimate Texas Hold’em below. I’ll also provide some observations about the possibility of playing Ultimate Texas Hold’em online, either for free or for real money.

One thing I’d like to point out right away is that casino games like Ultimate Texas Hold’em aren’t really poker games. They’re casino games which use some of the aspects of poker for their game-play and rules. The difference is where the money comes from.

In a casino game, you’re playing against the house. It’s you versus the dealer or you versus the pay table. You don’t have to beat the other players at the table to win, and when you win, the other players don’t pay you off—the casino does. That’s a huge difference. It usually means that you can get an edge at a real poker game, by being more skilled than the other players. The same isn’t true of poker-based casino games like Ultimate Texas Hold’em.

1- Learning the Rules of Ultimate Texas Hold’em

 
You don’t have to know how to play real Texas holdem to play Ultimate Texas Hold’em, but  it doesn’t hurt. Here’s how the game works, and it’s pretty easy:

You start by making 2 bets of the same size—an ante bet and a blind bet. You can choose to place an additional bet (“trips”), but that bet is optional. The dealer gives you 2 cards, and he also takes 2 cards for himself. These cards are dealt face-down (“in the hole.”) Once you’ve looked at your cards, you can then choose whether you want to make the “play” bet. That bet has to be an amount equal to 3 or 4 times the ante. You can also check, which means you’re not putting more money into action, but you do want to stay in the hand and see more cards. You don’t have an option to fold, but there would be no upside to doing so at this point anyway.

Once you’ve checked or played, the dealer spreads 3 more face-up cards. This is the flop. These are community cards that you and the dealer both use to make your final hand. If there are other players at the table, they’re using the same community cards, too. Now there’s another betting round. If you checked before the flop, you can make a play bet of 2X the size of the ante. If you played before the flop, you  can only check on the flop.

Ultimate Texas Hold’em combines the turn and the river into a single round. In other words, he deals 2 more cards face up, finishing the deal. If you checked on the previous 2 betting rounds, you now have the option to bet the size of the ante. If you’ve already bet on either of the 2 previous betting rounds, you have no option besides checking at this point.

You use any combination of the cards in your hand and the cards on the board to make the best possible poker hand. The dealer does the same. Depending on whether the dealer opens and whether your hand wins or loses, you get paid off or lose. I explain the payouts in the next section.

2- Ultimate Texas Hold’em Payoffs

Your payout depends on whether the dealer opens and on whether your hand is better than the dealer’s. The dealer opens if he has a pair or better. The size of your win for the various bets is based on the game’s pay table. The payouts also vary based on whether the casino is paying off the ante bet, the blind bet, or the play bet. If the dealer opens, and you win, then you win all 3 bets.

If the dealer DOESN’T open, and you win, then you win the blind bet and the play bet. The ante bet is a push, which means you get it back, but you don’t get any winnings with it. (A “push” is the same thing as a tie.) If the dealer opens, and the dealer wins, then you lose all 3 bets. If the dealer doesn’t open, and the dealer wins, then you lose the ante bet and the play bet. The blind is treated as a push. If you and the dealer tie—if you literally have a hand of the exact same poker ranking—then all bets are treated as a push. The pay table for the ante bet and the play bet is easy to remember. If those bets pay off, you win even money. In other words, if you bet $100, you win $100. That’s a 1 to 1 payout.

The blind bet is where the money comes from. The payouts for that bet are based on the final poker hand you have, as follows:

  • A royal flush pays off at 500 to 1.
  • A straight flush pays off at 50 to 1.
  • A 4 of a kind pays off at 10 to 1.
  • A full house pays off at 3 to 1.
  • A flush pays off at 3 to 2.
  • A straight pays off at even money.
  • Any other hand is treated as a push.

The trips bet has its own pay table, and it pays off regardless of the dealer’s hand value. The casinos have 4 options to choose from for that pay table, but most of them are similar:

  • The royal flush always pays off at 50 to 1.
  • A straight flush always pays off at 40 to 1.
  • A 4 of a kind pays off at 30 to 1 or 20 to 1, depending on which pay table you’re facing.
  • A full house pays off at 9 to 1, 8 to 1, or 7 to 1, depending on the pay table.
  • A flush pays off at either 7 to 1 or 6 to 1, depending on the pay table.
  • A straight pays off at either 5 to 1 or 4 to 1, depending on the pay table.
  • A 3 of a kind always pays off at 3 to 1.
  • All other hands result in a loss on the trips bet.

By the way, if you’re familiar with Jacks or Better video poker, you’ll notice that the hands where the casino has flexibility in payouts are the same hands that vary on a Jacks or Better game—the full house and the flush. Ultimate Texas Hold’em pay tables also offer different payoffs for straights, but most of the changes come on those 2 key hands.

3- Ultimate Texas Hold’em House Edge

The house edge for Ultimate Texas Hold’em, assuming you’re making the optimal bets and raises from an expected value standpoint, is only 2.18%. If you’re using an “approximate” strategy that’s less than perfect, it’s more than that—maybe 2.5% or so using some of the published strategies on the internet. That’s far worse than most blackjack games, but it’s a lot better than many other table games, too.


The house edge is just a mathematical estimate of how much of each bet you can expect to lose over the long run when playing a casino game. If someone says the house edge for a game is 2.18%, the casino expects you to lose $2.18 on average every time you place a $100 bet on the game.

According to Eliot Jacobson, one of the experts on advantage play in casino games, there are techniques for lowering that house edge even further, even to the point where a player might have an edge over the casino. Most of these techniques involve finding a sloppy dealer who either reveals his hole cards or one of the flop cards.

In advantage play lingo, this is called “hole carding.” It’s a common method of getting an edge at blackjack. When playing with a competent dealer, this is practically impossible. You can use the house edge for a game to compute your expected losses per hour. You just multiply the average number of hands per hour by how much you’re betting per hand. That gives you the total amount of action you’re bringing the casino each hour.

Please Note:

In Ultimate Texas Hold’em, the number of hands per hour is probably about 40. It could vary based on the dealer’s proficiency and the players at the table and how long they take to make decisions. If you’re betting $100 per hand and making 40 bets per hour, you’re putting $4000 per hour into action. If the house edge is 2.18%, you can expect to lose—in the long run, on average–$87.20 per hour.

You can use this information to estimate how much this kind of entertainment costs you and compare it other forms of entertainment. You should always keep in mind that this is an estimate based on the long term, which means 1000s of hands. In the short run, over a few hours, you could lose far more than this. You could also win.

4- Ultimate Texas Hold’em Strategy

Since you have meaningful decisions to make in Ultimate Texas Hold’em, this is a game where you can and should learn a strategy. In fact, that 2.18% house edge that I mentioned is a number that assumes you’re using the mathematically correct strategy. Most people can’t memorize or use an optimal strategy, so you should assume that even if you study an appropriate strategy, you might face an effective house edge of more like 2.5% or so. According to Eliot Jacobson, this is a reasonable approximation of the correct strategy for this game:

Preflop

Here’s how you should play the following hands preflop. You should make the maximum possible raise with any of the following hands whether the cards or suited or not:

  • Any hand with an ace in it.
  • Any hand with a king in it if the 2nd card is 5 or higher.
  • Any hand with a queen in it if the 2nd card is 8 or higher.
  • Any jack + 10.

If you have suited cards, you should also raise the maximum amount with these hands:

  • K2, K3, or K4
  • Q6 or Q/7
  • J8 or J/9

Also, if you have a pair of 3s or better, raise the maximum amount. If you have ANY other cards, you should just check.

Strategy on the Flop

If you raised preflop, you have no choice but to check now. If you checked preflop, then you should raise in the following situations only:

  • If you have 2 pair or better.
  • If you have a pair of 3s or more using at least one of your hole cards.
  • If you have a 4-card flush draw where at least one card is 10 or higher.

In any of those cases, you should raise the maximum amount. Otherwise, just check.

Strategy on the Turn + River Round

This is where the strategy gets most complicated. You should raise at this point if you have a pair of 3s or better using at least one of your hole cards, of if the dealer has less than 21 outs. “Outs” are cards that the dealer might have in the hole which will beat your hand. This is where being a poker player might come in handy, because understanding the concept of outs is fundamental to being a poker player.

Here’s an example of an out:

You have a pair of kings. There are also 2 queens on the board. If the dealer has a queen or 2 in the hole, she has you beat. That’s 2 outs. Let’s also suppose that 4 of the cards on the board are suited. That means there are 9 cards of that suit left in the deck, which means the dealer has 9 more outs, for a total of 11. Any pair of aces will also beat a pair of kings. There are 4 of those left in the deck, for a total of 15. If you had a lower ranked pair, the dealer would have a lot more outs, because any pair greater than yours will win.

 

5- Where to Play Ultimate Texas Hold’em Online

 
To the best of my knowledge, Ultimate Texas Hold’em is not available to online players for real money. It’s a trademarked game belonging to the Bally Corportation, and they’re pretty serious about protecting their intellectual property. I was able to find a couple of sites offering free versions of Ultimate Texas Hold’em that you can play online. These games use “play money” chips, which have no monetary value. There’s no substitute for actually trying a game and learning how it works before playing it in a live casino setting, by the way.

I don’t know how long any of these free versions of the games will be available on the internet, though, so I haven’t listed links to any of them here. I suspect that any site hosting a free version of Ultimate Texas Hold’em without getting Bally’s explicit permission first will receive a cease and desist at some point. But I don’t know.

Conclusion

Ultimate Texas Hold’em is a fun, skill-based, poker-based casino game that resembles Texas holdem. The biggest difference is that you’re playing against the casino dealer instead of the other players at the table. And instead of having a pot made up of the bets the other players made, you have a pay table that determines how much you get paid off if you win.

The house edge on the game is reasonable for this kind of game, but at 2.5%, it’s still not nearly as good as blackjack. Give it a try, though, if it sounds interesting. The basic strategy presented in this post isn’t that hard to follow.

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