Brag

Introduction

Brag is a popular British gambling game. It is sometimes said to be similar to poker, but in fact it is much older and the method of betting is different. The basic game of three-card Brag was one of the games described by Hoyle, and therefore dates from the late eighteenth century or earlier. It is almost identical to the popular Indian game Teen Pathi ("three cards").

On this page, Three Card Brag and its Four-card and Five-card variations will be described. There are other games known as 6-card, 7-card, 9-card and 13-card Brag; but they have a very different mechanism and will are covered on a separate page.

This page has been put together from a variety of sources, and I am grateful to those who have contributed, including: Jon Garibaldi, Thomas Olsson, Dave Phillips, Jamie Prestidge, Chris Roberts, Phill Rogers, Brian Rollo, Justin Thurkettle, Mike Tobias.

Three Card Brag

Players, cards and preparation

A standard 52 card pack without jokers is used. The cards in each suit rank in the usual order from high to low: A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2. The number of players can vary, but it is probably best for about 4 to 8 people.

Three Card Brag is a gambling game. Before starting it is essential that the players agree on the stake and have a common understanding of the rules. It is necessary to agree:

  • the initial stake or ante - which is the amount (if any) that everyone must put into the pot before each deal;
  • the minimum and maximum initial bet - the amount that the first player bets in order to stay in the hand;
  • the limit (if any) on the amount by which the bet can be increased by each subsequent player;
  • any variations to the basic rules, such as use of wild cards.

Ranking of hands

The order of the possible three-card Brag hands, from highest to lowest, is as follows.

Combination   Examples   Explanation
Prialspade3-heart3-diamond3
clubA-spadeA-heartA
. . .
club2-spade2-diamond2
"Prial" - short for "pair royal" - is the name in Brag for a set of three cards of equal rank. The best is threes, and the other prials follow in the rank order of the cards: A-A-A, K-K-K, Q-Q-Q, etc. down to 5-5-5, 4-4-4, 2-2-2, three twos being the lowest prial.
Running flushclub3-club2-clubA
diamondA-diamondK-diamondQ
. . .
heart4-heart3-heart2

A running flush is a set of three consecutive cards of the same suit. A run is a set of three consecutive cards of mixed suits. Although the ace is high, A-2-3 counts as a valid run - or a valid running flush if all the cards are the same suit. In fact A-2-3 is the highest run or running flush, A-K-Q of a suit is the second highest, then K-Q-J, and so on down to 4-3-2, which is the lowest. 2-A-K is not a valid run or running flush.

Any running flush beats any run with mixed suits - so for example heart4-heart3-heart2 beats diamond3-club2-heartA or heartA-diamondK-diamondQ.

Rundiamond3-club2-heartA
heartA-diamondK-diamondQ
. . .
heart4-spade3-heart2
FlushclubA-clubK-clubJ
. . .
spade5-spade3-spade2
A flush consists of three cards of the same suit - not all consecutive, or it would be a running flush. When comparing flushes, the highest card is compared first, then if these are equal the middle card, and finally if necessary the lowest. Therefore heartK-heart9-heart2 beats spadeQ-spade10-spade5, which beats diamondQ-diamond10-diamond3, which beats clubQ-club9-club8.
PairclubA-heartA-spadeK
. . .
heart2-diamond2-diamond3
A pair consists of two cards of equal rank. The third card is of a different rank, otherwise you would have a prial. When comparing pairs, the rank of the pair is compared first (aces are highest), and if two players have the same pair the odd card determines which and is higher. So for example 9-9-3 beats 8-8-K, which beats 8-8-J.
High cardspadeA-spadeK-heartJ
. . .
club5-diamond3-spade2
Three cards that do not form any of the above combinations. As with flushes, these rank according to the highest card; if the highest cards of two hands are equal the second highest cards are compared, and if these are equal too then the third highest. So J-6-3 beats 10-9-7, which beats 10-9-6.

There is no order of suits, so it is possible for two hands to be equal in rank - for example spade7-heart7-clubQ is equal to club7-diamond7-diamondQ. In a contest between two equal hands the calling player (the player who paid to see the other hand) loses (see betting, below).

Poker players should take care to note that the 'run' and 'flush' in Brag rank in the opposite order to Poker.

Ante and deal

Before each deal, each player must place the agreed initial stake (ante) in the pot. Deal and play are clockwise, and the turn to deal passes to the left after each hand.

If it is the first deal of the session, the dealer shuffles. For subsequent deals, the cards are only shuffled if the previous hand was "seen" and won by a prial. Apart from that, the cards not normally shuffled between hands. The cards from the previous hand are just added to the bottom of the pack and the dealer deals the new hands from the top, without shuffling.

The dealer deals out the cards one at a time, face down to the players, until everyone has three cards. Players may look at their own cards, or may choose not to, if they wish to play "blind" - see below. Cards must at never be shown to any player other than the person to whom they were dealt, unless the betting ends with a "see". In that case the cards of the two players involved (but none of the others) are exposed for everyone to see.

Note: the practice of not shuffling makes it possible in some circumstances to know what cards are in play when the same cards come around again.

The betting

When the cards have been dealt, the betting begins with the player to the left of the dealer. This person can 'fold' (throw in their cards and take no further part in the hand) or can bet any amount from the agreed minimum to the agreed maximum. If all the players except one fold, the last remaining player takes all the money in the pot, and the next hand is dealt.

If any player bets, every player after that must either fold or bet at least as much as the previous player who bet. A player may bet more than the previous player, but there may be an agreed limit to the amount by which the bet can be increased. The betting continues around the table as many times as necessary.

When there are only two players left in the game, all the others having folded, a third option becomes available. Either player can see the other. Seeing costs twice as much as the previous player's bet. When you pay to see another player, they expose their three cards first. If your cards are better than your opponent's, you expose your hand to prove this and win the pot. If your cards are equal to your opponent's or worse, your opponent wins the pot - you do not have to show your cards in this case. Note that if the hands are equal, the player who paid to see loses.

Poker players should notice that there is no concept of equalising the bets. At each turn, to stay in you have to put into the pot at least as much new money as the previous player put in. Here are some examples from a four player game:

  1. Player A bets 2 chips, B folds, C bets 2 chips and D bets 2 chips. In order to stay in, A would have to bet another 2 chips.
  2. Player A bets 2 chips, B folds, C bets 4 chips and D folds. Player A can now see player C by paying 8 chips (twice C's bet) or pay at least 4 chips to stay in, or fold, allowing C to win the pot. If A pays 4 to stay in, C now has the same options: put 8 in the pot to see A, to bet at least 4 and allow A another turn to bet, or to fold and allow A to win.

Betting continues until either

  • all players but one have dropped out (folded) (in which case the remaining player obviously wins, but does not show their cards), or
  • two players are left and one player pays double to see the other.

As each player folds, that player's cards are added to the bottom of the pack ready for the next deal. At the end of the betting the cards of the last player left in, or the cards of the two players involved in the see, are added to the pack in the same way.

Please note the following basic rules of etiquette:

  1. Do not show your cards - to anybody
  2. Do not say anything about your hand
  3. Never (ever) fold out of turn

Breaking any of the above three rules will get you thrown out of any Brag game.

Here is an example of betting between five players:

RoundAndyBillChrisDanEddie
1 111fold2
2222-2
3222-2
42fold2-5
55-5-5
65-5-5
75-fold-10
810---10
910---10
10      20 (to see)

Points to note

  1. Andy bets 1 (one) first round, Bill and Chris match 1, Eddie raises to 2. Andy (A) now must bet 2 to stay in, regardless of the fact that he has already put 1 (one) in. Similar for B and C.
  2. The betting can remain at 2 (e.g. rounds 1-4) indefinitely. If everyone is staying in, eventually someone (e.g. E) must force the pace.
  3. In rounds 5 and 6 A, C and E are all in. No-one can see, and all must remain. In situations like this, it is simply a matter of nerve. Someone must fold for the betting to end - and eventually C does.
  4. When there are only two remaining (A and E, rounds 8-10), then either can decide to pay double to 'see'. When A bets 20 to 'see' on round 10, he must say 'See you' (or equivalent). It is perfectly acceptable to double the betting without 'seeing', in which case the game continues as normal.

A common (but not necessary) house limit on raising is to agree that no-one can raise the pot by more than its current contents. So, for a five player game, the maximum initial stake would be 5 times the ante.

Running out of money

Brag is seldom played with what Poker players know as table stakes (where players keep the money they are playing with on the table for everyone to see and cannot introduce extra money into the game except between hands and with the agreement of all the players). Brag players often keep their money in their pockets until needed. It is usual to insist that each player wishing to take part in a game should placed at least a certain minimum amount of money on the table - say £10. After that, players are free to introduce more money to the game at any time.

Some play that if you do not have enough money left to bet, but want to stay in, you place all your remaining money in the pot, and put your cards face down on top of it. This is called covering the pot. If there are two or more other players, they continue betting as before, but putting the money into a new pot. After this new pot is settled, the winner's hand is exposed, and the hand of the player who ran out of money is compared with it. The old pot is won by the higher hand, or by the winner of the new pot in case of a tie.

The method of covering the pot can also be used when there are only two players left in the game. If one of the players runs out of money, the betting ends when one player puts the last of his money in the pot - the other player does not have to put in any more money but exposes his cards, and wins the pot unless the player who ran out of money can show a better hand.

Although covering the pot might seem to work unfairly in favour of the player who runs out of money, thus getting to see the opponent's hand cheaply, it does avoid some undesirable situations.

However, according to the information I have received from Brag players, it is quite usual to play the harsher rule that a player who does not have enough money to bet the full amount required must either fold or borrow money from another player or a bystander to make up the bet. For this purpose, the player is allowed to show his cards to a player who has already dropped out, who might be prepared to back him financially. Sometimes there is an agreement that whoever in the game has most money will lend some to the player who is short to allow that player to continue to bet.

Some people play that when only two players are in the game, and one of them runs out of money, the player who still has money has the choice of either

  • lending some money to the other player to allow betting to continue, or
  • showing his cards, in which case he wins the pot unless the other player can show a better hand.

It is clear that betting with borrowing could potentially lead to some difficult situations, in which a player must either fold a good hand or borrow money he may not be in a position to repay. When blind betting is allowed, there is even more scope for this kind of problem, since a blind player can carry on betting indefinitely against an open player, and the open player cannot see the blind player.

Sometimes, in a situation where three (or more) players are betting against each other and none of them is prepared to fold, if they all feel that the pot is getting too big, they may agree to a showdown in which all cards are exposed and the highest hand wins.

I would like to hear from any experienced Brag players who can let me know more about the correct way to handle these situations.

Playing blind

Experienced players usually allow the extra option of playing blind. Any player may choose to play any hand blind. If you are playing blind you do not look at your cards, but leave them face down on the table. You take part in the betting in the normal way, except that all your bets are worth double. In other words, at each stage you only have to put in half the amount of money you would need to bet if you had looked at your cards.

If you have been playing blind, then at your turn to bet, you can choose to look at your cards before deciding whether to bet or fold. From that moment on you are no longer a blind player, and if you then want to stay in, you must revert to the same betting amount as the 'non-blind' players.

If you are playing blind and all the other players fold - which would be surprising but I am assured that it does happen - you do not win the pot. Instead, the pot is carried forward to the next deal and you are allowed to retain your hand - see below.

When just two players remain, one or both of whom are playing blind, the possibilities for one player to "see" the other - i.e. pay for the hands to be exposed and compared - are as follows.

  1. You are playing open and your opponent is blind. The rule is that "you cannot see a blind man". Therefore your only options are to continue betting or to fold.
  2. Both players are blind. By putting in twice the blind stake (i.e. the amount that would be paid by an open player) you can cause the hands to be compared. Usually the players turn their cards face up one at a time, alternately, beginning with the opponent of the player who paid for the show. In case of equality, as usual, the player who paid for the show loses.
  3. You are playing blind but your opponent is playing open. Your opponent cannot see you (by the above rule), but you can see your opponent if you wish by putting in twice the blind stake (i.e. the same amount that your open opponent just bet). As usual in a showdown, the opponent's cards are exposed first and then you show your cards if they are better.

A betting example:

RoundAndyBillChrisDanEddie
111 (blind)21 (blind) 2
221 (blind)21 (blind) 2
321 (blind)21 (blind)2
421 (blind)42 (blind)fold
545 (blind)10fold-
6fold5 (blind)10--
7-5 (blind)10--
8-10 (to see)

Points to note:

  1. B must pay double the blind stake to 'see' C's hand. C is not allowed to see B in round 6 or 7, even though only two players are left.
  2. Note how after 4 rounds B has only spent 4 chips compared to C who has spent 10. This type of inequity often happens when playing with blind hands, and is part of the whole essence of the procedure.
  3. Looking at a 'blind' hand out of turn is another Brag 'faux-pas' which will get other Brag players (very) annoyed. The reason is that (for example) during round 4, when C raises to 4, if B now looks at his cards it has immediately changed the basis of A's decision as to whether to stay in or fold on his turn. He would then have only one 'blind' opponent (as D stays 'blind'), instead of potentially two 'blind' opponents (D and possibly B).

Retaining a blind hand

If you end up with a blind hand when all other players have dropped out, you may retain the blind hand on the table. The next hand is then dealt, so that you now have two sets of cards in front of you. You may either:

  1. look at the new hand
  2. look at the old hand
  3. look at neither

If you look at one of the hands, you must immediately decide whether to keep it or fold it. If you keep it, you must fold the other (without looking at it). You are then non-blind and play the looked-at hand normally. If you decide to fold the hand you looked at, then you have just one blind hand to play by the usual rules; you can look at it now or later if you wish.

If you look at neither hand, you can play both hands 'blind' until (at some point) you choose to look at one of them, in which case you follow the same procedure above.

In the unlikely event that you win the pot again, without having looked at either 'blind' hand, you may choose to retain either (but only one), sight unseen, before the next deal. You cannot have three 'blind' hands at once.

Note that at no stage when playing two hands 'blind' can you look at both and choose the better one - you must look at just one and choose to keep it or fold it, before looking at the other.

Variation
Some groups treat retained blind hands differently. The player who won blind is dealt a second hand face up, while everyone else is dealt a hand face down as usual. The other players must look at their hands and anyone who cannot beat the face up hand must fold. If all have folded, the player with the retained blind hand collects the antes, keeps the blind hand, and the next player deals. If a player or players stay in, then the face up hand is discarded and the the retained blind hand plays against the others in the usual way, with the normal betting rules and procedure for looking at the blind hand. If the player with the blind hand wins again by everyone folding, he will again be dealt a face up hand alongside the retained blind hand. This continues until the blind player has looked at his blind hand, after which the play reverts to normal.

The odds

Jon Garibaldi has provided the following analysis.

As there are so few total different hands, it is not difficult to calculate the prior probabilities.

There are a total of 22,100 different card combinations ( 52 * 51 * 50 / 3! ). The number of ways to make each hand, and approx odds, are as follows:

HandCombinationsProbabilityOdds
Prial Threes4  1/55255524 to 1
Other Prial48  1/460459 to 1
Running Flush48   1/460459 to 1
Run720  1/3130 to 1
Flush1 096  1/2019 to 1
Pair3 744  1/65 to 1
High Card16 440  3/43 to 1 on
(total combinations)22 100   

Obviously, these odds are affected by previous cards, if the deck isn't shuffled.

Advice on play

John Garibaldi has contributed the following advice.

  1. Study the odds carefully and remember them.
  2. Play by the odds.
  3. Don't stick rigidly to playing by the odds!! You will lose very quickly, and never win a big pot if you never bluff.
  4. Playing 'blind' well is very difficult and takes years of practice. If you play it too often, and non-expertly you will lose.
  5. Don't bet too big, especially if you are used to Poker betting. As the Brag betting can continue indefinitely, on the same amount (and indeed must, until there are only two players) the pot can get very large even when each single bet seems low.

Four Card Brag

This is the same game as Three Card Brag, except that four cards are dealt to each player. Players who look at their hands discard one card before the betting begins to form the best three card hand they can make. In case of a tie between two hands, the discarded card is used to decide which is better. If the discarded cards were also equal in rank then the player who was seen wins the tie.

If betting blind is allowed, a blind player will keep all four cards face down on the table. If you have been playing blind and decide to look at your cards, you discard one after looking at them.

Five Card Brag

This is similar to Four Card Brag, but five cards are dealt to each player, and everyone discards two cards to make their best three card brag hand.

Wild Cards

Brag is sometimes played with wild cards, also known as floaters. The cards that are considered wild (if any) vary from group to group, so if you wish to play with wild cards it is important to agree the details before playing. Some possibilities are:

  • All twos wild;
  • Only the black twos wild;
  • One eyed jacks wild - namely the heartJ and spadeJ which are drawn in profile with one eye visible on standard British playing-cards.
  • Suicide king wild - this is the heartK whose sword is held in a position where it appears to pass through his head;
  • A joker or jokers can be added to the pack to serve as wild cards.

A wild card can be used to represent any card in the pack, but if two hands are otherwise equal, a hand without wild cards will beat a hand containing one or more wild cards, and a hand with fewer wild cards will beat a hand with more of them. For example, if W denotes a wild card, W-heart8-heart7 (with W representing the heart9) beats club8-club7-club6, which beats diamond8-W-diamond6. Also spadeK-diamondK-W beats clubK-W-W, which beats clubQ-diamondQ-heartQ.

It seems that wild cards are often used in four-card and five-card brag, but that three card brag is more often played without them.

Variations

Some play that when there are just two players betting, you only need to equal the most recent bet to see the other player's cards (provided that he is not betting blind). Seeing does not cost a double bet.

Some play that after the deal, the remainder of the pack is placed face up on the table, so that just one card (which was the bottom card during the deal) can be seen. Folded hands are then placed face up on top of the pack, again with just one card showing.

Phill Rogers reports a version where when the deal has passed a full circle (i.e. one more deal than the number of players) then the next dealer gets to choose the game. A change in variation (what cards are wild; whether blind betting is allowed; whether three four or five cards are dealt) can be dictated by the dealer; changing to a different card game, such as from Brag to Indian Poker, would have to be agreed by majority of players.

Many books, especially in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, describe an entirely fictitious form of Brag with poker-like betting and three wild cards or "braggers"(diamondA, clubJ and diamond9). There is no evidence that Brag has ever been played that way, and it seems that this version derives from a misreading of some of the early printed descriptions. This is discussed further in Jeffrey Burton in The Playing-Card Vol XXIV No 3 (Nov-Dec 1995) and 4 (Jan-Feb 1996).

Other sites, software and online games

There are several Indian sites offering online real money games of the almost identical Indian game Teen Pathi (3 cards).

A freeware Brag program can be downloaded from The Nelsons Domain.

Draw Brag with Poker Betting

To reduce the possibility of collusion in an online game, GameAccount has introduced a variation which they call "3 Card Brag Poker", which has poker-like betting and a draw. Before the deal the two players to the left of the dealer place compulsory bets, called the small and big "blinds". After the deal there is a poker-like betting round with fixed bets and raises equal to twice the big blind and a limit of three raises if there are more than two players in the pot. Then each player can discard from zero to three cards and is dealt replacement cards, after which there is a second betting round in which the bets and raises are twice as big, but again limited to three raises so long as there are more than two active players. Players do not have to look at the cards they are dealt, and so long as the play without seeing their cards they may call for half price. You can play 3 Card Brag Poker online at MoneyGaming (formerly GameAccount).