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Lunar Poker, a.k.a. "Royal Poker" or "Russian Poker", is a variation of Caribbean Stud Poker. It features several rules that allow the player to modify both his hand and the dealer's. If my history is correct, it started in Russia but has slowly made appearances all over the world since then, including the United States, Macau, eastern Europe and South Africa.
The additional options in Lunar Poker come at a price. If the player beats the dealer, then he only pushes the Ante, as opposed to it paying even money like in Caribbean Stud Poker.
Long before Lunar Poker, there was Caribbean Stud Poker. As the name implies, in Caribbean Stud, there is no drawing. However, at some point, casinos allowed players to draw new cards for a price. The price to switch was the product of the Ante bet and the number of cards drawn. I have seen this game myself in Curacao, Panama and Argentina, under various names, but I refer to it as Oasis Poker.
Judging by the emails and comments I have received, casinos in eastern Europe, especially Russia, came to offer a version where the player could force the dealer to draw. Rules vary on which card the dealer should discard, but the lowest card seems to be the most common. This was done to try to make the dealer qualify with a pair when he otherwise wouldn't, and the player needed the dealer to qualify to be paid on his Raise bet.
According to James Grosjean's Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting, these two options, at some point, were merged together in a game he refers to as Pangaean Poker. The book provides a short analysis of the game with a drawing strategy (page 321).
Later, somebody (and I have no idea who) took it to the next step and added the option to redraw any number of cards for the price of the Ante or to buy a single card without having to redraw. That, combined with the option to make the dealer redraw, would have been too powerful in the player's favor. To bring the game back to the dealer's favor, if the dealer qualifies and loses, then the Ante pushes instead of wins. As mentioned, this variant has gone by a number of names, but the one I hear the most is Lunar Poker, which is what I choose to call it.
The story isn't over. In 2014, the rules were changed again to defend the game against advantage play. The player may no longer buy insurance against the dealer qualifying, and a Super Bonus side was mandated.
There is also a side story about the history of the analysis of the game. Through the years, players and casinos have asked for an analysis of the game. It isn't often that I say this, but when it comes to Lunar Poker, I have to throw my hands in the air and say, "Sorry, that is one beyond my ability." By my account, there are 627,392,769,491,403,000,000 possible outcomes to the game, and computers are only so fast.
May 2012 is the first I heard of anybody analyzing the game completely. I noticed the TCS John Huxley website claimed to have cracked the game. Not much is mentioned of the analysis, except for a house edge of 2.31%.
Then, in 2014, GLI analyzed the current rules you see below. They developed an unpublished strategy to the game and then ran it through a simulation.
Lunar Poker found a new owner at the 2016 Global Gaming Expo, where it was marketed by ShuffleMaster.
- The game is played using one 52-card deck. The game uses standard poker rules for ranking and comparing hands.
- The player places his mandatory Ante and Super wagers. The Super wager must be equal or greater to the Ante wager.
- The player may optionally make a Super Wager based on the dealer's hand and/or on any other player's hand.
- Each player and the dealer are dealt five cards, with the dealer's bottom card turned face up.
- The dealer will prompt the players to declare any winning Super Wager hands based on the player's cards. The Super Wager pay table is indicated below.
- In addition, if the player has a straight flush or royal flush, then his Ante bet will be paid immediately according to the Instant Payout pay table below and the cards collected.
- Each remaining player must also make a decision to either Fold, Play, Buy, or Draw. Following are more details on each option:
- Fold: The player places his five cards face down near their Ante wager. The dealer will collect the losing Ante and the cards.
- Play: The player places a wager of 2x his Ante in their BET box on top of their cards.
- Buy: The player places 1x Ante to buy a 6th Card.
- Exchange: The player places 1x Ante to exchange 2-5 cards.
- If the player invoked either the Buy or Exchange option, then he must then decide to Fold or Play based on his new hand.
- The Dealer then opens his cards and declares the poker value of his hand.
- If the dealer's hand contains a Super combination, any Super wagers on the dealer's hand will be paid out immediately according to the Super Pay Table below.
- If the dealer qualifies with a hand of Ace-King or higher, then the dealer will then open and settle each player's hand as follows:
- Player wins: Ante pushes and Raise is paid according to pay table below.
- Tie: Both Ante and Raise push.
- Dealer wins: Both Ante and Raise lose.
- If the dealer cannot open with ace-king or better, then the Ante will pay even money and the Raise will push, regardless of the poker value of the player's hand.
- If a player's winning hand also contains a second poker combination, then the player will be paid for both combinations, even if the second combination doesn't beat the dealer's hand. For the second combination to qualify, it must contain at least one card which wasn't included in the first winning combination.
Super Wager Pay Table
|Four of a kind
|250 to 1
|Five picture cards
|120 to 1
|100 to 1
|60 to 1
|30 to 1
|Three of a kind
|8 to 1
|5 to 1
|Five cards same color
|2 to 1
Instant Payout Pay Table
|1000 to 1
|200 to 1
Raise Bet Pay Table
|100 to 1
|50 to 1
|Four of a kind
|20 to 1
|7 to 1
|5 to 1
|4 to 1
|Three of a kind
|3 to 1
|2 to 1
|1 to 1
|1 to 1
The game owner was kind enough to provide me with the math report by GLI. That report is based on a random simulation of a "near optimal" strategy. It concludes the house edge, as measured by the ratio of the expected loss to the mandated two initial wagers, is 4.90%. It goes on to say the average loss to the total amount wagered, what I call the Element of Risk, is 2.38%.
Following is the strategy according to the player's initial hand. This strategy was kindly provided to me as a "basic strategy" by the game owner for the benefit of fans of the game.
First Decision — Play, Fold, Buy, or Exchange.
- ANY STRAIGHT OR FLUSH — BUY 6th CARD
- FOUR OF A KIND — PLAY
- FULL HOUSE — BUY 6th CARD if the Dealer's Up Card differs from your cards PLAY if Dealer's Up Card is the same as any of your cards
- THREE OF A KIND — EXCHANGE TWO CARDS if Dealer's Up Card is different from your Trips. PLAY if Dealer's Up Card is the same as your Trips
- TWO PAIRS — PLAY
- ONE PAIR — BUY 6th CARD with any Straight or Flush Draw PLAY if your Pair is greater than or equal to the Dealer's Up Card. EXCHANGE THREE CARDS if your Pair is less than the Dealer's Up Card
- ACE, KING — BUY 6th CARD with Outside Straight, Flush or Inside 6-Card Straight Draw. DRAW THREE CARDS without any of the above
- NOTHING — Play as follows:
- BUY 6th CARD with Outside Straight, Flush or Inside 6-Card Straight Draw
- EXCHANGE THE REST — Hold Ace or King and any Royal Card(s)
- EXCHANGE FOUR CARDS — Hold Queen against Dealer Up Card of 5 Or Lower
- FOLD — Without any of the above
Second Decision — Play or Fold.
After buying or exchanging, make the play or fold decision as follows:
- A-K-Q or better — Play.
- All other — Fold.
I have an unconfirmed report that in Finland Lunar Poker is played with these rule differences:
- No Super Wager bet. Instead there is a side bet called the Jackpot Bonus.
- Player may insure his hand with three of a kind or better. The insurance bet will always lose if the dealer qualifies. The minimum insurance bet is 1x ante and the maximum is half of the possible win amount. Insurance pays 1 to 1.
- No instant payouts. This omission increase the house edge by 0.43%.
- With a cost of 1x ante, the player may, if dealer doesn't qualify, exchange one card (always the highest one) from the dealers hand to make the dealer to qualify. Player hand will push (no ante will be paid) if the dealer still doesn't qualify after this.