In live casinos, Pai Gow Poker is often relegated to the areas set aside for Asian games like Sic Bo and pai gow (the original version, the one with the dominoes). That’s a shame, because Pai Gow Poker was never meant to be seen as an “Asian” game; in fact, it is designed to have the same game structure as the mysterious pai gow without the archaic rules so that the rest of the world could join in on the fun.
In any case, you shouldn’t be too intimidated to take a seat at a Pai Gow Poker table, or load up the game at your favourite online casino. Pai Gow Poker is easy to play, but offers the player a chance to develop complex strategies, making it a fun time for both casual and experience gamblers alike.
Pai Gow Poker is a game played using a 53-card deck – a standard deck of cards, plus one joker. The object of the game is to beat the dealer by splitting a seven-card hand into two hands – a standard five-card hand and a smaller two-card hand – and having those hands rank higher than the corresponding dealer hands.
Each hand begins with all players making a wager. Each player is then given seven cards, as is the dealer. Each player may examine their cards.
Each player must then split their cards into two separate hands. The first is a five-card hand, which will be ranked using standard poker rankings (with the exception that A2345 is often considered the second-highest straight possible after AKQJT). The second is a two-card hand; the only rankings for this hand are pairs and high cards, making the best possible hand AA, and the worst possible hand 32.
There are a few rules to keep in mind while you split your hands. First, the five-card hand must be higher ranking than the two card hand. In many cases, this will severely impact the player’s options; for instance, if the player has just one pair and five unpaired cards (that don’t make a straight or a flush), the pair must then go into the five-card hand.
Secondly, the joker can be used in either hand, but it is not entirely wild. The joker may be used to complete a straight or a flush as any card. Otherwise, the joker will count as an ace.
After all players have arranged their hands, the dealer reveals his hand and arranges his cards using a method known as the “house way.” This method can vary from casino to casino, though most versions are fairly similar. In most cases, if the player wishes, the dealer will use the house way to arrange their cards, as well.
Once the dealer hands are set, the dealer and player compare hands. If the dealer wins both hands, the player loses his bet. If the player wins both hands, the player wins even money on their bet, minus a 5% commission (in other words, the player wins $19 on a $20 bet). If the player and dealer each win one of the two hands, the hand is considered a push. It’s worth noting that exact ties between hands go to the dealer; this is fairly rare when dealing with five-card hands, but the smaller two-card hands do see so called “copies” more frequently.
If you want to play real money online Pai Gow Poker, we recommend trying the game at Royal Vegas casino. At Royal Vegas, you’ll be able to play the game with the standard 5% commission, which is about as good a game as you’ll find anywhere online. The interface is also quite easy to use, including a rather large “House Way” button that will help you set your hands if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself.
We’ll get to the most commonly used part of Pai Gow Poker strategy – setting hands – in a second. But first, if you want to play Pai Gow Poker in a live setting, we should mention that it is in your interest to play as the banker as often as possible. The option to “bank” a hand – essentially, playing as the casino – will come around the table, and if you have the money to cover the bets from the other players, then you’ll have the option to play the bank.
This is an advantageous position to be in, especially if there are several other players at the table. This is for several reasons:
• The banker wins “copy” hands;
• The banker must use the house way, while other players are likely to use sub-optimal strategies;
• The banker is charged a 5% commission on his net win only after accounting for their losses against the other players, not simply a 5% commission on each hand he wins.
Of course, if you play Pai Gow Poker online, you won’t have this opportunity; it’ll just be you against the dealer. In this case, your best bet is to follow the house way, as this is almost always a near-optimal strategy. It is possible to follow complex charts to do slightly better than most house ways, as these systems combine near-optimal play with ease of use, rather than attempting to be entirely perfect.
Here’s an example of one house way system – the one used at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. It’s rather complex, but if you’re interested in how the house way works (or would rather set your own hands than rely on the casino to do it for you), it’s worth a read. Remember that the “front” means the two-card hand, while the “back” is the five-card hand.
No Pair: Place your highest card in the back, the next two highest cards in the front, and the rest in the back.
One Pair: Place the pair in the back, and the two highest unpaired cards I nthe front.
Two Pair: Two pair hands are divided into low pairs (2-6), medium pairs (7-10), high pairs (J-K), and aces.
If you have two low pairs, or a low pair and a medium pair, split the pairs unless you’re holding a king or better; in that case, play both pairs in the back.
If you have a low pair and a high pair, or two medium pairs, split the pairs unless you have an ace; in that case, play both pairs in the back.
If you have any other combinations of pairs (medium/high, high/high, or aces/anything), always split the pairs.
Three Pair: If you have three pair, always play the highest pair in front and the other two pair in back.
Three of a Kind: Play the three of a kind in the back, unless they are aces; in that case, play a pair of aces in the back, and one ace in front.
Two Three of a Kinds: Play the highest possible pair in front.
Straights and Flushes (including Straight Flushes):
• If you have no pairs, play whatever straight or flush allows you to keep the two highest cards possible in the front.
• If you have a straight or flush with 6-7 cards that can be used in that hand, play the lowest possible straight or flush.
• If you have a pair, only play that pair in the front if you can still play a straight or flush in the back.
• If you have two pair, three pair, or a full house, use the rules for those hands.
• If you have three of a kind, always play the pair in front.
Full House: Always split the full house unless the pair is 22, and you have a spare AK to play in the front.
Full House, With Two Pairs: Play the highest pair in front.
Four of a Kind: If the quads are 2-6, always keep them together in the back hand. If they are between 7-10, split them unless you have at least a king to play in the front. If they are jacks, queens or kings, split them unless you have an ace to play in front. Finally, if you have four aces, always split them.
Four of a Kind, With a Pair: Always put the pair in the front.
Four of a Kind, With a Three of a Kind: Take a pair from the three of a kind to play in the front.
Five Aces: Play two of the aces in the front, unless you have a pair of kings; in that case, keep the five aces in the back, and the pair of kings in the front.
In a one-on-one game between the player and the banker – the kind of game you’ll play in an online Pai Gow Poker game – the house edge is 2.73%, assuming both players are using the house way. According to analysis by The Wizard of Odds, a perfectly optimal strategy would shave about 0.13% off of this edge.
You may also be interested to know the odds of winning and losing hands. The player will win both hands approximately 28.6% of the time, while the banker will win both hands approximately 29.9% of the time (the disparity is thanks to the rule that allows the banker to win on a ‘copy’ hand). This leaves 41.5% of the hands played as pushes. The high percentage of pushes means that players rarely win or lose quickly in Pai Gow Poker, making it an ideal game for those who want to see their money last a long time at the table, and aren’t worried about trying to win a jackpot.