To start playing pai gow poker, you need to place a bet according to the table minimum. After all bets are made, all players at the table are dealt 7 cards. With these 7 cards, you need to form two poker hands: a 2-card poker hand and a 5-card poker hand. The 5-card hand is often referred to as the bottom, high, behind or big hand.
Pai Gow Poker is played with a fifty-two-card deck, plus a joker. Each player receives seven cards, and they must make both a five-card and two-card hand. The goal is to beat the dealer with both of your hands and win your bet. Your five-card hand must rank higher than the two-card hand. There are a few betting strategies for Pai Gow that will increase your odds of winning. The biggest way to impact your odds will be the difference in the size of the bets you make when you’re acting as the bank compared to the bet sizes you make when you’re acting as the player.
In China, pai gow is a popular gambling game played with Chinese dominoes. In 1985, Sam Torosian, owner of the Bell Card Club, created a poker game inspired by pai gow—he called it “pai gow poker.” It’s become a popular game in casinos throughout the United States.
Like blackjack, pai gow poker is a game of skill, where your decisions matter. It’s also a slow-paced game, and the probability of getting into a “push” situation (a tie) is relatively high. For someone with a small bankroll, pai gow poker can be one of the best deals in the casino.
But pai gow poker is also more complicated to play than many other casino card games. Playing well is another magnitude of difficulty. This post aims to provide everything you need to know to get started playing pai gow poker without making a fool of yourself.
How to Play Pai Gow Poker
Pai gow poker is played with a standard 53-card deck of cards. (“53” is not a typo—it’s a 52-card deck with the addition of a joker.)
In most card games, jokers are “wild cards”—they can stand in for any card you need them to.
But in pai gow poker, jokers are only wild for certain situations. Here’s how you can use a joker in pai gow poker:
- You can use it as an ace.
- You can use it to complete a straight.
- You can use it to complete a flush.
- You can use it to complete a straight flush.
The game starts with the players making bets. Then the dealer and the players each get 7 cards.
As with most poker games, even house-banked games, the standard ranking of poker hands is used, with one exception:
After you get your 7 cards, you must “set your hand.” This means you divided your hand into 2 hands—a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand. You have a lot of freedom for setting the hand, but you must follow one restriction:
The 5-card hand must have a better poker hand ranking than the 2-card hand.
Of course, the 5-card hand is treated like a 5-card poker hand. The 2-card hand can only qualify for 2 poker hand rankings, though—a pair, or not a pair.
The dealer also sets his hand, but he must follow specific rules set by the casino. This is called “the house way.” It’s comparable to how a blackjack dealer must play his hand in a prescribed manner.
When you compare hands, you have the following possibilities:
- Both of the player’s hands beat both of the dealer’s hands.
- One of the player’s hands beats the dealer’s hand, but one of the dealer’s hands beats the player’s hand.
- Both of the dealer’s hands beat both of the player’s hands.
If both of the player’s hands beat the dealer’s hand, he wins even money less a 5% commission on his bet.
If both of the dealer’s hands beat the player’s hand, the player loses his bet.
But if one hand is a winner and the other is a loser, the bet is considered a “push.” This means the player gets to keep his bet, but he doesn’t get any winnings in addition to that.
Also, ties go to the banker.
40% of the time, the outcome is a push, which is huge. At most pai gow poker tables, you’ll see 30 hands per hour. If 12 of them are ties, you’re only looking at 18 hands per hour with a win or loss.
This kind of thing matters a lot when you’re trying to track how much money per hour it costs to play a specific casino game. In blackjack, for example, you’re liable to see 100 hands per hour, but most of them won’t result in a push.
I like leisurely games where I don’t lose a lot of money at once. Pai gow poker fits the bill nicely.
Banking in Pai Gow Poker
In most casino games, the betting is pretty straightforward. You’re the player, and you bet against the dealer. In pai gow poker, though, you have the option to bet against the dealer and the other players. Only one player gets to be the banker on each hand, though—the opportunity rotates.
Here’s the thing about being the banker in pai gow poker, though—it requires (as you might expect) a large bankroll. Most people just decline the opportunity to be the banker.
If you do choose to play as the banker, you can set your hand any way you like. You’re not required to follow the house way.
Being able to play as the banker enables players to get a small edge, especially if you’re playing with other players who are beginners and aren’t good at the game. The strategy in pai gow poker stems from how you’re able to set your hands.
The House Edge in Pai Gow Poker
The house edge is the long-term expected win for the casino expressed as a percentage. It’s a forecast and an estimate, but it only applies in the long run—over the course of thousands of hands. Still, it’s good information to have about a casino game.
Generally, the lower the house edge, the better the game is for the player. For example, the house edge in blackjack is usually around 1%, but that assumes the use of perfect basic strategy. This means that every time you place a $100 bet, the casino expects to win an average of $1.
The house edge in pai gow poker varies based on a couple of things. One of these is how good you are at setting your hand. The other is how often you can afford to play as the banker.
Generally, the house edge in pai gow poker is 2.7%, although it’s much lower when playing as the banker. This estimate assumes you’re just following the house way strategy. If you can play more optimally than that, you can whittle the house edge down by another 0.2%.
Pai Gow Poker Betting Strategy How To Play
And if you’re playing as the banker and using optimal strategy, the house edge is even lower—around 0.3%. If you can find a table where the other players aren’t very good at setting hands, you might even be able to get a long-term advantage. This is an example of an advantage gambling technique.
Pai Gow Poker Strategy for Setting Your Hand
For most recreational gamblers, a strategy similar to the house way is sufficient. Getting any more optimal than that is more trouble than it’s worth for the tiny gain in expectation. Below I’ve outlined one common house way of setting hands.
To understand this guide to pai gow poker strategy, you should know which hand is your “front” hand and which hand is your “back” hand. Luckily, this isn’t complicated.
The front hand is your 2-card hand.
The back hand is your 5-card hand.
Here’s how to play with close to correct pai gow poker strategy:
First, if you have no pairs at all in your 7 cards, put the highest card in your front hand. Put the next 2 highest cards in your back hand.
If you have one pair, always put it in your back hand. Then put your 2 other highest cards in your back hand.
If you have 2 pairs, you’ll put one pair in your back hand and the other in your front hand. The higher ranked pair goes in your back hand, and the lower ranked pair goes in your front hand. But sometimes, you’ll want to keep both pairs in your back hand.
You’ll do this if you have a pair of 7s and no ace. You’ll also do this if you have a pair of jacks or better AND a pair of 6s or better along with an ace. And finally, you’ll do this if you have a pair of aces and any other pair.
If you get 3 pairs, put the highest-ranked pair in your front hand. The other 2, of course, go in your back hand.
If you have 3 of a kind, put all 3 of those cards in your back hand UNLESS you have 3 aces. In that case, you put an ace in your front hand and 2 aces in your back hand.
If you have a 3 of a kind AND a 2nd 3 of a kind, put the lower-ranked 3 of a kind in your back hand. Then split up the 2nd 3 of a kind so that you’ll have a pair in your front hand.
If you get a full house, split it up so that you have a pair in your front hand and 3 of a kind in your back hand.
If you get a straight, flush, or a straight flush, you should always keep those 5 cards together in your back hand.
If you have a 4 of a kind, how you play it depends on the ranks of the cards. If they’re 6 or lower, you’ll keep the 4 of a kind together in your back hand. If they’re 7, 8, 9, or 10, you should split them unless you have an ace, in which case you keep them together and put the ace in your front hand.
If you have a 4 of a kind consisting of face cards, split them unless you also have a pair of 10s or higher. And if you have 4 aces, split them unless you have a pair of 7s or higher.
If you get 5 aces, you should split them unless you have a pair of kings to put in your front hand.
Besides that, you should always play as the banker if you can afford to, because of the much lower house edge. This isn’t an option when playing in an online casino, but it’s an option at most traditional brick and mortar casinos.
If you’re looking for affordable entertainment in the form of casino gambling, you’ll have a hard time finding a better game than pai gow poker. A house edge of 2.7% sounds high, but it’s really not bad at all when you consider that 40% of the hands you’ll play will be a push.
Optimal strategy for pai gow poker is more complicated than the house way, but if you just play by the house way, you’ll be doing better than most other players at the table. Consider using the house way strategy provided in this post next time you play.
Pai Gow Poker Introduction
Pai Gow Poker was invented in 1985 by a man named Sam Torosian, owner of the Bell Card Club in southern California. Like so many foreign concepts that the US has adopted and messed with, Pai Gow Poker is an Americanized version of the Chinese dominoes game known as pai gow, with each card given a numerical value and arranged into classic poker hands.
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Pai Gow Poker is known for its slow rate of play and relatively low level of risk. Like Online Blackjack, every player plays against the same dealer hand instead of one another, so the game is often social with an “us versus him” mentality that gives everyone a common enemy and makes players feel chummy toward their fellow gamblers.
If you’re already a fan of classic poker and are looking for a twist on the old favorite, Pai Gow Poker could very well be your new go-to game. Read on to find out if this game is for you, how to play, and the Pai Gow pro strategy needed to maximize your winnings.
Pai Gow Poker Rules
There are usually six players and one dealer in a Pai Gow Poker game. The dealer gives each player and himself seven cards from one regular deck with an added joker. The four remaining cards are discarded.
It’s a player’s job to combine his cards into two poker hands that will beat the dealer’s. The first hand is known as the “back hand” or “big hand”, and is a standard five-card poker hand. The second hand is called the “front hand” or “small hand” and consists of only two cards. The five-card hand must always out-rank the two-card hand. Once all the cards are dealt and the hands are set, players compare their individual hands to the dealer’s and the wagers are settled.
Pai Gow Poker Betting System
If both of your hands are better than both of the dealer’s, you’re paid even money with a 5 percent commission withheld. If only one of your hands beats the dealer’s, your bet is pushed. If both of your hands are worse, you obviously lose your bet. Ties go to the “banker”, which is a position that rotates around the table among the players or switches from dealer to player to dealer to the next player, etc. The player can decline to bank, in which case the option will be passed to the next player or to the dealer.
The joker can be used to substitute for any card to complete a straight or any suit to complete a flush. If it can’t be used for either of those, the joker functions as an ace instead. In the two-card hand, a joker is always an ace.
The ranking for the hands is the same as classic poker with one exception – the A2345 straight, also known as “the wheel”, is the second highest straight in Pai Gow Poker. Some casinos have dropped the rule, but many still follow it. The two-card hand is either a pair or not, after which the value is gleaned from the individual cards.
The Right Strategy to Win
Pai Gow Poker is considered a relatively low risk casino game. Because players are attempting to beat the dealer with two hands in one round instead of just one, there’s a greater chance for one of the player’s hands to beat the dealer’s. And when this happens, as we know, the player’s bet is pushed. So players may find themselves breaking even more often than losing, which isn’t a great thing but certainly isn’t a bad thing either.
This affects the strategy for Pai Gow Poker as well. Because you don’t lose your wager if only one of your hands beat the dealer’s, the common rule is to divide your hand in a way that gives you the best two-card hand without going above the five-card hand. This gives you a greater chance for beating the dealer with both the front hand and the back hand, versus throwing your two weakest cards in the two-card hand in hopes of making your five-card hand stronger.
Playing Pai Gow
The exception to this rule comes when a player has the ability to make a very strong five-card hand. If you’re able to make a straight or better, then you’re almost guaranteed to beat the dealer. This gives you the opportunity to put the other cards in the front hand while knowing that your back hand is almost sure to win.
When you’re trying to divide hands with no pairs, the common method is to leave the highest card in the back hand and bring the next two largest cards into the front hand. This makes your front hand as strong as possible without outranking your back hand, giving you a better chance of beating the dealer on both hands.
The best strategy to maximize your winnings in Pai Gow Poker is to memorize the poker hand rankings. When you’re playing online, the computer automatically prevents you from making your two-card hand higher than your five-card hand and lets you know when you’ve won or lost each hand. The dealer and other players might help you out at the table, but if you’re playing at a brick-and-mortar casino, make sure you’re comfortable with the poker hand hierarchy.
The second-best strategy is to practice playing. Hey, you’ve gotta walk before you can run, right? At least, you have to if you don’t want to seriously hurt yourself. On Slots of Vegas, you can play Pai Gow Poker instantly without putting down any money on the virtual table. Once you’ve become a Pai Gow pro, you can start playing the exact same game for real money. Head over to Slots of Vegas online casino and start raking in the chips today!