Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow Poker uses the standard 52-card deck, plus a Joker. It’s you against The Dealer; after you place your bet, you each receive seven cards — yours are face-up, the Dealer’s are face-down. Your task is to split your seven cards into two hands, one with five cards and the other with two cards.
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.
Before we dive right into how to play Pai Gow Poker, you need to understand the side bets first. Casinos are increasingly adopting Pai Gow Poker variants which are characterized by side bets that can increase a player’s winnings. These side bets neither add to nor detract from the bet for the hand itself.
Instead, the player is betting extra on whether they get three-of-a-kind, a full house, four-of-a-kind, a straight flush, or a royal flush. Of course, the higher the hand, the higher the bonus payout.
Among the most common and popular are:
- Fortune Pai Gow: Allows players to make a side bet on trips or better
- Pai Gow Mania: Allows players to make two side bets
- Emperor’s Challenge: Allows players to make a side bet on a pai gow
- Progressive Fortune Pai Gow: Allows players to place side bets with a combined seven-card straight flush winning the jackpot.
Some casinos have envy bonuses as well. For these, players wager an amount that another player at the table will hit a premium hand.
Like any bet offered by a casino, Pai Gow side bets have a negative expectation–much more negative than the game of Pai Gow alone. Avoid them unless you feel like gambling even more than you already are.
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:
In pai gow poker, an A2345 straight is the 2nd best straight you can have.
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 “” 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.
Banking Options 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 a 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%.
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 backhand 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.
- That’s as close to an optimal strategy for Pai Gow Poker as most players will ever need.
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.
Looking for online casinos that provide Pai Gow Poker? Heres a list below, and also make sure to check our reviews on online betting —
- Gensis Casino
- Show Lion
- Voodoo Dreams
- Rizk Casino
- Royal Panda
If you are a beginner with no experience of playing the Pai Gow Poker, then simply find an online casino that offers this game to play for free to learn the rules and get expert before playing it for real cash. Consider vital things in your mind while picking any site including online casino bonuses and promotions, licensing and regulation, reviews and ratings, banking methods, game selection, and software providers.
We hope this article was helpful to you!