Pai gow poker is based on pai gow, an old Chinese gambling game that’s played with dominoes, it’s only been around since 1985. It was first introduced in the United States by a card club owner named Sam Torosian. He got the idea after a Filipino customer told him about Pusoy, or Chinese poker.
In that game, players get 13 cards each, and they must make two five-card hands and one three-card hand. Torosian thought that the 13-card version would be too slow, so he tweaked it and came up with a seven-card version that we now know as pai gow poker.
The game quickly found its way into Las Vegas casinos. Its popularity has since spread globally and the game is now found in land-based and online casinos all over the world. Players are attracted to pai gow poker’s simplicity and fast pace. Several other versions with unique twists have appeared in recent years. Pai Gow Mania offers two side bets while Fortune Pai Gow has a bonus bet on whether a hand will be three of a kind or better. A Shuffle Master version features a side bet for a progressive jackpot.
Sometimes referred to as Double-Hand Poker, Pai Gow Poker is a casino poker game in which players and the dealer receive seven cards each face down. Each hand of seven cards is then split into two separate poker hands. One poker hand consists of five cards while the other comprises two cards. Hands must always be set in a way that the five-card hand is higher than the two-card hand. The game's object is to have your two poker hands beat the dealer’s two poker hands.
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How to Play Pai Gow Poker - Basic Gameplay
Pai gow poker is played with a standard 52-card deck with one joker added to it. You should know that the joker may be used to either complete a five-card straight or a flush. Otherwise, it’s considered an ace. The table is laid out for six players and a dealer. While there are usually multiple players at a table, you aren’t competing against them.
As in, for instance Blackjack, Three Card Poker and Mississippi Stud, you are only playing against the dealer. Each spot is assigned a number between one and seven. One unique aspect of this game is that every seat receives cards even if they are unoccupied. So, if there are four players plus the dealer, the two empty positions would still get cards. Those cards are then simply scooped up and added to the discard pile.
The round begins with players placing their bets. The dealer then distributes seven cards to each position. Because all positions get cards even if they aren’t occupied, there will always be four cards left over. The players and dealer must then assess their cards and make their five-card and two-card hands. Again, the five-card poker hand must always be the higher ranking hand of the two.
The player hands are then compared to the dealer’s hands. A few different scenarios can play out at this point. The best-case scenario would have both of your hands beating the dealer’s hands. The worst outcome is having both dealer hands beat both of yours. A push is declared if one of your hands wins and the other loses. As a point of interest, about 41.5% of hands will result in a push.
But what if your five-card or two-card hand is exactly the same as the dealer’s? For instance, either five-card hands are 2–6 straights, or your two-card hands are both AK? This is called a “Copy”. In this case, the dealer wins. Don’t confuse this with a push or a tie in hand rankings. A push is where the dealer wins one hand and the player wins the other. If you have A, A, K, 3, 2, and the dealer has A, A, Q, 10, 9, you both have a pair of aces, but you win that hand because your king outkicks the dealer’s Q.
Pai Gow Poker – Banker’s Edge and Payouts
We just covered the concept of the copy. This will happen in about 2.6% of hands. Obviously, it most commonly occurs with the two-card hand. This 2.6% advantage accounts for most of the house edge. The rest is due to the 5% commission paid on winning bets.
When you win playing pai gow poker, you don’t get paid at a 1 to 1 rate. Instead, you get paid out at a 0.95-1 rate. So, if you bet $10 and win, you’ll get your original $10 stake back plus $9.50 for a total return of $19.50. Some casinos forgo the 5% commission and charge a flat fee per hand. Another trait of some live pai gow poker games is that players may take turns being the banker. You being the banker dramatically shifts the house edge.
Let’s Walk Through a Couple of Hands
We’ll start you off with a couple of sample hands. This is just to familiarize yourself with the flow and how a basic hand might play out so we’re not going to get into strategy. That will be covered in detail further below.
You take your seat, place your bets, and you’re dealt an A, A, K, 9, 9, 7, 2. Not a bad hand. You assemble your five-card hand with the AA along with the K, 7, 2. Your two-card hand is a pair of 9s. The main thing here is that your five-card hand is ranked higher than your two-card hand. After the dealer has formed his two hands, it’s time for the showdown. The dealer shows a K, K, 7, 4, 3 in one hand, and a pair of 6s in the other. Your aces beat his kings in the five-card hand and your 9s beat his 6s in the two-card hand. You win!
After placing your bet, your next seven cards are Q, J, 10, 6, 6, 5, and 3. You might be tempted to use the 6s for your two-card hand, but you can’t. That would make your two-card hand better than your five-card hand. So, you make your five-card hand using the pair of 6s with the 10, 5, and 3 while your two-card hand is a QJ. After sorting his hands, the dealer turns over a 10-A straight and a 7 – 5. His five-card hand is definitely better than yours. However, your QJ managed to hold up for a winning two-card hand. You have earned yourself a push.
The following hand is dealt and you get 10, 10, 8, 8, 7, 5, and a 5. Three pairs. You put the pair of 8s and the pair of 5s together with the 7 to make your five-card hand while the pair of 10s makes the two-card hand. Even though the 10s is the highest pair you have, it still makes a smaller hand than your lesser two pair put together. The dealer shows J, J, 3, 3, 6 for his five-card hand and a pair of aces for his two-card hand. He also had three pairs. They just happened to be better than yours so you lose a tough one.
In our last test hand, the dealer blesses you with A, A, A, A, K, 10, and the joker. What are you going to do with this one? Remember, the joker, or bug as it is sometimes called, can only be used to complete a five-card straight or five-card flush. It’s considered an ace in any other situation. Assuming you don’t have a flush, the joker will have to be an ace. Even though you have five aces, a surefire winner, you are going to break them up.
You make a five-card hand using three of the aces and the K – 10 giving you trips. You place the fourth ace along with the joker, which is now considered an ace, into the two-card hand giving you AA. The dealer reveals a 7-high flush with his five-card hand and a pair of 10s for his two-card hand. What a downer! It’s a split.
We will soon get into basic strategy, but for now, let’s see if that last hand was played correctly. You could have made your five-card hand five aces. That would have definitely crushed the dealer’s flush. However, it would have left us with a K – 10 as a small hand. The dealer’s 10s would have prevailed resulting in a split. Another way to go would have been to have quad aces and the 10 kicker as the high hand and the AK as a low hand.
Once again, your quads win easily, but the AK would have lost. A third option would have been to break the five aces into trips for the high hand and AA for the low. The low hand would have won, but the dealer’s flush would have won the five-card hand. It’s a push any way you cut it. As you will soon learn, you played this hand properly. You just got unlucky. The gambling god can be rather cruel and sadistic when they want to be.
Basic Strategy for Pai Gow Poker
Understanding pai gow poker strategy starts with the concept of “House Way”. This is the way the house plays. The house way is based on the idea that the house plays the best two hands. This doesn’t necessarily mean the house solely focuses on getting the best five-card hand. You will maximize your winnings, or at least minimize your losses, if you play the same way. With that said, here are a few basic strategies.
With a Garbage Hand: If you are dealt nothing, not even a pair, use your second and third-highest cards in your low hand. For example, you get an A, 10, 9, 7, 4, 3, 2. After cursing the gambling gods, you’d make your two-card hand using the 10 and 9 leaving the rest to form your high hand.
One Pair: If you are dealt only one pair, keep it in your high hand and use your two highest cards to make the two-card hand. For example, you get K, Q, 10, 8, 8, 7, 2. Make your two-card hand using the KQ and put the pair of 8s along with the 10, 7, 2 into your high hand.
Two Pairs: If one of your two pairs are aces, keep them for your five-card hand and use the other pair for your two-card hand. If your top pair is kings, again, split them unless the bottom pair is 2s. In that case, play the two pairs in your high hand and put the two highest remaining cards in your two-card hand.
Two Pairs – 2s Through 10s: Play the higher pair in your high hand and the lower pair in your two-card hand. The exception is when you also have an ace. In that case, keep the two pairs together and use the ace and the highest non-paired card for your low hand.
Two Pairs – Aces and Faces: Always split with the higher pair obviously going into your five-card hand.
Three Pairs: Use the highest pair to make your two-card hand.
Three of a Kind: Unless they are aces, always play trips together in your high hand. If it’s three aces, play a pair of them in your high hand and the other in your low hand along with your next-highest card.
Full House: Split the hand into a three of a kind for your high hand and use the pair for your low hand. If you happen to have a full house plus an extra pair, put the highest pair into your low hand.
Two Three of a Kinds: Keep the lowest three of a kind for your high hand and use a pair of the higher trips for the low hand.
Straights and Flushes: Normally, you keep straights and flushes together to form your high hand. However, if you also have two pairs, with one of them being 10s or better, you might want to break up the flush or straight and refer to the two-pair strategy outlined above. It really depends on which gives you a stronger low hand.
Four of a Kind: Keep quad 6s and lower together in your high hand. Split four of a kinds ranging from 7s to 10s unless you have an ace or another pair to play in your low hand. Always split aces and faces into two pairs unless you have another pair in your hand.
Five Aces: This hand can only happen if you have the joker and quad aces. We went through this very hand in an earlier example. Always split five aces into one three of a kind for your high hand and a pair of them for your low hand. If you are also gifted another pair to complement your five aces, keep the five aces together and the pair in the low hand.
Pai Gow Poker Bonus Bets
Some, but definitely not all pai gow poker games feature a variety of side and bonus bets. These bonus bets add a new and exciting dimension to the game. Usually, bonus bets have nothing to do with beating the dealer. Instead, you are merely trying to make a qualifying hand. If you do, you are paid out according to the bonus bet’s payout table. Bonus bet payouts may differ slightly depending on where you play, but a typical pai gow poker bonus payout table looks like this:
|7-Card Straight Flush with no joker
|Royal Flush plus a Pair
|7-Card Straight Flush with a Joker
|Four of a Kind
|Three of a Kind
So, if you bet on the bonus, and you can make at least a straight with your seven cards, your bonus bet wins. For instance, you put $1 on the bonus bet and you can make a full house using your seven cards. You would win $5 plus the original $1 stake for a total return of $6. The bonus bet has nothing to do with whether your hand wins or loses against the dealer. It is a separate bet that is determined solely by the cards in your hand.
Putting your New-Found Knowledge to Practical Use
We have covered the most important things there are to know about pai gow poker. You now understand the object of the game, the payouts, and some basic strategies. One of the things you can take away from all of this is that you can’t control what cards you get. The key is how you play them. Following the basic strategies as outlined above will maximize your chances of winning.
Remember that this gambling. You’re going to win some, and you’re going to lose some. You’re also going to push an awful lot. As important as the profit/loss aspect is, the main thing is that you play your hands properly. Doing so might occasionally hurt you, but you’ll be rewarded far more often than not. So, let’s hit the pai gow poker table and run through a few more hands.
You place your $10 bet and, since you crave all the action you can get, you also plunk down $1 on the bonus bet. The dealer sends an A, Q, Q, 7, 5, 3, and a 3 your way. Do you:
- Play the two pairs in your high hand and use the A-7 as your low hand?
- Split the pairs using the queen for the five-card hand and the threes for the low hand?
Referring to our basic strategies, we see that we should split the two pairs up, placing the queens in the high hand and the threes in the low hand. The dealer turns over a pair of jacks in his high hand and an A-10 in his low hand. You win both hands giving you the win. Seeing you bet $10, how much money will you get back including the original stake?
The answer is C. You get paid out at 0.95 to 1 on the winning bet. This means you get back your $10 stake plus 95% of your stake amount. This equals $10 plus $9.50 for a total return of $19.50. As for the bonus bet, two pairs doesn’t qualify so you lose your dollar. In total, you’ve profited $8.50 from this hand.
You repeat the same bets for the next hand and receive a K, K, K, K, 10, 6, and 2. You can rejoice now because your bonus bet is going to pay off 25-1 for the quad kings. But how do you play this hand against the dealer? Do you:
- Keep the four kings in your high hand and play the 10-6 in the low hand?
- Play three kings in the high hand and a K-10 in the low hand?
- Split the kings into two pairs putting one pair in your high hand and one in the low hand?
If you guessed C, you would be correct. Always split quad jacks and higher. This makes your high hand a K, K, 10, 6, 2 while your low hand is KK. The dealer reveals a pair of 10s in his high hand and a pair of 3s in his low hand. You win once again. You make $9.50 from the main bet and another $25 from the bonus bet. Things are looking up!
You repeat the same bets. This time, you get a K, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, and 4. No flush. This one shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. You’re obviously going to play the straight 6-10 as your high hand while the K-4 will be your low hand. Lookin’ good! The dealer shows a trip 5s in his high hand and a K-4 in his low hand.
Now, let’s think about how this hand is going to shake out. There’s no question that your straight obliterates the dealer’s three 5s. But what about the low hand? They are both K-4. Well if you recall from earlier on, this is a copy. It’s the exact same hand. As such, the dealer wins. So, you win the high hand but lose the low hand resulting in a push. The good news is that your straight makes the bonus bet a winner resulting in a small gain.
For your last hand, you place the same bets and the dealer gives you 10, 10, 10, 8, 8, 8, 4. Do you:
- Play the big hand with two pairs and the small hand using 10-8?
- Use the three 10s as the big hand and a pair of 8s as the low hand?
- Play the three 8s as the high hand and a pair of 10s as the low hand?
- Use three 10’s and a pair of the 8s to make a full house in the high hand while using the remaining 8 and the 4 in the low hand?
The answer is C yet again. You would keep the trip 8s together in the five-card hand while playing a pair of 10s as the low hand. You feel like you’ve been kicked in the groin with a steel-toes boot as the dealer shows a straight for his five-card hand and pocket jacks in his low hand. That’s a tough beat. At least the bonus bet off helping you recoup some of your loss.
Pai gow poker is a great game for those who like the fast-paced action of casino poker games. The house edge is beyond reasonable and you can further reduce it by implementing optimal strategy. Another nice thing about pai gow poker is that you normally won’t rack up losses too quickly. Of course, that works the other way around too. Making a profit playing pai gow is more of a grind than other games. Barring side bets, you only get to make one wager. Remember that the key to winning lies in playing your cards properly. Have fun!
Can I play pai gow poker for free?
You certainly can. In fact, it is highly recommended that you play pai gow poker for play money before you try it for real money. This allows you to get a feel for the game, explore strategies, and learn some of the more subtle aspects of the game. There are plenty of free pai gow games out there.
Do I have to abide by the “House Way” with my hands?
No. You are free to play your hands any way you want. If you want to split your aces into an ace-high in your five-card hand and an ace-high in your low hand, have at it. Just know that straying from the House Way and basic strategy reduces your chances of winning. Splitting your aces in such a fashion would be a stupid move.
How can I be sure I’m making the best decisions with my pai gow poker hands?
Many online versions of the game let you auto-sort your cards in the house way. In some live games, the dealer will be happy to assist you.
Can I forgo the main bet and only wager on the bonus bet?
No. You can’t get your cards until you have first placed the main bet. If you want to play side bets, you must make the main bet.