Pai Gow Poker
Created by an American casino owner (Sam Torosian) in the mid-1980s (without patenting it, unfortunately), Pai Gow has taken hold as a casino staple and is still going strong 30 years later.
In simple terms your goal is to make two poker hands - one 5-card hand and one 2-card hand. If your two poker hands beat the dealer's two poker hands, you win.
If only one of your hand wins, it's a push. And if both of your hands lose, you lose your bet.
As you might guess the game itself is simple and quick to learn for anyone who plays poker and is perfect for a nice, fun, slow-paced game to play live at the casino.
How to Play Pai Gow Poker
As you can likely figure out based on the simple rules above, Pai Gow Poker is a game of pushes. A lot of pushes.
Which is cool. Sit down at a Pai Gow table (live or online) and you can play for quite a while on the same stake - while at the same time getting to move quite a bit of money around.
The odds are definitely in favor of winning one hand per deal which makes it a relatively low-risk casino game and a relaxed way to interact with fellow gamblers at a casino.
For even more camaraderie, at a Pai Gow table each player plays against the banker which means players usually win or lose together.
Another cool thing about Pai Gow?
If you're not sure how to set your hand you can just turn it face up and ask the dealer. He or she will tell you how the House would set it and there you go!
How to Bet in Pai Gow Poker
Just like most casino table games Pai Gow poker begins with the player placing a bet before receiving any cards.
This is the only bet you will make for the duration of the hand and it must be within the minimum and maximum betting limits of the table.
At some Pai Gow tables you can also make a Bonus bet on whether you'll make a "premium" hand. In most casinos that's 3-of-a-kind or better.
The better your premium hand the more the casino will pay out on your bet. The bonus wager doesn't depend on whether you win your main bet or not.
Expert Tip: Never bet the bonus! The house edge on the bonus bet is comparatively huge. You're guaranteed to lose money over the long haul making the bonus bet.
Pai Gow Poker - The Deal
After all of the best have been placed each player then (typically there will be 6 players and one dealer) receives 7 cards face down from the 53-card deck (52 cards plus one joker).
Even if not all of the seats at the table are full the dealer will deal out all 7 cards to each of the places. The four remaining cards are left face down as a muck pile.
Once the dealer picks up any unused hands each player can then set their two Pai Gow hands.
How to Arrange a Pai Gow Poker Hand
It's your job to arrange your cards into two poker hands.
The back hand (or big hand/high hand) is a standard 5-card poker hand. The front hand (or the small hand/low hand) is made up of just two cards
Your low hand can only be two high cards or a pair.
What's a Joker Worth in Pai Gow?
If you're dealt the joker (yes, the joker is included in the deck for Pai Gow Poker play) it can be used to substitute for a card in 3 ways:
- Can be any card to to complete a straight
- Can be any suit to complete a flush
- If it can't be used for either of those, the joker will always be an ace
In the two-card hand a joker is always an ace.
Your 5-Card Hand MUST Be Higher
The only rule for separating your two Pai Gow hands is simple: The five-card hand MUST outrank the two-card hand. For example:
You're dealt: ##Ah##Qc##Js##8d##8c##4s##2h
As you can see the big hand has a pair while the small hand has only ace high. Doing it the other way around (putting the two 8s in the small hand) would not be allowed since the small hand would outrank the big hand.
Important Note: If you do mess up and make your small hand outrank your big hand, it's called "fouling your hand" and you lose your bet. So don't do it!
Your 5-card hand is ranked according to the standard Poker Hand Rankings with one notable exception in some casinos:
- The A-2-3-4-5 straight (also known as a "wheel") is considered the 2nd-highest straight
It's a weird rule and a lot of casinos have dropped it now but many still hold true with it. Check with your local house rules to be sure.
How to Set a Pai Gow Hand - Basic Pai Gow Poker Strategy
Because you can't lose your money if just one of your hands is better than the dealer, it's common strategy to split your hand in a way which gives you the strongest possible two-card hand (without outranking your five-card hand).
The exception to this strategy is if you're able to make a very strong five-card hand such as a straight or better. In that scenario your five-card hand is almost sure to be a winner allowing you to freeroll on any two card hand you play.
When playing hands with no pairs (ie a totally unconnected set of 7 cards) the commonly accepted method is to:
- Leave the highest-ranked card in the back (big) hand
- Put the second two highest-ranking cards in the front (small) hand
That makes your front hand as strong as possible without outranking the back hand.
If you have one pair in your dealt hand:
- Play the pair in your big (high) hand)
- Play your two other highest cards in your low hand
If you're dealt two pairs you should always split them if you have:
- A pair of Aces
- Two high pairs (JJ-AA)
- One high pair (JJ-AA) and one medium (77-TT)
Unless you have an Ace in your hand you should also split:
- Two medium (77-TT) pairs
- One high (JJ-AA) and one low (22-66) pair
Unless you have an Ace or a King you should always split:
- One medium (77-TT) pair and one low (22-66) pair
- Two low (22-66) pairs
- Play 3-of-a-Kind in your High hand unless you have 3 Aces. If you have 3 aces, play a pair in your high hand and Ace-high in your low hand
- Play straights and flushes in your high hand unless you also have two pair. Then split them according to above rules for two-pair hands
- Split quads (4-of-a-kind) into two pairs if they are JJ or above
- Keep 4-of-a-kind 6s or lower together
- Keep 4-of-a-kind (77-TT) together only if you also have an Ace.
When you have a Full House:
- Always play the pair in your 2-card hand and 3-of-a-kind in your high hand unless you also have a second pair
- If so, play the higher of the two-pair in your low hand
If you have five Aces including Joker:
- Always split them unless you also have a pair of Kings (In which case play all five Aces in your high hand)
Pai Gow Poker Dealer Rules or "House Way"
In every casino Pai Gow game the dealer is required to set his or her Pai Gow hand in specific ways. This is called the "House Way."
This varies from casino to casino but is listed in every casino's gaming guide. Check with each local casino to see what their House Way is.
How to Determine a Winning Pai Gow Hand
Once all hands are set you must compare your two hands to the corresponding two hands of the dealer.
- If both of your hands are better than both of the dealer hands, you make 1:1 on your bet
- If only one of your hands is better than the dealer's, it's a push
- If both your hands are worse than the dealers, you lose your bet
Important note: In Pai Gow ties go to the dealer so if you have the exact same hand (eg a pair of 88s in your low hand) the dealer wins that hand.
Pai Gow Poker - House Edge
The house edge in Pau Gow is pretty low to begin with and can be reduced even more (about 2.8%) if you learn how to set your hands optimally.
When you win a hand the casino takes a 5% commission but some casinos choose not to do that. With no House commission the banker has a 1.3% advantage.
Play Free Pai Gow Poker Online
Now that you know the rules and simple strategy to reduce the house edge, your next step is to take a shot at a few free Pai Gow games online.
Check our toplist above for casinos that offer Pai Gow Poker. If you want to try it out before dropping down any real money they all have free or play-money versions you can likely try to get used to the rules and play. Enjoy!
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