How to Play Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow Poker is the Americanised version of Pai Gow played with playing cards rather than traditional Chinese dominoes.
China has made huge contributions to the world of gambling, not the least of which was the invention of paper used to make money and playing cards more than a thousand years ago.
Prior to that, marked tiles, dice and coloured stones were used for games of chance, some of which are still played to this day. Mahjong, Fan-Tan, and Dominoes are good examples.
One ancient game that has survived virtually unchanged since the Song Dynasty (960~1279) is called Pai Gow (pronounced “pie gow”), which means “make nine.”
Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow is a seemingly complex game for up to seven players, and it utilises 32 specially marked domino tiles. Dice are used to determine which player receives tiles first. After wagers are set and the deal is made, the players arrange four tiles each to created two “hands,” a front hand and a back hand.
The object is to beat the banker’s front and back hands, respectively, and win even money on the wager, less a 5% house commission. Ties are quite common.
Because Pai Gow in its original form is rather cryptic and symbolic, the winning combinations can be quite difficult to learn. Also, the game is not widely played outside Chinese gambling halls.
By 1979, only one Las Vegas casino had introduced a Pai Gow table to its gaming floor—Caesars Palace. As a result, very few “Lo Fon” (non-Orientals) ever took up the game.
But during the early 1980s, the owner of a card club in a Los Angeles suburb invented a new game based upon the “two hand” concept of Pai Gow. It used a standard deck of playing cards plus a Joker.
It also replaced the confusing ranking of domino hands with basic poker rankings. Within a few short years, the new game would completely usurp its namesake to become one of the world’s most popular casino table games—Pai Gow Poker.
Pai Gow Poker – An American Invention
Despite its oriental name and many myths to the contrary, Pai Gow Poker is not an ancient Chinese invention at all. In fact, the very first hands ever played were at California’s Bell Card Club in 1985.
How American Sam Torosian got the idea for Pai Gow Poker is a fascinating anecdote. The Bell Card Club was not doing well in the early 1980s and, as the owner, Torosian wanted to infuse it with something novel and captivating.
A Filipino patron suggested a game called “Puy Soy,” a Chinese card game in which players try to beat the banker by cutting 13 cards into three poker hands.
Torosian agreed that having an Asian-style game to play at the club could attract more ethnic customers. But believing a 13-card game would be too slow, Torosian decided it was necessary to reduce the number of cards dealt to seven and the number of hands played to two, as in the old game Pai Gow.
A player beating both of the banker’s hands would win. Topping just one hand would tie, and failing on both hands would lose.
On a Friday night, Torosian launched his “Pai Gow Poker” game at two tables. A week later, he had to increase the number of tables to 30. Soon, he had the Pai Gow Poker tables squeezed closer together, jamming the entrance and blocking the doors to the restrooms. He added more tables to the hallways.
The new game’s unique blending of ancient Asian tradition with Wild West-style competition struck a chord among card players. It was a runaway success.
The throngs of players at the Bell Card Club attracted the interest of George Hardie, owner of the Bicycle Club, which was at the time one of the world’s largest card clubs. When Hardie brought in Pai Gow Poker, it was met with the same enthusiastic customer reaction.
By 1987, the game had been introduced in the casinos of Las Vegas, and then it spread like wildfire to Atlantic City, Buenos Aires, Macao, and beyond.
Today, Pai Gow Poker is played all around the world and has become a mainstay of casinos online and off. The game is easy to learn and play, and it involves less risk than many other forms of Poker—a great game for those new to card rooms. High stakes are possible, too, making it akin to Baccarat in terms of a well-heeled following.
Sadly, the game’s inventor never got a patent for his brainchild. According to a 2003 article in the Times, “Conservative estimates have Torosian earning $70,000 a month, had he patented the game.
Some experts say his fortune might have reached $100 million by now.” But Torosian eventually retired without ever receiving a penny in royalties.
Pai Gow Poker Basics
To play Pai Gow Poker, which is sometimes known as “Double Hand Poker,” a 53-card deck is used. A Joker is added to the standard 52-card deck and it serves as a limited wild card.
In casinos, the game is dealt on what looks like a Blackjack table, which can accommodate up to six players at a time, plus the dealer who also plays a hand.
Much like Blackjack, players vie one-on-one against the bank, trying to make the best hands possible. But unlike Blackjack, the players may elect to be the banker, each in turn, paying a commission of 5% to the house on the bank’s net win.
Whenever a player becomes the banker, the dealer still plays and will wager an amount equal to the last bet the player made when the dealer was banking. Players also have the option to pass, if they do not wish be the bank with its associated risks and rewards.
The pace of Pai Gow Poker can be a bit slow compared to other casino table games, owing to the occurrence of numerous ties. New players will appreciate that a relatively modest buy in can often last quite a long time.
The game begins with each player making a wager. A roll of a single die determines which player is dealt to first. Then, the dealer deals seven cards for the house and seven cards to each player, who in turn must be arrange them into two hands—one consisting of five cards and the other of just two.
These hands are referred to as the High Hand and the Low Hand, or the 5-Card and 2-Card, respectively.
One important rule of Pai Gow Poker is that the High Hand must have a value higher than the Low Hand in order to qualify, otherwise a “foul” is called and the hand automatically loses.
For example, if dealt a pair of Aces, a pair of Kings and three unsuited lower cards, the Aces could be split, but they could not be used together to form the 2-Card hand. Similarly, in a hand containing an Ace and a King along with five unsuited lower cards, the Ace must be placed in the High Hand.
Apart from this rule, players may set up their two hands in any way they wish. For example, it is often advantageous to split two pairs, putting a pair in each hand, as long as the lower pair goes in the Low Hand.
The banker’s hand, however, must be set up strictly according to pre-determined rules known as the “House Way.” In online casinos, there is often an “Arrange” button that will automatically set up the player’s hand by using the House Way rules.
After all of the players have set their hands, there is a showdown. If both of the player’s two hands are better than both of the banker’s, then the player wins even money, less the house commission, which is typically 5%.
If the player wins one of the hands but not the other, it is a draw with no winner. The player loses the wager if both of the banker’s hands are higher.
One caution: In any case where the banker’s and player’s hands are identical, the banker’s hand wins. It is not a draw or “push” as it would be in regular Poker. This applies to both the High Hand and the Low Hand.
Ranking Pai Gow Poker Hands
The addition of a Joker to the standard 52-card deck as a limited wild card adds a unique dimension to Pai Gow Poker. The winning hand combinations are therefore slightly different from those in other forms of Poker.
Moreover, special rules apply to the use of the Joker in a hand. It can only be used as an Ace, or to complete Straights or Flushes, including a Straight Flush. It may not be used to form pairs, three of a kind, or four of a kind, other than Aces.
With this in mind, the following list shows the eleven types of hands possible when playing Pai Gow Poker, along with the role of the Joker, if applicable. The hands are presented in order, from the highest possible to the lowest, for both the High Hand and the Low Hand.
1. Five Aces – In the High Hand, this includes all four Aces plus the Joker. It is Pai Gow Poker’s unbeatable top hand, and it automatically elevates Kings to the top rank in the Low Hand.
2. Royal Flush – Just as in other forms of Poker, the “Royal” is the A-K-Q-J-10 of the same suit in the High Hand. The Joker may be used in place of any one of the five cards. This hand beats all but Five Aces.
3. Straight Flush – This High Hand is five cards in order, all in the same suit, such as the Q-J-10-9-8 of hearts or the 7-6-5-4-3 of clubs, with no gaps occurring in the sequence. The Joker may be used to substitute for any card missing from the five.
4. Four of a Kind – This High Hand features four cards of the same rank, one in each of the four suits, such as J-J-J-J or 7-7-7-7. The Joker may not be used to form any four-of-a-kind other than four Aces.
5. Full House – This High Hand contains three cards of the same rank (also known as a “set” or “trips”) and two cards of another rank (called a “pair”), such as A-A-A-6-6 or 9-9-2-2-2. The Joker may not be used to form any Full House other than one which contains Aces.
6. Flush – This High Hand has any five cards of the same suit, such as the K-8-7-4-2 of spades or 9-8-5-3-2 of diamonds. The cards do not have to be in sequence. The Joker can substitute as the missing fifth card to form a Flush in any suit, automatically taking the rank of the highest unused card.
7. Straight – This is a High Hand made up of any five unsuited cards in sequence, such as the J-10-9-8-7. The highest possible straight is the unsuited A-K-Q-J-10; the second highest is the 5-4-3-2-A, followed by the K-Q-J-10-9.
Note that this is different from traditional poker where the 5-4-3-2-A, or so-called “wheel,” is always low. The Joker can substitute as the missing fifth card to form any Straight.
8. Three of a Kind – This High Hand has three cards of the same rank, such as K-K-K or 4-4-4. The Joker may not be used to form any three-of-a-kind other than Aces.
9. Two Pair – This High Hand contains two cards of a higher rank and two of a lower rank, such as K-K-9-9 or 7-7-3-3. The Joker may not be used to form any pair other than Aces.
10. One Pair – In the High Hand, this means two cards of the same rank and three unrelated cards, such as J-J-10-6-4 or K-8-5-5-2. In the Low Hand, both cards must be of the same rank. The Joker may not be used to form any pair other than Aces.
11. High Card – In the High Hand, this is any five unmatched cards, such as the unsuited A-K-J-9-6. In the Low Hand, it is any two cards that are not of the same rank. The Joker is always played as an Ace in such hands, provided that the High Hand contains at least an Ace or better.
Please note that in the Low Hand, there can be no Straights or Flushes. Moreover, the Joker can only be played in the Low Hand if the High Hand contains at least an Ace or better.
The House and Its Way
Casinos interpret the rules of Pai Gow Poker with slight variations, which players need to be mindful of before placing a wager. For example, if there is an empty seat, some casinos have it dealt in as an un-bet “dragon” hand.
If another player assumes the dragon hand, playing two positions rather than one, the un-bet hand must be set according to the “House Way.”
As mentioned previously, when forming the High and Low hands after a Pai Gow Poker deal, the banker must follow a strict set of rules called the “House Way.”
These rules may vary slightly from casino to casino or web site to web site, but the basics are always quite similar to the rules used by a number of Las Vegas casinos, as follows.
With no pair – Set the highest card in the High Hand and the next two highest cards in the Low Hand.
With one pair – Set the pair in High Hand and the next two highest cards in the Low Hand.
With two pair – Always split Aces and any other pair; always split a pair of face cards and a pair 6s or higher; never split any two pairs of 6s or under; with any other two pairs, split them unless the hand has an Ace, in which case set the Ace in the Low Hand and keep the two pair in the High Hand.
With three pair – Always play the highest pair in the Low Hand.
With three of a kind – Always set three of a kind in the High Hand, except three Aces, which should be split into a pair in the High Hand and an Ace in the Low Hand.
With two sets of three of a kind – Place the lower three of a kind in the high hand and a pair from the higher three of a kind in the Low Hand.
With a straight – Always set a five-card straight in the High Hand; with a six-card straight, place the highest card from the straight in the Low Hand; with a straight and a pair, set the pair in the Low Hand; with a straight and two pair, follow the two-pair rule above.
With a flush – Always set a flush in the High Hand; with a with a six-card flush, place the highest card from the flush in the Low Hand; with a flush and a pair, set the pair in the Low Hand; with a flush and two pair, follow the two-pair rule above.
With a straight and a flush – If there is no pair, set the cards to result in the highest Low Hand possible.
With a full house – Always set the pair in the Low Hand, except with pair of deuces when the A-K can be played in the Low Hand.
With four of a kind – Always keep 2~6 together; split 7~10 unless an Ace and a face card are available to place in the Low Hand; split face cards unless the hand also contains a pair of 10s or higher for the Low Hand; split Aces unless a pair of 7s or higher can be played in the Low Hand.
With a straight flush – Always set this as the High Hand unless a face card or Ace can be played in the Low Hand while retaining a non-sequential flush or unsuited straight in the High Hand.
With a royal flush – Always set this as the High Hand unless an Ace, King or a pair can be played in the Low Hand while retaining a straight or flush in the High Hand.
Dealers are specially trained to memorize the House Way for their casino. If you have any doubt about how to set the hand, it may be permissible to ask them and set the hand accordingly.
Pai Gow Poker Odds
Because the player and the banker each receive seven cards and separate them into two hands, the odds for Pai Gow Poker are somewhat more difficult to determine than they are for ordinary Poker.
But just as in all casino table games, the house has an edge, which has been calculated at anywhere from 1.3% to 2.3% when strictly playing the House Way.
Since ties play a big part in the game, it is useful to know that the probability of the High Hands being identical is 2.55%. The probability of the Low Hands copying each other is 0.10%. Remember, the banker wins whenever hands match, so these occurrences are calculated into the house advantage.
Of all the possible outcomes in Pai Gow Poker, the player can be expected to win both the High Hand and the Low Hand 28.61% of the time. Statistically, the banker should win both hands in 29.91% of all deals, and in 41.48% of all showdowns, the result will be a draw, with the player winning one hand and losing the other.
Studies of High Hand arrangements in Pai Gow Poker indicate that the top hand, Five Aces, comes up about once every 138,000 hands. You can expect to receive a pair in 41.66% of all deals and to create a High Hand containing better than a pair about 42.26% of the time.
A High Hand with no pair, straight or flush and featuring five singletons only comes up just 16.08% of the time, or once every 6.25 deals.
Another statistic that is useful to know relates to the “power” of a hand and how likely it is to win. The median High Hand is a pair of Jacks. It can be expected to win 49.8% of the time.
The media Low Hand is the A-7. It should win 49.7% of the time. Hands valued higher than these are considered strong, while hands valued lower can be thought of as weak.
Something else to factor into calculations of Pai Gow Poker odds is the house commission, which is typically 5%. However, many casinos allow players to “pre-pay” the commission, which actually results in a lowering of the rate or “vigorish.”
Instead of wagering 100 units to win 95 and pay a commission of 5 units, the player can wager 105 units to win 100 units and pay a 5-unit commission. This reduces the vigorish to 4.76%.
Experienced players know that any action that reduces the house edge and improves the player’s odds of winning is worth taking.
Although a player’s skill in setting up the two Pai Gow Poker hands can reduce the house advantage a bit, there is one aspect of the game that can swing the odds even more greatly—being the banker.
The Player as Banker
As previously noted in describing the basics of the game, Pai Gow Poker players have the opportunity to be the bank, somewhat like Baccarat, although no auction is involved. Instead, the dealer offers the opportunity to be the banker to each player in turn.
In most card rooms, if a player turns down the offer, the opportunity passes to the next player clockwise at the table. If no player accepts the offer, the dealer becomes the bank.
Whenever the bank is held by a player, the dealer still plays for the house and uses the House Way to set the two hands. Although the rules vary somewhat from casino to casino, it is customary for the dealer to bet for the house whatever amount the player was wagering before becoming the banker.
To become the bank, you typically need to fulfill two requirements. First, you must have enough money on the table to cover all winning bets, including the dealer’s wager as well as those of all the other players. Second, you must have played at least one hand against the banker to establish your betting amount.
Because the banker wins all ties, this is an immediate edge of 1.3% for the player willing to accept the role. The new banker collects all losing wagers and pays any winners from his/her own pocket.
The risk, of course, is that a poor hand could prove to be quite expensive, but the rewards eventually outweigh such losses over the long term. For this reason, players are well advised to be the banker whenever the opportunity is available.
One might find it curious that a casino would be willing to give away its natural house advantage to a player, but the math is clear. The casino collects a 5% commission on all winnings, including the banker’s, when the bank is held by a player.
It costs the casino nothing when the banker’s hands lose, and the commission is still collected on the winnings of the other players. The only way the house can lose is on the dealer’s own hand.
The opportunity to be the banker should rotate around the table, skipping any players who do not wish to bank. This will allow each player to be the bank at least once every seven deals, and even more often if others decline.
Be careful, though. Some casinos “zigzag” the turn to bank between the players and the dealer, so that when a player declines, the dealer automatically becomes the bank. This adds to the house advantage and such tables should be avoided.
If you come upon a vacant Pai Gow Poker table, it may be possible to request being the bank on every hand. Some casinos will allow this. They make enough off the 5% commission to offset the edge they give up.
It is more to your advantage, however, to find a table where players let you be the bank most of the time. If you play using a sound strategy, your edge will bring you far more rewards from less experienced players than it will from a trained, experienced, and fulltime dealer.
Pai Gow Poker Strategy
In a ground-breaking 1990 book entitled “Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker,” an American mathematician writing under the penname “Stanford Wong” identified the 27 different types of seven-card hands that can be dealt at Pai Gow Poker, along with the best way to organise each of them.
Wong covered every possibility, and his strategies should be required reading for any card player looking to turn pro at Pai Gow Poker.
However, beginners do not need elaborate tables, charts and decision trees to master Pai Gow Poker basics. Six types of hands make up 90% of all deals. Having a simple strategy for handling them will allow a novice to anticipate most potential dilemmas and set the cards to his/her best advantage.
As a general rule, you should try to make both hands fairly strong in order to win both. You do not want to end up with ties. Since the High Hand must be set higher than the Low Hand, you will always begin by considering it first and see what remains for setting up the Low Hand.
The approaches outlined in the next three paragraphs will apply to about nine out of every ten hands.
With no pair, place the highest card in the High Hand and the next two highest cards in the Low Hand. With one pair, set it in the High Hand and put the highest two of the remaining cards in the Low Hand. This will cover 58% of all hands you are dealt.
Two pairs come up in a hand 24% of the time. Most players will always split them between the hands. A more aggressive strategy is to keep small pairs (below 6s) together in the High Hand, especially if an Ace or a face card is available to set in the Low Hand. With three pair, place the highest pair in the Low Hand.
Three of a kind occurs in about 8% of all hands. Unless the triplets are Aces, always keep them together in the High Hand. For Aces, place a pair in the High Hand and the remaining Ace in the Low Hand.
If a pair accompanies the three of a kind, set the triplets in the High Hand and the pair in the Low Hand. The only exception to the latter is when the remaining unmatched cards are both face cards, in which case put them in the Low Hand and keep the Full House for the High Hand.
Other types of hands, such as those containing straights or flushes, make up about 10~11% of all deals. Occasionally they will also contain pairs or high cards that will tempt you to split them up, but unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, it is usually best not to weaken the High Hand to improve the Low Hand.
The exception is when six or seven cards are available to form the straight or flush, so the highest card can be in the Low Hand.
If you adhere to this basic strategy for setting up your hands at Pai Gow Poker and accept the position of bank as often as possible, you should be able to win slowly and steadily over time. And when in doubt, consult the House Way.
Pai Gow Poker Variations
The game that Sam Torosian invented and failed to patent has continued to evolve since the mid-1980s. Today, there are a variety of Pai Gow Poker inspired games played in casinos and online, and many of them offer beginners an easy way to get started.
For example, Mini Pai Gow Poker follows all of the rules of the original game, but with one major exception: the dealer is the banker for all hands.
For those starting out with a limited bankroll, this may be a good game to begin with, but remember that the greatest gains come from being the banker, so Mini Pai Gow Poker should be seen only as a launching point.
In the game called “Pai Gow Mania,” two side bets are featured. Conventional Pai Gow Poker rules apply to the main event, while players are invited to place additional wagers on their first three cards and all seven cards. Pairs and trips caught on the first three cards earn a bonus, as do certain threshold hands among the seven cards dealt.
One variation that enjoyed popularity in Washington State for a while was “Commission-Free Pai Gow Poker.” There was no vigorish on banker wins. The house earned its profits off side bets.
Another version that offers a side bet is “Fortune Pai Gow Poker.” It pays an “Envy Bonus” based upon the value of the player’s seven cards, regardless of how the two hands are set. To qualify for the bonus, the hand must contain four of a kind or better.
Versions with side bets similar to “Fortune” are “Jackpot Pai Gow Poker,” which has bonuses up to $100,000, and “Emperor’s Challenge,” with a house edge of 4.17%. In “Progressive Pai Gow Poker” played in Canada, a $5 side bet can earn over $100,000.
In the United Kingdom, a Pai Gow Poker spin-off called “Jokolor” has been approved by the Gambling Commission. It features a side bet that pays when the player’s hand has a Joker or else all of cards are of the same color.
A game called “No Push Pai Gow Poker” is still played a few Las Vegas casinos. It has the same rules as Pai Gow Poker, but the dealer is always the banker and there is no 5% commission.
When the player wins both hands, even money is paid. In the event of a push, the unused cards in the deck are used to settle the tie. If the player draws a card greater than the banker’s, then the player wins. If the banker’s card is equal to or greater than the player’s card, then the banker wins.
One other “improvement” to Pai Gow Poker was introduced in Las Vegas: “Pai Gow Insurance.” A side bet wins if the player receives a hand with seven singletons and no straights or flushes. The lower the highest card in the hand, the more the insurance pays.
Play Pai Gow Poker Online
Today, almost every major casino on the Internet has some form of Pai Gow Poker in its games mix. They offer the ability to play online, learning the basics of the game at low or no cost.
You can play at your own pace and take your time setting your hands. Refer to strategy guides, too, if you like, many of which are offered by the casinos themselves.
It is hard to beat the convenience of enjoying Pai Gow Poker from your own home, office or laptop. The graphics packages can be quite realistic, and through the gaming web sites you will have easy access to customer support, as well as promotional bonuses offered for play.
As of this writing, however, none of the major online casinos have begun offering a real-time multiplayer version of Pai Gow Poker that allows player banking.
All that is available are solo versions that pit a single player directly against the dealer. That means there is no opportunity to become the banker, which in turn means the house retains its edge on every hand.
For this reason, many of the online Pai Gow Poker operators do not charge the customary 5% commission. They make their profits off the house edge and, in some cases, by offering side bets.
This makes online Pai Gow Poker an even money game, similar to Blackjack, Baccarat or the outside bets at Craps or Roulette. As a result, progressive betting strategies, such as Martingale (doubling up on a loss) and Labouchere (the “cancellation” system) may be employed.
Before you log on and begin betting at Pai Gow Poker with any online casino, it is a good idea to read the game rules carefully. Become familiar with the provider’s software by playing in the “for fun” or “for free” mode before registering and making deposits to an account or laying out wagers.
You can compare the software of various sites before committing any cash to the table. Then, when you do bet for real, it will be with full knowledge of the risks and opportunities possible.
Be sure to take advantage of any welcome promotions offered by the online casino. These include bonus cash at sign-up, matching cash for initial deposits, and free play.
A few sites are now offering Pai Gow Poker applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch, too. Choose the software and environment that suits you best. Before long, you’ll be a true aficionado of this exciting “new” game.