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How to Play Pai Gow Poker

By Henry Tamburin


Pai gow poker (pai is pronounced like pie, gow rhymes with now) is a cross between the ancient game of Chinese dominoes and the American game of poker. The game is played on a blackjack-size table with up to six players and a casino dealer. A single deck of 52 playing cards is used plus one joker for a total of 53 cards. The joker is a semi-wild card that can be used to complete a straight, flush, or straight flush (otherwise it is automatically an ace).

Each player plays against the same dealer hand. What’s unique about pai gow poker is that a player has the option to be the banker in this game, meaning he can bet against the dealer and other players.

 

The gist of the game is this. You’ll be dealt seven cards from which you must arrange then into a five-card poker hand (high hand) and a two-card poker hand (low hand). The dealer will do the same. Assuming the dealer is the banker, your objective is to make a higher poker hand in the high and low hands compared to the corresponding banker’s high and low hand.  If you beat both hands, you win and are paid even money less a 5 percent commission that goes to the casino. If the banker’s high and low hand beat the player’s corresponding hands, you lose your wager. If the player wins one hand and loses the other, it is a push or tie (player keeps what he bets). If one of the player’s hands has the same poker rank as the banker’s corresponding hand, this is known as a “copy hand” and the banker wins all copy hands.

 

As I mentioned, each player has the option to be the banker. In most casinos, the role of dealer rotates clockwise from one player to the next (you can decline to be the banker in which case the dealer will be the banker). Some casinos will only allow players to bank after every other hand (so called zig-zag method where the dealer banks every other hand ).

 

Since the banker wins all copy hands, it has a natural edge over players (about 1.33 percent, which is why being the banker is important). The player’s probability of winning both hands is 28.61 percent; banker’s probability is 29.91 percent and 41.48 percent of hands result in a tie. Note the high number of hands that tie (about 4 in every 10). This results in a game that has a slow rate of play and a relatively low risk of losing a lot of money quickly.

 

If the casino dealer is the banker, he must set or arrange his cards into the high and low hands using casino rules known as the “house way.” A player can set his own hands anyway he wants and most of the time it is obvious which cards to set in the high hand or low hand. (For example, if your hand has no pairs, put the highest ranked card in the high hand and the next two highest in the low hand. If you have a pair, put them in the high hand and the next two highest ranked cards in low hand.)   You’ll fnd a simple and intermediate playing strategy that summarizes how to set your hands on the pai gow poker page at wizardofodds.com. However, you always have the opportunity to ask the dealer to set your hand for you and he will do so using the house way (which is a reasonable playing strategy).

 

If you decide to arrange the cards yourself, keep in mind this important rule. Your high hand must always be higher in poker rank then your low hand; otherwise, you automatically lose (this is known as a foul hand).

 

The house edge against the player playing heads up against the dealer is 2.73 percent (assuming hands are set the house way). The key to reducing the house edge and even swing the edge in your favor is to be the banker as much as possible. However, this increases your risk because you are required to cover the bets made by all the other players (you need to have enough money visible on the table to cover all the bets).

 

Smart players will bank at every opportunity because banker wins all copy hands. With only one player (including the dealer), the house edge against the banker is 0.20%. With two players, it’s -0.02% (meaning the banker has edge). If you feel comfortable and have enough bankroll to be the banker against six players, the house edge drops to -0.21% (i.e., you would have a 0.21% edge.) Moreover, your edge will increase even more if the other players bet more against you when you are the banker than what you wagered when you were a player. (But remember that you must have enough money to pay the other players’ winning bets; therefore, don’t be the banker if don’t want the extra risk.)

 

For more information on how to get the edge at pai gow poker, I recommend you consult the book Everything Casino Poker by Frank Scoblete, or read his two- part article on Pai Gow Poker in issues #172 and #173 of my Blackjack Insider Newsletter (newsletter archives on ww.bjinsider.com). You can also practice playing Pai Gow Poker for free on www.wizardofodds.com.