How to Play Pai Gow

The game of Pai Gow originated in Ancient China. Translated it means “making nines”. The game is played with 32 specially designed dominoes containing red and white colored spots and the objective is to make two hands of the highest value possible from four dominoes.

The game is played on a blackjack size table with up to 7 players and a dealer. Players make their bet and the set of the 32 dominoes are shuffled and placed in eight stacks of four. Three dice are rolled to determine which player will receive the first stack of four dominoes and then the rest of the stacks of the dominoes are distributed clockwise around the table. The dominoes are even dealt to each vacant player position and are left there until the hand is played.

Players then “peek” at their dominoes and arrange two of their dominoes into a high hand and the remaining two into a low hand. To win both of the player’s hands must be higher value than the banker’s corresponding hands. The player losses if both hands are of lower value. If one hand is higher and one is lower, it is a push and no money changes hands. Payoffs are even money less a 5 percent commission that the casino collects. Players also have the option to be the banker.

In order to play Pai Gow Poker you need to become familiar with the individual dominoes, be able to recognize the ranking pairs, and know how to form the two best hands from the four dominoes.

The chart lists the top ranking 20 hands that consists of 16 pairs and four combinations. The #1 hand consisting of the dominoes 1-2 and 2-4 is called the King pair and it beats all other hands. Each following pair or hand is one value lower than the hand preceding it.

If you are dealt one of top 16 ranking hands in the chart you usually play them as the high hand and the other two dominoes form the low hand. If you don’t have on these 16 rankings, you look to see if you have rank 17 to 20 (comprising dominoes 6-6 or 1-1 with a domino totaling 8 or 9) and play them as the high hand.

If you have none of the 20 ranked hands shown in the chart, then the best hand you can form is one that totals 9 (you add the spots on each domino to arrive at the total of the hand). Like baccarat, if the total of the hand exceeds 9, you subtract 10. For example, dominoes 6-6 and 1-6 total 9 not 19. Dominoes 1-6 and 1-1 also total 9.

The two dominoes 1-2 and 2-4 (they are the ones that make up the King Hand) have a unique feature when they are played individually. Each domino can be played as either a 3 or 6 – whichever makes the best hand. For example dominoes 2-4 with 1-3 would total 7 rather than 0 because you can count the 2-4 domino as a 3.

In the event that both the banker and player are holding hands of equal numerical value, the hand having a domino from a high pair (disregarding dominoes from the king pair)


It is advisable to be the banker as much as possible because the banker wins all ties when the ranking dominoes also tie. If both low hands equal zero, the banker automatically wins that tie. However, to be the banker you must have enough bankroll to cover the total amount bet by every other player.

The following basic playing strategy for Pai Gow will give you some pointers on how to form the two hands. Start with step #1 and work your way down the basic strategy chart until you find your hand.



Play These Dominoes as the High Hand

Step #1 King hand or one of the pairs (rank 2-12)

Step#2 Domino 6-6 with a domino that totals 9 (eg. 3-6)

Step #3 Domino 1-1 with a domino that totals 9

Step #4 Two dominoes that total 9 with one being 6-6, or 1-1 or 4-4.

Step #5 Play the highest ranking domino

    1. in the high hand if the high hand totals 8 or 9 or
    2. play it in the low hand

If you don’t know or are not sure how to form the hands, then turn your dominoes face up and ask the dealer to form the two hands the “house way”.

For more details about Pai Gow and in particular more advanced playing strategies please consult these books.

Pai Gow by Bill Zender

How to Play Pai Gow Poker by George Allen