How to Play Pai Gow Poker

You say you don’t even know how to pronounce the game, let alone play it? Read on and you’ll quickly discover that this casino game with the funny name isn’t as intimidating or complicated as you might think. In fact, it’s an easy game to play and one of the few casino games where a skillful player can enjoy the advantage.


Objective

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 6 players and a casino dealer. A single deck of playing cards is used plus one joker. The joker can be used as an ace or it can be used as a wild card to complete a straight, flush, or straight flush.


The gist of the game is this. You’ll be dealt 7 cards from which you must create a 5-card poker hand and a separate 2-card poker hand. The dealer or banker will do the same. You objective is to have your 5-card poker hand and your 2-card poker hand be higher in rank then the corresponding banker’s 5 and 2-card hands. If you do, you win!


A quick word about dealers and bankers. In pai gow poker, players compete against a banker who may either be the casino dealer or a fellow player. In fact this is one of the few casino games where players can act as the banker, which as you can imagine can be advantageous. For the time being, let’s assume the casino dealer is the banker and later I’ll go over the rules of how players can become the banker.


The play of the game varies slightly from one casino to another. Here is the typical way the game is played. An automatic shuffler shuffles the cards and after every player makes a bet, the dealer will activate a random number generator with a digital readout. The purpose is to determine which player receives the first hand from the shuffled deck of cards and it also ensures that the hands are randomly distributed to players. The dealer is number 1, the player position to the right of the dealer is number 2, and so on around the table. The dealer will then place a stack of 7 cards in front of each playing position with the player position corresponding to the random number receiving the first 7-card hand.


Variations to the above procedures you may encounter include manual shuffling, use of a dice bowl to generate the random number, and in some casinos the seven hands are stacked in front of the dealer prior to distributing the hands to the players. These are minor procedural differences that result in the same objective – the random distribution of 7-card hands to every player and dealer from a shuffled deck of cards.


After the hands are distributed to the players, each player can pick up their cards. Your goal is to arrange or “set” the cards into a 5-card poker hand (known as the high hand) and a 2-card poker hand (low hand). The hierarchy of poker hands is similar to traditional poker and summarized on page _____.


Here is the first important rule to remember.


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 above rule is not that difficult to remember. Just remember that the high hand must be higher in rank then the low hand. So if you’ve got a pair of jacks and a pair of 5’s you would automatically lose if you put the jacks in the low hand and the 5’s in the high hand. The correct way to set the hand is to place the higher pair (the jacks) in the 5-card high hand and the lower pair (the 5’s) in the 2-card low hand.

 

Js  Jc  5h  5d  8c  9s  Qd correct: high hand - Js  Jc  8c  9s  Qd
  low hand - 5h  5d
  foul hand:  high hand - 5h  5d  8c  9s  Qd
  low hand - Js  Jc
 


The second way that a hand could be declared “foul” is if the high or low hand contains the wrong number of cards. However, this rarely occurs as most players have enough sense to know that the low hand must contain two cards and the high hand five cards.


Once you’ve set your hands, you place each hand face down on the layout in the indicated position (the low hand is placed closest to the dealer and the high hand closest to the player). The dealer will then face his 7 cards and set them by house rules into a 5- card high hand and 2-card low hand. One-by-one the dealer will then turn over the player’s 5 and 2-card hands starting with the player to his immediate right. He compares the player’s 5-card high hand to his high hand and the player’s 2-card low hand to his 2 card low hand to determine who wins.



Copy Hands

When the player’s high or low hand is equal in rank to the banker’s corresponding hand this is known as a “copy”. According to Stanford Wong (Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker), copy hands will occur about 2.5% of the time. Why is this important to know? Because the banker always wins copy hands. This is what creates the natural 1.3% edge for the banker over the player in pai gow poker.


Winning Hands

In order for you to win your bet, both your high hand and low hand must be higher in rank then the dealer’s high and low hand. If the 5-card high hand is higher in rank but the 2- card low hand is lower or vice versa, this is a tie (no decision) and no money is exchanged.


The following table taken from Jim Kilby and Jim Fox’s book, Casino Operations Management, summarizes the different combinations of 5-card and 2-card hands that result in a winning hand. The last column summarizes the frequency of occurance for each winning hand.




TABLE 1

Pai Gow Poker Winning Hands



5-Card Hand 2-Card Hand Winner Frequency
Banker Highest Banker Highest Banker 31.4%
Banker Highest Player Highest No Decision 17.3%
Player Highest Player Highest Player 31.4%
Player Highest Bank Highest No Decision 17.3%
Banker/Player Same Banker Highest Banker 0.55%
Banker Highest Banker/Player Same Banker 0.55%
Banker/Player Same Player Highest No Decision 0.70%
Player Highest Banker/Player Same No Decision 0.70%
Banker/Player Same Banker/Player Same Banker 0.10%


 

The overall frequency for banker and player wins and ties is:

Banker wins 32.6%

Player wins 31.4%

Ties 36.0%


The percentages may vary slightly depending upon the player’s skill in setting their hands.


Since the banker wins slightly more than the player hand, it is important to be the banker as often as possible. Also, note that 36%% of the hands result in a push where no money changes hands. From the players perspective this means you can enjoy playing pai gow poker for a long period of time without worrying about losing a bundle (compared to the losses, which could occur, on a cold blackjack or crap table).


Commission

The casino earns its money on this game in either of two ways: 1) from the natural banker edge when the casino dealer is banker and 2) by charging a 5% commission on all winning bets. In practice this is how it works.


When the casino is the banker, the dealer will payoff winning bets to players but then immediately collect the 5% commission. If you bet $5 and won for example the dealer will pay you one red chip and you then place a quarter on the table which he collects as the commission. Also, if a player is the banker, the casino will collect the 5% commission on all amounts won by the player and banker.


Playing Strategy

Your objective is to set your 5-card high hand so that it is higher in poker rank then your 2-card low hand. You also want to try to have the highest poker rank possible for both hands so that hopefully both of your hands will beat both of the banker hands.


Table 2 contains a basic playing strategy for pai gow poker to improve your chances of winning. The first column lists the type of 7-card hand. The second and third columns summarize how the 7-card hand should be set to form the 5-card and 2-card high hands respectively (note: A = ace).


The way you set some hands will be obvious. For example suppose you are dealt (note: s,d, c, and h, represent card suits)


2s 4h 5d 5c 7s 9d Jh


Since you only have one pair, you must set the pair in the high hand. In order to form the highest ranked poker hand in the low hand you should set the two highest ranked cards –the Jh and 9d in the low hand. Thus the correct way to set the hand is

 

 

Jh 9d 5d 5c 2s 4h 7s
Low hand High hand
 

 


Suppose your hand contains no pairs, straight or flush such as


3h 5d 6c 8s 10s Js Ah


In order for your high hand to be higher in rank than your low hand (remember if you don’t do this you automatically lose) you should set the highest ranked card in the high hand and your second and third highest ranked cards in the low hand.

 

 

 

 

Some hands are not so obvious, which is why you should refer to the basic playing strategy in Table 2. Take this hand for example


Ac Ah Ad 2d 3h 7d 10h


The correct way to set the hand is to split the aces and play two aces in the high hand and one ace in the low hand so that you have a good shot at winning both hands.

 
 
Ac 10h Ah Ad 2d 3h 7d
Low hand High hand

 


Banking

Since the banker has the natural advantage it is advantageous to be the banker as much as possible. However, when you are the banker you must have a sufficient bankroll to bank all the bets made by your fellow players.


Normally, the casino dealer will open the game as the banker. In subsequent hands, players can request to be the banker. A small plastic marker (called a chung)is placed in front of the banker’s betting area to designate that this player is the banker.


The casino banking rules vary greatly. Some casinos allow the same player to be the banker on every other hand or a maximum of 2 consecutive hands. Others will allow a player to bank only once out of every 8 or the extreme 14th hand.


Because the rules for banking differ it’s important that you shop around. Your goal is to bank as many hands as the casino will allow because that is the only way you can get the edge. For example on a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found these casinos to have some of the best banking rules: Desert Inn, New Frontier, and Reserve. Along the Gulf Coast the Grand Casino allows a player to bank every other hand if no other player wants to bank.


Just because you bank and have the edge doesn’t mean you won’t take your lumps. A few losses to players can put a severe dent in your bankroll. Therefore, it’s important you have enough bankroll to withstand a couple of losing hands.


Bottom Line

When the casino dealer is the banker, the casino edge in pai gow poker is about 2.8%. By skillfully setting your hands you can reduce the casino’s edge to about 2.5%. By being the banker as much as possible and betting as small as possible when you are the player, it is possible to have a slight monetary edge playing pai gow poker (about 0.2%). A smart player, therefore, should bank as much as possible and learn how to correctly set the hands. That’s the secret to winning at pai gow poker.



MORE TIPS

  1. Always check your hand for straight and flushes first, then set them according to the basic playing strategy.

  2. If a fellow player is banking be careful not to expose your cards to him (remember he is your opponent).

  3. When the dealer is the banker he will set his hand according to house rules. However, when a player is the banker he must decide to set the bank hand.

  4. If you need help in setting the cards in your hand, you can show the hand to the dealer who will set them according to the house rules. Be careful though since the “house way” of setting the hand may not always be the optimum way to set them.

  5. As a rule of thumb a player who sets his hand skillfully and wants to break even needs to bank at least 6 times the amount bet as a player.

6. The most frequent hand that you will be dealt is a pair (42% of the hands). The next

most frequently dealt hand is two pair (22%) followed by a hand that only contains a

high card (16%). Be sure you know how to play these hands since they occur more

frequently than other hands.

  1. Casinos sometimes offer pai gow poker tournaments. Before you consider entering a tournament I highly recommend you consult Stanford Wong’s book, Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker, for tournament strategy tips.

  2. Other recommend books if you want to learn more about the game are Pai Gow Poker by Bill Zender and Billy Woo’s Pai Gow Poker by Bill Walsh.








BONUS JACKPOT


To add more player excitement, some casinos have an optional side bet for bonus jackpots. The amount of the bonus payoff depends upon the ranking of the high and low hands. Here is the bonus jackpot schedule from the Grand Casino for a $1 jackpot bet.

Straight with a pair $25
Flush with a pair $50
Full house with a pair $100
Four-of-a-kind with a pair $500
Straight flush with a pair $2,000
Royal flush with a pair $10,000
Five aces with a pair $50,000
 

 

The Grand Casino allows a maximum side bet of $10 which could result in a maximum bonus jackpot payout of a half million dollars for five aces with a pair. However the odds of getting this winning combination is slim.



TABLE 2

PAI GOW POKER BASIC PLAYING STRATEGY

 

7-Card Hand 2-Card Low Hand 5-Card High Hand
No pairs 2nd and 3rd highest ranked cards highest ranked card
One pair two highest ranked cards pair
Two Pair * low ranked pair high ranked pair
Three pair highest ranked pair two lowest ranked pairs
Three-of-a-kind ** 2 highest ranked cards three-of-a-kind
Straight, Flush, or Straight Flush 2 remaining cards in low hand straight, flush, or straight flush
Full House pair 3-of-a-kind
Four 2’s through 6’s 2 highest ranked cards four-of-a-kind
Four 7’s through A’s *** one pair one pair
Five A’s pair of aces three aces

 


* If you have a single ace, keep the ace in the low hand and the two pair in the high hand.

** If you have three aces, keep one ace in the low hand and the other two aces in the high hand.

*** If you have a single ace and four 7 through 10’s, keep the ace in the low hand and the four-of-a-kind in the high hand.



PAI GOW POKER HAND RANKINGS


Five aces – four aces and joker

Royal flush – ace, king, queen, jack, and 10 of the same suit

Straight flush* – five consecutive cards in any suit such as 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of hearts.

Four-of-a-kind – four aces is highest, followed by four kings, queens, jacks, etc.

Full house – three cards of one rank plus a pair. The highest-ranking full house is three aces and two kings and the lowest is three 2’s and two 3’s.

Flush – five non-consecutive cards in the same suit, such as 2, 5, 7, 9,and 10 of hearts

Straight* – five consecutive ranked cards but of different suits such as 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Three-of-a-kind – three cards of the same rank such as three aces

Two pair –two aces is the highest ranking combination

One pair – a pair of aces is the highest pair.

No pair – 5 –cards of different rank and not all of same suit


* The only difference you may encounter is that in some casinos the low straight -ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5 – is second in rank behind the highest straight – ace, king, queen, jack, and 10. Make sure you check this point out with the dealer before you set your hands.