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How to Play and Win Pai Gow Poker

Gaming Strategies and Tips

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Feel like branching out your poker game beyond the classics played by 007 in Casino Royale?

Maybe it’s time to try your hand at pai gow poker, the lovechild of traditional Chinese pai gow and poker.

Keep reading for a history of pai gow poker, a breakdown of how it works, and the best pai gow strategy to beat the house when you sit down to play.

What Is Pai Gow Poker?

But first, let’s cover the basics: what is pai gow poker?

As the name implies, it’s a cross between the Chinese game pai gow and poker. Many think of it as a combination of 7-card stud and dominoes.

Pai gow is a game sort of like dominoes. Players use a set of 32 tiles divided into two suits: “military” and “civilian”. Each tile has a unique pattern but lacks any marking for which suit it belongs to–players have to remember.

Players are each dealt seven tiles. To win, they must make the best of two hands: the low hand and the high hand.

A Quick History of Pai Gow Poker

Of course, pai gow poker works a little differently.

The original pai gow game dates back to the Song dynasty and poker has been traced back to the 14th and 15th centuries in Germany and France. But pai gow poker has more recent roots.

In 1985, the Bell Casino in Bell, California (near Los Angeles) was struggling after a casino building boom. Some nights, there were only enough players to keep four games going while the rest of the dealers shuffled alone and stared into space.

Sam Torosian, the owner of the Bell Casino, knew that something had to change. So he decided that instead of gambling on old games with low revenue, he’d create a new game altogether. After days of thinking, he came up with what would become pai gow poker.

How to Play Pai Gow

So, with all of this in mind, how do you actually play the game?

You start with a standard 52-card deck plus the joker. The joker can only be used in two circumstances:

  1. As an ace
  2. A card that completes a straight or a flush

The dealer and the player both get seven cards. These are split into two hands: a hand of five and a hand of two. The hand of five is often called the high or behind hand while the hand of two is the low or in-front hand (hearing echoes of pai gow yet?).

The basic goal is to form two of the best poker hands you can. Sounds simple enough, right?

Here’s the catch: the hand of five must be higher than the hand of two. The hand of five follows the standard ranking rules of poker with two exceptions:

  1. Some casinos count A-2-3-4-5 as the second-highest straight
  2. A joker introduces the potential for five-of-a-kind

In other words, if you get a joker in the right context, you could be looking at the best possible five-card hand.

How to Bet in Pai Gow

This brings us to the next most important part: how to place a bet.

As with most casino card games, you place your bets in pai gow poker before you’re dealt your cards. The trick of it is that this is the only bet you can make for the duration of the hand, and it must be within the minimum and maximum betting limits of the table in question.

Depending on the table, you can also place a Bonus bet on whether you’ll make a “premium” hand, usually three-of-a-kind or better. The better your premium hand, the more the casino will pay out, regardless of whether you won the main bet or not.

The House Edge

With all that in mind, let’s talk about the house edge.

Unlike many casino games, players can bet against the dealer and other players, which is known as banking.

Once players have been dealt their cards, the dealer lays the banker hand in the house-way (decided by the casino). If the player beats both the banker’s hands, the player wins. If the player only beats one of the banker’s hands, it’s a push.

If the player has a hand of the same value as the banker’s hand, it’s a tie (or copy), and the banker wins. Same thing if the banker beats both of your hands.

Two hands will copy about 2.6% of the time, which gives the banker a slight advantage–the banker wins 29.9% of outcomes while the player wins 28.6% of the time.

This is actually a reasonably low house edge (comparable to blackjack). It’s impossible to beat the house edge completely since most casinos take a 5% commission if you win, but it’s not bad house odds.

Beating the House in Pai Gow

With that in mind, let’s talk strategy for beating the house.

Watch Both Hands

Pai gow poker is called double-hand poker for a reason–you need to keep an eye on both hands.

Many people are tempted to play pai gow by putting all their eggs in one basket. Or, in this case, putting all their good cards in one hand.

Remember, you have two hands with which to beat the banker. Neglecting either of them could lose you the round. Each combination of cards has its place in basic pai gow strategy (and pai gow hand).

A Few Basic Strategies

Watching both hands is perhaps the most important strategy of all. Of course, a few other basic strategies can help.

If you have no pair, straight, or flush, your best option is to play the highest card in your high hand with the next two highest cards in the low hand.

If you have one pair in your dealt hand, play the pair in your hand of five and the next two highest cards in your hand of two.

If you have two pairs, you should always split them if:

  • you have a pair of aces
  • you have two pairs (like two jacks and two aces)
  • you have one high pair and one medium pair

As a rule, you should always play three-of-a-kind in your five-card hand, play straights and flushes in your high hand unless you also have a two-pair, keep four-of-a-kind together if they’re 6s and below and keep four-of-a-kind together 7 and up together only if you also have an ace.

Play Your Best Game

Think you’re ready to conquer pai gow poker? It’s a deceptively simple game with a surprising degree of strategy involved.

If you need more tips for casino games, check out our blog for more posts, like this one on the best and worst casino strategy tips or this absolute beginner’s guide to online baccarat.

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