Pai Gow Poker is a fusion of Asian traditional gaming with Western poker aspects. Its a challenging but fun game in that there is an element of skill involved and, of course, luck.
Pai Gow Poker is becoming more and more popular as players gain a better understanding of the nature of the game. Often, however, Pai Gow can be confused with Pai Gow Poker. Pai Gow is an old traditional Chinese game that behaves similar to playing dominoes, whilst Pai Gow Poker is card based and requires the use of one joker in the deck. So, be careful of which game you are playing when you see Pai Gow.
Pai Gow Poker Table Layout
Much like playing blackjack, players sit around a table with the Dealer/Banker on the other side. The table is slightly larger than a blackjack table as the hands are poker hands i.e. seven cards when compared to two for blackjack.
Similar to blackjack, sitting position can be anywhere on the table. There are a maximum of six seats at the table, with the empty seats dealt out then discarded. The dealing to all six positions on the table ensures that all cards except for four are used for each round.
How to play Pai Gow Poker
Each player is first required to place their wager. Three dice are then rolled to determine which play is dealt the first hand. Once the first hand is dealt the dealer proceeds anti clockwise to deal the remaining cards.
Where there is no player, but an empty position, the cards remain untouched until the round is complete.
Each hand that is dealt contains seven cards. Each player is then required to make two Poker hands out of the seven cards dealt. The first Poker hand is called the Big or High hand. The first hand uses five cards. The second Poker hand is called the Small or Low hand, and consists of the remaining two cards.
The Big hand is always arranged as the stronger hand, whilst the Small hand must be weaker. The single joker in the deck, can be used as a semi-wild card to complete a Straight, Flush in the Big Hand or it can simply be an Ace.
Once the seven cards have been arranged into the Big and Small hand, they are placed on the table in the Big and Small hand boxes in front of the player.
At this point, the player has the opportunity to also play where there is a empty position. This play is called the “Dragon hand” which means that a player is effectively playing two hands instead of one.
When all hands actively in play have been assigned to Big and Small and displayed in the Big and Small hand boxes on the table, the Dealer /Banker flips his cards over and arranges them into Big and Small hands. Just like Blackjack, there are predefined rules that the dealer must follow when arranging the Big and Small hands. These defined rules are called the “House Way”. As with Blackjack, the House Way is normally standard across the world, but there are variations found.
Once the dealer has completed arranging his hands according to the House Way, the dealer’s hands are compared to the player’s hands.
The results can be as follows:
- Both hands of the player beats both hands of the dealer. The pay out is 1-1, with a commission taken by the casino.
- Both hands of the player loses to the dealer, with the wager being lost.
- One hand of the player beats the dealer whilst the other hand loses. In this case, it is a stand off. Neither win or loss.
On the rare occassion where the player and dealer hands are the same, called a “Copy”, the dealer is deemed the winner and the player loses their wager.
It has been calculated that on average the result of the rounds are a tie. This occurs approximately 40% of the time, and what this means, is that your bank roll can stretch for some time. Naturally there will be times when you will encounter a string of losses, as well as a string of wins, but overall when compared to other casino games, you can stretch out your playing time.
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The Advantages of being the Banker
In Pai Gow Poker each player has the opportunity to play the Banker role. Players do not have to accept the role and can decline if they wish, but acting as the Banker has some advantages and disadvantages.
In order to be the Banker, the player must have:
- played at least a hand against the Banker; and
- must have sufficient funds to pay out all winning best that may have been made against the Banker.
The advantage of being the Banker is that the Big and Small hand can be set in any order. Later, described in the playing strategy section of this page, you will see that there are ways of being risk averse or aggressive in playing the Bank hands.
Sometimes the casino will offer to co-share with being the Banker. This means the player will split the winnings or loses in half. However, in choosing this option the player loses the ability to choose the hand strategy and must follow the House Way.
In general, the player edge is approximately 2.7% against, whilst the Banker edge is approximately 0.3%. With these odds, Pai Gow Poker is one of the more desirable games to play.
What is the House Way
As previously mentioned the House Way is a pre-defined way of setting the hands. The House Way usually is set to lean towards generating a winning hand which will lead to a stand off. Often a casino will allow players to request the casino to set their hands for them according to the House Way. This is particularly beneficial for new players who are unsure of how to set their hands.
Pai Gow Poker Strategy
There have been books upon books written in length outlining the optimal playing scenarios for Pai Gow Poker. There are so many scenarios that could be detailed that the variation of strategies available are endless. In essence, however, there are some very simple and basic strategies that can be followed that will give you the optimal outcome most of the time.
To begin with, if you have knowledge of how to play Poker, then you will be able to determine how to play hands in the majority of situations. To consider alternatives from what would be the “optimal” play in complex scenarios would in most cases not change the outcome at all. If any, it would be extremely insignificant.
Therefore to learn the basic strategy for playing Pai Gow Poker, get a good grasp of playing Poker hands and play the optimal hand as you would in Poker. Don’t get too carried away when complex scenarios arise and keep to playing the Big hand as the strong hand and the Small hand as the weaker hand.
How to arrange a Hand
A middle of the road hand would be a medium pair together with a high value card hand. Knowing this, will give you perspective as to what is a good deal as opposed to a bad deal. Anything better than what I have described as middle road, in general quite good, anything worse and you may find yourself on the losing end.
In Hand setting, you must have the five card hand as the stronger of the two hands and the two cards the weaker. You can choose to follow the House Way, however, this steers towards being conservative and would give a result more often of a tie rather than going for the all out win. And there is nothing wrong with this approach, it’s just that the House Way can be more conservative than other ways of arranging the Big and Small hands.
In the following we will go through some typical Hands.
Most of the time, the cards dealt will result in one pair only. Roughly this will occur about 60% of the time.
In this scenario must place the pair in the five card hand, creating the stronger hand. And your two remaining strongest cards in the weaker hand. This optimizes the opportunity of winning in the Big hand and gives the best Small hand.
No Pair, Straight or Flush
With this set of cards, it is poorer than average. In this scenario, to optimize the Big and Small hands, set the highest card in the Big hand, and the second and third highest card in the Small hand.
If you have a set of cards that contains two pairs, then this is the hardest decision to make.
If one of the pairs is a high pair consisting of Ace, King or Queen, then place the high pair in the Big hand and the lower pair in the Small hand,
If the two pairs are low pairs and one of the remaining cards is an Ace of King, you can either contain the two pairs in the Big Hand with the Ace or King leading the Small hand, or you can split the two pairs, with the higher of the pairs in the Big hand.
If the two pair are low pairs and there is no remaining high cards, then split the pairs with the higher pair in the Big hand with the lower pair in the Small hand.
If you have three pairs, then you have a very strong set of cards. Arranging the three pairs is relatively clear cut. Always set the highest pair on the Small hand, and the weaker two pairs in the Big hand. In most cases, in playing this manner, both hands will win.
Three of a Kind
If you have three of a kind, then it depends on whether the three of a kind are Ace, King or not.
If they are Ace/King three of a kind then you should split the hand and create an Ace/King pair in the Big hand, with the remaining Ace/King leading the Small hand. If the three of a kind is neither Ace or King the place all three in the Big hand.
Straight and Flush
If you have a straight or a flush use either one but ensure that you have the strongest Small hand. You want to try and win both hands in order to avoid a stand off.
Similarly with a Full House, it is in most scenarios you would split the three of a kind and place it in the Big hand with the pair in the Small hand. Again, you want to try and win all hands and avoid the stand off.
How to place your bets
In betting for Pai Gow Poker with the edge against you, over time you will eventually lose. But because the game often results in a stand off, you will find that you will be able to play Pai Gow Poker for a good length of time, in comparison to other casino games. There is one exception to this game, which makes it different to other casino table games. When you are the banker, if you are able to encourage players against you to take the risk when you have the advantage, you may be able to gain the upper hand.
This is one key difference you should take note of, and take advantage of.
Pai Gow Poker is not the simplest of games, but it is perhaps the most exciting if you enjoy complexity and a sense of control. If you are new to Pai Gow Poker, ensure that you have a good understanding of Poker hands and know the strength and weaknesses of each hand.
Keep to the strategy of playing low, and increasing the wager if you feel you are on a winning streak. When given the opportunity to be the banker, if you have the funds accept being the banker and take the banker advantage.