By H. Scot Krause

History of Pai Gow Poker

The game of Pai Gow originated in China more than a century ago and was played at that time with tiles, like Dominoes, and dice. The Chinese word origin meant “make nine.”  The conversion to a poker game happened around 1985 in a California Card Room.

Today, Pai Gow Poker is a table game, increasing in popularity in many casinos around the country.  While it is a poker game, it is far less intimidating than sitting down at a live poker room game.  One main difference is that in Pai Gow Poker you are playing against the dealer’s hand  only, while in a live poker game you are playing against all the other players at the table and not the dealer at all (who gets no hand to play and only deals the cards.)

Another major difference is you are playing a seven-card hand, splitting your dealt cards (there is no re-draw) into two hands; your best 5 card hand (high hand) and your best 2 card hand (low hand), therefore your 2 card hand cannot be higher than your 5 card hand. As an example you cannot use an ace in your 2 card hand with a king high in your 5 card hand. We will get more into how to set your hand later.

After betting (more on how to bet later) and setting your 2 hands, you place them face down in the two appropriate spaces on the table layout in front of you and wait for the dealer to reveal his/her cards. The challenge is to beat both the high and low hand of the dealer’s.

If you win both, you win, usually minus a “commission” paid to the house.  However, there are variations of the game like “No Commission Pai Gow” and “Face-Up Pai Gow” (both games played with some slightly different rules) where the dealer’s hand is laid out face up giving you an edge in setting your own hand. If you win one and lose the other it’s a “push” and you save/keep your original bet. If you lose both ways, then you lose your bet.

That was a rather quick synopsis of the game.  Now we will look at how to play.  As with any table game, you buy-in by laying your money on the table (along with your player’s club card.) We will use $10 as the table minimum and our buy-in is $100 for this example. The dealer will exchange your $100 for chips, giving you 20 $5 chips unless you ask for something different. You might want some smaller $1 chips for side bets—more about those later. You place $10 (2 chips) on the wager spot in front of you.

There can be as few as one player and a maximum of six players because the game uses one 52-card deck, plus a joker, and 7 hands with 7 cards (including the dealer’s) equals 49, the max number of hands you can get from a single 53-card deck. Two decks are actually utilized, one being shuffled in an auto-shuffler machine while the other deck is in play.

The deal is determined by a button (sometimes dice are used) that the dealer presses to assign a random order in which the first hand will be dealt. As an example, let’s say the number 2 comes up. The player seated in the number 2 spot at the table will receive his/her cards first. All 7 cards are dealt out to each player at once; the first 7, the next 7 and so on until all players have received their hands. Now you can look at your cards and determine how to set your 2 hands. 

Once you have set your cards and returned them to the table face down and all players have done the same, the dealer will reveal his/her hand and set it according to house rules, placing their 2 card hand on top and their best 5 card hand beneath it. Then the dealer will turn each of the players’ cards over and either collect on losers, knock the table for a push, or pay the winners. 

A typical pai gow poker table layout

If you beat the dealer on both hands, the bet is paid off as even money, minus the commission. The commission is generally 5%, so in our example of a $10 bet, if you win you would receive $9.50 plus your original $10 bet back for a total of $19.50. The commission is due primarily to the relatively low house edge in Pai Gow. The house edge in this game can vary on how you play and set your hand, but following some basic strategy the house edge is about 2.7% to 2.9 %, not too bad for a novelty table game. It is possible to also lower the house edge by “banking,” whereby the player may bet against the dealer, and other players at the table. For more on banking, see below.   

Setting Your Hands

Once you have your 7 cards, you must decide on how to set your 2 hands. Standard poker ranking rules apply to Pai Gow with one twist. Called “the wheel,” the A2345 straight is the second highest straight in most Pai Gow games. As it is not observed everywhere, you may want to ask about this strange rule when you sit down to play. Obviously, three of a kind, a straight, flush, four of a kind, straight flush or royal flush within your 7 cards should be held together as your high card hand and play your 2 best remaining cards as your low hand.

Notice that a full-house should be played differently. The three of a kind should be played as your high hand and the pair played as your low hand.  If the dealer has a straight or higher, you will lose your high hand, but you have a good chance to win your low hand with a pair. Obviously, you want to win both the high and low to be paid, but you may want to protect your bet and win at least one of the two hands. While a full house might also accomplish the same thing (winning your high hand against the dealer) if your other two cards are very low cards, you will most likely lose your low card hand and still end up with a push. In a face-up game it becomes apparent what to do against the dealers hand.

Another dilemma is when you have two pair.  Most experts agree that if you have two low pairs, like 8’s and 3’s, keep them together for your two pair high hand and put your remaining best two cards into your low hand. But if you have high pairs, like kings and jacks, you may want to split them hoping to beat the dealer both ways. Three pair is easy. Keep your lowest two pair together for your high hand and your highest pair as your low hand. This is actually a very good hand and it has a good chance to win both ways.

Finally, if you are in doubt about how to set your hand there is no harm in asking the dealer. They will tell you how to set it according to house rules; the way they (the casino) would set your hand. You can usually also ask other players at the table for their opinion.

Using The Joker

The joker card is wild in some ways.  It is  sometimes referred to as a “bug” because of its quirky use. It can only be used as an ace or as any card in a straight or flush, including a straight flush or royal flush.

What is a “Pai Gow?”

I was once sitting at a table when a guy walks up, plops down his money and says, “I want a Pai Gow!”  The table laughed. He was serious but obviously didn’t understand the game at that point. Unlike Blackjack where the name implies a great hand, the opposite is true for Pai Gow.

A Pai Gow is the worst hand possible. A “nothing-burger.”  It is a 7-card hand of little or no value in terms of poker ranking hands. The worst possible Pai Gow hand would be a 9 high with all 7 cards.

Pai Gow Poker Side Bets

A downside to Pai Gow is that a royal flush is worth no more monetarily to your bet than a single ace when you are playing against the dealer’s hand.  In other words, a royal flush will still only get you even money (less the commission) and you would still have to win your low hand to collect on it!  And essentially you have the same result  holding an ace high in your high hand and say, a king high in your low hand, against a dealer’s king and queen high in the same positions. The payout is the same. This is where side bets become of interest. 

The game of Pai Gow Poker itself plays fairly slowly, especially with a full table of players, so you have plenty of time to set your hand and chat among players. But it can be a little boring.  The side bets bring some real fun and excitement to the game and also some strategy changes in setting your hands.

The most popular side bet is known as Progressive Fortune Pai Gow.  If you have made the side bet for this you could win all or part of the progressive jackpot bonuses for specific hands, like a royal flush (with or without the joker,) 5 aces, etc., as listed on the payout table posted on the table. The highest hand, receiving the top prize progressive jackpot, is for a 7 card straight flush (no joker.)  If you are betting the required amount, the dealer will place an “Envy” button above your hand, meaning you are entitled to a cut of the jackpot if anyone at your table hits one of the bonus hands listed. 

Pai gow poker betting boxes

Fortune Pai Gow is another variation side bet on the game. Players can place a bet on making hands of three of a kind or better and get paid according to pay table posted. This is where setting you hand may also change wherein you can use cards from all 7 cards to make straights, flush’s, etc.

Emperors Challenge is another commonly found side bet allowing players a sort of “insurance” bet when you have a 7 card Pai Gow hand. The lower your Pai Gow, the higher your payoff if you make that bet. You may also find other side bets. Check the table before you play.

Banking in Pai Gow Poker

One way to gain and advantage in Pai Gow is to bank whenever you have the opportunity to do so.  Ask the dealer how and when you may bank. You must have enough chips on the table to pay off all potential winning bets based on the number of players at the table and how much they are all betting.  Some casinos will let you “co-bank” with them if you don’t have enough to cover all bets. You reduce the house edge when you bank to about 1.5%.

As the banker, the 5% commission you pay on winnings is handled differently than as one of the regular players at the table.  As an example, as just a regular player at the table, if you were to play five hands and won three of them, losing two of them, you would pay the 5% commission due on your three winnings bets.  However, if you become the banker, the commission you pay is only on your net winnings at the end of the hand being played. So, if you were to win three hands (and lose two) you would be ahead by one bet, and only have to pay commission on that one bet.

Overall, the game usually plays fairly even, with a lot of pushes! You won’t win a lot playing straight bets without side bets or banking, but unless you just get a horrible run of cards (which can happen in any poker game) you shouldn’t lose a lot either! Good luck and have fun!

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