Pai Gow

Jan 11, 2011 7:03 AM

No game played in the U.S. is shrouded in more mystery than Pai Gow Tiles.

I remember seeing this game more than 20 years ago in Las Vegas and wondering why they were playing dominoes! My father simply told me it was a complex game that was played almost exclusively by people from Asia.

There, it was immensely popular. So, it is no wonder somewhere along the line, someone decided to ‘Americanize’ it, creating Pai Gow Poker. To be clear, the tiles were not simply converted to cards for this transformation. Instead, the rules of play for Pai Gow (tiles) were meshed with a poker-based game.

As a result of its Asian roots, I think many still avoid the game as being too complex or intimidating. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Pai Gow Poker is a very simple game to understand. The strategy is a bit complex, but unlike most other casino games, in Pai Gow Poker you can ask the dealer for help, which is allowed, and he will almost certainly give you the correct information.

The rules of play are rather simple for Pai Gow Poker. The game is played with a 53-card deck (standard 52 plus a joker). The joker is ‘semi-wild.’ It can complete a straight, flush, straight flush or count as an ace.

If you have 2-2-7-7-10-JKR, you have two pair with an ace kicker. If you have 2-4-5-6-10-JKR, you have a straight (or a straight flush if the cards are suited). The player makes a single wager to begin. Each player and the dealer are dealt seven cards.

The player must split the cards to create a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand (only pairs and ranks matter, no straights or flushes). The only rule is the 5-card hand must outrank the 2-card hand.

The dealer will also set his cards in this manner using the "house way." It’s a set of rules that tell the dealer how to play his hand. As the house way is considered the optimal way to set cards, the player may ask the dealer to set his cards using the house way, essentially removing the need to know any strategy at all.

Once all the cards are set, the dealer reveals his cards and then begins to compare them to each of the players’ hands. For the player to win, both of his hands must beat the dealer’s respective hands.

If player and dealer each win one of the hands, it is a push. If the dealer wins both, the player loses his wager. The house advantage comes from two sources. The first is that the dealer wins all ties. In this case, a tie does not mean each wins one hand.

If the player and dealer’s two-card or five-card hands are ‘ties,’ then it is considered as if the dealer won that hand. So, if the player wins the 5-card hand and ties on the 2-card hand, player and dealer each have won one hand and it is a push.

The second source of house advantage is that the player pays a 5% commission on all wins (i.e. he is paid 19 to 20 for all wins).

In the end, the payback winds up at just over 97.25%. The player can shave this down considerably by acting as the ‘banker,’ but I’ll save that for another column.

As a result of the two-hand single wager betting, a very large amount of hands end up as a push (more than 40%), which can be both good and bad. On the positive side, a small bankroll can last a long time. On the negative side, Pai Gow Poker by itself can be considered to be rather slow.

Side bets have been created to spice up the game. One of the more creative is ‘Imperial Pai Gow Poker’ developed by John Feola, president of New Vision Gaming.

With Imperial Pai Gow, a single sidebet wager gives the player two opportunities to win a bonus. He can win if he can form at least a straight/three of a kind or better using any five of his seven cards or if the dealer’s 7-card hand is a jack high or less

If both, the player will be paid for both wins! It really just doesn’t get a whole lot easier than this.

This pay table affords the player a 97.19% payback, which is quite respectable for a sidebet. Remember, you’re not playing one or the other, you get them both. So, if you’re dealt a full house and the dealer has a 10 high hand, you’ll win 25-to 1. With Imperial Pai Gow Poker, you get to root for your hand and against the dealer’s hand.

Imperial Pai Gow Poker is already live in several casinos and jurisdictions with more coming on-line in the next few weeks. It started at the Hopland Sho Ka Wah Casino (Hopland, California).

John Feola asked that I give a shout out to Mike Gutierrez, the table games manager there, as a thank you for being the first casino to place the game. It can also be found at the Eldorado Casino in Reno, the Wild Rose in Emmetsburg, Iowa and John Ascuga’s Nugget in Sparks, Nevada.

This coming week it should be going live at Terrible’s Lakeside Casino in Osceola, Iowa and at Harrington Raceway in Delaware. Later this month it should make its debut in Gulfport, Mississippi at the Island View Casino.