Baccarat, Pai Gow Poker share one commonality

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Despite being around casinos since I was about 14 years old, I have to admit it was only the past decade or so that I learned anything about Pai Gow Poker and Baccarat.

All I knew about Baccarat was James Bond seemed to like to play it and apparently you play it for a lot of money.

With 007 playing it, I always assumed it was a game a lot like blackjack and relied on a good deal of strategy and potentially card counting, which would be why the suave super spy loved it so much. Little did I know it is a game of essentially no strategy, albeit there are some similarities to blackjack.

My knowledge of Pai Gow Poker was limited to the fact it was based on the game of Pai Gow Tiles, an Asian game using domino-like tiles (or are they more Mah Jong like?). I remember coming to Las Vegas over 25 years ago and watching them play.

The dealer would “shuffle” the tiles (sort of the way you mix domino tiles) and then give some to each player. The players would split them into two “hands.” After that, I had no clue why the player won or lost.

Pai Gow Poker uses the same concept of two hands, but the similarities end there. Pai Gow Poker uses a 53-card deck (1 Joker). Each player gets 7 cards to make a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand. Standard poker rules apply, but the Joker is semi-wild. It can be used to complete a Straight, a Flush or as an Ace. So, two Kings and the Joker is two Kings and an Ace. The 5-card hand must outrank the 2-card hand.

The dealer sets his hand according to a set of rules (the house way). If the player wins both hands (outranks the dealer’s hands), he wins. If he wins one and loses one, it is a push. If he loses both the dealer wins. If a single hand ties with the dealer’s hand it is as if the player lost that hand.

There is one interesting commonality between Baccarat and Pai Gow Poker, which is why I mention them today. They both have a commission when the player wins.

In Pai Gow Poker, it is any time the player wins. In Baccarat, the dealer deals two hands, a banker hand and a player hand. The draw rules (which are fixed and do not allow for any decision making) give the banker hand a small edge. So, if you wager on the banker hand and it wins you pay the commission.

In both games, the commission is 5%. Another way of thinking about this is you don’t win even money, but 19-for-20. If you’re playing at a $5 table, this gets very messy. Even at higher denomination tables it slows down the play.

It is no wonder then several no commission versions of each game have cropped up. In the case of Pai Gow Poker, a hand that would normally cause the dealer to lose (most of the time) is instead turned into a push.

One of these varieties does this when the dealer plays a 2-card hand of 9 High. Since he plays his hands according to a specific set of rules, the dealer cannot control when this happens. When the dealer plays a 9-High hand, it is very likely the player will win or at least push.

In this no commission version of the game, it will now automatically push. This will happen about 2.5%-2.7% of the time depending on the specific house way. The end result is a payback very similar to original Pai Gow, but now you don’t have to worry about a commission.

There is another version of the variant that pushes when the 5-Card hand has a Queen High played in it. Again, the final payback is very similar to the original version without the hassles of a commission.

A very similar mechanism is used for Baccarat, but a hand that would likely win for the banker hand is turned into a push. In one sense this is the same as Pai Gow Poker, which can be looked at as taking a hand the player normally wins and turning it into a push.

To me, it seems more like a dealer hand that is likely going to lose is turned into a push. The bottom line is a relatively rare outcome is changed slightly in order to eliminate the commission.

For example, in one of these variants, if the banker hand has a 3-card 7, it will automatically push. A 3-card 7 will win most of the time. If the player hand had an 8 or a 9, it would’ve been a natural and a third card would not be drawn.

If the banker draws to a 7, it would require the player to draw to an 8 or 9 for the banker hand to lose. It should be noted that for both of these games, the trigger hand always becomes a push. In the case of Baccarat, even if the Banker hand loses 7-8 with a 3-card 7, it will be a push. Winning will happen far more frequently, but the push occurs regardless of the details of the outcome.

This is all accounted for when determining the final payback of the game. As was the case in Pai Gow, the new payback is very similar to the payback of the original version. The goal was not to increase or decrease the payback but to get rid of the commission and speed up the game, which, in theory, makes the casino more money.

One last point to ponder. Most of these games will offer a sidebet that the particular event will occur. So you can wager that the dealer will have a 2-card 9-High hand or a Queen High 5-card Hand (depending on which variant you are playing).

The payouts will be set to return 80%-90% (generally speaking), so they are a bit low, but they will afford the player the opportunity for a quick large win should the event occur.

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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