Pai Gow? And how!

Aug 12, 2008 7:04 PM

Winning Strategies by Elliot Frome | I have little doubt if they gave an award for the most intimidating game in the casino it would go to Pai Gow Poker.

The award would be completely undeserving.

I can understand why people find the game complex, scary or intimidating. However, in reality, it is a relatively simple game that does not require a large bankroll to play for a long time.

Pai Gow Poker is played with a 53-card deck. This is a standard 52-card deck plus a ‘semi-wild’ Joker (I’ll explain that shortly). Each Player gets seven cards and has to create a five-card hand and a two-card hand.

The Player can split the cards anyway he wants with one requirement. The five-card hand must outrank the two-card hand. The five-card hand uses standard poker rankings, while the two-card hand only counts Pairs and High Cards. Two-Card Flushes and Straights are meaningless. If you set your hand with the two-card hand outranking the five-card hand, your hand is deemed to be "foul" and you automatically lose your wager.

The Dealer will also be dealt seven cards. He will also split the cards into two hands, but will do so according to pre-set ‘House rules’ (also called the House Way).

From here it is rather simple. If both of the Dealer’s hands beat both of the Player’s respective hands, the Player loses his wager. If each the Player and the Dealer win one of the two hands, it is a push. If the Player wins both hands, he wins even money less a five percent commission.

This effectively means that when he wins, the Player is paid 19 to 20. There is one small catch. If either of the hands tie, this counts as the Dealer winning that hand. This doesn’t happen all that often with the five-card hand, but is far more common with the two-card hand.

The game is that simple – well, almost that simple.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a wild card. But if trying to use it to make three Jacks, it won’t work. This is a special ‘semi-wild’ Joker (also called a Pai Gow Joker). It can be used only as an Ace or to complete a Straight, a Flush or a Straight Flush. So, if you have 4-4-2-3-7-8-JKR, you’ve got a Pair of 4’s plus an Ace Kicker. When you split the hands, you’ll use the Joker as an Ace in the 2-card hand.

If you have Q-Q-2-3-5-6-JKR, then you have a Straight plus a Pair of Queens (a VERY strong hand), and the Joker can act as a ‘4’, even though it could not in the first example.

Okay, there is also one other twist in Pai Gow Poker. Each Player, in turn, will get the opportunity to bank the game. This basically means that you get to act as the casino in that turn. If a Player wins, you lose. If a Player loses, you win.

So, if there are five other Players at the table and they all beat you, you can be out a big chunk of change. On the other hand, if you beat them all, you can have a quick windfall. Again, there is a catch, you have to pay a five percent commission on your net winnings.

That is to say, you don’t pay five percent each time you beat a single player, but on your net winnings. So, if you beat two Players and lose to two Players (assuming equal wagers), you don’t pay anything in commission.

Being the Banker can be daunting because you need a larger bankroll just in case you get dealt a really bad hand. At the same time, remember that Pai Gow like all other casino games are created to give the house an advantage. That advantage now belongs to you when you act as banker.

So, in the end, maybe Pai Gow Poker is a bit more complex than I made it out to be. At the same time, when you realize that more than 41 percent of the hands will end in a push, a lot of the complexity still boils down to one big "do over."

The Player will win both hands almost 29 percent of the time and lose both hands about 30 percent of the time. So, in the end, if a Player is willing to act as Banker, the house edge is about 1.5 percent. If you’re not willing to be the Banker, then the house edge nearly double to 2.7.

Each casino has its own set of "house ways." They can be similar but a bit different. Generally speaking, the Player can just follow the house ways himself and be very close to perfect in terms of strategy. Maybe the award for most intimidating game isn’t so farfetched after all!


When you realize that more than 41 percent of the hands will end in a push, a lot of the complexity still boils down to one big "do over."