One casino game variation that is seeing ever-growing popularity is Pai Gow Poker. It’s been around for years, but has only started gaining popularity recently as more people learn to play. It’s a social game, for those that enjoying interaction with their poker. It provides a natural “us against them” spirit, since every player’s success depends on how the banker’s hand turns out.
How to Play Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow is a version of poker that uses a 53-card deck: the standard 52 cards plus a Joker. Rumors persist that this game evolved from American poker and Chinese pai gow, a domino game invented by Chinese laborers that had immigrated to America during the 19th century.
Players bet against the banker in games of pai gow poker. Players and banker alike are dealt seven cards, which they must separate into two hands: one of five cards, and on of two cards. Your intended goal is to beat the banker’s five-card and two-card hands with your own.
Though pai gow poker games may be banked by players themselves in a card room, casinos will usually bank the games for players, with the dealer acting as banker. The vigorish for the casino comes in two forms: either 5% percent is withheld from winning payouts, or a flat fee is charged on each bet.
How To Win
Winning at pai gow poker requires that both your five-card hand and your two-card hand be of higher rank than the banker’s respective hands. If your two-card is equal in rank to the banker’s, they are called copies, and the banker always wins copies. If the banks five-card hand beats or is equal to yours, and their two-card hand beat or is equal to yours, you lose your bet.
You tie with the banker if your two-card hand beats theirs, but their five-card hand beats yours. In this instance, no money is exchanged at all. A tie also results when your five-card hand beats the dealer’s, but their two-card hand beats yours.
How to Play the Game
Pai gow poker is usually played around a special table, which can accommodate up to six players and the banker. The minimum and maximum betting limits will be listed right at the table.
The banker only risks the amount of money they place on the table. The banker usually lays down enough money to cover all player bets, but the casino may allow the banker to risk less money than that wagered by the pai gow poker players. The banker will shuffle the 53-card deck, and then deal seven stacks of seven cards. The players make their bets, and the dealer rolls dice from a teacup to determine which player gets the first stack of cards.
Once the stacks have been disseminated to all the players, they separate the seven cards into two hands, one of five cards, called the high hand, the other of two, called the low hand. This is known as setting. The following table lists the hierarchy for pai gow poker hands.
The major difference between standard poker rankings and those used in pai gow is that five Aces, actually four Aces plus the Joker, beats a royal flush. Occasionally, you’ll find house rules that also state an A-2-3-4-5 straight is the second-highest rank, rather than second-lowest.
There’s either a pair or no pair in the two-card hand, with the highest being two Aces. The two card hands maintain the standard poker rankings of Ace (A), King (K), Queen (Q), Jack (J), 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2, while the suits are all equal.
Players take great care to avoid showing their hands to the banker when setting them. The most important part is to ensure that the five-card hand ranks higher than the two-card hand. The player automatically loses if their hand is foul, meaning that the two-card hand ranks higher than the five-card hand. For example, if the two-card hand is K-K coupled a five-card hand of Q-J-5-4-3 of different suits. This hand would not have been foul if the two kings had been included in the five-card hand.
The banker keeps their cards face down until all players have set their hands. Player hands are only up against the banker’s, not each others. Once all player hands are set, the dealer turns banker’s hand up. Only then does the banker set their cards into the best possible five- and two-card hands; the banker sets their hand, not the dealer.
Now the banker’s hands are compared to each of the player’s, starting with the player that first received cards and rotating clockwise. If the player’s hands beat the banker’s, the player is awarded even money from the banker’s bankroll. If the banker’s hand wins, the player’s bet is picked up by the dealer and given to the banker. In a casino, the dealer calculates the vigorish from each winning payout to the players, or from the aggregate winnings of the banker.
As a wild card, the Joker may be used to complete straight, flushes, straight flushes, or it may be used as an Ace. Some casinos allow you to use the Joker to fill out any hand.
Pai Gow Strategies
Being the Banker
The best way to get an edge in a game of pai gow poker is to be the banker, because the banker wins any and all copies.
The house, meaning the dealer, usually banks first in casinos. After the first hand, the banker position will move around the table, allowing every player the chance to have the edge. You can turn down the chance to be the banker, too. If you, the opportunity simply rotates to the next player at the table.
Set in front of the banker’s betting area is a marker, or chung, denoting their position in that hand. The house will continue to bank the game if no player wishes to take the position, or until a new player joins the game and wishes to take the opportunity. The dealer will place a bet just like any other player when a player at the table is the banker for that hand.
You must be willing to cover all player bets in the hand from your personal bankroll if you wish to be the banker at a casino game. You can’t be the banker if you don’t have enough money to cover all the bets. Card rooms, on the other hand, sometimes allow two people to share the responsibility, if one player doesn’t want to cover the entire amount of money wagered.
You usually have to relinquish the banker position after one or two hands. If you want to take advantage of the inherent edge that comes with being the banker, keep your player bets small and offer to be the banker as often as possible. You’ve got bank anywhere from 6 to 14 times as much money you wager as a player just to break even after the 5 percent commission is taken by the casino from winning bets.
Your break even point will fluctuate depending on how skillful you are at setting hands versus your opponents. A break-even situation arises when you’re the banker every other hand, players are betting between $60 and $140, and the minimum bet is $10. You’ll have a slight edge if your opponents bet higher than $140.
Strategy for Setting Hands
Setting your high and low hands is crucial to winning in pai gow poker. The following guidelines list some strategy for setting your hands.
As a general rule-of-thumb, you should try to set the highest two-card hand that he can legally set: the best two-card hand that still leaves a higher five-card hand behind.
More specifically, a player should expect an average hand to be something like a medium-to-high pair behind in the five-card hand and an ace-high in front.
Optimal strategy is available for setting hands in pai gow, but it requires memorizing large strategy charts. You can play close to optimal strategy by learning a few basic rules.
But remember, you can always ask to have your hand set the house way. The majority of house strategies can be close to playing optimal strategy.
Two-pair hands can be more difficult to set. It’s important to think it through carefully, because two-pair hands are common and one wrong move could ruin the outcome.
The highest singleton helps determine whether the lower pair should be set as the low hand. It’s more likely you should use both pairs in your high hand if you have a high singleton; high singletons can sometimes turn two-pair hands into winners!
If your high singleton is an Ace, you’ll more than likely want to include the two pairs in your five-card hand. You can consider using the lower pair as your low hand if none of your singletons are that high in rank.