I play a lot of Pai Gow Poker. I love it. Man, I love Pai Gow Poker. On the vast majority of my gambling trips, there’s a good chance that you’ll find me playing Pai Gow Poker.
In this article, I will give you a simple tutorial on how to play Pai Gow poker.
For optimal basic strategy, go here:
I’ll give you my take on Pai Gow, having played the game for about 20 years. I’ll tell you why I play it, if you should play it, what to avoid doing if you play it, and how to best play Pai Gow Poker.
There are variants of Pai Gow Poker, such as Commission Free Pai Gow Poker and Face Up Pai Gow Poker, which are both trademarked games.
If you were to ask me which of the three versions I prefer, my answer would be Commission Free Pai Gow Poker. I’ll go over that game in a future article.
This article will discuss traditional Pai Gow Poker because it’s the most commonly available version.
By the way, the game is called Pai Gow Poker to differentiate the game from its’ cousin, Pai Gow Tiles.
SHOULD YOU PLAY PAI GOW POKER?
Pai Gow Poker is not for everyone. Quite a few of my friends are action junkies, and the way they play craps and slots proves that they’re action junkies. They’ll play max coins on every spin, and then they’re playing craps, they’ll have the layout covered to ensure some sort of action, win or lose, on every roll of the dice.
There’s nothing wrong with being an action junkie. I’m an action junkie. The difference is that I like to take a break from the action, every now and then. I’m not a 24/7 action guy. I like my fun, and I love my thrills, but I’m much more measured.
If you are like my action junkie friends, then Pai Gow Poker is not for you. But if you’re like me, in that you like to slow down every once in a while, then Pai Gow Poker is definitely right for you.
The reason why Pai Gow Poker is a slow game is that many hands push. 40.5% of hands push. That high push frequency is why many players enjoy Pai Gow Poker. For a single buy-in, you will last a long time, as long as you don’t go on tilt and up your bets beyond what you would normally bet.
It’s really difficult to have a huge winning streak in Pai Gow Poker. A winning hand only happens approximately 30% of the time. In my 20 years of playing Pai Gow Poker, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve won five hands in a row, without ties. If you drag out the number of hands played and included ties (meaning I won 5 in a row without losing), then it probably happens like once a month; but those five wins in a row without losing might encompass like 20 total hands dealt.
If you gamble for the thrill of the streak like it sometimes happens in craps, blackjack, or the slots, when the symbols just seem to be lining up spin after spin, then Pai Gow Poker might not be for you. Buffalo!
In craps, you can go home and tell your craps buddies about the hour-long roll. In blackjack, you can have stories of how you won every single hand in a shoe. You can also tell your buddies about how the deck turned red hot, you bumped your bets to max, and split, re-split, double down, double down, double down, double down, and nearly emptied the dealer tray in one hand. In slots you can have stories of hand pays that are so large it takes a while for the attendant to count all the bills.
In Pai Gow, you…don’t have those stories. At least I never had those stories.
Okay, those are the downsides of Pai Gow Poker. Let’s go over the upsides of Pai Gow Poker.
The same downsides to Pai Gow Poker also mean that you will have a lot of play for very little money. It’s rare to go on a giant losing streak.
Casinos have addressed the issue of players not having ‘big fish’ stories by introducing big jackpots. For a $1 to $5, depending on the jackpot, you can go home a big winner. Here is one Pai Gow Poker jackpot of $48,729 at the last table I played at…
The other way to play Pai Gow is to just bet big. Because losing streaks do not happen with the severity of games like craps or blackjack, if you score a big win on one hand, it’s relatively easy to protect your wins. There are some big players at Pai Gow Poker, like this fella…
You will get many cocktail drinks for relatively cheap. You’ll also have a fun time at the table. With the exception of a few stoic faced Pai Gow Poker dealers, at almost every casino, the Pai Gow Poker dealers are the friendliest dealers in the entire casino.
Also, the players at Pai Gow Poker are also the nicest players in the whole casino. You’ll never have a player who becomes angry at you for the way you played your hand. You’ll never get into an argument with your fellow Pai Gow Poker player because you messed up the deal or you interrupted the flow of the cards or dice. I’ve never seen that happen at a Pai Gow Poker table, where the players are always in a good mood.
I’ve dated a few girls who I met while playing Pai Gow Poker. I even dated a Pai Gow Poker dealer for a few months. If you want to make friends, the Pai Gow Poker table is the best place in the casino to meet people. It’s a super social game.
After reading the above, if you feel that Pai Gow Poker might be for you, then give it a shot. Life doesn’t always need to move at 75 MPH.
BASICS OF HOW TO PLAY PAI GOW POKER
If you know the ranking of poker hands, then you practically know how to play Pai Gow Poker.
If you don’t know the rankings, then these are the rankings, from lowest to highest hand:
- No Pair, high card
- for example, K – 9 – 8 – 7 – 4
- If both banker and dealer have No Pair, then the hand with the higher rank is determined to be the winner, with A being the highest card, and 2 being the lowest card.
- One pair
- for example, 10 – 10 – 8 – 9 -7
- Two pair
- for example, 10 – 10 – 9 – 9 – A
- Three of a kind
- for example, A – A – A – 5 – 4
- for example, 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9
- note that the ace or joker can be high low, such as A – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 or 10 – J – Q – K – A. The ace cannot wrap around; for example, this is NOT a straight: K – Q – A – 2 – 3.
- for example, K spades – 10 spades – 9 spades – 5 spades – 3 spades
- Full House
- for example, 10 – 10 – 10 – 2 – 2
- Straight Flush
- for example, 8 spades – 9 spades – 10 spades – J spades – Q spades
- this hand is a flush with sequential cards
- Royal Flush
- for example, 10 spades – J spades – Q spades – K spades – A spades
- This is the highest possible hand.
Pai Gow Poker is played with a standard deck of 52 cards, with one additional joker. The joker is semi-wild, which means it can only be an Ace, complete a straight, or complete a flush. It is not a true wild card.
First, before the cards are dealt, the players must all make a wager that is equal to or above the minimum bet.
In Pai Gow Poker, the dealer will deal everyone, including the dealer, at the table 7 cards. Most casinos nowadays use an automatic shuffler to shuffle the cards and speed up play, like this…
In the pics above, the number 5 represents a virtual dice roll. That means the 5th hand, whether or not there is a player, will receive the first set of cards.
However, there are some old school casinos that still deal Pai Gow Poker by hand, without the shuffler. They deal the cards like this…
When the casino deals the cards the old fashioned way, instead of using the virtual dice, the casino will roll actual dice to determine who gets the first cards. It’s cool and has a nostalgic feel to it…
Before the dealer deals 7 cards to each player, each player in turn is allowed a chance to be the banker. There are upsides and downsides to being the banker. All players play against the banker. If no players chooses to bank, then the dealer and casino act as the banker. If a player chooses to play as the banker, then the player is given a button that says ‘bank’.
The downside to banking is that you are risking significantly more money. If you have a poor hand, you will likely lose and have to pay all the players; however, the flip side is that if you have a strong hand, you will most likely scoop and beat everyone. Also, since Pai Gow poker is often a social game with friendly players, many players will decline the bank so that the players do not compete against each other.
There are two advantages to banking. The first advantage is that banker wins all copies. A copy is when both competing hands have the exact same rank, for example, AK versus AK. In the case where both competing hands have copies, the banker will win. The second advantage is that if the player banks, the commission (which I will discuss below in the section titled ‘Payout’) is taken out of the net win from the banker, rather than individually. This net commission saves the banker money.
Advice: if you find yourself heads up against the casino, ALWAYS ask to bank and make sure you and the dealer alternate banking. Some dealers will state that you can only bank once per rotation, meaning that if there are 6 player seats, you can only bank once per 7 hands. I’ve had dealers state that ‘rule’. I’ve been able to get the floor to reverse the rule and bank every other hand. The ability to win copies is very powerful, especially for the low hand.
For purposes of simplicity, this guide will assume that the dealer/casino is the banker from hereon.
The Commencement of Play
After every participant receives their 7 cards, the players pick up their cards. The dealer, if there is no banker, will protect his hand with a dealer button, as such…
After the players all receive their cards, play commences.
The players and dealer must use the 7 cards to set a poker high hand and a low hand.
The high hand must be comprised of 5 cards, while the low hand is comprised of 2 cards. Below is an example, where the dealer’s high hand is 10 – 10 – 8 – 5 – 3 (pair of 10s); while the dealer’s low hand is K – Q.
The high hand plays like any poker hand, with the single exception that at most casinos, A – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 is the second highest straight behind 10 – J – Q – K – A.
For the two card low hand, there is no flush or straight. The two card low hand can only be a high card or a pair, with the strongest low hand being A – A (the joker can be an A). A – A low cannot be beaten, however, it is possible to lose with A – A low if the banker has a copied A – A, which I have seen happen.
Here is an example of another hand, where there is a pair on the low hand. The pair of 8s on the low hand would beat any non paired low hand…
The low hand must be lower than the high hand. If you mistakenly set the cards so that the two card low hand is higher than the higher hand, then the hand is considered a ‘foul’, you are disqualified, and you lose your bet. You cannot save your bet by purposely committing a foul. If you are unsure of your hand, ask the dealer for help, or you may declare ‘house way’, and the dealer will play your hand for you, according to the published house rules.
The player will compare his/her low and high hands to the dealer’s low and high hand. The player’s high hand is compared to the dealer’s high hand, and the player’s low hand is compared to the dealer’s low hand.
To win the high hand, the player must have a better high hand, using standard poker ranks (with the usual exception of the A – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 comparisons for straights, mentioned above).
To win the low hand, the player must have a better low hand than the banker. Straights and flushes do not count with the low hand; rather, only high cards and one pair is at play.
To win the bet, the player must have a better high and better low hand than the dealer.
To lose the bet, the dealer must have a better high and better low hand than the dealer.
If either the dealer or player wins one of the high or low and loses one of the high or low, then the hand is a push.
Simply stated: you must win both high and low to win, otherwise the hand pushes.
Test Your Knowledge
In the hand below, what is the result?
- High Hand: Q – Q – 7 – 5 – 3
- Low Hand 9 -8
- High Hand: K – 8 – 6 – 5 -3
- Low Hand: J – 9
Result: Player and dealer both push.
Dealer has a better high hand, thus winning the high hand, but the player has a better low hand; thus dealer wins high and player wins low, resulting in a push.
In the hand below, what is the result?
- High Hand: 9 – 9 – K – 8 – 7
- Low Hand: 6 – 6
- High Hand: K – K – K – 10 – A
- Low Hand: Q – Q
Result: Player wins.
Player has a better high hand, thus winning the high hand, and player has a better low hand; thus player wins both high hand and low hand, resulting in a player win.
If the player wins the hand by having both a better high and low hand than the dealer, the dealer will then pay the player even money, minus a 5% commission. This means that for every $5 bet, the casino will pay $4.74, which is why Pai Gow Poker tables are usually the only casino games that have quarters on them.
5% commission also means that for every $20 bet, the house will pay $19, and for every $100 bet, the house will pay $95.
If you would like to learn to play Pai Gow Poker in the comfort of your own home, or you just want to play online, and you wouldn’t mind supporting us, give it a shot at one of our affiliate casinos:
I hope this Pai Gow Poker guide is helpful.