Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow Poker is a card-based table game similar to the pai gow games played with dominoes. This title is popular for having a low volatility with a relatively high number of ties with the dealer, which means players can comfortably play with larger stakes than they normally would in other titles in the table games genre. Learn all about Pai Gow Poker in this tutorial and compare the best online casinos that offer the game.
Introduction to Pai Gow Poker
There’s a class of games that are based around being a given number of tiles, dominoes or cards and having to sort them into multiple groups. Pai Gow Poker is one of those games, and it’s based on the idea of splitting a group of cards into two different poker hands. It requires a much different type of strategy than most casino poker games, and it has a different feel when compared to those games as well.
Players who like strategic games will get a whole lot out of this title. However, it’s possible to have a pretty decent average payout rate without having to get super in-depth into the strategy side, so it’s a good game for both serious players who like to study and more recreational players who don’t care for putting a lot of time in learning strategy.
Regardless of how you feel about it, there’s one thing that’s absolutely for certain: There aren’t many “sorting” style games to be found in most casinos, and that means that there are basically no other games you can find online quite like Pai Gow Poker.
The History of Pai Gow Poker
There’s a Chinese game called Pai Gow that’s based on sorting groups of dominoes. The game Pai Gow Poker is based on that same motif but with cards, and it was invented originally by a man named Sam Torosian back in 1985. He didn’t have the best of luck, however, as he was mistakenly told that he couldn’t patent a card game. He owned a card club in California, and such a big exclusive acquisition could have propelled him and his club to a whole new level.
However, the advice was bad. Since he never filed for a patent on the game, nothing stopped other casinos and card clubs from using the same game after it became successful at his own.
This is an unfortunate tell, but it’s not the only case of this sort of thing happening. Poker author David Sklansky had the same thing happen regarding the development of what later became Caribbean Stud.
Rules and Gameplay
There’s a lot going on when it comes to the rules and gameplay procedures for Pai Gow Poker. You have to know how the five-card and two-card poker hand rankings work, and you also have to know the betting procedure. On top of that, there’s the way the house sorts their own cards.
While you don’t need to know this last bit because the dealers will be the only people sorting their own hands, it can provide a good starting point for strategy in the general sense, so we advise that people at least look over it before playing.
Two-card and Five-card Poker Hand Rankings
In Pai Gow Poker, you’ll be splitting a set of seven cards into two hands. One of those will have five cards, and the other will have two cards. There are different rankings for five-card hands and two-card hands. While most people who get involved with this game will already have at least a minimal understanding of the five-card poker hand rankings and their order, we’ll refresh your memory here if it’s not so clear, from strongest to weakest:
- Royal Flush – AKQJT of the same matching suit
- Straight Flush – Any five cards in consecutive order in a matching suit
- Four of a Kind – A set of four cards that all have the same ranking
- Full House – Three cards with the same ranking along with two more cards of a different matching ranking
- Flush – Five cards that are not in a consecutive order but that all have the same matching suit
- Straight – Five cards that do not all have the same matching suit but that are in a consecutive order
- Three of a Kind – Three cards that have the same ranking
- Two Pair – Two cards of one ranking with two other cards with a different ranking
- One Pair – Two cards with the same ranking
- High Card Hand – Five cards that do not make any of the above hands
Aside from that, we also have the two-card rankings. They’re much easier to remember:
- One Pair – The two cards have the same rank
- High Card – The two cards do not have the same rank
As you can see, there are no straights or flushes for the two-card hands, so where they’re ranked is simply a matter of if they make a pair or not. However, this means that having a feel for the distribution of the high card hands is more important for the two-card rankings, and you’ll see that reflected in how the relevant strategies work.
There is one difference in this game for how poker hand rankings work. Normally in poker, the highest straight is AKQJT followed by KQJT9 as the second-highest. In Pai Gow Poker, however, there is a twist to this. While AKQJT is still considered the best straight, the next-highest is the “wheel” hand of A2345. After that is KQJT9, and that is the only difference in how the poker hand rankings are handled from the usual.
Gameplay Procedure for Pai Gow Poker
The actual gameplay for Pai Gow Poker is pretty straightforward. One thing to note is that this game uses a 53-card deck instead of the standard one with 52 cards. There is a joker available, and it can be used to complete a flush, straight, straight flush or royal flush. When it completes one of these hands, it’s used as the highest rank card available to complete that hand. However, if it’s not used for one of those hands, then it’s always used as an ace, so it’s not completely wild like what you might expect.
Aside from that one difference, everything else is pretty intuitive about how this game is played with the following steps:
- The player makes a bet, and both the player and dealer are dealt seven cards.
- The player then divides those seven cards into a five-card “high” poker hand and a two-card “low” poker hand with the caveat that the five-card hand must be of an equal or higher poker rank than the two-card hand.
- After the player has decided on his two hands, the dealer sorts his or her own cards according to a standardized way of doing it for the rules of the game, which is known as the “house way” of sorting the cards.
- Once all sorting is finished, the high hands are compared, and the low hands are compared. If there is a tie for the high hands, the dealer wins the high hand. If there is a tie for the low hands, the dealer wins the low hand as well.
- If the player or dealer wins both hands, then that corresponds to a total win or loss of the wager, respectively. Winning gives the player a 0.95:1 payout, which is like even money with a 5 percent commission removed.
- If the player wins one and loses the other, the hand is a push as a whole, and the bet is just returned to the player. Note that there are a large number of pushes in this game.
There are some factors against the player here with the 5 percent commission on winning bets and losing individual ties on the high or low hands. However, where the player can make up most of this disadvantage lies in having better strategy than the “house way” of forming up hands.
Pai Gow Poker Strategy and Tips
Everything in Pai Gow Poker, whether it’s online or in a land-based casino, comes down to sorting your cards into the two hands. However, there are a whole lot of situations to learn, and some of them are not very intuitive.
While it’s not practical for a player to learn to play this game perfectly in every possible situation, and there are probably no people alive who can play in such a way because of the overwhelming complications of the game in certain spots, we can give some general advice about how to play most hands most of the time that will have you playing correctly almost always.
In what follows, we’re going to cover how to play some of the most difficult hands and some of the most anti-intuitive spots. Most players can intuitively figure out how to play a lot of spots just fine, and that’s why we’re not going to break down every possible situation. However, for the spots we do cover, it’s important to pay close attention since we’re picking them for a reason: They’re easy for players to make a mistake with.
Four of a Kind
If you have four of a kind, then you have to decide whether you want to split it up to put a pair into the lower hand. Whether you split these hands along these lines will depend on the rank of your four of a kind and what the best high-card hand would be that you could put in the low hand if you decide not to split them.
This means that the decision comes down whether to “split” or not to “split” your four of a kind into two separate pairs of the same rank.
- Never “split” with a pair of fours or lower.
- Always “split” with a pair queens or higher.
- Only “split” nines, tens or jacks if you can’t put ace-high in the low hand.
- Only “split” sevens or eights if you can’t put at least king-high in the low hand.
- Only “split” sixes if you can’t put at least queen-high in the low hand.
- Only “split” fives if you can’t put at least ten-high in the low hand.
You’ll get four of a kind when you’re dealt seven cards more often than you might think, and there’s a lot of value to lose on those instances if you don’t play the “splitting” decision correctly.
Three of a Kind
If you’re dealt three of a kind in Pai Gow Poker, then your general strategy is going to put those three of a kind in the high hand. That leaves four “kicker” cards remaining. You’ll choose the two highest kickers to put into the low hand to make the best possible high-card hand for the low, and the remaining two kickers will stay in the high hand with the three of a kind.
However, there is one exception to this rule. If you have three of a kind in aces, then you will only put a pair of aces in the high hand. You’ll put one of the aces in the low along with the highest “kicker” to make the best possible ace-high hand that you can. The remaining three kickers go with your pair of aces in the high hand.
Two pair hands face a similar decision of whether to “split” or not as when you have four of a kind. Essentially, you’re deciding whether you should put a pair in each hand or if you should keep them both in the high hand. Whether or not to split comes down to the value of your pairs and the value of the best high-card hand you would put in the low if you didn’t split the pairs.
The easiest way to conceptualize two pair hands, which are the hardest hands to learn to play well in Pai Gow Poker, is to use a point system. For each of the ranks of your two pairs, simply add them together to get a total number of points (jacks = 11, queens = 12, kings = 13, aces = 14). For example, a pair of fives with a pair of tens would be worth 15 points.
Once you have your point total, reference this list of guidelines for a strategy that will have you playing pretty close to perfect:
- Always split the pairs with 17 points or more.
- With 12 to 16 points, only split the pairs if you can’t put ace-high in the low.
- With 7 to 11 points, only split the pairs if you can’t put king-high or better in the low.
- With fewer than 7 points, only split the pairs if you can’t put queen-high or better in the low.
If you use the points system for two pair hands in Pai Gow Poker, the above set of guidelines are really all you need. Without using a system like this to guide you, these two pair hands are extremely difficult to play correctly because there are so many factors to consider in optimizing your high and low hand strength.
Playing one pair is pretty easy. You will never split any pairs, even aces, to put a better high-card hand in the low. Instead, you follow a very simple rule:
Put the pair in the high and the highest two kickers in the low.
That’s all there is to it. For example, if you had JJ495A7, then you would put the JJ in the high and the A9 in the low. The remaining three kickers (754) would then go into the high with the pair of jacks.
High Card Hands
If nothing in your hand makes a pair or better, then you should always play your hand the exact same way no matter which cards you hold:
Put the second-highest and third-highest cards in the low. The remaining five cards go in the high.
There is no exception to this rule at all, and if you follow it, then you will be playing these hands absolutely perfectly every single time that you encounter them.
Live Dealer Pai Gow Poker
Unfortunately, there aren’t many software companies that offer live dealer Pai Gow Poker games. The reason for this is that it would be too difficult to have several players trying to sort their hands at the same table, and it would mostly just end up looking and feeling just like a regular online table if they tried.
With that having been said, there are messaging groups and chat rooms online separated out from the various online casinos for people who are into games like Pai Gow Poker, and you can talk strategy and ask for advice with hands if you want while you play in the more traditional online environment.
There’s definitely a degree of strategy found at online Pai Gow Poker tables that is a bit different than what you find with most other table poker games. With that having been said, you’ll also find that it’s not incredibly difficult to learn to play at a fairly high level as long as you follow the basic strategies for the most difficult spots that we have outlined above.
If you are the type of player who likes a lot of strategy in your play, and if you don’t mind games that are a little outside of the norm, then chances are that you’ll really enjoy this one.