Pai Gow Poker is a relatively modern game, invented in the 1980s for one to six participants and a Dealer. The game uses a special 53-card deck—the standard 52-card poker deck to which a Joker has been added as a form of “wild card.”
Each player receives seven cards, which must be arranged into two hands: a five-card hand called the High Hand or “Hand in Front” and a two-card hand referred to as the Low Hand or “Hand Behind.” After both hands have been set, a showdown takes place with each hand compared to the corresponding “Banker hand,” which is held and arranged by the Dealer or, in some versions of the game, by whatever player holds the Bank for that round of play.
Players whose two hands defeat both of the Banker hands win even money, minus a commission for the House on the order of 5%. If only one of the player’s two hands wins, the result is a “push,” with no winner or loser and all bets refunded. When a player loses both hands, the Banker wins and collects all bets.
On the rare occasion that hands are identical, they are called “copies.” Depending upon the House Rules, the Banker typically wins all copies, although some venues use the higher of the remaining hands to determine the winner of the deal.
Ranking the Hands
Standard poker rankings apply when comparing the five-card High Hands (Hand in Front). From lowest to highest, they are High Card, Pair, Two Pair, Three of a Kind, Straight, Flush, Full House, Four of a Kind, Straight Flush and Royal Flush. Notably, even though Aces are always treated as high cards in Pai Gow Poker, they can be used to form “the wheel”—a low straight consisting of the A-2-3-4-5. Because it contains an Ace, the wheel beats all other straights except the A-K-Q-J-10.
The very highest five-card hand of all in Pai Gow Poker is Five Aces. This hand is made possible by setting the Joker in the High Hand with four natural Aces. In fact, this is the only Five of a Kind that can be made, owing to special rules regarding how the Joker can be used as a wild card. It must always be an Ace unless used to fill a straight or flush. In other words, it cannot be used to form pairs or triplets that are not Aces.
In the two-card Low Hand (Hand Behind), straights and flushes do not count. Only high cards and pairs are used to decide the winner. For example, a hand of A-5 beats the K-J, and a hand of 3-3 beats the A-10. The highest ranking Low Hand is a pair of Aces, which may contain the Joker. The worst Low Hand is the 3-2.
Apart from the rules that apply to using the Joker, another important rule regards the way the two hands are arranged. The five-card High Hand must always outrank the two-card Low Hand. For example, in a hand containing A-K-K-J-J-3-2, the pair of Kings could not be set in the Low Hand, but the pair of Jacks could be and so could the Ace and a low card.
Because the Joker must always be used an Ace if it is not used to fill a straight or a flush, one of the most common hand-setting strategies is to place it in the Low Hand whenever possible. The average two-card Low Hand is A-7, which can be expected to win on about 49.7% of all deals.
When the Joker is used in a straight or flush, it is always counted as the highest available card allowing completion—such as an Ace when filling a flush with K-10-6-3 or a King when filling the A-10-6-3.
A complex set of rules also applies to how the two hands held by the Bank must be set. For example, with no pair among the seven cards, the highest card must be set in the High Hand and the next two highest cards in the Low Hand. These rules cover all possible combinations for the seven cards dealt—27 types of hands in all. Beginning players are advised to ask the Dealer what the rules of the “House Way” are until they have mastered all of the rules.
Bet and Play
Wagering at Pai Gow Poker starts with an Ante. It can be no less than the table’s minimum required bet. Seven cards are then dealt face down to each participant and the Banker. Dice may be rolled to determine who holds the Bank and who receives cards first. In the version called Mini Pai Gow Poker, the casino’s Dealer always plays the Banker hand.
When there is an empty seat at the table, many casinos also deal out an extra hand known as the “Dragon hand.” This gives players an extra opportunity to Ante on this hand, too. The Dragon hand, like the Banker hand, must be arranged according to the House Way.
Before the cards are turned over for the showdown, some Pai Gow Poker tables require players to double their Ante by placing a bet. This allows players with poor hands to fold and “abandon” their hands and their Antes, while those who have strong hands can increase the amount at stake for additional winnings.
Players should be aware that the House Edge in Pai Gow Poker is between 1.3% and 2.3%, so they are at a disadvantage even before they sit down at the table. Depending upon the House Rules, the casino expects players to lose roughly $1~$2 per $100 wagered over the long term.
Despite its seemingly complicated rules, Pai Gow Poker does not require players to memorize elaborate tables or decision trees in order win. About 90% of all Pai Gow Poker deals can be classified into six types of hands: No Pair, One Pair, Two Pair, Three Pair, Three of a Kind, and Full House. Even a novice can learn to arrange the cards properly for these and attain the optimum odds of winning.
No Pair or One Pair – With no pair, follow the House Way and place the highest card in the five-card High Hand and the next two highest cards in the two-card Low Hand. With one pair, place it in the High Hand and put the two highest cards remaining in the two-card Low Hand.
Two Pair or Three Pair – With two pair, split them with the higher pair in the High Hand and the lower pair in the Low Hand. An exception is made for two low pairs, such as 6s and 5s, in which case both pairs should be kept in the High Hand. With three pairs, place the highest pair in the Low Hand.
Three of a Kind or Full House – With one exception, always place the Three of a Kind in the five-card High Hand. For three Aces, place a pair in the High Hand and one Ace in the Low Hand. If a pair is dealt with the three of a kind, they go in the Low Hand. Never place a Full House in the High Hand unless the remaining two unmatched cards are face cards, in which case they can go in the Low Hand.
The remaining 10% of all hands contains combinations such as straights or flushes. As a general rule, keep the straight or flush together and do not sacrifice the High Hand to strengthen the Low Hand.