Pai Gow Poker can confuse a lot of people. First off, it can easily be confused with Pai Gow, which is a different tile or domino type game. Next, it isn’t widely available in all casinos. Third, casinos are known to have different variations of the game, which can make learning a bit frustrating. But I’m here to help clear up the confusion.
I try to make a trip to Las Vegas annually. But, in the last few years, I haven’t been faithful to that schedule. I wanted to see other areas. Explore new cities and new casinos (at least new to me). That all changed a few months ago. I finally made it back and spent 2 weeks in Sin City. One of the things that fascinated me was that Pai Gow poker had become a commonplace fixture in some of my favorite haunts.
I’d never played Pai Gow poker in Las Vegas before. I actually learned the game online and then played in person at the Winstar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border.
I immediately noticed a few differences from the Pai Gow I learned online and played at Winstar and how it was played in Las Vegas.
I think I got spoiled playing the way that I did. I was used to $5 minimum bets. While I found a few casinos that had $5 minimums, I found most had $10 minimums. A few more had $15, $25, and one even had $50 minimums.
The Basics of Pai Gow Poker
Let me start off by stating that Pai Gow Poker isn’t a true poker game. The first item that gives this away is that player play against a dealer, much like you’d see in blackjack. In a true poker game, players don’t go head-to-head with a dealer but play against each other.
The game is played with a 53 card deck. It is the standard deck of cards plus the joker as a wild card. The goal is to beat the dealer by having a superior hand.
That may sound easy, but in Pai Gow, you’re actually playing 2 hands at the same time. Each player is dealt 7 cards and from that, you’re expected to make a 5 card hand (known as the back) and a 2 card hand (known as the front).
The dealer will also arrange his or her hand in a 5 card hand and a 2 card hand, but in a way that’s in accordance with the rules. This arrangement is known as the “house way”.
The initial bet placed when a game of Pai Gow Poker is started.
The 5-card hand after the 7 card-hand is split into 2.
The person who takes bets for the hand and deals the cards is called a banker.
This is the place of the table where you place your bets during the game.
Option where the house and the player are 50/50 partners. This isn’t available in many casinos.
The percentage of each win the casino takes. Most casinos take a 5 to 10 % fee for winning pai gow poker hands.
A tie. When the player’s and the banker’s hand have the same value, the hand is automatically won by the banker and the player ends up with nothing.
A dealer is a person giving out the hands during a game. He/she always represents the house.
When the dealer deals out cards to empty spots around the Pai Gow table. When this happens, any player at the table can bet on the hand and play with two hands. If nobody bets on the hand, the cards will be removed by the dealer.
EZ Pai Gow Poker
This is a commission-free variant of Pai Gow Poker. If the dealer has a queen high Pai Gow Poker hand, the hand will push. There are 4 side bets for players, too. The joker may or may not be fully wild.
Fortune Side Bet
A side bet in Pai Gow Poker that pays based on the value of the player’s seven cards. It doesn’t matter how the player sets his hand. In addition, if another player has a four of a kind or better the player making the Fortune bet will get an “Envy Bonus”.
When a player sets up their hand incorrectly, such as making their front hand bigger than the back hand. This is a foul and often will result in the player automatically losing their initial wager.
The 2-card hand which is typically placed in front of the 5-card hand called the back hand. This is also referred to as the Low hand.
The 5-card hand in Pai Gow Poker, as it is placed behind the smaller two-card hand.
Hand in Front
The name of the two-card hand placed in front of the five-card hand.
The casino rules that specify how a dealer/banker must set their hands.
A card that works as a ‘wild card’ in Pai Gow and is the 53rd card of the deck. This can be used to substitute a particular card in order to form a winning hand.
This is a side bet and an optional bonus wager payable if the player’s 7 cards includes the Joker. If all 7 cards are of the same color or the hand consists of 6 cards of the same color plus the Joker.
Another name for the front hand.
Another name for the front hand.
Pai Gow Mania
This is a variant with 2 side bets.
When both the player and banker have one winning hand (or two). The bets are returned (no one wins), and most times no commission is taken from the player.
The action performed in separating the 7 cards a player has been dealt during the first phase of the game. Once the player has selected the 2 cards to be split from the rest of the cards, they’ll be split into a front hand from a back hand.
2 Card Hand Rankings
Since Pai Gow Poker uses standard poker rankings, the goal of the 2 card hand is to get a pair or any card with a joker. Since the joker is wild, it will automatically make any hand a pair if you have it in the 2 card hand. The rankings are:
High card Ace
High card King
High card Queen
High card Jack
High card 10
High card 9
High card 8
High card 7
High card 6
High card 5
High card 4
High card 3
High card 2
***A pair is automatically created when the joker is in the 2 card hand. An Ace-Joker would be considered and Ace-Ace. A King-Joker would be considered a King-King, etc.
For the 5 card hand, Pai Gow Poker resembles most regular poker games with a wild card in play. There’s one exception. This concerns straight flushes and straights. Whereas in most poker hands the highest card determines the winning hand, Pai Gow Poker has a unique rule. A hand that’s Ace-King-Queen-Jack-10 is the highest, but the next highest is Ace-2-3-4-5. Then it resumes highest rank order. So in that case, King-Queen-Jack-10-9 would follow and then Queen-Jack-10-9-8, etc., on down the line.
For the Pai Gow Poker 5 card hand, the rankings are:
5 of a Kind
Other hands start with the highest ranking card
4 of a Kind
Other hands start with the highest ranking card
3 of a Kind
The dealer plays by a method called “the house way”. This is one of the more confusing aspects of the game. The house way is the way dealers are instructed to arrange their 2 and 5 card hand.
These instructions are similar to the rule that would govern a dealer’s actions in blackjack. However, while blackjack is generally standardized as far as the actions a dealer can take based on the hand he or she’s dealt, in Pai Gow Poker, the casino sets the rules, so different casinos have different actions the dealer will take.
These instructions include which cards to play in the 2-card and 5-card hands, when to split and how to use the joker in certain hand.
Since many variations of these rules exist, it is best to check with the casino as to their specific rules.
Arranging Your Cards
When you’re dealt the 7 cards you must spilt them up into your back hand and your front hand.
It is important to know that when separating the hand, your 5 card hand must outrank your 2 card hand.
For example, let’s say you’re dealt King-Queen-10-7-7-5-2. Since the pair of 7s is the best combination of cards in of the 7 dealt, you must keep them in the 5 card hand. You can then take the top single cards (the King and Queen) and use those as the small hand.
It’s a rule that the 2 card hand can’t be arranged in a way that would make it a better hand than their 5 card hand. A player who arranges his or her hands in this way has committed a foul and automatically loses. Even though it’s not considered cheating, the foul will cause you to lose your money playing Pai Gow Poker.
The goal of the player is to win both hands.
If the player wins one hand but loses the other, the hand is considered a push, and the bet is returned.
Basic Pai Gow Poker Strategy
A common strategy is to arrange your 2 card hand to be the strongest possible without outranking the 5 card hand. This is because in most cases, you can’t lose money if only one of your hands beats the dealer and the other doesn’t.
One exception to this is if the 5 card hand has a straight or better. In this case, it is best to make the win with the 5-card hand and go for the high card or low pair on the 2-card hand if necessary.
But what if you can’t make a hand out of the 7 cards you’re dealt? This can happen and isn’t uncommon. Don’t despair. What you should do in this scenario is to leave the highest ranking card in the 5 card hand and then the next 2 highest ranking cards in the 2 card hand. The high card in the 5 card hand gives it the high ranking and makes the 2 card hand as strong as possible.
If you’re only dealt 1 pair, you need to play it in the 5 card hand. The next 2 highest ranked cards should be played in the 2 card hand, once again making both hand as strong as possible without the 2 card hand outranking the 5 cards hand.
In a scenario where you’re dealt 2 pairs, you should always split them if you have:
A pair of Aces.
Two high pairs (Jack-Jack through Ace-Ace).
One high pair (Jack-Jack through Ace-Ace) and one middle ranked (7-7 through 10-10) pair.
If you find that you have an Ace, you should also split:
Two middle ranked (7-7 through 10-10) pairs.
One high pair (Jack-Jack through Ace-Ace) and one low ranked (2-2 through 6-6) pair.
Unless you have a King and/or an Ace you should always split:
One middle ranked (7-7 through 10-10) pair and one low ranked (2-2 through 6-6) pair.
Two low ranked (2-2 through 6-6) pairs.
Some things you should always do:
Play 3-of-a-Kind in your High hand unless you have 3 Aces. If you have 3 Aces, play a pair in your high hand and Ace-high in your low hand
Play straights and flushes in your high hand unless you also have 2 pairs. In that case, you should split them according to the above rules for two-pair hands
Split 4-of-a-kind into two pairs if they’re Jack-Jack-Jack-Jack or above
Keep 4-of-a-kind hands of 6-6-6-6 or lower together
Keep 4-of-a-kind (7-7-7-7 through 10-10-10-10) together only if you also have an Ace.
When you have a Full House, always play the pair in your 2-card hand and 3-of-a-kind in your 5 card hand unless you also have a second pair. If you do, then play the higher of the two-pair in your 2 card hand.
If you have five Aces including Joker, split them unless you also have a pair of Kings. If you have a pair of Kings, play all 5 Aces in your 5 card hand.
Betting and Side Bets
While Pai Gow Poker can be a bit intimidating and confusing at first, the betting options for the game are pretty straight-forward.
Most casinos only have straight betting on the hand, but as more casinos have been adding the game, some have been adding side bets.
In a standard game, the hand begins after the initial bet is made. There is no opportunity to raise or call the bet during the hand. In a game where no side bets are offered, the amount you bet in the beginning is the total bet for the hand.
As I said at the beginning of this post, most of the tables I played at have $5 minimum bets. However, when I went to Las Vegas, $10 and $15 were pretty common. One even had a $50 minimum bet, so be sure you understand that before you start playing.
Some casinos have variants of Pai Gow that allow for side bets.
One of these variants is Fortune Pai Gow Poker. This variation allows players to make a side bet on the ranking value of your 7 card hand. They pay out according to the casino payout tables. If you get 4 of a kind, a bonus called an Envy Bonus is paid out.
In the variation of Jackpot Pai Gow Poker, a side bet is placed on the probability of making certain hands. For example, a natural royal flush (no Joker) with a pair of Aces will pay out 20,000 to 1, so a table that has a $5 minimum, would pay out $100,000 on this side bet.
If a casino offers Emperor’s Challenge Pai Gow Poker, you have the change to make 3 separate bets the initial bet, a side bet, and an insurance bet.
The payouts for the side bet are:
Natural 7-card Straight Flush – 8000 to 1
Royal Flush plus Royal Match – 2000 to 1
Wild 7-card straight Flush- 1000 to 1
5 Aces – 400 to 1
Royal Flush – 150 to 1
Straight Flush – 50 to 1
4 of a Kind – 25 to 1
Full House – 5 to 1
Flush – 4 to 1
3 of a Kind – 3 to 1
Straight – 2 to 1
The Insurance bet is played exactly like Pai Gow Poker is an optional side-bet which pays out if a player is dealt a Pai Gow hand. The term “Pai Gow Hand” is a non-ranking hand for the high card only meaning no pairs, no straights, and no flushes.
The payouts for Pai Gow Insurance are:
9 High Pai Gow – 100 to 1
10 High Pai Gow – 25 to 1
J High Pai Gow – 15 to 1
Q High Pai Gow – 7 to 1
K High Pai Gow – 5 to 1
A High Pai Gow – 3 to 1
Another side bet offered at some casinos is the Jokolor. This side bet is a wager that pays out if your 7-card hand contains 6 cards of the same color and a joker, or 7 cards of the same color.
Some Common Mistakes and Trappings to Avoid in Pai Gow Poker
The Banker – Some casinos will have a dealer, and in others, players will alternate as the banker. Often, when given the chance to play the banker position, players will decline to offer. This is a mistake because being the banker increases your odds of winnings. The banker wins ties and the commission comes from the banker’s net winnings. Playing the banker is always a good move. If there’s a casino dealer as the banker, you can always ask the dealer if you can be the banker. They may have to check with a pit boss to see if it’s okay. They may not always allow it, but it’s worth asking.
The Joker – Always remember that the Joker is a wild card. The joker should always be played as an Ace unless it can complete a 5 of a kind, 4 of a kind, straight, or a flush.
Full House – Logically, it makes sense to keep a full house together, but this isn’t the best strategy. Always move the pair to the 2 card hand and keep the 3 of a kind in the 5 card hand. Otherwise, you could risk a push or even losing both hand.
I found that the more I played Pai Gow, the less mysterious it seemed. I started learning Pai Gow online by watching YouTube videos. I found videos from experts like Michael Shackleford as well as videos that were made by both brick and mortar and online casinos. All which were extremely helpful in getting started.
I then started playing free play sites online. I’d refer back to the videos on complicated hands. I’d do this by making notes while I played.
As my confidence grew, I started playing at some online casinos for real money. I found a few with some nice welcome bonuses that helped me minimize my losses while I learned the game. I should say that while I learned the basics on the free sites, the gameplay is different when real money is involved. I think it has to do with players wagering more haphazardly when their cash isn’t on the line.
I lost a lot at first. But I gained a lot of knowledge and I also gained more confidence.
I started playing at the Winstar World Casino and Resort in Oklahoma. I kept playing there every month until the beginning of 2018 when they replaced the game. I was getting to the point where I’d come home with more than I left with, so I saw that as a success. I hear they brought back Pai Gow Poker recently, so if that’s the case, I may make another trip there to play.
I believe that this is a good, solid strategy to learn the game.
When you do play, be sure to manage your bankroll properly. It can easily get away from you if you don’t.
Be sure to check if you’re playing regular Pai Gow Poker or a variation. And make sure it isn’t Pai Gow or Pai Gow Tiles, that’s a separate game altogether.