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Pai gow poker is a popular playing card version of the Chinese domino game of pai gow. The game is played using a standard 52 card deck with the addition of one joker card. The joker is said to play as a bug, it is semi wild in that it can be used for the completion of a straight or a flush but otherwise must be counted as an ace.

The Table and The Deal

The game is played on a table set for six players plus the dealer. Having placed their stake for the hand, each player and the dealer are dealt a hand of seven cards. One interesting feature of the game is that each player is offered the opportunity to act as the banker. If no player takes this option the bank will revert back to the casino dealer. Players are then assigned a number between one and seven starting with the dealer and counting round the table anti clockwise. A number between one and seven is then chosen at random, commonly using either an electronic random number generator or dice. The first cards will be dealt to the player assigned this number. In a casino setting seven cards will be dealt to each of the seven seats regardless of whether the seat is occupied or vacant. Cards dealt to a vacant seat will be added to the discards pile at the end of the deal. This doesn’t occur online where only active players are dealt a hand.

Some casinos will leave a hand at a vacant seat, this hand is known as the dragon hand. After all players have set their hands each is offered the opportunity to place an additional stake on the dragon hand, this can be any amount up to the stake they already have in play. The dragon hand will always be set according to the house rules to negate any advantage the player may gain from having already seen the seven cards in their own hand.

Setting Hand

Having been dealt seven cards the next step is for the player to set their hand. Two hands must be created. One containing five cards and another containing two cards. The five card hand is known as the big or high hand and must be higher in rank than the two card hand which is referred to as the small or low hand. As long as players stick to this rule they are free to set their hands however they see fit.

Standard poker rankings apply. For the two card hand the only possible hands are a pair and a high card. For the five card hand the ranking, familiar to all poker players, is as follows.

  • Royal Flush
  • Straight Flush
  • Four of a Kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • Three of a Kind
  • Two Pairs
  • Pair
  • High Card

One thing to be aware of is that some casinos rank a straight of A-2-3-4-5 as being the second highest in the game. I.e. Above a King high straight but below an Ace high straight.

Whilst the players are free to set their hands any way they like, the casino follows a set procedure which is known as the house way. Once all players have set their hands the dealer will turn over their cards and set them in a predetermined fashion. A full explanation for the house way will be available in the casinos rule book as it is too complex for our pai gow summary. There are some minor variations from casino to casino but the method is generally common sense and maximises the houses chances of winning both hands. The setting of hands in a predetermined way also rules out any decision making by the casino regarding the play of an individual hand, which many would deem to be unfair to the player. In the instance where the player is acting as the banker they are free to set their hand as they see fit, whilst, as said, the dragon hand follows the bankers rules.

How Do You Win?

Once the players and casinos have set their hands, the hands will be compared to determine a winner. If both the player’s high and low hands beat the bankers he will win the hand and be paid out at even money. In this game all ties are judged as wins for the banker. Therefore the hand will result in a push if the player wins one and loses one or wins one and ties one. The bank wins with two wins, one win and a tie or two ties.

In the game of pai gow the casino generates its income from one of two methods. It will either charge a set fee per hand or it will make a deduction of 5% from all winning bets. This combined with the ties being in favour of the casino ensure that the game is favourable for the house. Whilst 5% may seem high in relation to other games it is not as bad as it might appear. The pace of pai gow is relatively slow and hands frequently result in a push. In terms of how much a player can expect to lose per hour, it is probably one of the cheapest games around and so great value for those that like poker but don’t want to play multi player versions of the game.

The Fortune Pai Gow Bet

In addition to the standard betting option of the players’ hands to beat the dealer’s, many casinos now offer the fortune side bet. This bet must be placed prior to any cards being dealt and is a straight bet on the seven cards the player receives. The payouts for this bet start at 2/1 for a straight ranging up to 5000/1 for a natural seven card straight flush and this offers a nice alternative angle to the game, with huge – though unlikely – wins possible.