By H. Scot Krause
Pai Gow Poker is one of the most fun casino games but it can be tricky to learn when first starting out. If you want to enjoy playing Pai Gow Poker online or live at a casino, then it is important. Feb 06, 2021 Free Pai Gow Poker casino game by the Wizard of Odds and selection of real money options. Pai Gow Poker, also called Double Hand Poker, is a version of Pai Gow played with cards instead of Chinese dominoes, or pai gows. While a fun game to play, understanding its fundamentals can be a bit tricky in the beginning.
History of Pai Gow Poker
The game of Pai Gow originated in China more than a century ago and was played at that time with tiles, like Dominoes, and dice. The Chinese word origin meant “make nine.” The conversion to a poker game happened around 1985 in a California Card Room.
Today, Pai Gow Poker is a table game, increasing in popularity in many casinos around the country. While it is a poker game, it is far less intimidating than sitting down at a live poker room game. One main difference is that in Pai Gow Poker you are playing against the dealer’s hand only, while in a live poker game you are playing against all the other players at the table and not the dealer at all (who gets no hand to play and only deals the cards.)
Another major difference is you are playing a seven-card hand, splitting your dealt cards (there is no re-draw) into two hands; your best 5 card hand (high hand) and your best 2 card hand (low hand), therefore your 2 card hand cannot be higher than your 5 card hand. As an example you cannot use an ace in your 2 card hand with a king high in your 5 card hand. We will get more into how to set your hand later.
After betting (more on how to bet later) and setting your 2 hands, you place them face down in the two appropriate spaces on the table layout in front of you and wait for the dealer to reveal his/her cards. The challenge is to beat both the high and low hand of the dealer’s.
If you win both, you win, usually minus a “commission” paid to the house. However, there are variations of the game like “No Commission Pai Gow” and “Face-Up Pai Gow” (both games played with some slightly different rules) where the dealer’s hand is laid out face up giving you an edge in setting your own hand. If you win one and lose the other it’s a “push” and you save/keep your original bet. If you lose both ways, then you lose your bet.
That was a rather quick synopsis of the game. Now we will look at how to play. As with any table game, you buy-in by laying your money on the table (along with your player’s club card.) We will use $10 as the table minimum and our buy-in is $100 for this example. The dealer will exchange your $100 for chips, giving you 20 $5 chips unless you ask for something different. You might want some smaller $1 chips for side bets—more about those later. You place $10 (2 chips) on the wager spot in front of you.
There can be as few as one player and a maximum of six players because the game uses one 52-card deck, plus a joker, and 7 hands with 7 cards (including the dealer’s) equals 49, the max number of hands you can get from a single 53-card deck. Two decks are actually utilized, one being shuffled in an auto-shuffler machine while the other deck is in play.
The deal is determined by a button (sometimes dice are used) that the dealer presses to assign a random order in which the first hand will be dealt. As an example, let’s say the number 2 comes up. The player seated in the number 2 spot at the table will receive his/her cards first. All 7 cards are dealt out to each player at once; the first 7, the next 7 and so on until all players have received their hands. Now you can look at your cards and determine how to set your 2 hands.
Once you have set your cards and returned them to the table face down and all players have done the same, the dealer will reveal his/her hand and set it according to house rules, placing their 2 card hand on top and their best 5 card hand beneath it. Then the dealer will turn each of the players’ cards over and either collect on losers, knock the table for a push, or pay the winners.
If you beat the dealer on both hands, the bet is paid off as even money, minus the commission. The commission is generally 5%, so in our example of a $10 bet, if you win you would receive $9.50 plus your original $10 bet back for a total of $19.50. The commission is due primarily to the relatively low house edge in Pai Gow. The house edge in this game can vary on how you play and set your hand, but following some basic strategy the house edge is about 2.7% to 2.9 %, not too bad for a novelty table game. It is possible to also lower the house edge by “banking,” whereby the player may bet against the dealer, and other players at the table. For more on banking, see below.
Setting Your Hands
Once you have your 7 cards, you must decide on how to set your 2 hands. Standard poker ranking rules apply to Pai Gow with one twist. Called “the wheel,” the A2345 straight is the second highest straight in most Pai Gow games. As it is not observed everywhere, you may want to ask about this strange rule when you sit down to play. Obviously, three of a kind, a straight, flush, four of a kind, straight flush or royal flush within your 7 cards should be held together as your high card hand and play your 2 best remaining cards as your low hand.
Notice that a full-house should be played differently. The three of a kind should be played as your high hand and the pair played as your low hand. If the dealer has a straight or higher, you will lose your high hand, but you have a good chance to win your low hand with a pair. Obviously, you want to win both the high and low to be paid, but you may want to protect your bet and win at least one of the two hands. While a full house might also accomplish the same thing (winning your high hand against the dealer) if your other two cards are very low cards, you will most likely lose your low card hand and still end up with a push. In a face-up game it becomes apparent what to do against the dealers hand.
Another dilemma is when you have two pair. Most experts agree that if you have two low pairs, like 8’s and 3’s, keep them together for your two pair high hand and put your remaining best two cards into your low hand. But if you have high pairs, like kings and jacks, you may want to split them hoping to beat the dealer both ways. Three pair is easy. Keep your lowest two pair together for your high hand and your highest pair as your low hand. This is actually a very good hand and it has a good chance to win both ways.
Finally, if you are in doubt about how to set your hand there is no harm in asking the dealer. They will tell you how to set it according to house rules; the way they (the casino) would set your hand. You can usually also ask other players at the table for their opinion.
Using The Joker
The joker card is wild in some ways. It is sometimes referred to as a “bug” because of its quirky use. It can only be used as an ace or as any card in a straight or flush, including a straight flush or royal flush.
What is a “Pai Gow?”
I was once sitting at a table when a guy walks up, plops down his money and says, “I want a Pai Gow!” The table laughed. He was serious but obviously didn’t understand the game at that point. Unlike Blackjack where the name implies a great hand, the opposite is true for Pai Gow.
A Pai Gow is the worst hand possible. A “nothing-burger.” It is a 7-card hand of little or no value in terms of poker ranking hands. The worst possible Pai Gow hand would be a 9 high with all 7 cards.
Pai Gow Poker Side Bets
A downside to Pai Gow is that a royal flush is worth no more monetarily to your bet than a single ace when you are playing against the dealer’s hand. In other words, a royal flush will still only get you even money (less the commission) and you would still have to win your low hand to collect on it! And essentially you have the same result holding an ace high in your high hand and say, a king high in your low hand, against a dealer’s king and queen high in the same positions. The payout is the same. This is where side bets become of interest.
The game of Pai Gow Poker itself plays fairly slowly, especially with a full table of players, so you have plenty of time to set your hand and chat among players. But it can be a little boring. The side bets bring some real fun and excitement to the game and also some strategy changes in setting your hands.
The most popular side bet is known as Progressive Fortune Pai Gow. If you have made the side bet for this you could win all or part of the progressive jackpot bonuses for specific hands, like a royal flush (with or without the joker,) 5 aces, etc., as listed on the payout table posted on the table. The highest hand, receiving the top prize progressive jackpot, is for a 7 card straight flush (no joker.) If you are betting the required amount, the dealer will place an “Envy” button above your hand, meaning you are entitled to a cut of the jackpot if anyone at your table hits one of the bonus hands listed.
Pai gow poker betting boxes
Fortune Pai Gow is another variation side bet on the game. Players can place a bet on making hands of three of a kind or better and get paid according to pay table posted. This is where setting you hand may also change wherein you can use cards from all 7 cards to make straights, flush’s, etc.
Emperors Challenge is another commonly found side bet allowing players a sort of “insurance” bet when you have a 7 card Pai Gow hand. The lower your Pai Gow, the higher your payoff if you make that bet. You may also find other side bets. Check the table before you play.
Banking in Pai Gow Poker
One way to gain and advantage in Pai Gow is to bank whenever you have the opportunity to do so. Ask the dealer how and when you may bank. You must have enough chips on the table to pay off all potential winning bets based on the number of players at the table and how much they are all betting. Some casinos will let you “co-bank” with them if you don’t have enough to cover all bets. You reduce the house edge when you bank to about 1.5%.
As the banker, the 5% commission you pay on winnings is handled differently than as one of the regular players at the table. As an example, as just a regular player at the table, if you were to play five hands and won three of them, losing two of them, you would pay the 5% commission due on your three winnings bets. However, if you become the banker, the commission you pay is only on your net winnings at the end of the hand being played. So, if you were to win three hands (and lose two) you would be ahead by one bet, and only have to pay commission on that one bet.
Overall, the game usually plays fairly even, with a lot of pushes! You won’t win a lot playing straight bets without side bets or banking, but unless you just get a horrible run of cards (which can happen in any poker game) you shouldn’t lose a lot either! Good luck and have fun!
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Have you ever played pai gow?
It’s a game played with Chinese dominoes. And it’s the inspiration for pai gow poker, the game we’re covering in this guide.
You’ll find it in both brick-and-mortar and online casinos. It’s fun to play and relatively easy to learn. We played a few rounds earlier to refresh our memories on how to play it.
We picked it up in only three to four hands. No prior instruction needed.
You can do it too, though it’ll probably be easier if you learn the basics first. We cover that, along with pai gow poker variants and strategy, in our game guide below.
Let’s get started.
Where Does Pai Gow Poker Come From?
Pai gow poker got started in the United States. It’s inspired by – but not to be confused with – pai gow, the Chinese domino game.
Pai gow poker was created in the USA by Sam Torosian and Fred Wolf.
Sam Torosian is the one who invented the game. But no one really knows who he is. The reason why is sort of sad.
Sam received bad legal advice from both Mike Caro, a poker player and author, and a lawyer. Both said card games were public domain. In other words, Sam couldn’t patent his game.
After adding the game to his casino floor, and Fred Wolf doing the same in the casino he managed, pai gow poker took off.
Unfortunately, Torosian later found out he could patent pai gow poker. But he had only one year after introducing the game before it became public domain.
Sam missed his window…and an estimated $70,000+ per month in royalty checks.
And it’s probably also because of Torosian’s mistake that Fred Wolf patented every other game he’s invented. Those include Sweepstakes Blackjack, Fast-Action Hold’em, Lucky Pan-9, and Pai Gow Jokers.
Pai gow poker is a game played against the dealer. As many as seven players can play at once.
It’s played with a standard 52-card deck and a single joker. Your object is to take seven cards and turn them into two hands which can beat the dealer.
There are some restrictions on how you can make your hand. We’ll cover what these are as we walk you through a sample hand.
The game starts with you making your bet. In some games, like the one you’ll find on Bovada, you only have the one option – no additional side bets. Others, however, will have more.
Once everyone makes their bets, cards are shuffled and dealt. Each player receives a pile of seven cards face down.
In live games, betting positions are assigned numbers one through seven. This is done electronically or with dice. This determines where the action starts. The action will continue from the starting point counter-clockwise around the table.
If no one is in a spot, the hand is still assigned and the cards are discarded. However, some casinos will deal the hand to the empty seat. This is called a “dragon hand.” And after each player has had their turn, the dealer will ask who wants to bet on the dragon hand.
The first player who accepts the bet gets it. They can bet up to their original wager. Ultimately this is like playing two separate hands.
The rules vary, but dragon hands may have to be set the “house way.” The reason is because the player has already seen their cards, which gives them additional knowledge they could otherwise use to set the dragon hand.
It depends on where you play. And it’s unlikely you’ll find this option online, anyway. At most online casinos, you’ll play only one hand.
Your objective will be to split your seven cards into two hands:
- In Front or On Top – This hand will have two cards in it.
- Bottom or Behind – This hand will have five cards in it.
Your objective is for each hand to beat each of the dealer’s hands. But you can’t set your hands however you want. There are a few rules you need to follow:
- Your bottom hand needs to be stronger than your top.
- The joker is a semi-wild. It can be used as an ace, or to complete a straight, flush, straight flush, or royal flush.
Once everyone sets their hand, the dealer will set his hand. Most pai gow poker rules say dealers have to set their hands the house way. What the house way is will vary from casino to casino.
Then hands are compared. Normal poker hand rankings are used. Some casinos consider A2345 the second-highest straight, which is something you want to beware of before you play.
Here’s what happens next:
- If you have the same hand as the dealer – if you tie – you will lose your bet to the casino. It’s not a push.
- If you win both hands, you win even money on your bet minus a 5% commission.
- If you lose one hand and win the other, the bet will push. You’ll get your bet back.
Then bets are collected and paid out, which signals the end of a round of pai gow poker.
Then cards are reshuffled and new bets are made for the next round.
In some live games, you’ll have the option to bank or co-bank the game.
Most players don’t. They pass when it’s offered. But they’re missing out on a chance to reduce the house edge.
Pai Gow Poker Live Games
If you want to bank, you’ll need a large enough bankroll to pay out players whose hand beats yours. The good news is that if you’re the sole banker, you can set your hands however you want. Between that and the fact that 41.48% percent of hands tie, you shouldn’t need that large of a bankroll.
Doing so will cut the house edge nearly in half.
The other option is to co-bank. You’ll split the winnings and losses in half with the casino. This means you can get by on a smaller bankroll. But co-banking also means you’ll need to set your cards the house way.
Either way, banking’s the best approach to take in pai gow poker if you want to reduce the house edge as much as possible.
Pai Gow Poker Variants
The following are the most common pai gow poker variants and side bets you’ll come across.
- Pai Gow Mania – This offers two side bets based on your first three cards, and then on all seven of your cards.
- Fortune Pai Gow – You make a side bet on a poker hand ranking of trips or better. This is one of the more popular variations.
- Emperors Challenge – This is a side bet on a seven-card pai gow (no hand).
- Pai Gow Progressive – A progressive jackpot you can play for $1.
- Commission-Free – In some games, like those in Washington State, the casino will not charge their 5% commission on banker wins. They only make a profit on the banker’s advantage and side bets. This gives the banker a 1.30% advantage (or anyone playing against the banker a 1.30% disadvantage).
- EZ Pai Gow Poker – A commission-free game. If the dealer has exactly a queen high five-card hand, the hand will automatically end in a push. There are usually four side bets to bet on – dynasty bonus, bonus bet, protection bet, and red/black.
- Queen’s Dragon – A side bet. It pays if the dealer has exactly a queen high pai gow hand. Payouts range from 45-50 (to 1).
- No Push Pai Gow Poker – Available in Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas. The dealer’s always the banker. There’s no 5% commission. If you win both hands, you truly get paid even money.
After seven players are dealt, there are four cards left over. Two cards are placed face down – one for the dealer and the other for the player. In the event of a push, these cards are used as a tiebreaker. If the dealer’s card is equal or better, the banker wins. Otherwise, the player wins.
- Jokolor – This is a side bet. It pays if you have a joker and/or all cards of the same color. This has a 3.9% house edge.
These are the most popular variants.
Some casinos also offer pai gow poker tournaments. But there’s not much information about them online.
Our best guess is that these operate like blackjack tournaments. You buy in for a fixed amount, and the last person or people standing wins a percentage of the prize pool.
Pai gow poker is a low-edge game. Almost 42% of hands are pushes. Between that and the slow rate of play, pai gow poker’s house edge is 2.84%.
You can reduce the edge even more by banking. And you can reduce it even more than that by following optimal strategy and/or following the house way.
But some of you want actual tips or strategy you can use the next time you play. So here is some advice on how to play specific hands.
Let’s start with some general advice:
- Don’t split single pairs. Keep them in your five-card hand.
- Split two pairs. Keep the strongest pair in your five-card hand.
- Three pairs – keep the weaker two pair in your strongest hand. Place the stronger pair in your two-card hand.
- If you’re dealt a three-of-a-kind, keep it intact with your five-card hand. The exception is if you’re holding three aces. Then you might consider splitting it up and placing an ace in your two-card hand.
- If you’re dealt two three-of-a-kind hands, split the highest-ranking one and place the pair in your two-card hand.
Now let’s look at hand-specific strategy.
- Keep straights and flushes together unless you also have two pair or three of a kind. Then split them up to make a strong two-card hand.
- If you have two pair, follow the strategy outlined above. Split them, while putting the weaker pair in your two-card hand.
- If you have a three of a kind, split it. Keep the straight or flush intact (if possible), while moving the pair to your two-card hand.
- If you have quad 7s through aces, split them. Put a pair in your two-card hand. The exception is if you also have an ace or king. Then keep your quads intact and set your ace or king-high hand as your two-card hand.
- If you have quad 2s through 6s, always keep them intact.
You can also learn pai gow poker strategy from using a game-specific calculator. You’ll find one here.
These calculators will give you advice on how to split your hand in a way that produces the highest long-term expected value.
For example, say you’re dealt 8d, 8c, Kc, Js, 6c, 4c, and 2d. The calculator will tell you to split your hand up like this:
Not only can you use this to figure out the best way to set your hand as you play, but you can also set your hand first, then check the calculator to see how close you are.
Keep in mind you may have to adjust if the place where you’re playing sets their hands differently.
Other than all the strategy above, you can also gain an advantage by hole carding or edge sorting, which is basically by knowing what the dealer has by using clues, card or dealer errors, or peeking – which you’ll use to sort your hand in the most optimal way. Bmo cd rates.
But full disclosure – depending on where you play, how you gain this information, and your own moral compass, this ranges from taking advantage of casino errors to full-blown cheating.
Whatever you choose to do, if anything, know that all actions, responsibility, and (often severe) consequences are yours.
Playing Pai Gow Poker Online
There are a couple things to know about playing pai gow poker online.
- RealTime Gaming rounds their commission on winnings hands up to the nearest 0.25. This can have a significant impact on bets not in an increment of $5. The smaller your bets, the more you’ll see the impact of the house edge.
- Bonuses are hit-and-miss for pai gow poker players. Some casinos allow you to play pai gow and earn bonuses. Others don’t.
For example, Planet7Casino.com doesn’t allow you to play pai gow poker to clear the bonus requirements EXCEPT for when the offer specifically says you can.
Planet 7 also wants you to wager 60x instead of 30x when you receive their cash-back payment.
But at other casinos, you’ll have to wager 3x-5x, sometimes as much as 10x, the standard wager requirements.
Not every casino explicitly says what their rules are. So you may need to look for “poker” terms in their T&C’s. It might also be a good idea to reach out to support with any questions you may have.
Other than those two things, online pai gow poker’s straightforward. Most, if not all, online casinos offer it, though it will be harder to find a mobile-friendly version unless the casino runs on HTML.
This is especially true for US-facing casinos. They often have a smaller selection of (mobile) table games and prefer to offer more mainstream games, like blackjack.
The best way to know for sure, though, is to read our casino reviews.
Pai gow poker’s an easy game to learn. Read our rules and launch a free game, and you’ll have it down in no time.
This is one of the better games to learn, too, from the fun behind the poker element to the low house edge to the strategy you can learn to get the house edge down even lower.
On top of that, you have all the different variations, side bets, and different ways each casino sets their hand the house way.
All that to say that you should definitely take the time to learn pai gow poker. You won’t regret it.
Here are some commonly asked questions we receive about pai gow poker, and our answers.
Here are a couple apps we found:
- Pai Gow Poker – This is a free app for Android.
- Classic Paigow Poker – This is a free app for iOS.
Keep in mind that all gambling apps will be for play money only.
Some people learn better by video. So here are a couple of pai gow poker tutorials available on YouTube:
- Learn how to play Pai Gow Poker by WinStar World Casino
- Pai Gow Poker Tutorial by Michael Shackleford aka the Wizard of Odds
Some people consider hole carding or edge sorting to be cheating.
Hole carding is finding out what the dealer or your opponents have when you’re not supposed to know. This can happen by dealer error or when players talk about their hands.
Edge sorting is finding a flaw in the cards the casino is using. This can be a mark or smudge of some kind. Once you find out what the value of this card is, you can use that information to better set your hand. This strategy becomes more effective the more widespread the mark/smudge is throughout the deck.
Other than that, common forms of cheating including marking the cards (like edge sorting) and player/dealer collusion.
What’s the best way to practice pai gow poker?
The easiest, cheapest, and least stressful way is to find an online casino that offers a free version of pai gow poker. This way you don’t have to spend money learning the game or worry about holding other players up when playing live.
Most casinos let you play for free. We recommend Bovada or Ignition Casino because you can play their free games without creating an account or logging in.
This is also a great way to practice pai gow poker strategy because you’ll have all the time you need.
We’re sure there is. But between the (free) online casinos, apps, social media platforms, and so on, there’s no need to pay for or download any additional programs. You’re betting off playing at an online casino, which will mirror the conditions you’ll experience playing online. That’s what we suggest.
You can (and should) also play with the pai gow poker calculators we mentioned earlier in our strategy section.
What are pai gow tiles?
According to the Wizard of Odds (WOO), this is one of the oldest casino games. It even predates roulette and baccarat.
Pai Gow Poker Live Stream
This game is similar to pai gow poker in that you need to make both high and low hands, then compare them with the banker. However, this game’s much harder to learn because the order of hands and tiles are (apparently) random and difficult to memorize.
Pai Gow Poker 101
However, the WOO says this game’s great for bankroll preservation. Only about thirty hands are played per hour, and like the poker version, around 41% of hands are a push. So this is a great game to learn if you’re wanting the most bang for your buck.
Have a question about pai gow poker we didn’t answer above? Send us an email and let us know!