Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow, a Chinese phrase meaning “makes nine,” is a seven-card game in which the player tries to build two hands that have a higher value than the banker's two hands. The role of the banker moves from player to player, or in some cases, the dealer is the banker. Any player can decline to be banker, but your odds of winning typically are better if you are the banker.
The Pai Gow poker table has space for six players. Usually, the dealer acts as banker for the first hand, then passes the banker's role on to a player. A special marker called a “chung” is placed next to the player who is acting as banker. When a player is acting as banker, the dealer plays the hand in the same way as any other player.
Pai Gow poker uses a standard fifty-two-card deck plus a joker. In a few casinos, the joker may be used as a wild card, but usually its use is limited to filling in straights, flushes, and straight flushes, or as an ace in any hand. Players place their bets, and each player, including the dealer, receives a stack of seven cards. The four leftover cards are discarded.
Players separate their seven cards into two hands, one containing five cards and one containing two cards. The two-card hand is called the “low hand” because its value must be lower than the five-card hand; if the two-card hand has a higher value than the five-card hand, it's considered a “foul” and you lose your bet. The two-card hand is also sometimes called the front hand, and the five-card hand is the high or back hand.
When all the players have set their cards, the dealer turns the banker's cards face-up. The banker (not the dealer) then sets those cards into five-and two-card hands, and his hands are compared, one at a time, to the players' hands. To win, both of the player's hands must beat both of the banker's hands. Equally ranked hands are called “copies,” and the banker wins. If one of the player's hands is better than the banker's, but the other is not, it's considered a push and no money is exchanged.
If the player wins, the dealer pays even money from the banker's funds. If the player loses, the dealer gives the player's bet to the banker. The house takes a 5-percent commission on winning bets.
▲ A typical Pai Gow poker table layout. Some tables may have places for only six players, and marking for hands and bets may vary by casino. Some, for example, mark the hands “high” and “low”, while others, like this one, use “highest” and “second highest.”
Winning Hands in Pai Gow Poker
The hands in Pai Gow poker are valued the same way that standard poker hands are valued. The exception is the five-aces hand, built with four aces and a joker, which is the highest possible hand in Pai Gow poker, beating a royal flush. The two-card hand either contains a pair or a nonpair, and the highest two-card hand is a pair of aces.
The rank of hands in Pai Gow poker, from highest to lowest, are:
Royal flush (ace, king, queen, jack, 10, all the same suit)
Straight flush (five consecutively numbered cards, all the same suit)
Four of a kind
Full house (three of a kind and a pair)
Straight (five consecutively numbered cards, not of the same suit)
Three of a kind
The player has to ensure that her high and low hands are properly set. The five-card hand must rank higher than the two-card hand, so it's critical in this game that you're familiar with the standard poker hand rankings. For example, if you're dealt a pair of 3s and five mismatched cards, the pair must be included in your five-card hand. Likewise, if all you have for either hand is a high card, the highest high card must be in your five-card hand.
How to Bet Pai Gow Poker
The strategy for Pai Gow poker is different from any other version of poker because you have to build a high hand and a low hand. How you build your hands depends on what your seven cards hold. If you have seven mismatched cards that don't include a straight or a flush, you must put your highest card in your five-card hand. Your two-card hand should contain your second- and third-highest cards. If you hold a pair, the pair goes in your five-card hand, and your two highest single cards make up your two-card hand.
With two pair, put the higher pair in the five-card hand and the lower pair in the two-card hand. However, if you have a single ace, use it and another singleton in the two-card hand and keep the two pairs together in the five-card hand. If you hold three pair, your highest pair should go in the two-card hand, and the other two pairs should go in your five-card hand. When you hold two pair and a straight, ignore the straight and play the hand as you would two pair. The same rule applies if you have two pair and a flush.
If you have five cards of a straight, use those five for your high hand and put the two mismatched cards in your low hand. If you have six cards of a straight, use the singleton and the highest card of the straight for your low hand, and play the remaining straight in your high hand.
If you have a flush and no pair, place the flush in your five-card hand and use the highest cards you can (without breaking up the flush) for your two-card hand. For a full house, place the pair in your two-card hand and the three-of-a-kind in your five-card hand.
Playing the Banker
You have a better edge in Pai Gow poker when you play the banker. This may seem counterintuitive, because you pay the winning players out of your own money when you're the banker. But remember that the banker wins all copies, and ties don't cost you or the player anything. You might want to place a bigger bet than usual when it's your turn to be the banker.
House rules on the banker's limits vary, so check with the dealer before you sit down. Some places require you to cover all the players' bets, while others allow you to “play short,” with less than the total of all the other players' wagers. And some places limit the other players' bets to what the banker has on the table.