p How to Play Pai Gow Poker

How to Play Pai Gow Poker

Excerpt from

The Intelligent Guide to Casino Gaming

by Sylvester Suzuki

Pai gow poker is a concoction of American-style poker and an ancient Chinese gambling game that was played with small black tiles upon which Chinese characters had been inscribed. The game was introduced to American casino patrons in the cardrooms of California twenty short years ago, but quickly mushroomed across the country.

Pai gow poker is played with a 53-card deck that includes a Joker. In the vast majority of casinos, the Joker may be used only as an Ace or as any card that will complete a straight, a flush or a straight flush. However, in a few casinos, the Joker may be used as any card that will maximize the strength of the hand. This means that, like in some home poker games, the Joker is a true “wild” card. Since in the vast majority of casinos, the Joker can be used only as an Ace or as part of a straight or flush, comments and recommendations contained herein are applicable only to such games.

Unlike in an American-style poker game, players are not playing against other players at the table but against a banker. The banker is usually a house dealer. However, because California law prohibits casinos from banking card games, in California cardrooms one of the players serves as the banker. In order to qualify as the banker, however, a player must commit a sufficient amount of money to cover the anticipated wagers of all other players at the table. A few casinos outside of California also permit players to serve as bankers.

As a fee for playing, the casino (a) deducts five percent from each winning bet or (b) collects a fixed amount from each winning bet. In most cases, the five percent charge is preferable for the small stakes player and the fixed fee is more desirable for the high roller. This writer has seen pai gow poker games in which a minimum $1 fee is charged for each bet that is made up to $100. For bets in excess of $100, an additional $1 is charged for each fraction of $100. This means that the casino will be taking 10% of the winnings on a $10 bet, which borders on the usurious.

Pai gow poker is played on a small table similar to that which is shown in the figure below. After bets have been made by placing chips in the betting circles, the dealer will deal out seven hands face-down consisting of seven cards each. After insuring that there are four cards remaining in her hand, the dealer will discard the four cards and turn her attention to a small tea-cup-like device that holds three dice, which she will hand to one of the players. After shaking the cup vigorously, that player will set the cup on the table. The dealer will then lift the cup, thereby revealing the three dice. The total of the three dice determines which player will receive the first hand. For this purpose, the banker’s position is designated as position number 1. Since there are seven positions at the table and the three dice may total as much as eighteen, the banker’s number is also designated as 8 and 15. If the total of the dice is 6, the dealer will count counterclockwise starting with the banker’s position as number 1 and count to 6. This means that in games in which the dealer also serves as the banker, the first hand will go to seat #5 in the diagram of the table. If the total of the dice is 11, the first hand will go to seat #3.

Pai Gow Poker Table Layout

Let It Ride Table Layout

After determining which position should receive the first hand, the dealer will then continue clockwise in distributing the six remaining hands. Any hand that might have gone to a seat that is not occupied will be discarded. Therefore, the number of players that are at the table will have no bearing on the hand that a player would have received. In fact, the practice of using dice to determine which hand will go to each player has no impact on a player’s chances because although the dice do randomly determine which hand you will receive, since the cards themselves were randomly dealt, the dice have no impact on a player’s chances. The procedure does, however, seem to add a sense of intrigue and charm to the game.

Unfortunately, many casinos no longer use the teacup and dice. Instead, in order to speed up play and increase profits, an automatic shuffling machine spits out the hands and a random number generator determines which cards will go to the various seats.

The object of pai gow poker is to create two poker hands, one hand consisting of two cards and another consisting of five cards that can beat the two hands that the banker will create. The strongest possible two-card hand, which we will refer to as the front hand, is a pair of Aces. The strongest possible five-card hand, which we will refer to as the “back hand,” is five Aces. For the back hand, the normal ranking of hands that apply to American-style poker are applicable. The ranking of poker hands, following the addition of five Aces, is the same as normal five-card poker with the exception that a hand of five Aces, out ranks all other hands, including a royal flush.

In every case, the hands must be set so that the back hand will be equal to or stronger than the front hand. If this is not done, the hand is fouled and the bet is lost.

Players (other than any player who might be acting as the banker) will set their hands by placing two cards (the front hand) in the horizontal box on the table. The remaining five cards, which will constitute the back hand, will be placed in the vertical box. After all players have completed setting their hand, the dealer will turn over the banker’s cards and set the hand in the “house way.” The house way is the way that is considered to be the most advantageous to the banker. However, if one of the players is serving as the banker, that player will have the option of rearranging the cards, provided that the back hand is at least as strong as the front hand. Incidentally, any player who wishes to have his hand set in the house way may have the dealer do so by simply pushing his cards to the dealer before the dealer exposes the banker’s cards. Like the banker, such players are also free to make changes after seeing what the dealer has recommended.

After the banker’s hand has been set, the dealer will expose each player’s hand in turn and compare it with the banker’s hand. First, the player’s front hand will be compared to the banker’s front hand. Then the back hands will be compared. If the hands that are being compared are of equal strength, the hands are said to be “-copies.” The banker wins all copies, which gives a player who is serving as the banker an advantage of approximately 1.25% over other players at the table. Obviously, it is wise to serve as the banker whenever possible.

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