Pai Gow Poker – How to Play This Casino Game

pai gow poker

10 minutes

Last Updated: February 27, 2024

If you’re looking for a unique, unusual, and endlessly entertaining game you can enjoy in both online and land-based casinos, Pai Gow poker is undoubtedly worth your consideration.

This variation brings a refreshing twist to the poker genre and is a must-try for players who like casino games that combine luck and strategy.

In this detailed page, we’ll share Pai Gow poker's basic rules and how to play it, strategy tips, and much more. Keep reading to find out everything you should know about Pai Gow poker.

What Is Pai Gow Poker?

Pai Gow is a popular poker variation created in 1985 by Sam Torosian. Despite being a fairly young game compared to other poker variants, Pai Gow poker enjoys great popularity, especially in Las Vegas casinos.

Unlike most poker variations, Pai Gow doesn’t pit you against other players, as the aim of the game is to defeat the casino dealer. A classic Pai Gow table can accommodate up to six players and the dealer.

The game uses a standard deck of 52 cards and one Joker card. The Ace is the highest-ranking card. The game draws its name from the traditional Chinese game pai gow. Only, this game uses dominoes instead of cards.

Pai Gow Poker Rules – A Quick Overview

pai gow poker rules

Every player at the table receives seven cards. To beat the casino dealer in Pai Gow poker, you need to create two separate hands out of the seven cards you get.

The first hand you create is a Big Hand. This is the best five-card high hand. The second hand is the Small Hand, which is a two-card low hand. Keep in mind that the Big Hand must beat the Small Hand.

For example, if you have a pair of sevens in your Small Hand, the Big Hand should be stronger than this combination. Pai Gow poker uses standard poker hand rankings.

However, there’s one difference worth noting: the A-5 straight is the second-highest straight, which differentiates Pai Gow from many other poker variations.

The Joker is the bug card, effectively a limited wild card that helps players in certain situations. In the Big Hand, it can help you complete a straight or flush.

If you have a Joker but do not have the possibility of creating either hand, the card acts like an Ace. If you use the Joker in the Small Hand, it always plays the Ace.

How to Play Pai Gow Poker

Understanding the rankings and the unique rules that make Pai Gow poker such a distinct poker variation, let’s go over how the game is played in casinos, step by step. Here’s how to play PaiGow poker:

1. The Betting Round

Like most casino games, Pai Gow begins with a betting round. However, in this regard, it’s more similar to roulette or blackjack than other popular poker variations.

This is because the only bet you can make during the hand happens in this betting round, before any action happens.

Additionally, some casinos might offer the option of placing a bonus bet. This bonus bet pertains to whether or not you’ll make a premium hand. The higher the value of this premium hand is, the better the payout will be.

2. The Deal

After the players have made their bets, the dealer will distribute the cards to everyone at the table. Every player will get seven cards. The dealer will also deal seven cards to themselves. The four remaining cards are placed in the discard pile and not used for the round.

Another interesting rule of Pai Gow is that the dealer will always deal seven cards to each of the seven positions, and discard four cards. So, even if there are only two or three players, every position at the Pai Gow table will receive seven cards.

The positions at the table are assigned, and the dealer will use an electronic tool or a dice to decide which player is the first to receive cards. The cards are then dealt counter-clockwise to all other players.

3. Creating the Two Pai Gow Hands

Once you’ve received your cards, you need to combine the seven cards into your Big Hand and Small Hand. You don’t need to focus too much on the Small Hand, as there are only two options. You can either have a pair or high cards.

In contrast, as the Big Hand uses standard poker rankings, there’s a lot of room for crafting the best hand and deciding which cards you want to leave for the Small Hand. Here’s a more comprehensive overview of the Big Hand rankings from best to worst:

  • Five Aces (4 Aces plus the Joker card)
  • Royal Flush
  • Straight Flush
  • Four-of-a-kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • Three-of-a-kind
  • Two Pair
  • One Pair
  • High Card

It’s important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t make the mistake of making your Small Hand stronger than your Big Hand. This is an automatically fouled hand, and you lose the bet instantly.

4. Showdown and Determining the Winner

After all of the players have created their Big and Small hands and placed them face-down in the designated fields in front of themselves, the final round can begin.

The dealer will turn their seven hands and create the strongest two combinations. Like in other casino games, for instance, blackjack, the dealer has to play by specific house rules.

The dealer will then uncover each player’s hand to reveal their cards. They’ll then compare the hand values to determine which player wins. Every Pai Gow round has three possible outcomes.

If both your hands are stronger than your dealer’s, you will win the bet and get a 1:1 payout. If only your Big or Small hand is better than the dealer’s, it’s a push or a tie.

In that case, you get your original wager back. If the dealer’s Big and Small hands are stronger than yours, you lose the bet.

Looking into the percentages, a push happens more often than the two other outcomes. Typically, you will tie with the dealer in around 40% of all Pai Gow hands you play.

This, combined with the game’s relatively slow pace, makes Pai Gow a great pick for players who want to get the most playing time out of their gambling money.

Another crucial Pai Gow rule you should remember is that ties always go to the dealer. For instance, if you have the same pair of sixes in your Small Hand as the dealer, the casino wins the round.

Payouts In Pai Gow Poker – Main Bet & Side Bets

As mentioned above, Pai Gow only offers one payout size. If you win, you will get a 1:1 payout, meaning that you’ll double anything you bet.

That said, Pai Gow side bets offer great payout variety, with some of them offering very large payouts. With this in mind, here’s an overview of all of the side bets in Pai Gow poker and their respective payouts:

  • 7-Card Straight Flush Without a Joker Card – Varies from 8,000:1 to 5000:1, depending on the casino.
  • Royal Flush Without a Joker Card – 2,000:1
  • 7-Card Straight Flush With a Joker Card – 1,000:1
  • Five Aces – 400:1
  • Royal Flush – 150:1
  • Straight Flush – 50:1
  • Four of a Kind – 25:1
  • Full House -5:1
  • Flush – 4:1
  • Three of a Kind – 3:1
  • Straight – 2:1

One convenient rule of side bets is that your decision-making when creating your hands doesn’t matter. As long as you have all of the cards required to win a particular side bet, how they’re arranged in your two hands doesn’t make any difference.

This helps create a separation between the main and side bets, as you can focus completely on crafting your hands without worrying about any additional requirements. Moreover, it means that you can win any side bet even if you lose your main bet.

With this said, experienced Pai Gow players generally avoid placing side bets. This is because these bets increase the house edge and put you in a more disadvantageous position long-term.

Although side bets can seem tempting as a way to win a lot of money quickly, they are a poor choice. The smartest way to play this game is to avoid side bets altogether and focus on the main game.

What Is the House Edge in Pai Gow Poker?

Pai Gow offers some of the most player-friendly house edge percentages out of all casino games. The game has a house edge of just 1.3%. Of course, this only applies if you make optimal decisions with each hand.

Additionally, some online casinos might charge a 5% commission. This does make the game slightly more unfavorable, as the overall house edge would then be around 2.8%.

Knowing this, you should always try to look for Pai Gow games that come without commission, as this will enable you to play with the excellent 1.3% house edge.

Besides having a fairly low house edge, Pai Gow is also very low in volatility. To be more precise, it ranks as the least volatile casino game. In other words, the game is more suited for recreational players who don’t want to experience massive swings in their bankroll during a gambling session.

Best Pai Gow Poker Strategies

pai gow poker strategy

Creating the best Pai Gow hand is pretty straightforward in most cases. That said, depending on the hand that you receive, it can be a bit challenging at times.

Some hands can be set in multiple ways, with certain combinations offering you a better winning chance than others. So, to help you have the best winning chances in every Pai Gow hand, we’ll cover a few strategy examples you can keep in mind when playing.

One of the most common situations that confuses people is what to do when they receive a three-of-a-kind combination.

The best way to go about it is to always keep the three of a kind in your high hand unless they’re Aces. In that case, move one Ace to your Small Hand to act as a high card.

If you get a four-of-a-kind hand, only split the hand if it consists of Jacks or above. Otherwise, keep it in your Big Hand.

If your four-of-a-kind is made from sevens up to tens, split them only if you don’t have an Ace. All other lower-ranked four-of-a-kind hands should always be kept together.

Other common rules for lower-valued hands include always playing the pair in your Big Hand, and the two following highest cards in your Small Hand.

If you don’t have any possible combination, leave the highest-ranking card in your Big Hand and put the two following second-highest cards in your Small Hand.

With all of this said, you can tweak your strategies depending on how you want to play your hand. For instance, if you want to guarantee a push, you’d go for a stronger Small Hand and an average Big Hand.

Oppositely, if you want a better chance to win, you’d go for the strongest possible Big Hand and a solid to mediocre Small Hand.

Of course, remember that the dealer can help you at all times. If you’re confused about any part of the game, feel free to ask them, and they will be happy to help.

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