Pai Gow Poker | Complete Guide

pai gow poker

Pai Gow Poker is a gambling card game that incorporates elements of an ancient Chinese domino game. You form two hands from seven cards in an attempt to beat the dealer and take the prize.

This Pai Gow Poker guide is perfect for first-time players. We explain the game’s rules and how to play through a few hands step-by-step. You’ll also learn the terminology, which online casinos have the game, and the best strategy to win more money.

Pai Gow Poker Guide

Everything You Need to Play & Win

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What is Pai Gow Poker?

People have been playing the ancient Chinese gambling game of Pai Gow tiles for centuries. It uses specific elongated dominos that players arrange to form two hands to outranking the dealer or other players. Eventually, offshoots like modern dominoes and even baccarat arose from this popular classic.

Pai Gow Poker Transition from Tiles to Cards

In the 1980s, puy soy Chinese Poker attempted to replace the four tiles with 13 cards, but it never caught on. A slight adjustment down to seven cards allowed more players at the table and a quicker pace of gameplay. These changes brought modern Pai Gow Poker to the scene.

Today, the game is a popular mainstay at casinos, and you can even play online Pai Gow Poker from home. Known for a high frequency of ties or pushes and a slower pace of play than most table games, it is perfect for gamblers who play for enjoyment.

Pai Gow Poker Rules

The rules of Pai Gow Poker are very straightforward. Each player and the dealer get seven cards at the start of a round to build two poker hands, one with five cards and another with the remaining two cards. The objective of the game is to beat both the dealer’s hands with yours.

If both of your hands are stronger than the dealer’s, you win. If only a single hand is more powerful, you win on one and lose on the other, essentially a push. If your two hands are weaker than the dealer’s, then you lose your wager.

The Joker Card

joker card

The single joker card has special semi-wild rules in Pai Gow Poker. It can become any other card in the deck, but only when used as a substitute to form straights, flushes, straight flushes, or royal flushes.

Other than those four hands, the joker can only be an ace to form pairs, three of a kind, and so on.

Hand Ranks

The high 5-card hand ranking in Pai Gow Poker follows the standard order of poker hands. However, at some casinos, the “wheel straight,” A-2-3-4-5, is the second strongest straight behind the “broadway” 10-J-Q-K-A.

The two-card hand ends up being either a pair or a high card. One of the only rules is that your small hand can’t be stronger than your big hand.

The “House Way Rules” Set The Dealer’s Hands

You have the freedom to use your imagination while setting your hands. However, the dealer must follow the house way rules. This term refers to a preset system of rules that the dealer must follow when setting their hands.

Think of the house way in the same fashion as the blackjack table rules that dictate when the dealer must hit or stand. So, if they have a single pair, they have to divide their cards one way, while a straight and pair might get split up differently.

Below is an example set of house way guidelines for some hands, but they are different from table to table.

High Card

The high card stays in the big hand, and the next two highest cards go into the small hand.

Pair

The pair stays in the big hand, and the next two highest cards go into the small hand.

Two Pair

Keep two pairs together in the large hand unless they are under a certain rank.

Three Pairs

The highest pair always goes into the small hand, and the remaining cards go into the bigger back hand.

Three of a Kind

Keep the three like cards together in the big, back hand unless they are above a certain rank.

Full House

Split the three of a kind and pair apart in their respective hands.

2x Three of a Kind

The highest pair goes into the small hand.

Pai Gow Poker Table

The felt and layout of a Pai Gow Poker table are very simple. You can see why the large hand is called the “back” or “behind” hand, and the small two-card hand is the “top” or “front” hand.

Pai Gow Poker Table Layout

How to Play Pai Gow Poker

Next, we’ll show you how to play a hand of Pai Gow Poker from start to finish. Use this step-by-step guide, and you’ll see just how easy and fun the game is.

  1. Place Your Bets

    Like many casino table games, you put down an initial wager to start the round. There is usually a small circle on the felt in front of your seat for your chips.
  2. Dealing the Cards

    After all ante bets are down, the dealer will give each player seven cards face-up along with seven cards face-down to themselves.
  3. Setting Your Hands

    Once you have your cards, you build the stronger, five-card hand, or big hand, closer to you behind the weaker, smaller two-card hand that goes in front, or up top, nearer the dealer. To set your hands in online games, you’ll simply click on the two cards you want in your small, front hand.
  4. Setting the Dealer’s Hands

    After every player makes their decisions, the house way rules dictate how the dealer’s cards get split into two hands. They must follow these guidelines always.
  5. Winning the Game

    You only win if both of your hands beat the dealer’s, and you only lose if both of your hands are weaker than theirs. Any other outcome is a push.
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Pai Gow Poker Strategy

Splitting Pairs Icon with Cards

The strategy for Pai Gow Poker revolves around balance. You’ll push a lot of pots if you always stack the best cards in your large hand and leave the lowly leftovers to the two-card hand.

If you want to beat the dealer on both ends, your strategy should involve figuring out the optimal arrangement of your seven cards. Before setting your hands, ask yourself which combination gives you the best shot at forming two strong hands.

Should You Split 2 Pairs?

The majority of seven-card hands have straightforward options. For instance, if you have a single pair, a straight, or a flush, they always go in the five-card hand. The toughest decision in Pai Gow Poker might stem from getting two pairs. Should you split them up or keep them together?

The table below, from Ed Collins’ Pai Gow Poker Strategy Page, illustrates when to split pairs based on the math and suggestions from Stanford Wong’s book Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker. The left column is your high pair, and the top row is your low pair. They meet in the center to show you the two minimum additional cards you need to put in your small hand to keep the pairs together.

Pai Gow Poker Strategy Chart When to Split Pairs

Practice Pai Gow Poker Strategy

After you play a few hands, most of the card dividing decisions become common sense. To get the hang of things, try this free online Pai Gow Poker game.

By using this as a practice tool, you can experiment with various ways to set your hands. If you want to take it to the next level, chart your results, tracking wins and losses as you go. Soon enough, you’ll have a solid grasp on how to set your hands and what works and doesn’t.

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Example Pai Gow Poker Hands

Let’s look at a couple of different situations that could happen in a live Pai Gow Poker game. We’ll show you two different ways you could divide a basic seven-card deal.

In both Pai Gow Poker Hands below, you get the same cards, J J 4 4 5 3 and 2. We’ll also assume there are no flushes, so the suits don’t matter.

Off Balance Pai Gow Poker Hands Scale with Cards

Example 1: Strong Back Hand

You can keep the Js and 4s together in the big hand. Your strongest front hand in this situation is 5 high. Remember, you have to beat both the dealer’s hands to win.

Chances are you beat them on the stronger behind hand but lose on the small one up front. That would result in a push.

Balanced Pai Gow Poker Hands Scale with Cards

Example 2: Balanced Hands

Another way to set your hands is to split up the Js and 4s. So your strong hand would have J J 5 3 2, and your two-card hand would be a 4 4 pair.

Sure, you’ve made your back hand weaker, but you might have a better chance of winning both hands and getting a payout.

Pai Gow Poker Odds & Payouts

Pai Gow Poker tables charge a 5% commission on winning payouts. So a win with a $5 wager earns you $4.75. Since land-based casinos use chips and usually don’t provide change, many players bet in $20 increments. That makes the house commission an even $1 on wins.

These commissions are the primary driver of the house edge. Without it, Pai Gow Poker would essentially be a player-favorable game. Pai Gow Poker has reasonable odds for a table game. The house edge is just under 3% for standard games where the dealer wins on a tie.

Getting the Best Odds

blackjack rules - side bets icon

At some Pai Gow Poker tables, the players wager against each other, and one player per round gets to act as “the banker.” This rule lowers the house edge to around 1.4% for that player since the house wins on tied hands.

On the other hand, online casinos only pit you against the dealer and often return ties, so you always have those excellent banker odds. Internet tables are great for low rollers too, since they don’t force $20 bets in the name of making easy change. You can wager in smaller increments, and the commission deductions round off to the nearest cent.

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Online Pai Gow Poker Games

Online Pai Gow Poker games are usually in the table games section at your favorite gambling site. The betting limits also vary slightly from one provider to the next.

Look for these Pai Gow Poker games at online casinos. The rules and game mechanics are the same, but each software has a slightly different look and feel.

Pai Gow Poker Table Game Logo
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Similar Games

Online Pai Gow Poker has a lot of similar spin-off games that slightly alter the rules. There are even some poker games for real money that don’t take a commission.

Use Our Pai Gow Poker to Get Started

Are you ready to play Pai Gow Poker? This page covered the rules, how to play, and the best strategy to win more money. All you need to do now is sit down at a table and get a few hands in. You’ll be setting hands like a pro in no time flat.

You don’t have to travel to Vegas to play. Enjoy Pai Gow Poker online at real money casinos from the comfort of your home. You can even win right from your phone or tablet. Good luck!

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Pai Gow Poker FAQ

Below are a few of the regular questions we get about Pai Gow Poker.

Can you win at Pai Gow Poker?

Yes, you can win while playing Pai Gow Poker. The house edge ranges from 1.4-2.8%, depending on the table. That gives you pretty good odds of coming out on top. Just remember to try and find a balance to beat both the dealer’s hands, and you’ll find yourself winning soon enough.

What is the house advantage in Pai Gow Poker?

The house edge is 2.84% for standard games. It goes as low as 1.42% in online games that return ties or land-based games that let you play as the banker.

What are the odds of getting 5 aces in Pai Gow Poker?

The odds of getting five aces in Pai Gow Poker are 1 in 136,652. So if you see a side bet for that hand, it’s definitely a long shot.

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