The gist of the game is this. You’ll be dealt 7 cards from which you must create a 5-card poker hand and a separate 2-card poker hand. The dealer or banker will do the same. Your objective is to have your 5-card poker hand and your 2-card poker hand be higher in rank then the corresponding banker’s 5 and 2-card hands. If you do, you win!
A quick word about dealers and bankers. In pai gow poker, players compete against a banker who may either be the casino dealer or a fellow player. In fact this is one of the few casino games where players can act as the banker, which as you can imagine can be advantageous. For the time being, let’s assume the casino dealer is the banker and later I’ll go over the rules of how players can become the banker.
The play of the game varies slightly from one casino to another. Here is the typical way the game is played. An automatic shuffler shuffles the cards and after every player makes a bet, the dealer will activate a random number generator with a digital readout. The purpose is to determine which player receives the first hand from the shuffled deck of cards and it also ensures that the hands are randomly distributed to players. The dealer is number 1, the player position to the right of the dealer is number 2, and so on around the table. The dealer will then place a stack of 7 cards in front of each playing position with the player position corresponding to the random number receiving the first 7-card hand.
Variations to the above procedures you may encounter include manual shuffling, use of a dice bowl to generate the random number, and in some casinos the seven hands are stacked in front of the dealer prior to distributing the hands to the players. These are minor procedural differences that result in the same objective – the random distribution of 7-card hands to every player and dealer from a shuffled deck of cards.
After the hands are distributed to the players, each player can pick up their cards. Your goal is to arrange or “set” the cards into a 5-card poker hand (known as the high hand) and a 2-card poker hand (low hand). [Editors note: here are the ranks of poker hands]
Here is the first important rule to remember.
Your high hand must always be higher in poker rank then your low hand otherwise you automatically lose (this is known as a foul hand).
The above rule is not that difficult to remember. Just remember that the high hand must be higher in rank then the low hand. So if you’ve got a pair of jacks and a pair of 5’s you would automatically lose if you put the jacks in the low hand and the 5’s in the high hand. The correct way to set the hand is to place the higher pair (the jacks) in the 5-card high hand and the lower pair (the 5’s) in the 2-card low hand.
The second way that a hand could be declared “foul” is if the high or low hand contains the wrong number of cards. However, this rarely occurs as most players have enough sense to know that the low hand must contain two cards and the high hand five cards.
Once you’ve set your hands, you place each hand face down on the layout in the indicated position (the low hand is placed closest to the dealer and the high hand closest to the player). The dealer will then face his 7 cards and set them by house rules into a 5- card high hand and 2-card low hand. One-by-one the dealer will then turn over the player’s 5 and 2-card hands starting with the player to his immediate right. He compares the player’s 5-card high hand to his high hand and the player’s 2-card low hand to his 2 card low hand to determine who wins.
When the player’s high or low hand is equal in rank to the banker’s corresponding hand this is known as a “copy”. According to Stanford Wong (Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker), copy hands will occur about 2.5% of the time. Why is this important to know? Because the banker always wins copy hands. This is what creates the natural 1.3% edge for the banker over the player in pai gow poker.
In order for you to win your bet, both your high hand and low hand must be higher in rank then the dealer’s high and low hand. If the 5-card high hand is higher in rank but the 2- card low hand is lower or vice versa, this is a tie (no decision) and no money is exchanged.
The overall frequency for banker and player wins and ties as follows:
These percentages may vary slightly depending upon the player’s skill in setting hands.
Notice that ties occur about a third of the time in Pai Gow Poker. From the player’s perspective, this means you can enjoy playing for a relatively long time without worrying about losing a bundle (compared to the losses which occur on a cold blackjack or craps table).
Also, note that the banker wins slightly more times than the player. It is therefore to your advantage to be the banker as often as possible.
The casino earns its money on this game in either of two ways: 1) from the natural banker edge when the casino dealer is banker and 2) by charging a 5% commission on all winning bets. In practice this is how it works.
When the casino is the banker, the dealer will payoff winning bets to players but then immediately collect the 5% commission. If you bet $5 and won for example, the dealer will pay you one red chip and you then place a quarter on the table that he collects as the commission. Also, if a player is the banker, the casino will collect the 5% commission on all amounts won by the player and banker.
In the next article, we'll discuss Pai Gow Poker strategy.
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