Bring up the game of poker in any casino, and you’ll inevitably hear people talk about Texas Hold’em and televised tournaments like the WSOP. Every so often, a table game enthusiast might mention Three-Card Poker or Caribbean Stud Poker, but you’ll seldom hear Pai Gow Poker enter the conversation.
Despite the popularity of traditional poker, and its offshoots spread in the table game pit, Pai Gow Poker became the “black sheep” of the family. And that’s a shame, because this complex seven-card poker affair is actually better than most table games, even if most gamblers ignore it anyway.
The year was 1985, and California casino owner Sam Torosian found himself in a bind. With card clubs sprouting up like weeds throughout Los Angeles County, the newly minted casino operator needed a hook to bring customers through the doors.
After asking around and picking the brains of players, most of whom hailed from local Asian-American communities, Torosian stumbled on a novel concept. A Filipino regular explained the rules of “pusoy,” a card game popular throughout China and nearby regions.
To play pusoy, four players attempt to arrange their random 13-card deal into three distinct poker hands. Two of these hands used the traditional five-card poker hierarchy, while the third used a modified three-card version.
Realizing that the four-way player vs. player format wasn’t exactly a great fit for casino table gaming, Torosian tinkered with the concept. By using just seven cards per player, and two poker hands—a five-card “high” hand and a two-card “low” hand—Torosian hoped to turn pusoy into something more palatable for casino gamblers.
He borrowed elements from another Chinese gambling game known as “pai gow.” While playing pai gow, participants use dominoes and try to set front and back “hands” that outrank their opponent’s front and back holdings. And just like that, the exciting game of Pai Gow Poker was born…
To play the game, you’ll place an ante bet to kick off the action. Pai Gow Poker is played against the dealer, rather than other players, so everyone at the table receives a random deal of seven cards from a 53-card deck.
Pai Gow Poker utilizes a lone “joker” card which is considered to be semi-wild, as it can substitute as an ace, or as part of a straight, flush, straight flush, or royal flush.
With your seven cards in hand—as an example, imagine you’re holding the A-A-K-K-9-7-2 with no flush on board—the task is relatively simple. You want to find a five-card “high” hand that has a good chance of outranking the dealer’s own five-card selection. From there, the other two cards will form your two-card “low” hand. The only caveat is, your five-card high hand must outrank your two-card low hand.
Using our example hand, you have a few possibilities to consider. With the A-A-K-K in play, you could form the strongest possible two pair by putting A-A-K-K-2 up front as your high hand. But by doing so, you’ll only have 9-7 as your low hand, and this isn’t likely to beat many dealer low hands.
A better play, one that gives you a prime chance to beat both dealer hands, would use the following hand-setting strategy:
High Hand: A-A-9-7-2
Low Hand: K-K
Using this balanced approach, you’re now playing a strong high hand with top pair of aces, while your low hand is essentially the second-best possible with one pair of kings.
When the dealer shows something like Q-Q-J-5-4 for a high hand and 6-6 for a low hand, you’ve just beaten them on both ends of the equation.
Conversely, should the dealer showdown a two-pair hand like Q-Q-J-J-5 for the high and 6-6 for the low, you would “chop” or “push” with the dealer, meaning your bet is returned in a tie.
Now that you know how to play Pai Gow Poker, let’s take a look at why the game is actually better than most table game options out there.
As a table game player, your job is to hunt for the lowest possible house edge rates working against you.
House edge is simply a metric used to determine the casino’s inherent advantage on every game or hand. And the higher it is, the worse odds you’ll face over the long run.
With that in mind, the “Holy Grail” for house edge aficionados is blackjack, which affords a rate of just 0.50% to players who know basic strategy. In other words, For every $100 wagered, blackjack players using basic strategy only stand to lose $0.50 in the long run.
On the other end of the spectrum is American style “double-zero” roulette with its 5.26% house edge. But as you can see down below, Pai Gow Poker sits snugly next to blackjack and other games boasting favorable house edge rates.
Pai Gow Poker offers a very low house edge compared to most table games. It has an edge at 1.46%, which is better than blackjack with no strategy, single zero roulette at 2.7%, and American Roulette, which comes in at 5.26%.
Because every Pai Gow Poker hand really involves a two vs. two scenario against the dealer, you’ll wind up seeing your fair share of pushes in the end.
In fact, as the probabilities below make clear, you’ll actually wind up in a push more often than any other result:
This “push factor” makes the game perfect for folks who enjoy a leisurely, less volatile table game experience. You can sit down with $50, place a few bets to score some drinks, and usually walk away with the same $50 you started with.
Let’s start with the name… Pai Gow Poker obviously owes its name to Asian roots, which tends to box out American players who aren’t familiar with the rules.
Another reason recreational players skip over Pai Gow Poker is the aforementioned push factor. When you come to the casino hellbent on winning, or losing your stack of chips trying, playing a game that winds up with a null result 40% of the time might not be up your alley.
Finally, the admittedly complex optimal strategy used to play the game perfectly has a lot of variables to consider. With this in mind, casual players who just want to have fun typically head to the games of chance like roulette, craps, and baccarat, where strategic thinking isn’t required.
Pai Gow Poker may seem confusing and overly complex at first glance, but the same can be said for any gambling game you’re new to. Once you sit down and give the game a try, however, the basic binary nature of setting high/low hands will become second nature.
Don’t be put off by the exotic name or the intricate rules, just pull out a few chips and take a shot at learning something new. When you do, you won’t regret it, as Pai Gow Poker has evolved from a curiosity into a card game staple spread in every casino nationwide.
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