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Beginners Guide to Pai Gow

  • Written By Kevin Parker
  • Edited
  • Reading 9 minutes

In the United States and several other parts of the world, the first thing that comes to mind when Pai Gow is mentioned is Pai Gow Poker, otherwise referred to as Double-Hand poker.

Pai gow is originally an ancient Chinese gambling game that is played with tiles that resemble dominoes. That said, Pai Gow Poker, which is essentially the Americanized version of the game, is a combination of pai gow and the regular game of poker that we know and love.

If you are already familiar with either pai gow or poker, then you will have absolutely no trouble learning and enjoying this game. All that you will probably need to get started is the basic understanding of poker hands and ranks. Moreover, unlike other variations of poker, Pai Gow Poker is much faster and significantly much easier to play.

Since it was invented back in the 80s, Pai Gow Poker has grown in popularity across a plethora of gambling platforms – finding an online or land-based casino that offers at least one version of the game will, therefore, be a breeze.

Now, if you are ready to start playing the game and would like a few pointers to get you going, this guide has got all the essentials covered.

The Basics of Pai Gow Poker

For anyone who is totally new to Pai Gow Poker, the first step to enjoying the game is getting acquainted with its components. These are pretty basic, and so you will have no trouble grasping them. The game is played with a standard 52-card deck of cards plus an additional joker.

The additional joker is treated as a wild card. This card can be used either as an ace or to complete one of the following:

  • a flush
  • a straight
  • or a straight flush.

The Pai Gow Poker table will have six players and a dealer. One of the players will have the opportunity to be the banker at a Pai Gow Poker table in a land-based casino – this can alternate between all the players. When playing online, on the other hand, the dealer will always be the banker.

The Aim of Playing the Game

Aim of The Game - Pai Gow Poker Icon

When playing Pai Gow Poker, the goal is to beat the banker who can be the dealer, another player at your table, or even a team-up of sorts between an opponent and the dealer.

Beating the dealer means that you have to have a better hand than they do. This is done by creating two poker hands from the seven cards that are dealt to you – one of the hands has to be a five-card hand, and the other has to be a two-hand card. Also, the five-card (big or high) hand must be at least equal or have a higher rank than the two-card (small or low) hand.

In summary: Your aim is to beat the dealer by creating two hands. One five card hand and one two card hand.

How to Play Pai Gow

How to Play - Pai Gow Poker Icon

Pai Gow Poker starts with the players placing their bets on the table. Depending on the casino you are playing with, there will be a maximum hand and a minimum hand – you can place wagers anywhere between that. The amount is all up to you. Once that is done, the next step is the shuffling of the cards.

Getting Started – Cards Dealt

After the cards are shuffled, the dealer places the face-down in seven piles. Each of the players receives a pile of the cards, and so does the dealer. Four cards remain unused regardless of the number of active players, and these are placed in the discard, also referred to as the ‘muck’ in some places.

If there is no player sitting on any spot on the table, the pile of cards will still be dealt, but they will be placed on the muck along with the other four unused cards.

Betting Positions

Betting positions in Pai Gow have numbers assigned from 1 to 7 – the numbering will begin from the player who acts as the banker, and this continues anti-clockwise.

If you are playing online, the betting positions will be determined randomly by a Random Number Generator (RNG). If you are playing in a land-based casino, the betting positions will be determined using a dice. After that, the deal starts and continues anti-clockwise.

Making Your Hands to Beat the Dealer

Once each player has their pile of seven cards, they can look through the cards and then form the required 5-card hand with their best cards. The remaining two cards create the 2-card hand.

The dealers will also set their hands, but they are usually required to follow some specific rules outlined by the casino.

Tip: If you can not make a strong 5-card hand, make a strong 2-card hand so you can draw – Getting your bet returned.

When you have your hands ready, you can compare them with the dealer’s. The possible outcomes of these comparisons can be:

  • Both of your hands beat both of the dealer’s hands. If this happens, the player wins even money minus a specified commission amount
  • Only one of your hands beats the dealer’s hands and one of the dealer’s hands beats your hands. Here, the result is considered to be a push or a draw and the bet is returned to the player.
  • Both of the dealer’s hands beat both of your hands. This means that you have lost the bet.
  • Your hand ties with the dealer’s hand.  Here, the win goes to the banker.

The results are announced after the comparison and any winnings paid out bringing the round to an end. After this, the next round begins with the reshuffling of the cards and so on. It is that simple.

Pai Gow Poker Hand Ranks

The only poker hands that can be attained from the 2-card hand are a pair or high cards (10, J, Q, K and A).

Just like it is with other poker games, the 5-card hand in Pai Go is ranked based on conventional poker rules. There is, however, one notable difference that is worth paying attention to.

Image of Pai Gow Poker Hands Ranking
Above, you can see the Pai Gow Poker hand rankings.

This difference is that in most casinos offering Pai Gow Poker, A-2-3-4-5, which is referred to as the “wheel” is the second-highest straight. In some casinos, the rule is different, with A-2-3-4-5 being the lowest possible straight.

Winning in Pai Gow Poker

Winning a Game - Pai Gow Poker Icon

Pai Gow Poker is quite similar to other poker games since it also involves some skill – players do not have to totally rely on chance or luck to win.

That said, there are a few strategies that you can make use of while playing the game in order to better your chances of landing a win.

1. Spilt Your Hands Correctly

Naturally, it always starts with ensuring that you split your hand in such a manner that it gives you the strongest possible two-card hand. This is mainly a way of ensuring that you do not lose any money since the dealer is more likely to beat the weaker hand and not both.

2. Keep a Look out for the Joker

As mentioned earlier, the joker is a semi-wild in Pai Gow Poker, and therefore it will add a lot of value to your hand, so always keep an eye out for it. Once you have it, you can either use it to make a strong 5-card hand or complete a straight or a flush in the back – this will, of course, depend on the other cards in your hand.

3. Find a Pai Gow Game Worth Your Time

Another less talked about strategy would be finding a great Pai Gow Poker game in the first place. In most cases, the best game would be one that has the lowest amount of commission or rake. These games are the ones that take the smallest sums of money from the gaming table. Thankfully, there are lots of options to choose from in both the online and retail spaces. Finding one will be a breeze.

There are even more basic, intermediate, and advanced strategies all over the internet that could help give you a bit of an edge over other players.

Whichever you choose is totally up to you, but it is important to note that most, if not all of them, can only be near-optimal strategies. It is not absolutely guaranteed that you will win.

As such, so long as you ensure that your hand is not fouled, you will be safe since the edge of the game is pretty low. Also, it is much easier to switch between strategies since you will only be playing against whoever is dealing the game and not the other players on the table.

Pai Gow Poker Variations and Side Bets

Game Variations - Pai Gow Poker Icon

Since it was invented back in the 80s, Pai Gow Poker has gained a lot of popularity, and this has resulted in the rise of several different variations of the game. With these different verisons there will also come with some side bets.

Popular variations and side bets of Pai Gow Poker include:

  • Pow Gow Manaia
  • Fortune Pai Gow
  • Emperor’s Challenge
  • and Progressive Fortune Pai Gow

Final Thoughts

Pai Gow Poker is an extremely enjoyable game that brings a touch of authenticity to the classic game of poker while at the same time bringing the ancient game of pai gow to the masses. Its origins are just a small piece of the puzzle though. Thanks to all the work that has been put into improving the game and all of its variants, it will definitely be a great pass time for you.

Kevin was raised on sports since a young teen and following a (fortunate) injury pursued new hobbies in table games such as Blackjack and Poker. Since 2009 Kevin has been writing for casino sites for various big names in the industry and CasinoSites.us is but one of his latest passion projects.