Pai Gow Poker is a marriage between cards and dominoes: invented by former casino boss Sam Torosian, it’s based on the Chinese domino game Pai Gow, but it’s played using cards and poker combinations.
The game was allegedly born out of an attempt to get around gambling laws in California but ultimately failed to pay off for its inventor: due to some bad legal advice, Torosian never patented the game. As a result, while Pai Gow Poker has proliferated, he hasn’t seen a cent.
How To Play
A relatively slow-paced game (slower than Craps and Blackjack, at least), Pai Gow Poker appeals to players who prefer more leisurely games.
Basically, up to seven players receive seven cards apiece out of a deck of 52 cards plus one joker (which is used as an ace, or to complete a straight or any flush).
The players must create two separate poker hands out of their seven cards. Five cards go into the Highest Cards hand, while the two other cards go in the Low Cards (also called the Second Highest) hand. In other words, your own Highest Cards hand must beat your Second Highest two-card hand. That’s a rule, not strategy: if you place the highest-scoring cards in the Low Cards hand, you lose.
To win the bet, you must win both hands: both your high and the low card hands must beat the banker’s high and low card hands. If only one hand is won, it’s a tie (called a push), and no one wins or loses the bet. That’s part of what makes Pai Gow Poker slower than other games of chance: there are frequent rounds (up to 40% of rounds, in fact) in which no one wins and playing time is simply extended.
Often, the same hand can be divvied up multiple ways, making Pai Gow Poker an interesting game of strategy. You must consider what combinations of cards are likely to beat the dealer with two different sets of cards.
Hand Rankings are the same as regular poker:
- Five Aces (four aces plus the Joker)
- Royal Flush
- Straight Flush
- Four Of A Kind
- Full House
- Three Of A Kind
- Two Pair
- One Pair
- High Card
Note, however, that in most Nevada casinos, the hand A–2–3–4–5 beats a king-high straight but not an ace-high straight A-K-Q-J–10.
Taking Pai Gow Poker to the Bank
We mentioned above that players must beat the banker. Usually, that’s the dealer. But Pai Gow Poker is an egalitarian game in which each player can assume the role of banker. There’s some risk: losses come out of the player’s pocket. But its rewards can be richer, too.
The banker role generally rotates, with players allowed to decline (as they often do).
Tips & Strategy
Here’s a great tip from expert player Matt Villano to avoid losing in a streak:
Every casino table game can get streaky; pai gow is no exception. Because the push rate is so high (again, north of 41 percent), it’s a good rule to leave the table if you lose three hands in a row. What’s more, because pai gow sessions lend themselves to lots of cocktails, I’ve worked bathroom breaks into my strategy over the years; whenever I push three hands in a row, I give myself a breather and hit the head.
Strategy-wise, you should generally try to create the highest two-card hand that you can. Most times, your remaining cards will still form a higher five-card hand.