Pai Gow (officially called Pai Gow Poker, but almost always called just ‘Pai Gow’), is a casino-table variation of the traditional Chinese domino-based game, pai gow. Pai Gow is generally played by more-experienced casino players, who have a degree of patience; that’s because the game is slow to play, and many hands result in ties, meaning the potential of quick winning sessions is slim – of course, this works both ways, and it also means the chance of quick losing sessions is equally unlikely.
While traditionally found in Chinese casinos, Pai Gow has recently begun to emerge in more land-based casinos around the world, as its popularity has surged. The online casino boom has helped contribute to this surge, and thousands of players now choose to play Pai Gow each day, thanks to the relaxation-factor of the game, and the enjoyable gameplay. The game itself differs from other casino games, as it’s far less intense, and losing sessions are less commonplace than playing a higher-variance game, such as Roulette. It also features a low house edge of around 1.24%, meaning the casino makes less money from players over the long-run.
In this guide, we’ll cover some of the basic rules of Pai Gow, as well as how to play, and a variety of side bets and game variations you may come across, particularly when playing the game online.
How to Play Pai Gow
Pai Gow is fairly simple to play once you understand the rules. Just like a Blackjack or Three Card Poker game, Pai Gow is played at a table, against a dealer. Online of course, it’s all automatic. The game uses a full 52-card deck of cards, with an additional joker in play. The general objective of the game is to use 7 cards you are dealt, and split them into two different poker hands, which then go up against the dealer’s hand. More specifically, you need to make a 5-card hand, and a 2-card hand.
To begin playing, you select the amount you want to wager and click deal. Once done, the game begins, and you will be dealt 7 cards face down. The dealer will also be dealt 7 cards, which again, are placed face-down. Once the cards are dealt, you then simply split your cards into two hands, and the dealer does the same. Once you have finished, your hand is pitted against the dealer, and if you win (we’ll cover payouts, and what happens if you win/lose one hand in the payouts section below) payouts are paid and the game is over.
Pai Gow Hands
Now, in terms of making your two hands, there are a few rules you have to follow. Note: Most Pai Gow games online will automatically prepare your two hands for you.
Your two card hand is your ‘top hand’, and is the weaker or the two. That is, your ‘bottom hand’, the 5-card one, needs to be stronger than the two card one. Regular poker rules are followed in Pai Gow, so you are trying to make the best 5-card poker hand, and the best 2-card hand. The poker hand rankings are shown below, from best to worst:
- Royal Flush – 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace of the same suit
- Straight Flush – Five cards in consecutive order of the same suit
- Four of a Kind – Four cards of the same value
- Full House – Three of a kind and one pair
- Flush – Five cards of the same suit
- Straight – Five cards in consecutive order (not suited)
- Three of a Kind – Three cards of the same value
- Two Pair– Two pairs
- One Pair – A singular pair
- High Card – Used when no other hand is made
Now, there is one exception to the traditional poker-rankings: five aces is actually the best possible hand, and this hand cannot be beaten, even when (although nearly impossible), a tie occurs.
Obviously, there are only 4 aces in a pack of cards, and this is where the joker card comes into play. The joker card can be used by both dealer and player to complete certain hands, and it acts as a ‘wild’ card. However, it’s not fully-wild, and can only be used to complete a straight, flush, straight flush, royal flush, or 5-of-a-kind aces. This means you wouldn’t be able to use the joker in a two pair hand, or to complete three-of-a-kind.
To make your hand, you must make the best 5-card hand possible with the 2-card hand coming second. For instance, if you were dealt Ace, Ace, Jack, Queen, 2, 3, and 7, you only have one pair, so this would have to be used as your 5-card hand. Your two hands would look like this:
- 5-Card Hand – Ace, Ace, Queen, Jack, 7
- 2-Card Hand – 2, 3
However, in another example (using better cards), if you were dealt two black Aces, and 3, 5, 6, 8, and 10 of hearts, your hands would look like this:
- 5-Card Hand – 3, 5, 6, 8, 10
- 2-Card Hand – Ace, Ace
It’s pretty simple to understand, and as earlier mentioned, if you play online the computer will do this all automatically, so all you need to worry about is what the dealer holds!
Interestingly, in Pai Gow, if you tie a hand (meaning your hand is the same as the dealer’s), the bet is a loss and the casino wins. While this is rare, it’s worth remembering so you are not caught out wondering where your stake went!
- If you win both of your hands, you are paid out 95% on each hand.
- If you lose one hand and win the other, the game is a push – or ‘a tie’ – and your entire stake is returned.
As you can imagine, it’s quite common to win one hand, and lose one, hence the slow play of the game. That said, if you manage to get on a short winning streak it can be profitable, and your loss-liability is small due to the small house edge the casino holds.
Pai Gow Game Variations
Pai Gow game variations aren’t as common as – say, Blackjack – but many online casinos do offer their own versions, and below are some of the most common variants and side bets you may come across online:
- Fortune Pai Gow – This is an optional side bet, where you are betting on your 5-card hand being higher than 3-of-a-kind. It’s an independent bet, meaning even if you lose both hands to the dealer, but make a poker hand of 3-of-a-kind or better, you still get paid out.
- EZ Pai Gow Poker – in EZ Pai Gow, your winnings will be commission-free, meaning you get paid out at 1:1, instead of the 95%. Additionally, if the dealer has an exact 5-card hand of Queen-high, the hand automatically is a push, regardless of the two-card hands, or your 5-cards.
The most common side bet is the Fortune Pai Gow bet, and this is fairly similar to that of Three Card Poker’s Pairs Plus bet.
History of Pai Gow
Pai Gow’s history is riddled with tragedy. Sam Torosian, a card-room owner in California, created the game in 1985 but failed to take sufficient legal advice. This led to him believing patenting a card-game was not permissible under law – it is – and as such, he held no ownership of the game, and casinos were free to offer it as and when they pleased.
When compared against the likes of the creator of Three Card Poker, and other modern games, Torosian lost out on a lot of money – potentially millions of dollars – and while the game has gone on to become a huge hit with both land-based and online casinos around the world, he’s not made a penny from the game.
This history has caused controversy, and discussion from both sides. Many critics argue Sam should be paid a ‘licensing free’ from casinos that offer the game, as a gesture of good will, while others argue he should have taken more care when getting legal advice, and that his bad-luck is entirely his fault. Either way, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy, especially seeing how the game’s popularity has grown rapidly in-line with the Poker boom of recent years.
One thing that’s interesting to note, is that many casinos have banned Pai Gow from being used when working through bonus wagering requirements. The reason for this ‘ban’, is because the game awards many pushed hands – ties – and due to this, the casino deem it far easier for players to beat the wagering requirements on this game, when compared against other games like Blackjack. If a casino does allow Pai Gow to be used for bonus wagering, your stake will generally only account for a small % of the true value of each hand, usually between 5 and 20%.