Pai Gow Poker 101

Pai Gow Poker is a fairly new game on the casino scene, but was drawn from an ancient Chinese game.
Pai Gow involves using tiles with two different suits— military and civilian. Each player is dealt seven tiles and bets on who will get the best set.
Sam Torosian drew from this Chinese gambling game and blended it with poker to introduce his new betting pastime — Pai Gow Poker.
Torosian owned the California Bell Casino, near Los Angeles, and introduced his game to the public there in 1985. In the next couple of years, Pai Gow Poker was popping up in casinos across the country.
Edgewater dealers Mark and Sun gave us a quick lesson, and the game was fairly easy to pick up. This game is known for a slow rate of play and low risk because it is typical for a round to end in a “push” between the player and dealer. A “push” means you don’t win or lose your bet — in this game specifically, because you won one of the two hands and the dealer won the other.
Each player is dealt seven cards, to split between a five-card high hand and a two-card low hand. You cannot play more than one set of hands in this game, unlike blackjack. There is also a joker in the deck, which can play as an ace, or the last card to complete a straight or flush in your hand.
The dealers at the Edgewater use a machine that deals out seven cards at a time and randomly selects a spot on the table for the first cards to be dealt. The dealer is in spot number one, spot number two is to the dealer’s right, and it follows along the table counter-clockwise.
Your highest card, or set of cards, must be played in your high hand. Your next highest cards go in your low hand. For example if you were not dealt even a single pair of cards, but you had an ace, king, queen, and four small cards, you would take out the king and queen for your small hand and leave the rest for your high hand. However, if you were holding a pair of threes, an ace, king, queen, and two small cards, you would pull the ace and king out for your small hand, as your pair is now the highest-ranking cards.
You are trying to beat the dealer’s hand, and to win, both your high and low hand must beat the dealer’s two hands. It follows regular poker rankings for determining the high hand. The only exception is that the ace, two, three, four, five, is considered the second-highest straight.
If just one of your hands beats one of the dealer’s, it is a push. If either of your hands ties the dealer’s hand, the dealer wins that hand. If both of your hands win, the dealer will pay out your even-money bet, minus five percent. The house keeps this “vig” from your winnings.
A second bet you can make is the bonus bet. This bet is for your hand only, it does not matter what the dealer has, so it is an extra way to build your winnings. However, this bet does not pay off unless you have a straight or better. The payoff begins at 2 to 1 for a straight and goes to 8,000 to 1 for a seven-card straight flush with no joker.
This bet is for your seven cards overall, so even if you chose to split up your straight, flush, etc. between your high and low hand, you still win the bonus bet.
This same bonus bet doubles as an “envy” bet, except you must have bet at least $5 for the envy. This bet applies if one of the other players at the table has a four-of-a-kind or better, then you win money off of their good hand. The four-of-a-kind pays $5, up to the seven-card straight flush banking $5,000 for the envy bet. The house does not take a vig from your winnings off the bonus/envy bets.
Your hand can become a little more complicated the better the cards you are dealt. A judgment call that will come up most frequently is when you are dealt two pairs.
For instance, if you have two pairs and an ace in your hand, you now have the option to keep both pairs in your high hand and hope the ace is enough to carry your low hand, or you could split the pairs between both hands (putting the higher pair in your high hand).
A general rule of thumb is to always split the pairs unless your ranking sum is 15 or less, and you are also holding an ace, or your ranking sum is nine or less and you are holding a king or an ace. The ranking sum equals the values of your two pairs added together. For example, the ranking sum of a pair of threes and fives would be eight.
The reasoning behind this strategy is that your two pairs are both of low value, so neither pair alone in your high hand will likely hold up against a possible single pair in the dealer’s high hand. Therefore, if you have a high card to put in your low hand, you should keep the pairs together in your high hand to strengthen it. However if you do not have a high card to put in your low hand, it is a better risk to split your pairs and hope the dealer does not have a pair, or at least not a high pair, for the low hand.
For a full listing of strategies for possible hands, check out WizardOfOdds.com/games/pai-gow-poker/strategy/foxwoods/.