Pai gow poker draws on Asian gaming culture to deliver an entertaining alternative to familiar competitive variants such as Texas hold’em poker. Instead of testing your skills against other players, you draw on your knowledge of the cards to form a strong and a weak hand in a bid to beat the banker’s hands. Fun and straightforward, pai gow poker is perfect if you’re looking for the kind of online poker that doesn’t require deep strategic thought but still provides a satisfying challenge. Take a look at our guide to learn how to play poker games online the pai gow way.
The history of pai gow poker
Pai gow poker is based on the ancient Chinese game of pai gow (“make nine”), which is a form of dominoes that goes as far back as the year 960 AD. In pai gow, up to eight players each choose four dominoes from a facedown stack of tiles. The players then form two hands of two tiles, a weaker hand called the front hand and a stronger hand called the rear hand. Players compare their front and rear hands with the banker’s hands and win even money on their bet if they beat both of them. This may sound fairly simple, but pai gow is notoriously difficult to learn, thanks to a complicated set of special rules concerning matching pairs, un-matching pairs, “gongs” and “wongs” and the mysterious power of Gee Joon tiles! Talk about getting lost in translation. That’s where pai gow poker comes in.
Back in 1985, Sam Torosian, owner of the Bell Card Club in Las Vegas, was looking for a way to attract more Asian customers. He heard about a card game called pu soy, in which players get 13 cards and set three hands to beat the banker’s hands. This was still too complicated and slow for casino purposes, so Torosian developed a simplified version that retained the hand-setting element but with a reduced number of hands and cards. And that’s how pai gow poker was born! Today it’s considered one of the best online poker variants for recreational players.
How to play poker pai gow style
Pai gow poker is a game for up to six players and a banker, usually played by the casino dealer. The aim of the game is to form two poker hands that can beat the dealer. The basic rules are not especially complicated. After placing your bet, you and all the other players at the table receive seven cards each from a 52-card pack, including the joker. You then split your cards into a rear hand of five cards and a front hand of two cards, and place the front hand up front. The rule is that your rear hand has to beat your front hand according to standard poker hand rankings. These, to jog your memory, are high card, pairs, two pair, three of a kind, straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, straight flush, and royal flush. The joker can only be used to complete a flush or straight, otherwise it counts as an ace. In addition, some houses count the wheel (ace, 2, 3, 4, 5) as the second-highest straight. Once all players have set their hands, it’s showdown time as the banker reveals their cards.
Winning at pai gow poker
There are three possible outcomes at showdown. If your front and rear hands beat the banker’s front and rear hands, you win your bet (minus a 5% house commission). If the banker’s front and rear hands win, you lose your bet. If either your front or rear hand beats the banker’s front or rear hand, it’s a push: You get your bet back and play again. This happens a lot in pai gow poker, making it a great game for low-risk players. It’s important to note that when comparing hands, ties go to the banker. Say your front hand is a pair of twos and the banker’s is too. In that case, the banker wins.
The house way
In pai gow poker, bankers are required to set their hands according to a specific set of procedures known as the “house way.” These procedures will vary from casino to casino, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the house way at the venue of your choice. Here are some examples from a major casino:
- High card: The highest card goes in the rear hand and the second and third highest form the front hand.
- One pair: The pair always goes in the rear hand and the highest-ranking cards go in the front hand.
- Two pairs: Split pairs and play the lowest pair in the front hand.
- Three pairs: The highest pair goes into the front hand.
These are only a few examples to give you an idea, as the house way can get quite complicated. For example, the banker has to set their hand differently for a straight, flush, straight flush or royal flush depending on whether they have no pair, a pair, two pair, three pair, three of a kind or full house. The bottom line is that understanding how the banker has to set their hands can help you with your strategy.
Pai gow poker strategy
Unlike the banker, you have total freedom to set your hands the way you like, always remembering that your rear hand has to beat your front hand. As a rule, it’s a good idea to put pairs or high cards in your front hand. Pocket aces are the best since they’ll most likely beat the banker’s front hand. But you can only do that if your rear hand is better than pocket aces. If it isn’t, you commit a foul and lose the hand! Here are some basic pai gow poker strategy tips to get you started:
- If you’re dealt a pair or better, put the highest card in the rear hand and the two second-highest cards in front.
- Play three of a kind on your rear hand unless they’re triple aces, in which case play the high ace in front and the other two in the rear.
- If you have four of a kind that are jacks or better, split them into two pairs.
- Split full houses into three of a kind and a pair. If you have an extra pair, play the high pair in your front hand.
In general, study all seven of your cards closely to see how to split them most effectively.
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