How to Play Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker is one of the most fun casino games but it can be tricky to learn when first starting out.

If you want to enjoy playing Pai Gow Poker online or live at a casino, then it is important to learn the basic rules and hands.

You are already ahead of the curve if you know the rules of Texas Hold’em, especially the hand rankings.

But don’t let the amount of previous poker knowledge stress you out. By the time you have completed this beginner’s guide to Pai Gow Poker, you will know:

  1. What is Pai Gow Poker
  2. Pai Gow Poker rules
  3. Pai Gow Poker hands
  4. Pai Gow Poker strategy
  5. How to Play Pai Gow Poker for Free

1. What is Pai Gow Poker?

Pai Gow Poker may not have the long and storied tradition of popular casino table games blackjack or roulette or of the most popular poker variant in Texas hold’em as it was invented by casino owner Sam Torosian in 1985.

"Pai Gow roughly translates to 'Make Nine' in Chinese"

But, the game does have deep historical roots as it was taken from the domino-based Pai Gow Tiles (also known as simply Pai Gow) that has been played in China for more than a millennium.

Pai Gow roughly translates to “Make Nine” in Chinese as this represented the maximum score in the game outside some special circumstances.

Most poker games pit player against player with the dealer not involved with the hand other than dealing cards and enforcing the rules.

Pai Gow Poker is a bit different in that it is a casino game that you are playing against the dealer or on occasion, can even choose to be the dealer yourself.

Despite being a casino game, it can be every bit as much as social as other forms of poker and is considered to be one of the lowest risk casino games thanks to the slow pace of play and many hands ending in a tie or push.

In addition, the Pai Gow Odds vary by venue but are typically among the lowest among casino table games.

If you are planning to play Pai Gow for the first time, starting from the basic rules of the game is key.

The good news is that the rules of Pai Gow Poker are easy to learn with a little practice and anyone – including you – can learn the optimal Pai Gow Poker strategy in no time flat.

2. Pai Gow Poker Rules

So how do you play Pai Gow Poker?

Pai Gow Poker utilizes a 53-card deck which features the standard 52 cards used in most poker games along with one joker.

The game is easier to master than most forms of poker as there is no bluffing involved as betting only takes place before any cards are dealt. In other words, you can master the best approach to the game simply by learning the rules.

So, let’s dive straight in…

A Pai Gow Poker hand begins after bets are placed when the dealer deals all of the players in a hand and the banker seven cards face down. The banker is often the dealer but it can also be a player or at some venues a player/dealer team.

Each player will then separate their hole cards into a five-card high hand and a two-card low hand. The high hand must always be better than the low hand.

The banker places their hand into a high and low hand as well via house rules which can differ between venue and online. Players can also ask the house for advice on how to set their hand the house way if they so choose at most if not all casinos.

Pai Gow Poker Boxes

A player can then win, lose, or push (tie) a hand based on the following scenarios:

  1. The player wins their bet when both of the player’s hands are better than both of the banker’s hands. The amount won is the amount of a bet less a commission (usually 5%).
  2. The player pushes (ties) and has their bet refunded when only one of the player’s hands beats one of the banker’s hand. This applies whether the banker has won or tied a hand while losing the other hand.
  3. The player loses their bet when the player loses or ties both hands against the banker.

Pai Gow Poker Hand Rankings

Pai Gow Poker utilizes the same hand rankings as most poker games including Texas hold’em. One big difference between Pai Gow and other forms of poker is the joker in the deck.

In Pai Gow Poker, the joker is treated as an ace unless it can be used to complete a flush or straight.

The hand rankings are identical to that of Texas hold’em except for the two following rules.

  1. Five aces, which can be achieved with the joker, beats a royal flush and is the best hand in Pai Gow Poker.
  2. A wheel straight, e.g. {a-}{2-}{3-}{4-}{5-}, is the second best straight at most casinos, only behind a broadway straight, e.g. {a-}{k-}{q-}{j-}{10-}.

Here is a look at all of the Pai Gow Poker hand rankings. Please take note that in the two-card low hand the best hand that can be achieved is one pair.

Also in the case both the player and the banker have the same hand, the rank of that hand would be used to potentially break a tie. For example, if a player’s {9-}{8-}{7-}{6-}{5-} straight would be stronger than the dealer’s {8-}{7-}{6-}{5-}{4-}{3-} and a player’s {7-}{7-} one pair would be better than a dealer’s {5-}{5-} one pair.

  • Five Aces – five aces including the joker
  • Royal Flush — five cards of the same suit, ranked ace through ten; e.g., {a-Clubs}{k-Clubs}{q-Clubs}{j-Clubs}{10-Clubs}
  • Straight Flush — five cards of the same suit and consecutively ranked; e.g., {9-Diamonds}{8-Diamonds}{7-Diamonds}{6-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds}
  • Four of a Kind — four cards of the same rank; e.g., {j-Clubs}{j-Hearts}{j-Diamonds}{j-Spades}{6-Hearts}
  • Full House — three cards of the same rank and two more cards of the same rank; e.g., {6-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{6-Clubs}{3-Hearts}{3-Diamonds}
  • Flush — any five cards of the same suit; e.g., {a-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{8-Clubs}{6-Clubs}{5-Clubs}
  • Straight — any five cards consecutively ranked; e.g., {j-Clubs}{10-Spades}{9-Hearts}{8-Hearts}{7-Diamonds}
  • Three of a Kind — three cards of the same rank; e.g., {7-Spades}{7-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{q-Spades}{2-Hearts}
  • Two Pair — two cards of the same rank and two more cards of the same rank; e.g., {k-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}{10-Spades}{10-Clubs}{6-Hearts}
  • One Pair — two cards of the same rank; e.g., {9-Hearts}{9-Clubs}{j-Hearts}{4-Clubs}{3-Spades}
  • High Card — five unmatched cards; e.g., {a-Spades}{q-Hearts}{9-Hearts}{6-Clubs}{4-Diamonds} would be called "ace-high"

Pai Gow Poker Side Bets

Both online and live casinos often offer special Pai Gow Poker side bets.

These bets can often be lucrative in the short run, especially those with progressive jackpots, but in general should be avoided as they boast a higher house edge than the base game.

The Fortune Pai Gow Poker side bet is one of the most popular you will see. This side bet looks at all seven of the player’s cards regardless of how it was eventually set.

A natural seven-card straight flush without a wildcard can pay big with this side bet, especially if a progressive jackpot is involved instead of fixed odds. The pay tables can vary but very often players can win with trips or better while other payout structures begin with a full house.

Other side bets include Dealer Bonus, Jackpot, Emperor’s Challenge, Progressive, Insurance, Lucky 8’s, and many more.

As these side bets vary from casino to casino, it is best to ask the dealer, who is usually more than happy to explain, how all the side bets work if interesting in an extra gamble before sitting down to play in a live casino. Likewise, you can read up about all the rules of any side bets your favorite online casino might feature in its Pai Gow offering.

Pai Gow Strategy

Setting a Pai Gow Poker hand can be tricky, although most of the time it is straight forward.

For example, being dealt a {4-Diamonds}{5-Clubs}{6-Spades}{7-Hearts}{8-Hearts}{2-Spades}{2-Clubs} hand plays itself out with a straight going on the bottom high hand and the pair of deuces going on top for the low hand.

Pai Gow Poker Example Hand

But what if you are dealt a hand like {8-Diamonds}{8-Clubs}{9-Diamonds}{9-Spades}{10-Spades}{j-Clubs}{q-Hearts}. Your best two options to choose from are as follows:

  1. Strongest possible hand up top - {q-Hearts}{j-Clubs}{10-Spades}{9-Spades}{8-Diamonds} = high hand for a straight; {9-Diamonds}{8-Clubs} for low hand.
  2. Very strong low hand{9-Diamonds}{9-Spades}{10-Spades}{j-Clubs}{q-Hearts} = high hand for a pair of nines; {8-Diamonds}{8-Clubs} for low hand.

The first hand would almost guarantee a push but it might not be the best option even if it is at first the most intuitive.

Pai Gow Poker Example Hand 3

The second hand presents better options as the pair of eights for the low hand is almost very strong while giving the player a chance for a win with the pair of nine for the high hand often being a winning hand.

Pai Gow Poker Example Hand 2

How to Play Pai Gow Poker Online