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Pai Gow

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Pai Gow poker (pronounced pie gow) is thought to have originated in the United States during the late 1800s when Chinese workers built the railroads. It‘s a synthesis of American poker and the Chinese domino game pai gow (Pai Gow poker is usually called ‘Pai Gow’ as well, so be aware they both have the same name). It’s played with a 52-card deck plus one joker at a table that resembles the kind used in blackjack. It’s also similar to blackjack in that there is considerable interaction with other players as they’re playing against the house and not each other.

Pai Gow has few decisions per hour and, after Caribbean Stud, is the slowest table in the casino. The advantage of this is that you can play for a much longer time with your buy-in and after hours of gambling, you’ll lose less playing Pai Gow than most other casino games. On average, twenty-four hands are played per hour; comparatively, blackjack averages sixty hands per hour.

Some casinos will let the players act as the dealer/banker, but usually with limitations of once every seven hands. When a player chooses to be the banker, they play their hands against each player and must have enough chips in their stack to pay out all the other players’ wagers in case they all win. If the banker-player beats a player, they take their wager, minus the 5% commission, which is still paid out to the casino.


The objective is to assemble one 5-card poker hand and one 2-card Guts hand that rank higher than both of the dealer’s (or banker’s) two hands.


The game is played with a 53-card deck: a standard 52-card deck and a joker (also called a ‘bug’), which can only be used as an Ace or to finish a straight, flush, straight-flush or royal flush. Up to a maximum of six players and a dealer can play at a time.

Once you’ve taken your seat at the table, place your bet in the betting circle, which is the circled number (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Pai Gow table

After everyone has placed their opening bet, the dealer selects a random number which will determine who is dealt first. The dealer does this by using an electronic device or by rolling three dice. If the sum of the three dice is more than seven, subtract seven from the total and that’s the random number. If the sum is seven or less, that’s the random number. Each position is assigned a number, with one starting directly to the right of the dealer and moving clockwise.

The dealer gives everyone seven cards face-down. The players pick up their cards and organize them into two hands: one five-card hand (‘low hand’ or ‘back hand’) and one two-card hand (‘high hand’ or ‘front hand’). This is referred to as ‘setting the cards.’ There is a rule for how you select your two hands: the five-card hand has to be stronger than the two-card hand. This means if you have two pair, you have to put the highest pair in your five-card hand. If a player doesn’t follow this rule and picks a higher-ranking hand for their two-card hand, they foul the hand and automatically lose their bet.

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The five-card hand is ranked the same as regular poker hands, with an additional hand, five Aces (four Aces and the joker), beating out a royal flush. Also, A-2-3-4-5 is the second-highest ranking straight. The two-card hand can only be a pair of cards or a high card.

After players choose their two hands, they place their hands face-down on the corresponding low and high hand circles on the table right in front of their seat. Remember, the two-card hand is the high hand, and the five-card hand is the low hand.

Once all of the players’ cards are placed on their appropriate circles, the dealer flips over their cards and organizes them into two hands according to the ‘house way.’ All of the players flip over their five-card hands, followed by the dealer, and each player compares their hand to the dealer’s. Any players’ losing hands are flipped face-down. The same is then done with the two-card hands. (Some poker books say the two-card hands are compared first, so be aware there is some variation in how the game is played.)

Determining the payout is as follows:

In order to win at Pai Gow poker, your two hands need to beat the dealer’s two hands. If they do, you’re paid out in even money, minus the house’s commission, which is usually 5%. So if you bet $25, you’ll win $23.75 ($25 minus 5% commission of $1.25).

If the dealer beats both of your hands, you lose your entire bet.

If one of your hands won, but not the other, this is called a ‘push,’ and you’re given your bet back.

If you and the dealer have identically-ranking hands for either the high or low hand (or both), this is called a ‘copy’ and the dealer wins that hand. If it was just one of the hands that was a copy and your other hand beat the dealer, this is a push and you get your bet back. If both high and low hands were copies, the dealer keeps your bet.

To get tips on selecting your hands and improving your odds of winning at Pai Gow poker, click here for strategies.


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