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Last Updated: July 6, 2017
Pai Gow Poker
Michael Shackleford: Hi, my name is Mike Shackleford with the Wizardofodds.com website, and I'm here with Angela Wyman and Dan Lubin to try to teach you about Pai Gow poker. Before I get started, a word of explanation. This table here is for easy Pai Gow, which is a little bit different than standard Pai Gow poker, so we're going to pretend this is standard Pai Gow poker, and we'll talk about easy Pai Gow later. Shall we learn by an example?
Dan Lubin: All right, everybody gets a packet of seven cards. Let me look at your hand.
Michael: The object is to separate your seven cards into a five-card high hand according to poker rules, and to two-card low hand. The way the low hand works is a pair of aces would be the highest hand. If you don't have a pair, then it goes by the two singletons. The best non-pair would be Ace-King, and the lowest would be Two-Three.
In your case, I see a pair of queens. Pair hands are really easy to set. You play the pair in the high and the two highest singletons in the low. Let's see what I got. I got the joker. There is one joker in the deck in Pai Gow poker. This can be used to complete a straight, a flush, a straight-flush. Otherwise, it counts as an ace.
Fortunately, this is going to help me complete a straight two different ways. I could do a Nine-Ten-Jack-Queen-King straight using the joker as the queen, playing a Two-Seven in a low, which would be a horrible low hand. Or I can use the joker as an eight, playing a jack-high straight and king-high in the low. This is obviously the better way to play the hand. It's really unlikely that it's going to matter how high my straight is, but a king-high low is significantly better than a seven-high low.
Now the dealer turns over his cards, and he's going to separate them according to casino rules known as "the house way".
Dan: All right then, I have nothing. I have a four of spades, can't make the flush. I have an ace-high Pai Gow, and the ace is the strongest, so it goes into the five card. When I don't have a pair or better, then the second and third cards go up into the low hand, and this is my hand.
Michael: Dan has what's called a "Pai Gow hand", meaning he can't even make a pair, so he's going to play the two highest singletons in the low hand.
Dan: My low hand beats your low hand – King-King, but my ten kicker beats your two kicker, so I win on the low said, but your straight beats my high card high side, so you win, and a split decision is a push.
Michael: Right. I win on the high, lose on the low, so that results in a push.
Dan: Her ace beats my king, and her pair beats my singleton ace, and she wins.
Michael: One of the two ways the house has advantage in Pai Gow poker is that when you win, you have to pay a 5% commission. Angela bet a 100 USD, so she won 95. When in doubt, ask the dealer how would the house set this hand, and the house way is usually the right way.
Angela Wyman: That's a great tip.
Dan: But not always. Generally.
Michael: Okay. Let's see what you got.
Angela: I'm having one pair of hand. The pair should go in bottom, and then my highest single card would go on the top, so I got the Ace-Ten on top, pair of nines on the bottom.
Michael: Exactly. Two highest singletons are on top. Let's see what I got here. I have a full house. Full houses are really obvious. Unless there's other straights or flush muddying the waters, you always separate them, playing the pair in the low and the three of a kind in the high.
Dan: There is one exception. If you have a low pair like fours, or threes, or twos, and you have an Ace-King, then you would play the full house together to be straight or flush on the dealer's high side, with the Ace-King being very strong. But most people just always split it up.
Question 1 - [04:28]
Michael: Can you be specific about this house way exception about splitting up before house?
Dan: Since an Ace-King is about as strong as a pair of twos on the low side, and a full house is significantly stronger than a three of a kind, which is what you have after you split it up, if you have an Ace-King and a pair of twos, keep the full house together, the jacks and the twos Ace-King up. Else you would just split off the pair part
Michael: So, you're saying, if you have an Ace-King singletons and your pair is fours or less, then you play the two high singletons in the low.
Question 2 - [05:03]
Michael: And don't some houses just always split up the full house?
Dan: Yes. In other words, the exception is so rare that if you always split a full house, it almost always plays the same.
Michael: Okay, let's see what you got.
Dan: Let's see what I got. I got Joker-Queen. Now, this is interesting. I've got three pairs.
Question 3 - [05:24]
Michael: You played the high pair in the low, right?
Dan: Right. There's some cases where, if you have a medium pair and two low pairs, you took the middle pair up, because if you're facing a two pair hand on a bottom, you want to beat that too. But as a simple rule of thumb, if you have three pairs, you put the highest pair up, and play a two pair hand on the bottom. My queens meet your eights on top, and your three of a kind beats my two pairs on the bottom, and the split decision is a push.
What do we have got here? You have an Ace-Ten losing to my pair, and your pair of nines is toast to my two-pair.
Michael: Let's try another hand. What do you think you should do?
Angela: I have one pair, so the pairs go on bottom, my Ace-King on top.
Michael: Yes. I have garbage. This is again called the Pai Gow hand. I don't even have a pair, so I am going to play the second and third highest singletons in the low, because I have to play the highest hand in the high.
Dan: I have one pair, no straight, no flush. That's the pair, and that's the ace. My ace beats your ten, and my pair of kings beats your high card sequence. And Ace-King beats Ace-Ten. There's a often lot of face-offs, but my pair of kings beat your pair of sixes. Split decision is a push.
Michael: Okay. Let's play another hand, shall we?
Dan: All right.
Angela: Thank you. I've got the two pair hand.
Michael: Two pairs are the trickiest hand in Pai Gow poker. You could keep the two pair together in the high hand and have a pretty strong high hand, and play two singletons in the low or you could separate the two pair, playing the higher pair in the high and the low pair in the low. So, there's a tradeoff – do you want to play a strong high hand, or strong low hand? There's no one way that works for every situation. You have to consider the both of the pairs and your highest singleton.
I'm going to explain a rule that's in my book and on my website, called "the nine-fifteen rule". Here's how it works. For the two pairs, you count the number of points in each pair. Twos through tens, counting hit value, jacks being 11 points, queens 12, kings 13, and aces 14. in this case, we got two points here, 11 points here. Two plus 11 means 13.
Here's what my rule says to do. If you have nine points or less, then if you had a king, or a singleton you would play that high singleton in the low. Otherwise you would maintain the two pairs. If you have 15 points, to 10 points, then if you have an ace singleton, you would play the ace in the low and the two pair in the high. Otherwise you would separate the two pair. If you had 16 points or more, then you always separate the two par. So usually you're going to be separating the two pair, but there are exceptions. This is one of those exceptions.
And it's intuitive. Why? Here we got a pair of twos in the low. You can significantly increase the high by playing the two pair, and you're not significantly decreasing the low by playing an Ace-Eight, because Ace-Eight is not that much worse than a pair of twos. So, my advice is to play the Ace-Eight in the low hand, but two highest singletons and hope for the best.
Dan: I have four diamonds with the joker, I got a pair of threes, so I can't make the straight. I have a pair of three solid bottom and an Ace-King on top, and she's got Ace-Eight, and jacks and twos, and she's a push, 'cause my Ace-King is over her Ace-Eight on the top and we'll just push this round.
Over her Ace eight on the top and we just push this round
Mike: All right, shall we play another game.
Mike: Let’s see what you got. Another two-pair hand. So, you’ve got Queens and threes. So that would be 12 points for the Queens. Three points for the threes. So that’s 15 points. So, if you have an A Singleton then you play the two highest singletons in the low. So, you meet my exception therefore maintain the two pair by the Ace, King and 11. Let’s see what I’ve got. This is complicated. So, remember the Joker can be used to complete a straight four flush. So, there’s two viable ways I could play this hand. I can use it to complete the flush, and I’m going to have a great high hand and a horrible low hand. This is almost certain I’m going to push and I could also use the joker to complete a straight. So, I’ve got seven, six, five, four, three.
Dan: and a two.
Mike: I’ve actually got a seven card straight which would be great for some side bets but we’re not talking about that right now. So, I’m going to make my best possible low hand which would be this and play the low straight. So, my choices are flush and a horrible low hand or a straight and a mediocre low hand. Now correct me if I’m wrong, Dan, but when you can play a straight or a flush you go with the way resulting in the highest low hand.
Dan: Yes. That’s right. And I’ve got Ace, King, nine, eight, eight, seven, five. I just have a pair of eights, and an Ace King. The split decision is a push. And it’s a push it’s got. Two pairs on the bottom, Ace King on, and we copy on top.
Question 4 - [12:03]
Mike: So, Dan, tell us what a copy is.
Dan: All right. The copy is a hand that is equivalent. It’s not better. It’s not weaker. It’s the same.
Mike: It’s exactly the same.
Dan: The same in terms of poker value. And in that case the coin toss gives it to the one who is banking which in this case is The House. Now since The House is banking the game The House wins this copy. So, The House wins the top by the copy rule. And your hand on the bottom is better than my hand because you have two pairs. I have one pair so it’s a split decision, and it’s a push. You don’t lose.
Question 5 - [12:43]
Angela: Okay, Mike. But that raises a question for me. You’re saying the tie goes to the banker. Is the banker always the same person? The dealer is not always the banker right now?
Mike: Yes. To make things even more confusing, the dealer is not necessarily the banker in both Pai Gow Poker and Pai Gow Tiles. The way it works is that the players have the opportunity to bank in turn. And if you wish to bank, and it’s your turn to then you’re going to be playing against every other player at the table as well as the dealer. So, this gives you an advantage because you are now going to win on any copies.
Dan: So, if Angie was banking, she would have won that hand.
Mike: Exactly. So, my advice is that you should bank whenever the turn comes your way and you’re comfortable with how much the other players are betting. Now, if you’re a hundred-dollar player here and somebody else is betting a thousand dollars that might be more than your comfortable with losing, in which case, you just got to decline it.
Dan: You would also be banking against other people at the table. You are not playing against the dealer with the amount of money you have on your spot. You are banking against the amount of money on everybody else’s spot. And if get a really bad hand that loses to the rest of the table, you pay the rest of the table.
Mike: Often times you’ll be playing by yourself in which case there’s absolutely no reason to decline banking. And you may be wondering, “How much is the dealer going to bet against me?” He is going to bet the same amount that you bet against him the last time the dealer was banking.
Dan: Right. So, if you were betting a hundred dollars a hand and you felt, “Well, I’m losing some money. Let me drop down to $10.” Then right after that hand you get the bank, you can’t say to me, “I want to bank for a hundred.” I’ll say, “Your last hand was 10 bucks. That’s the most you can bank.”
Mike: Another good thing about banking is that if there’s a bunch of players, the 5% commission applies to the total net win not on the hand by hand basis which works to your advantage. Mathematically speaking, the house advantage when you’re not banking is about 2.5%. When you are banking it’s right around break even because the effect of winning on copies almost exactly offsets the 5% commission. If you want to bank and you should want to bank you have to be vigilant sometimes about invoking your right when it’s your turn. Hardly any players even want to bank so the dealers almost never will ask you, “Do you want to bank” when it’s your turn. And there will be a white pock that moves around the table to show whose turn it is but sometimes the dealer doesn’t use it or it’s not clear whose turn it is. In that case never hesitate to tell the dealer, ask the dealer, it’s my turn to bank.
Dan: Right, if nobody had banked in the past three hands or two hands on a busy table, on a full table and the dealer forgot to move the button, the first person who requests to bank without any other player objecting should be able to bank.
Mike: And if any of this is not clear, it’s all on my website.