Pai gow poker is derived from the Chinese domino game pai gow. Unlike typical casino card games like blackjack, this game can run more slowly and offers a longer amount of playtime for the investment. To find out the best strategies for winning Pai Gow, let’s first look at how the game is played.
Pai Gow utilizes all 52 card and one joker gamimg -53 in total. The basic object is for each player to create two poker hands out of the seven cards he receives. The dealer places seven facedown piles of seven cards per pile. The remaining cards are unused no matter how many people are playing (up to seven people may play). It is important to note that even if there are only two people playing, one player and the dealer, the cards are dealt as if there were seven people at the table.
The players’ betting depends on his position from one to seven; the dealer is included in the play and the dealer can change from to any player from time to time depending upon house rules. Betting positions can either start with the dealer and then go counter-clockwise or can be determined by random numbers chosen electronically or by a pair of dice.
The object of the game is for a player to create two hands out of the seven cards the dealer gives him. The players five-card hand is ranked just as in five-card draw poker, the two-card hand is ranked as pairs or the higher of the two cards. After initial wagers have been placed, play begins with the first person showing his best five hand card and best two-card hand. The joker is usually wild. This continues with all the other players until everyone has completed their five and two card hands. Then the dealer, or seventh player takes his turn. To win, beginning with the first player he must beat the dealers five card hand and then two card hand.
If the player hands are tied with the dealers, the game for the player ends with the dealer getting the money. If the player beats the dealer on both hands, he wins money, less a 5% commission to the dealer. If the player wins one, but loses the other, the game ends in a push.
Okay, to figure out the best strategy here, let’s look at what some experts do. One choice is to pre-pay commissions, which you are allowed to do. For instance, if you are betting $100, pay $105. The reason this is better is that it lowers your commission from 5% to 4.76%. Another strategy may be the cards dealt to the non-players.
Remember seven piles are dealt even if there are only four people playing. A player has the option to trade with these non-playing or “dragon” cards; these cards may hold higher hands than what you have. Further, try and make your two-card hand higher than your five-card hand. The best source of strategies we found was on Wikipedia1 that explained how to determine what is your best hand. Experts have contributed to Wikipedia’s strategies and we offer them here and have noted our source in the footnote area:
If a player has no pairs, straights or flushes, he can set the second- and third-highest cards in his two-card hand. For example, with K-Q-J-9-7-4-3 he can play Q-J and K-9-7-4-3. There are a few minor exceptions to this, for example, with A-Q-10-9-5-4-2 it is slightly better to play Q-9 and A-10-5-4-2, but these situations are rare and do not affect a player’s win rate much.
If a player has nothing but a single pair, he can set it in his five-card hand and put the two highest remaining cards in his two-card hand. For example, with A-Q-Q-9-6-5-3 he can play A-9 and Q-Q-6-5-3. There are no exceptions to this rule. This and the above rule will cover approximately 65% of played hands.
Two pair is the most common case where strategy isn’t obvious. A player can either play high pair behind and small pair in front, or else two pair behind and high cards in front. The smaller the high pair and higher the remaining cards, the more inclined he should be to play two pair behind. If his side cards are small or his larger pair is large, he should split the pairs. He should always split the pairs if his high pair is of aces, and should almost always split if his high pair is of kings or queens: they are high enough by themselves. With cards like J-J-4-4-A-Q-5 he can consider playing A-Q and J-J-4-4-5- since A-Q in front is not much worse than 4-4; however, two pair behind is much better than a single pair of jacks. A player with jacks and tens might be more inclined to split, because tens in front is much better than A-Q. With pairs as small as 7s and 8s, a player might consider playing two pair behind if he can play a king-high or better in front. With 2s and 3s he may even play as little as a queen-high in front. If he has no side cards higher than a jack, he should always split pairs, even 2s and 3s (most house ways split if there’s a pair of 6s or higher, and split small pairs if there’s no ace for the low hand).
Three pair is a very good hand. A player should always play the highest pair in front with no exceptions. For example, with K-K-7-7-4-4-A he should play K-K and 7-7-4-4-A.
If a player has three of a kind and nothing else, he should play three of a kind behind and the remaining high cards in front unless they are aces. He should always split three aces, playing a pair of aces behind and ace-high in front. Occasionally, he can even split three kings if his remaining side cards are not queen-high; for example, with K-K-K-J-9-7-6 it is slightly better to play K-J and K-K-9-7-6 than to play J-9 and K-K-K-7-6. Most house ways only split three aces.
If a player can play a straight or a flush or both, he should play whichever straight-or-better five-card hand makes the best two-card hand. For example, with K`-9`-8c-7`-6c-5`-4` playing the flush would put 8-6 in front, playing the 9-high straight would put K-4 up front, but the correct play is K-9 and 8-7-6-5-4. Occasionally the player will have a straight or flush with two pair; in that case, he should play as if it were two pair and ignore the straight or flush. This rule applies even if a player can play a straight flush; if a straight or flush makes a better hand in front, play it that way.