The ancient Chinese game of pai gow uses a set of 32 dominoes, but pai gow poker is a form of the game that instead uses a traditional deck of 52 cards (plus one Joker). This makes pai gow rules easier to learn and play, especially for players in the West who are used to card-based table games.
In this pai gow poker tutorial you’ll find out how to play this fun, classic card game, both online and in a land-based casino, as well as pick up some useful pai gow poker strategy tips to help you beat the dealer the next time you play.
How to Play Pai Gow for Beginners
Based on pai gow dominoes, one of the world’s oldest gambling games, pai gow poker is a casino game played against the dealer, in a similar vein as other card games, like blackjack or baccarat.
While you will be trying to make good poker hands (see below), you will not be wagering on the strength of your hand – or trying to make other players fold – such as you would in a traditional poker game. Rather, you will be using the cards you are dealt to form poker hands, which you hope will beat the dealer’s own hands. Once cards are dealt there are no betting rounds, or opportunities to draw new cards.
The key element in pai gow poker rules is that each round sees you forming two separate poker hands, one of five cards and a weaker one of just two cards.
Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, learning how to play pai gow poker is simple, fast and fun. Let’s take a step-by-step look at how to play a pai gow poker hand.
Pai Gow Poker – Step-by-Step
- Each player, including the dealer, is dealt seven cards.
- Players select two cards to be their ‘front’, or ‘low’ hand. As only two cards are used, the strongest possible hand is a pair.
- The five remaining cards form their ‘back’, or ‘high’ hand. This must be a stronger hand than their front hand, according to traditional poker hand rankings.
- Once hands are set, each player compares their two poker hands with those of the dealer.
- If the player beats the dealer on both hands, the player wins. If the dealer beats them on both hands, the player loses. If they win one hand and lose the other, the game is tied and they receive their stake back.
- If a hand is tied, e.g. both player and dealer have Ace-King as their front hand, it is deemed to be a win for the dealer.
A player win is paid at even money, i.e. winning players receive double their initial wager. However, similarly to baccarat, winnings are usually subject to a commission of around 5% (for example, a winning wager of $20 will see a player receive $39 in winnings). In certain casinos this commission may be replaced by a standard cost-per-hand. Always be sure to check the specific rules of any pai gow poker games you play.
Pai Gow Poker Guide – Poker Hand Rankings
It’s important to know what hand beats what in any poker game, and pai gow poker is no different. You’ll want to make the strongest hands you can, while always remembering one of the most important rules of pai gow poker: ensuring your back hand is stronger than your front hand.
And don’t forget: in pai gow poker rules a Joker is used, which can be used to fill a flush or straight, or counted as an Ace. This means it is possible to make a hand of five Aces.
This list contains every poker hand it is possible to make in pai gow poker, from strongest to weakest.
Poker Hand Example Five Aces Ah – Ac – Ad – As – Joker Royal Flush Th – Jh – Qh – Kh – Ah Straight Flush 4d – 5d – 6d – 7d – 8d Four of a Kind Kh – Kd – Ks – Kc – X* Full House 3c – 3d – 3s – 6c – 6s Flush 4d – 5d – Jd – Qd – Ad Straight 8d – 9c – Ts – Js – Qc Three of a Kind Js – Jd – Jh – X – X Two Pair As – Ah – 5c – 5s – X One Pair 8c – 8d – X – X – X High Card As – Kd – 9s – 5c – 2d
Ah – Ac – Ad – As – Joker
Th – Jh – Qh – Kh – Ah
4d – 5d – 6d – 7d – 8d
Four of a Kind
Kh – Kd – Ks – Kc – X*
3c – 3d – 3s – 6c – 6s
4d – 5d – Jd – Qd – Ad
8d – 9c – Ts – Js – Qc
Three of a Kind
Js – Jd – Jh – X – X
As – Ah – 5c – 5s – X
8c – 8d – X – X – X
As – Kd – 9s – 5c – 2d
* ‘X’ = any non-related card.
A high card hand that contains no pairs, straights or flushes is known as a ‘Pai Gow’.
Ties and Kickers
When both player and dealer have the same hand, there are different methods of determining which is strongest, as follows:
Tied Poker Hand Which Hand Wins? Example Four of a Kind The higher ranked Four of a Kind 9-9-9-9-X beats 8-8-8-8-X Full House The higher-ranked three cards 8-8-8-2-2 beats 7-7-7-A-A Flush The highest card, followed by the next highest cards if tied A-K-J-8-2 suited beats A-K-J-6-3 suited Straight The higher straight Q-J-T-9-8 beats T-9-8-7-6 Three of a Kind The higher-ranked three cards 7-7-7-X-X beats 4-4-4-X-X Two Pair The highest pair, followed by the next pair if tied A-A-4-4-X beats K-K-Q-Q-X One Pair The highest pair, followed by the next highest cards if tied K-K-X-X-X beats Q-Q-X-X-X High Card (‘Pai Gow’) The highest card, followed by the next highest cards if tied K-Q-6-3-2 beats K-J-T-7-6
Tied Poker Hand
Which Hand Wins?
Four of a Kind
The higher ranked Four of a Kind
9-9-9-9-X beats 8-8-8-8-X
The higher-ranked three cards
8-8-8-2-2 beats 7-7-7-A-A
The highest card, followed by the next highest cards if tied
A-K-J-8-2 suited beats A-K-J-6-3 suited
The higher straight
Q-J-T-9-8 beats T-9-8-7-6
Three of a Kind
The higher-ranked three cards
7-7-7-X-X beats 4-4-4-X-X
The highest pair, followed by the next pair if tied
A-A-4-4-X beats K-K-Q-Q-X
The highest pair, followed by the next highest cards if tied
K-K-X-X-X beats Q-Q-X-X-X
High Card (‘Pai Gow’)
The highest card, followed by the next highest cards if tied
K-Q-6-3-2 beats K-J-T-7-6
Where hands continue to be tied, they may be split by the highest ‘kicker’. For example, if a player and dealer both have Two Pair, Aces and Kings, the highest-ranked fifth card would be the winner, so A-A-K-K-7 would beat A-A-K-K-6. In poker, these unpaired cards are called ‘kickers’.
Where hands are exactly the same, they are classified as a tie; per pai gow poker rules, all ties are considered wins for the dealer.
Note that, unlike most forms of other, the second highest straight in pai gow poker is A-2-3-4-5 (with T-J-Q-K-A being the highest, and 9-T-J-Q-K being the third highest).
How to Play Pai Gow Poker Online
Playing pai gow poker online is simple, fun and does not require a great deal of experience. Using the tips in this tutorial, you’ll have the best chance to learn how to play pai gow poker and win. While it is similar to learning how to play poker, you will need a different approach for the best results. That is why we will also include some pointers on how to use a successful pai gow poker strategy.
1. Find a Place to Play
Choose a reputable online casino site on which to play (see our list below for the best places to play pai gow poker online).
2. Create Your Account
Follow links on the site to ‘Sign Up’ and create your new account. If you choose to play for real money you will need to provide some proof of ID/location.
3. Find a Table
Find a pai gow poker game – you’ll usually find them listed under the ‘Table Games’ section – and open the table.
4. Place your bet
Select the stake you wish to wager and hit the ‘Deal’ button. In the example below, you can choose your stake at the bottom (from units of $0.25 to $50), then click in the center circle to place your wager, then hit ‘Deal’ on the lower right side once you are happy with the stake you have chosen. Here we have chosen to wager $50.
5. Set your cards
You will be dealt seven cards. Click or tap on the two that you wish to use in your front/low hand, then select ‘Split’. You can also elect to let the software make the decision for you by choosing ‘Autosplit’ (the two cards the software will select will be highlighted). In this example we are choosing the King and Jack for the front hand, with a pair of 9s in the back.
The dealer reveals their hands and each is compared. Here we see that the dealer has made a Straight at the back (using the Joker), which beats our pair of Nines, but only has a Ten-high at the front, which we beat with our King-high. With each of us winning one hand, it is a tie and we win our $50 back.
Pai Gow Poker Strategy
As mentioned above, it is usually possible to allow the software to make decisions for you at pai gow poker online tables, but gaining an understanding of optimal strategy is well within the grasp of all players, even beginners who are just learning how to play pai gow poker. Plus, you already have an advantage if you are familiar with a poker strategy.
- Fundamental to any decision you make is the fact that your back hand MUST be stronger than your front hand.
- If your hand contains one pair and nothing else, put the pair at the back and your two highest unpaired cards in front.
- If your hand contains two pairs and nothing else, it is generally advisable to place the lower pair in front and the higher pair behind.
- If five of your cards make a Straight or Flush, it is usually best practice to place them at the back where they will win a large percentage of the time.
- If you have no pairs, Straights or Flushes, it is a good idea to place your highest card in your back hand, and your second- and third-highest cards in front.
Pai Gow Dealer Rules – The House Way
Pai gow poker is similar to blackjack, in that it is a game of decision-making where you play versus the dealer. And just like blackjack, there are pai gow dealer rules in place to ensure that the dealer follows strict guidelines when it comes to making those decisions. This means that whoever is dealing, human or machine, they will take the same prescribed actions and play the same way. In pai gow poker, this is known as the ‘House Way’.
Specifics of the House Way may vary slightly from site to site, but it generally follows the advice outlined above, with the following additions and tweaks:
- With Two Pair (no Ace), split across front and back if one of the pairs is 7s or higher.
- Two Pair (with an Ace), split across front and back only if the pairs are Jacks or better plus 7s or better.
- Three of a Kind are always kept together unless they are Aces, when two Aces will be put in the back and one in the front.
- If a Straight and Flush are both possible, the Straight will be played at the back if the front will be improved by doing so.
- With Four of a Kind, 2s through 6s are kept together and played at the back; 7s through Ts are split into two pairs, unless the hand contains an Ace to play at the front; Js through Ks are split with a pair in both hands.
Studying a site’s House Way is a great way of leveling up your pai gow poker strategy – after all, casinos aren’t known for losing. Many online pai gow poker tables will also offer you the chance to play the House Way with a simple button tap.
Pai Gow Poker Payouts
As mentioned above, winning wagers in pai gow poker are paid at even money (1:1), minus any commission that may be applied. But that’s not the only way to win at a pai gow poker table.
Pai Gow Poker Side Bets – The Fortune Bonus
The illustration below shows bonus payouts that can be won when making side bets – often known as a ‘Fortune Bonus’. To be eligible for these extra payouts, a player must post an additional wager in the betting circle next to the main circle in the middle of the table (in this case, the circle with the yellow Chinese symbol), in addition to their regular wager.
Once this extra wager is made, the player is eligible to win much bigger pai gow poker payouts, depending on the hand that they make. As you can see, payouts for these rarer hands can be much larger than the simple 1:1 payouts for winning hands.
The seven-card straight flush pays out 8,000:1 in the example above, which is one of the highest returns offered in any casino table game. The second highest bonus payout, 2,000:1, is for a ‘Royal Flush with Suited Royals’. Also known as a ‘Royal Flush with Royal Match’, this hand consists of a five-card Royal Flush (A-K-Q-J-T of the same suit), PLUS a suited King and Queen of a different suit.
While these large potential wins can hold an obvious appeal – who wouldn’t want to make an 8,000x return on their money? – players should be wary of these optional wagers.
While 8,000:1 seems like a great bet, the actual odds of being dealt a seven-card straight flush, without the Joker, are actually closer to 800,000:1. Similarly, getting a 400:1 payout for making five Aces looks great…until you realize the actual odds are closer to 140,000:1.
Exercising some self-control in these moments can save you money in the long run, but it’s not always easy to do – especially when you see other players at the table hitting big hands. That leads us to one other way of wagering at Pai Gow Poker: Envy Bets.
Envy Bets allow players to win if other players at the same table make certain qualifying hands. As this is a feature requiring multiple players at the table, it’s something you’re much more likely to see at a ‘brick & mortar’ land-based casino than an online site, although some online casinos do feature multiplayer versions of pai gow poker.
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Different Types of Pai Gow
With the pai gow poker tips, rules and strategies explained on this page, you’ll be well-equipped to handle yourself at any table. Yet there are a few different varieties of pai gow poker to be aware of.
- Most importantly, remember there is a clear distinction between the games of pai gow, and pai gow poker. The first is played with dominoes and, while it has many similarities, is a different game to the card-based table game so popular in casinos, both online and off. Rest assured that the game you’re more likely to find at the best online casinos will be pai gow poker.
- You may find options for both multiplayer and single-player pai gow poker when playing online, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. One drawback of a single-player table is that it is not possible to place Envy Bets, given the lack of other players, while some players may miss the camaraderie and social aspect of playing a multiplayer game (multiplayer tables will often feature a chat function). However, being able to play at precisely your own pace – as well as never having to wait for other players – is an advantage of single-player tables. If you’re just starting out playing pai gow poker, we’d always recommend trying a single-player table first to get used to the game.
How to Play Pai Gow Poker in Vegas (and Land-Based Casinos)
Pai gow poker rules are fundamentally the same whether playing at a land-based casino or an online casino, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some differences to keep an eye out for.
A physical pai gow poker table will have no more than six seats for players, plus a dealer. Find a table that has an open seat and make sure it is accepting wagers at the stake level you wish to play (minimum stakes should be clearly marked on the table and easy to see before taking a seat). Signal to the dealer that you wish to be dealt in, and when a new hand is ready to be dealt place the chip(s) you wish to wager in the betting circle – plus any optional Fortune Bonus or Envy Bets.
After receiving your cards, set your two poker hands and position them face-up in the boxes marked ‘High’ (for your five-card hand) and ‘Low’ (for your two-card hand). When all players have set their hands, the dealer will set their hand (according to the House Way), compare their hand with those of the players, and pay out any winning players by placing chips next to the chips they wagered.
Take any winnings and add them to your stack, and place your next wager if you wish to play again. You may leave the game whenever you choose.
Acting as the Dealer
Certain casinos will offer the chance for players to act as the dealer, which can give the player the benefit of winning tied hands but can also lead to greater liability, as the dealer is effectively playing against six different hands at once.
When a player is acting as the dealer they will still be required to pay a commission on their winning hands, while the casino dealer will also play a hand (according to the House Way) as if they are another player at the table. The stake wagered by the casino dealer in this instance is usually equal to the last wager the player-dealer made before adopting the status of dealer.
Check the Payouts
When it comes to pai gow rules, one thing to be aware of when playing at any land-based casino – or indeed, any online casino – is the returns offered for side bets. These can vary greatly from table to table, casino to casino and site to site, so if making side bets is something you enjoy when playing pai gow poker, it makes sense to play at a table that offers the most generous returns. Luckily, the returns offered for side bets will always be prominently displayed on the table itself.
If you need some pai gow poker tips when you’re figuring out how to play pai gow poker in Vegas, don’t be afraid to ask your dealer. As with any table game, the casino will usually be happy to give you a quick pai gow poker tutorial.
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