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How To Play Pai Gow Poker

Home » How To Play Pai Gow Poker

How To Play Pai Gow Poker

Chinese pai gow tiles on a red background.

Pai Gow poker draws on Asian gaming culture to deliver an entertaining alternative to familiar competitive variants such as Texas Hold’em poker. Instead of testing your skills against other players, you draw on your knowledge of the cards to form a strong and a weak hand in a bid to beat the banker’s hands. 

Fun and straightforward, Pai Gow is perfect if you’re looking for the kind of online poker that doesn’t require deep strategic thought but still provides a satisfying challenge. This is one of the many reasons why online poker is so popular across the globe today. Take a look at our guide to learn how to play poker games online the Pai Gow way.

The History of Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow poker is based on the ancient Chinese game of Pai Gow (“make nine,”) which is a form of dominoes that goes as far back as the year 960 AD. In Pai Gow, up to eight players each choose four dominoes from a facedown stack of tiles. The players then form two hands of two tiles, a weaker hand called the front hand and a stronger hand called the rear hand. 

Players compare their front and rear hands with the banker’s hands and win even money on their bet if they beat both of them. This may sound fairly simple, but Pai Gow is notoriously difficult to learn, thanks to a complicated set of special rules concerning matching pairs, un-matching pairs, “gongs” and “wongs” and the mysterious power of Gee Joon tiles. Talk about getting lost in translation. That’s where Pai Gow poker comes in. 

Back in 1985, Sam Torosian, owner of the Bell Card Club in Las Vegas, was looking for a way to attract more Asian customers. He heard about a card game called pu soy, in which players get 13 cards and set three hands to beat the banker’s hands. This was still too complicated and slow for casino purposes, so Torosian developed a simplified version that retained the hand-setting element but with a reduced number of hands and cards. And that’s how Pai Gow poker was born. Today it’s considered one of the best online poker variants for recreational players.

How To Play Poker Pai Gow Style

Pai gow tiles and poker chips on a red background.

Pai Gow poker is a game for up to six players and a banker, usually played by the casino dealer. The aim of the game is to form two poker hands that can beat the dealer. Pai Gow poker rules are not especially complicated. After placing your bet, all players at the table receive seven cards each from a 52-card pack, including the joker. You then split your cards into a rear hand of five cards and a front hand of two cards and place the front hand up front. 

The rule is that your rear hand has to beat your front hand according to standard poker hand rankings. These, to jog your memory, are high card, pairs, two pair, three of a kind, straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, straight flush and royal flush. The joker can only be used to complete a flush or straight; otherwise, it counts as an ace. In addition, some houses count the wheel (ace, 2, 3, 4, 5) as the second-highest straight. Once all players have set their hands, it’s showdown time as the banker reveals their cards.

An interesting fact is that, in Pai Gow, poker cards are dealt in a peculiar way. Once the cards are shuffled, the dealer creates seven piles, each containing seven face-down cards. These piles are for each player at the table, including the dealer themselves. The twist is that there are four extra cards that don’t belong to anyone and end up in the discard pile, also known as the muck.

Also interesting is that each seat at the table has a number from one to seven, starting with the banker. A random number is chosen to determine who gets dealt cards first. The dealer then starts distributing the cards in a counter-clockwise direction, moving from player to player. 

Pai Gow Poker: How To Play It in Seven Steps

  1. Receive seven cards.
  2. Create a five-card “high” hand (back hand/big hand.)
  3. Form a two-card “low” hand (front hand/small hand.)
  4. Compare your hands to the dealer’s hands.
  5. Win if both of your hands beat the dealer’s hands.
  6. Lose if both of your hands are lower than the dealer’s hands.
  7. Push (tie) if one of your hands wins and the other loses.

Winning at Pai Gow Poker

There are three possible outcomes at showdown. If your front and rear hands beat the banker’s front and rear hands, you win your bet (minus a 5% house commission.) If the banker’s front and rear hands win, you lose your bet. If either your front or rear hand beats the banker’s front or rear hand, it’s a push: You get your bet back and play again. 

This happens a lot in Pai Gow poker, making it a great game for low-risk players. It’s important to note that when comparing hands, ties go to the banker. Say your front hand is a pair of twos and the banker’s is too. In that case, the banker wins.

The House Way

In Pai Gow poker, bankers are required to set their hands according to a specific set of procedures known as the “house way.” These procedures will vary from casino to casino, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the house way at the venue of your choice. Here are some examples from a major casino:

  • High card: The highest card goes in the rear hand and the second and third highest form the front hand.
  • One pair: The pair always goes in the rear hand and the highest-ranking cards go in the front hand.
  • Two pairs: Split pairs and play the lowest pair in the front hand.
  • Three pairs: The highest pair goes into the front hand.

These are only a few examples to give you an idea, as the house way can get quite complicated. For example, the banker has to set their hand differently for a straight, flush, straight flush or royal flush depending on whether they have no pair, a pair, two pair, three pair, three of a kind or full house. The bottom line is that understanding how the banker has to set their hands can help you with your strategy.

Pai Gow Poker Strategy

A stack of pai gow tiles with poker chips on a table.

Unlike the banker, you have total freedom to set your hands the way you like, always remembering that your rear hand has to beat your front hand. As a rule, it’s a good idea to put pairs or high cards in your front hand. Pocket aces are the best since they’ll most likely beat the banker’s front hand. But you can only do that if your rear hand is better than pocket aces. If it isn’t, you commit a foul and lose the hand. Here are some basic Pai Gow poker strategy tips to get you started:

  • If you’re dealt a pair or better, put the highest card in the rear hand and the two second-highest cards in front.
  • Play three of a kind on your rear hand unless they’re triple aces, in which case play the high ace in front and the other two in the rear.
  • If you have four of a kind that are jacks or better, split them into two pairs.
  • Split full houses into three of a kind and a pair. If you have an extra pair, play the high pair in your front hand.

In general, study all seven of your cards closely to see how to split them most effectively.

If you’re really determined to make this your poker game, you cannot discount the power of poker coaching. There are experienced players and professionals who offer coaching services to help individuals improve their Pai Gow poker skills and strategies. These coaches provide guidance, tips and personalized training to enhance the gameplay and decision-making abilities of aspiring players. Whether you are a beginner looking to learn the basics or an experienced player aiming to refine your techniques, Pai Gow coaching can be a valuable resource to elevate your game.

Play Real Poker Online at BetMGM

Keen to try your hand at online Pai Gow poker? Register at BetMGM to play Fortune Pai Gow Poker online. If you’re looking for more competitive poker games online, you can also play all the popular variants of Seven-Card Stud, Omaha and Texas Hold’em poker.

The daily and weekly online poker tournaments give you the chance to play poker online against opponents of every skill level. Beyond the online poker room, you’re welcome to explore BetMGM’s broad range of entertaining online video slots and captivating table games.

Pai Gow poker is an exciting fusion of Asian gaming culture and traditional poker. Here’s how to play this unique twist on the popular Texas Hold’em poker.