Pai Gow Poker

Pai gow (Chinese: 牌九; pinyin: pái jiǔ; jyutping: paai4 gau2) is a gambling game that originated in China. The game is traditionally played with a set of 32 dominoes. Roughly translated, the game is make-nine.

The game of Pai Gow Poker really has nothing to do with the game of Pai Gow tiles, with the exception that the very worst hand is 9-high; a hand with no pairs, straights or flushes.

Pai Gow Poker is played with a standard 52-card deck of English playing cards and a single joker. The joker may only be used as an ace, or to complete a straight or flush. All hands are played with a total of seven cards which are placed into two groups: a high hand with 5 cards, and a low hand with 2 cards. Hand values follow standard poker hands with the exception that the second highest straight (after Ace-K, Q, J, T) is Ace-2, 3, 4, 5.

How to Play the Game

Players make their bet and the dealer deals cards to each player and themselves. However, the first hand is decided at random by a random number generator that chooses a number between 1 and 9, or a set of three dice that total 3 to 18. The dealer spot is traditionally 1, then the player spots, then back to the dealer spot for number 8, etc. ultimately there is no advantage to which spot gets which hand.

The object of the game is to make a pair of hands higher than both of the dealer’s, and no matter how you set your cards, the high hand of 5 cards must be higher than the low hand of 2 cards. If you accidently miss-set your hand you will likely lose your money immediately, as it is a fouled hand. Be precise with your hand setting!

To win, a player must beat both of the dealer’s hands, and vice versa. As an example, suppose the player holds A-2,3,4,5,6,Q. They should set their cards this way: 2,3,4,5,6 straight for their high hand and A-Q as their low hand. Suppose the dealer hold’s A-2,3,4,5,6, K. They would also set their high hand as 2,3,4,5,6 and their low hand as A-K. In this case the two high hands are called a “copy,” which is actually a win for the dealer. Then the dealer’s A-K beats the player’s A-Q, so the dealer (the house) wins the bet. The player does not get this advantage. If there is a copy and the player’s low hand beats the dealer’s low hand, the overall result is a push.

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The House Edge

The copy aspect gives the house an edge, since two hands will copy about 2.6 percent of the time, thus the dealer wins 29.9 percent of the outcomes and the player wins 28.6 percent. The rest of the house edge is a result of the 5 % commission charged on all player wins.

How to Win at Pai Gow Poker

The house establishes a specific house-way to set each hand, and a player can stay almost even with the house by following the same rules for hand setting. If you are unsure of the best way to set your hand, the dealer will help by suggesting the casino house way. However, keep in mind that the casino will always set their hand to diminish risk, instead of trying to win every hand. The players sometimes forget this fact.

Since the highest low (2-card) hand is a pair of aces, anytime you can play a pair of aces as your low hand you cannot loose. With this in mind, suppose you have a hand of A-A-A-A-7-8-9. You could play the four aces with the seven in the high hand and the 8-9 in the low hand, but you probably won’t win both hands. So, you might think playing three aces in the high hand with the 7-8 and the A-9 in the low hand is better. It is. But it’s still not the best. It’s better to always split the aces, playing A-A-7-8-9 in the high hand and A-A in the low hand. If you do this you cannot be beat, and you should be happy when you do win. It’s a good position to be in.


Many casinos allow the players to “bank” the game on a regular basis. If you have the bankroll, this is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of that pesky “copy” issue and be the house for a change. If a copy hand comes up, you’ll get the advantage! Some casinos deal one round of house-banked hands and then a player-banked round. Just remember that the house will still collect the 5% commission from any bets you win, and you’ll need to risk the amount all of the other players have bet in total.

Bonus Bets

Pai Gow poker has become even more popular in the past few years due to several bonus wagers that have been instituted on the games. The first bonus is likely to be based on the player’s hand with the highest payoff made for a 7-card straight flush. This is sometimes as high as 8,000 to 1 for a minimum $5 bet. The casino has a higher edge on bonus bets than the standard Pai Gow Poker wager.

A second bonus offered on many tables is for a progressive jackpot, which is paid only for the top six hands, again, with the top payoff for a 7-card straight flush. This wager is usually $1. Progressive jackpots have been seen recently in Nevada and Arizona casinos at more than $250,000. That’s a nice payoff for a small wager! Progressive jackpots can also be found in Caribbean Stud Poker, 3 Card Poker and a handful of other table games.

Setting Your Hands

Much as blackjack has a basic strategy to learn in order to improve your chances of winning, Pai Gow Poker has a strategy too. If you don’t use the house way, these rules should be your basis for play:

  • No-pair, straight or flush – play the highest card with your high hand (the five-card hand) and the next highest two cards in the low hand.
  • Two pair, one of which is aces – split the pairs.
  • Two pair, top pair is kings – split unless the other pair is deuces, then play them together.
  • Two pair, sixes and lower – split unless you hold an ace, then play them together with the ace and next highest card in the low hand.
  • Two pair, 7’s through 10’s – split unless you hold an ace, then play them together with the ace and the next highest card in the low hand.
  • Two pair, Jack’s through Aces – split, with the lower pair in the low hand.

Three Pair

  • Play the highest pair in your low hand.

Three of a Kind

  • Play three-of-a-kind in the high hand unless they are aces, then play an ace with the next highest card in the low hand.

Full House

  • Always split-up a full house and play the pair in the low hand, unless the full house also has a second pair. When this happens, play the higher of the two pairs in the low hand.

Straights and Flushes

  • Play a straight or flush in the high hand and the remaining two cards in the low hand. If you have both a straight and a flush, choose the hand that leaves the highest two cards to play in the low hand. If the hand contains two pairs, the straight or flush should be split to play the lower pair in the low hand. A rare exception can be made when you have a straight or flush with a pair of tens or higher and an AK. When this happens, split the straight or flush to play the AK in the low hand.
  • A 6 or 7 card straight should be played with the lowest cards in the high hand and the highest two cards in the low hand.

Four of a Kind

  • Four 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s – keep them together in the high hand and play the next two highest cards in the low hand.
  • Four 7’s, 8’s, 9’s, and 10’s – split unless an ace can be played in the low hand.
  • Four of a kind – face cards – always split unless you have another pair to play in the low hand.

Five Aces

  • Always split five aces into a 3-aces hand and a two-ace low hand unless you also have a pair of kings. If this happens, play the kings in the low hand.