Pai Gow poker gives you one of the best chances to beat the house in casino gaming. With good strategy you can cut the house edge down to 1.46%, which almost puts you on equal footing with casinos.
But how do you execute this strategy?
Find out as I cover everything that you need to know about beating Pai Gow poker, including the game's objective, why the house has an advantage, strategy, and commission free games.
At the beginning of each hand you're dealt seven cards, which you use to form both a 5 card and 2 card hand.
The goal is for both of your hands to beat the dealer's hands. If you win one hand and lose one, your bet is a push. If you lose both hands, you also lose the bet.
When forming your hands, remember that the 5 card hand must be a higher value than the 2 card hand.
Hands follow standard poker rankings, except that an Ace 2 3 4 5 straight, also called a wheel, is the second highest straight behind Ace K Q J 10.
Two card hands are ranked first by pairs, then by high card.
The house maintains a 2.84% edge over players for two reasons: 1) the casino takes a 5% commission from your winning hands, and 2) the dealer wins tie hands.
You have a 2.6% chance of tying either the dealer's 2 card or 5 card hand in any given round. This isn't a large figure, but it matters over the long term when the dealer wins all of these ties.
One way that you can reduce the house edge is by acting as the banker when given the option. This gives you the opportunity to play against other players at the table and win all tie hands.
Although you still have to pay a 5% commission on winning hands, you reduce the house edge to 1.46% because you win ties.
Pai Gow poker can be as simple or as advanced as you want it to be. Famed gambling author Stanford Wong even wrote a 150 page book on the subject called Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker.
I won't get into this in depth because you can play near optimally with basic strategy. Below is a simple approach to what you should do with each hand that you're dealt.
No Hand: If you haven't been dealt at least a pair, put your highest card in the 5 card hand, and your next two highest cards in the 2 card hand.
Pair: You must play your pair in the 5 card hand. Put your next two highest cards in the 2 card hand.
Two Pair: Put the highest pair in the 5 card hand and the lowest pair in the 2 card hand. One exception includes kings and 2's, both of which you should play in the 5 card hand.
Three Pair: Play the highest pair in your 2 card hand, and use the lower pairs to form a two pair in the 5 card hand.
Three of a Kind: Keep the three of a kind in the 5 card hand. The only exception is if you have aces, in which case you'd play a pair in the 5 card hand and a single ace in the 2 card hand.
Full House: Put the three of a kind in the 5 card hand and the pair in the 2 card hand. One exception is if you have a full house and another pair, in which case you'd put the highest pair in the 2 card hand.
Straight: Play this in the 5 card hand. The one exception is when you have a two pair because this can be split to make strong 2 card and 5 card hands.
Flush: Same rules for straights apply for flushes.
Four of a Kind: If your four of a kind includes sixes or lower, keep it in the 5 card hand. If it includes sevens or better, split the hand up between your 2 card and 5 card hands.
Five Aces: Split this hand into a three of a kind and two pair. The lone exception is if you have five aces, and a pair of kings for the 2 card hand.
As mentioned before, acting as the banker lowers the Pai Gow house edge to 1.46%. Obviously this sounds like the ideal way to play, but there are a couple of points worth noting.
The majority of casinos only allow you to bank once every seven hands. This means that you can't just find an empty Pai Gow poker table and expect to bank every other hand.
Also note that when you do bank, you must have the bankroll to play against every other person at the table. If six other players are betting $25 a hand, you need to have $150 to cover this in the unlikely event that you lose to everybody.
Some players decline the banker option for this reason alone. But if you have the funds, then it's definitely worth acting at the banker given that you win tie hands.
In rare cases you can find commission free Pai Gow poker, where the house doesn't take out a 5% commission on winning bets.
The catch is that casinos don't give you the option to bank in these games. If you don't like acting as the banker anyways, then this won't bother you.
The house edge depends upon what other rule nuances the casino includes.
One common rule is that if the dealer plays 9 high in their 2 card hand, then your bet is automatically a push. In this case, the commission free house edge is 2.51%.
You can find a similar game called EZ Pai Gow poker, which also doesn't take commissions.
The only difference is that the dealer playing a queen high in their 5 card hand results in an automatic push. This makes the EZ Pai Gow poker house edge 2.47%.
If your goal is to win in Pai Gow poker, then side bets are a bad idea because they have high house edges.
For evidence, you can look at the Fortune side bet, which offers bonuses based on your 7 card hand. The minimum Fortune bet ranges from $1 to $5, and here is a look at pay outs:
Obviously these are some attractive payouts, but your chances of winning the top payouts are very low. Overall, you face a 7.7% house edge on the Fortune side bet.
Many Pai Gow poker players like this game because it involves stimulating strategy that you can use to lower the house edge. And you can refer to the advice I discussed earlier to help you execute this strategy.
Besides strategy, the other big thing that you can do to win at Pai Gow poker involves being the banker. Most casinos only let you be the banker one out of every seven hands, but take this option whenever you have it.
Just remember that you need to have a large enough bankroll to cover bets against the other players.
Commission free and EZ Pai Gow poker also lower the house edge because they don't take a commission from winning hands. But this impact isn't as big as being the banker since these games have rule variations that help the dealer when they hold weak hands.
One last piece of advice to remember is to never make side bets. These may look attractive because of their huge potential payouts, but side bets also feature a high house edge.