It’s a game played with Chinese dominoes. And it’s the inspiration for pai gow poker, the game we’re covering in this guide.
You’ll find it in both brick-and-mortar and online casinos. It’s fun to play and relatively easy to learn. We played a few rounds earlier to refresh our memories on how to play it.
We picked it up in only three to four hands. No prior instruction needed.
You can do it too, though it’ll probably be easier if you learn the basics first. We cover that, along with pai gow poker variants and strategy, in our game guide below.
Let’s get started.
Where Does Pai Gow Poker Come From?
Pai gow poker got started in the United States. It’s inspired by – but not to be confused with – pai gow, the Chinese domino game.
Pai gow poker was created in the USA by Sam Torosian and Fred Wolf.
Sam Torosian is the one who invented the game. But no one really knows who he is. The reason why is sort of sad.
Sam received bad legal advice from both Mike Caro, a poker player and author, and a lawyer. Both said card games were public domain. In other words, Sam couldn’t patent his game.
After adding the game to his casino floor, and Fred Wolf doing the same in the casino he managed, pai gow poker took off.
Unfortunately, Torosian later found out he could patent pai gow poker. But he had only one year after introducing the game before it became public domain.
Sam missed his window…and an estimated $70,000+ per month in royalty checks.
For that reason, you won’t have any problems finding pai gow poker. It’s offered at nearly every casino.
And it’s probably also because of Torosian’s mistake that Fred Wolf patented every other game he’s invented. Those include Sweepstakes Blackjack, Fast-Action Hold’em, Lucky Pan-9, and Pai Gow Jokers.
How Do You Play Pai Gow Poker?
Pai gow poker is a game played against the dealer. As many as seven players can play at once.
It’s played with a standard 52-card deck and a single joker. Your object is to take seven cards and turn them into two hands which can beat the dealer.
There are some restrictions on how you can make your hand. We’ll cover what these are as we walk you through a sample hand.
The game starts with you making your bet. In some games, like the one you’ll find on Bovada, you only have the one option – no additional side bets. Others, however, will have more.
Once everyone makes their bets, cards are shuffled and dealt. Each player receives a pile of seven cards face down.
In live games, betting positions are assigned numbers one through seven. This is done electronically or with dice. This determines where the action starts. The action will continue from the starting point counter-clockwise around the table.
If no one is in a spot, the hand is still assigned and the cards are discarded. However, some casinos will deal the hand to the empty seat. This is called a “dragon hand.” And after each player has had their turn, the dealer will ask who wants to bet on the dragon hand.
The first player who accepts the bet gets it. They can bet up to their original wager. Ultimately this is like playing two separate hands.
The rules vary, but dragon hands may have to be set the “house way.” The reason is because the player has already seen their cards, which gives them additional knowledge they could otherwise use to set the dragon hand.
It depends on where you play. And it’s unlikely you’ll find this option online, anyway. At most online casinos, you’ll play only one hand.
Your objective will be to split your seven cards into two hands:
In Front or On Top – This hand will have two cards in it.
Bottom or Behind – This hand will have five cards in it.
Your objective is for each hand to beat each of the dealer’s hands. But you can’t set your hands however you want. There are a few rules you need to follow:
Your bottom hand needs to be stronger than your top.
The joker is a semi-wild. It can be used as an ace, or to complete a straight, flush, straight flush, or royal flush.
Once everyone sets their hand, the dealer will set his hand. Most pai gow poker rules say dealers have to set their hands the house way. What the house way is will vary from casino to casino.
Then hands are compared. Normal poker hand rankings are used. Some casinos consider A2345 the second-highest straight, which is something you want to beware of before you play.
Here’s what happens next:
If you have the same hand as the dealer – if you tie – you will lose your bet to the casino. It’s not a push.
If you win both hands, you win even money on your bet minus a 5% commission.
If you lose one hand and win the other, the bet will push. You’ll get your bet back.
Then bets are collected and paid out, which signals the end of a round of pai gow poker.
Then cards are reshuffled and new bets are made for the next round.
Banking and Co-Banking
In some live games, you’ll have the option to bank or co-bank the game.
Most players don’t. They pass when it’s offered. But they’re missing out on a chance to reduce the house edge.
If you want to bank, you’ll need a large enough bankroll to pay out players whose hand beats yours. The good news is that if you’re the sole banker, you can set your hands however you want. Between that and the fact that 41.48% percent of hands tie, you shouldn’t need that large of a bankroll.
Doing so will cut the house edge nearly in half.
The other option is to co-bank. You’ll split the winnings and losses in half with the casino. This means you can get by on a smaller bankroll. But co-banking also means you’ll need to set your cards the house way.
Either way, banking’s the best approach to take in pai gow poker if you want to reduce the house edge as much as possible.
Pai Gow Poker Variants
The following are the most common pai gow poker variants and side bets you’ll come across.
Pai Gow Mania – This offers two side bets based on your first three cards, and then on all seven of your cards.
Fortune Pai Gow – You make a side bet on a poker hand ranking of trips or better. This is one of the more popular variations.
Emperors Challenge – This is a side bet on a seven-card pai gow (no hand).
Pai Gow Progressive – A progressive jackpot you can play for $1.
Commission-Free – In some games, like those in Washington State, the casino will not charge their 5% commission on banker wins. They only make a profit on the banker’s advantage and side bets. This gives the banker a 1.30% advantage (or anyone playing against the banker a 1.30% disadvantage).
EZ Pai Gow Poker – A commission-free game. If the dealer has exactly a queen high five-card hand, the hand will automatically end in a push. There are usually four side bets to bet on – dynasty bonus, bonus bet, protection bet, and red/black.
Queen’s Dragon – A side bet. It pays if the dealer has exactly a queen high pai gow hand. Payouts range from 45-50 (to 1).
No Push Pai Gow Poker – Available in Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas. The dealer’s always the banker. There’s no 5% commission. If you win both hands, you truly get paid even money.
After seven players are dealt, there are four cards left over. Two cards are placed face down – one for the dealer and the other for the player. In the event of a push, these cards are used as a tiebreaker. If the dealer’s card is equal or better, the banker wins. Otherwise, the player wins.
Jokolor – This is a side bet. It pays if you have a joker and/or all cards of the same color. This has a 3.9% house edge.
These are the most popular variants.
Some casinos also offer pai gow poker tournaments. But there’s not much information about them online.
Our best guess is that these operate like blackjack tournaments. You buy in for a fixed amount, and the last person or people standing wins a percentage of the prize pool.
Optimal Pai Gow Strategy
Pai gow poker is a low-edge game. Almost 42% of hands are pushes. Between that and the slow rate of play, pai gow poker’s house edge is 2.84%.
You can reduce the edge even more by banking. And you can reduce it even more than that by following optimal strategy and/or following the house way.
But some of you want actual tips or strategy you can use the next time you play. So here is some advice on how to play specific hands.
Let’s start with some general advice:
Don’t split single pairs. Keep them in your five-card hand.
Split two pairs. Keep the strongest pair in your five-card hand.
Three pairs – keep the weaker two pair in your strongest hand. Place the stronger pair in your two-card hand.
If you’re dealt a three-of-a-kind, keep it intact with your five-card hand. The exception is if you’re holding three aces. Then you might consider splitting it up and placing an ace in your two-card hand.
If you’re dealt two three-of-a-kind hands, split the highest-ranking one and place the pair in your two-card hand.
Now let’s look at hand-specific strategy.
Straights and Flushes
Keep straights and flushes together unless you also have two pair or three of a kind. Then split them up to make a strong two-card hand.
If you have two pair, follow the strategy outlined above. Split them, while putting the weaker pair in your two-card hand.
If you have a three of a kind, split it. Keep the straight or flush intact (if possible), while moving the pair to your two-card hand.
Four of a Kinds
If you have quad 7s through aces, split them. Put a pair in your two-card hand. The exception is if you also have an ace or king. Then keep your quads intact and set your ace or king-high hand as your two-card hand.
If you have quad 2s through 6s, always keep them intact.
You can also learn pai gow poker strategy from using a game-specific calculator. You’ll find one here.
These calculators will give you advice on how to split your hand in a way that produces the highest long-term expected value.
For example, say you’re dealt 8d, 8c, Kc, Js, 6c, 4c, and 2d. The calculator will tell you to split your hand up like this:
8d, 8c, 6c, 4c, 2d
Not only can you use this to figure out the best way to set your hand as you play, but you can also set your hand first, then check the calculator to see how close you are.
Keep in mind you may have to adjust if the place where you’re playing sets their hands differently.
Other than all the strategy above, you can also gain an advantage by hole carding or edge sorting, which is basically by knowing what the dealer has by using clues, card or dealer errors, or peeking – which you’ll use to sort your hand in the most optimal way.
But full disclosure – depending on where you play, how you gain this information, and your own moral compass, this ranges from taking advantage of casino errors to full-blown cheating.
Whatever you choose to do, if anything, know that all actions, responsibility, and (often severe) consequences are yours.
Playing Pai Gow Poker Online
There are a couple things to know about playing pai gow poker online.
RealTime Gaming rounds their commission on winnings hands up to the nearest 0.25. This can have a significant impact on bets not in an increment of $5. The smaller your bets, the more you’ll see the impact of the house edge.
Bonuses are hit-and-miss for pai gow poker players. Some casinos allow you to play pai gow and earn bonuses. Others don’t.
For example, Planet7Casino.com doesn’t allow you to play pai gow poker to clear the bonus requirements EXCEPT for when the offer specifically says you can.
Planet 7 also wants you to wager 60x instead of 30x when you receive their cash-back payment.
But at other casinos, you’ll have to wager 3x-5x, sometimes as much as 10x, the standard wager requirements.
Not every casino explicitly says what their rules are. So you may need to look for “poker” terms in their T&C’s. It might also be a good idea to reach out to support with any questions you may have.
Other than those two things, online pai gow poker’s straightforward. Most, if not all, online casinos offer it, though it will be harder to find a mobile-friendly version unless the casino runs on HTML.
This is especially true for US-facing casinos. They often have a smaller selection of (mobile) table games and prefer to offer more mainstream games, like blackjack.
The best way to know for sure, though, is to read our casino reviews.
Pai gow poker’s an easy game to learn. Read our rules and launch a free game, and you’ll have it down in no time.
This is one of the better games to learn, too, from the fun behind the poker element to the low house edge to the strategy you can learn to get the house edge down even lower.
On top of that, you have all the different variations, side bets, and different ways each casino sets their hand the house way.
All that to say that you should definitely take the time to learn pai gow poker. You won’t regret it.
Here are some commonly asked questions we receive about pai gow poker, and our answers.
Some people consider hole carding or edge sorting to be cheating.
Hole carding is finding out what the dealer or your opponents have when you’re not supposed to know. This can happen by dealer error or when players talk about their hands.
Edge sorting is finding a flaw in the cards the casino is using. This can be a mark or smudge of some kind. Once you find out what the value of this card is, you can use that information to better set your hand. This strategy becomes more effective the more widespread the mark/smudge is throughout the deck.
Other than that, common forms of cheating including marking the cards (like edge sorting) and player/dealer collusion.
What’s the best way to practice pai gow poker?
The easiest, cheapest, and least stressful way is to find an online casino that offers a free version of pai gow poker. This way you don’t have to spend money learning the game or worry about holding other players up when playing live.
Most casinos let you play for free. We recommend Bovada or Ignition Casino because you can play their free games without creating an account or logging in.
This is also a great way to practice pai gow poker strategy because you’ll have all the time you need.
Are there pai gow poker simulators or trainers?
We’re sure there is. But between the (free) online casinos, apps, social media platforms, and so on, there’s no need to pay for or download any additional programs. You’re betting off playing at an online casino, which will mirror the conditions you’ll experience playing online. That’s what we suggest.
You can (and should) also play with the pai gow poker calculators we mentioned earlier in our strategy section.
What are pai gow tiles?
According to the Wizard of Odds (WOO), this is one of the oldest casino games. It even predates roulette and baccarat.
This game is similar to pai gow poker in that you need to make both high and low hands, then compare them with the banker. However, this game’s much harder to learn because the order of hands and tiles are (apparently) random and difficult to memorize.
However, the WOO says this game’s great for bankroll preservation. Only about thirty hands are played per hour, and like the poker version, around 41% of hands are a push. So this is a great game to learn if you’re wanting the most bang for your buck.
Have a question about pai gow poker we didn’t answer above? Send us an email and let us know!