Pai Gow poker is played with a 53-card deck, including a joker. The game is played on a table with six or seven betting spots, depending on house rules (see below). The objective of Pai Gow poker is to beat the banker’s hands.
Similar to blackjack and certain other poker variations, in Pai Gow poker the player has only one opponent, here the banker. In some casinos, the dealer plays the role of the banker, and there are betting spots for six players. In others, players take turns being banker, and there are seven betting spots at the table. Where the banker is a player, this position is typically rotated around the table, with no player being the banker in two consecutive hands.
To begin, each player places two bets of equal size. The dealer then deals seven hands of seven cards each, face down (leaving four cards unused). If there are fewer than seven people at the table, cards are still dealt to all seven seats, and then all cards in front of empty seats are discarded. A randomly generated number (either electronically or by a throw of dice) determines the receiver of the first hand, with the deal continuing in a counterclockwise direction.
Once the cards have been dealt, it is now up to each player (and the banker) to form the best two hands from his or her seven cards – a two-card hand, known as the hand in front or the low hand; and a five-card hand, known as the hand behind or the high hand – observing the following rules:
The five-card hand must rank higher than the two-card hand.
The joker is not a total wild card, but a bug – i.e. it always counts as an ace, unless giving it another value would enable it to complete a straight, a flush, or a straight flush (in the five-card hand only, obviously).
Two-card hands are either one pairs or high cards. The highest two-card hand is a pair of aces.
Five-card hands are ranked as in standard poker, with one notable exception: a hand of A-2-3-4-5 ranks as the second highest straight, below the 10-J-Q-K-A straight but above a king-high straight. (This rule is not observed in all casinos!) Due to the use of the joker, the highest five-card hand is five aces.
Players now set their hands on the table, the two-card hand in front and the five-card hand behind (closest to the player). One by one, players take turns comparing their hands to the banker’s. Each player has two bets: 1) that the player’s five-card hand will beat the banker’s five-card hand, and 2) that the player’s two-card hand will be the banker’s two-card hand. Betting is resolved as follows:
If both a player’s hands beat both the banker’s hands, then the player wins both bets.
If both a player’s hands lose to both the banker’s hands, then the player loses both bets.
If one of a player’s hands wins and the other loses, then it is a push, and the player breaks even
Some other important things to keep in mind:
The rule that a five-card hand must rank higher than a two-card hand is an important one! A player who breaks this rule will lose automatically.
The house advantage comes from the fact that in the case of a tie (called copies) the banker wins. For example, if both player and banker are holding pairs of 4’s as their two-card hands, the tie goes to the banker, and the player loses his or her bet.
House bankers are typically required to set their hands according to the house way, without using any particular strategy of their own. In player-banked games, however, the banker retains the option to set the hands as he or she pleases. Some casinos may offer player bankers the option of co-banking with the house, in which case the banker must also set the hands according to the house way.
In casinos where the role of banker rotates among players, any player wishing to be banker must have enough money to pay off all the other players’ bets, and must also have played a hand against the house banker previously. The dealer will then play against the (player) banker betting the same amount as that player’s last bet against the house.
The house typically makes money off the game either by charging players a flat fee per hand or by collecting a commission (usually 5%) of all players’ winnings. In certain casinos, a player is allowed to pick up a hand dealt to an empty seat – known as a dragon hand – and play it as a second hand of his or her own.