Advanced Pai Gow Poker Hand Forming Strategy
Players who are interested in advanced Pai Gow Poker strategy have a hard time out there. There is simply not that much about the actual reasons behind forming hands. Here we break down how you should be thinking about your hands in general instead of just having you play off of a memorized set of rules.
An Introduction to Advanced Pai Gow Poker Strategy
Pai Gow Poker has a reputation for being a highly strategic game with a whole lot of ties. This is in comparison to other casino poker games. However, many don’t realize that this title has a similar level of strategy involved as blackjack or video poker.
One of the reasons many people don’t know this is because it’s simply not talked about much. For whatever reason, very little has been written on in-depth details of strategy for the game.
With that said, one of the reasons it’s not talked about as much is because it’s so complicated. In fact, there are probably zero players alive right now (or ever) who can play Pai Gow Poker perfectly in every situation.
Instead of having you play perfectly by reading off of a learned chart, we’re taking a different approach. We want you to understand what you’re actually trying to accomplish with these hands. This way, you know what you’re shooting for instead of being lost when an unfamiliar hand comes your way.
The State of Advanced Pai Gow Strategy
We mentioned above that there are probably no people who can play this game perfectly. One of the reasons for this is that you can’t break this game down into a convenient strategy chart. Those are the types of charts used in other strategic titles like blackjack or video poker. They are great at what they do, but they simply don’t work in this particular title.
Instead, what you have to understand is that you’re aiming for a specific goal, but you have to use subjective means to arrive at that goal. There are simply too many pieces of information to be able to play based on particulars every single time. For many hands that are unclear, you simply have to go based on what feels right. This feeling is developed through a little bit of study and understanding what you’re trying to accomplish.
In the following, we’re going to explain the key idea behind what you’re actually trying to do. From there, we’ll give some example hands that show how and why this works.
What You’re Trying to Achieve in Pai Gow Poker
The basic component of Pai Gow Poker gameplay is that you’re forming two hands from seven cards. The high hand has five cards, and it’s governed by the hand rankings of five card poker. However, the low hand just has two hands, and it only uses pairs and high card hands.
This leads us to the fundamental idea behind advanced Pai Gow Poker play:
The high hand and low hand each have a percentage chance of winning. Imagine that you add both of those percentages together. This is the value that you’re trying to maximize.
Conceptually, you want to have the highest percentage chance to win added up between the two hands. You can approximate the chances of either individual hand winning based on the type of hand it is. What you want to do is get a feel for these percentages. From there, you can then use that feel to try to maximize your combined percentage of the two hands.
Instead of using the combined win percentages (adjusted for ties), we use a measurement that tells us the same thing. We do this by looking at what the average return is for each way of playing the hand.
This is not an easy idea to understand just off of a description of it. Along these lines, we want to make sure that you have some concrete examples to refer to.
Example Hand 1: AAAKQ95 (with no flushes)
In the hand AAAKQ95, we can show how this process works in a very pure way. If you’re familiar with three of a kind strategy for Pai Gow Poker, then you know how to play this. With triple aces, you always move one ace to the low. The other two aces maintain a pair in the upper hand.
But do you know why this is? You clearly lose value in the high hand, and some of that is transferred to the low hand. But how do that work exactly? Consider the average return (as a percentage profit on the play) for the following ways to play the hand:
- AAQ95 (AK) – 0.440x
- AAK95 (AQ) – 0.411x
- AAA95 (KQ) – 0.404x
What we can gather is that the drop from AAA95 to AAQ95 in the high is less than the amount gained by going from KQ to AK in the low. Another way to think about it is as follows. You lose some win percentage points in the high by splitting the aces. However, you gain win percentage points in the low by going from KQ to AK. The points you win in the low are more than the point you lose in the high, which makes it the superior play.
Once again, we see the difference between a memorized basic strategy and the understanding of advanced Pai Gow Poker strategy.
Example Hand 2: ATT7542 (with AT752 flush)
The question in this hand is whether the player should keep the flush with the super low T4 down low. The alternative is the TT pairing in the high with the A7 in the low. The idea is that breaking the flush lowers the win percentage of the high hand. However, it increases the value of the low hand.
That means you need to decide if you gain enough in the low to justify the sacrifice in the high.
As it turns out, you do gain enough. The win percentage difference between TT and a flush is moderate, but the win percentage difference between A7 and T4 is pretty severe. We can look at the pure numbers and see this reflected. Here are the two ways to play the hand along with their average returns:
- Flush in the High – +0.038x
- TT in the High – -0.302x
We actually take an average loss with TT in the high of 30.2 percent of our bet. However, with the flush in the high, we get an average profit of 3.8 percent.
Something worth noting is that we have almost a 94 percent chance of pushing when we put the flush in the high. That’s because the flush almost always wins, and the T4 almost always loses. Our edge comes from the fact that we’ll win both hands an average of 5.3 percent. However, we’ll only lose both hands about 1.2 percent.
Example Hand 3: JT98772 (with no flushes)
Here we are looking at another hand that should have a high push percentage. There are a lot of these in Pai Gow Poker, but most strategy charts largely ignore them. If you make the most from them, then that goes a long way toward getting the best payouts you can.
Once again, you have to choose between splitting a strong hand or not. In this case, you can take the J-7 straight with 72 in the low. Alternatively, you can go with a pair of sevens with JT in the low. The key to playing these spots correctly, as we saw with the flush example above, is to consider the changes in win percentage. This has to become intuitive on some level, but consider the following:
- In the high, the difference in win percentage between 77 and a J-7 straight is pretty substantial.
- In the low, the difference in win percentage between JT and 72 is not much at all.
As a result, if we ditch the straight for the 77 in order to bring the low from 72 to JT, we’re in for a bad time. We lose a lot of value in the high by breaking the straight, but we don’t gain back enough to compensate in the low. The pure numbers of the situation show the same story as follows:
- J-7 straight in the high – -0.041x
- TT in the high – -0.509x
We’re slightly losing with the J-7 straight in the high with an average loss of 4.1 percent of our bet. However, our return is much worse with TT in the high at a rate of just under 51 percent. That’s a major difference that cannot be understated, and making big mistakes like this often will absolutely kill your overall payout rate.
Note that playing this hand correctly leads to pushes over 95 percent of the time, but playing it incorrectly drops that push percentage down to about 39 percent. That’s an interesting dynamic to be aware of.
We have given these three example hands to break down what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Advanced strategy for Pai Gow Poker is about understanding how to balance two different win percentages. Forming your hand in slightly different ways can yield some significant changes to these numbers. When you think in the form of these changes, you can play at a much higher level compared to simply trying to memorize a strategy chart.