Pai Gow Poker Strategy Guide
Based on the tile-based game Pai Gow, Pai Gow Poker is a card game that gives players a tremendous amount of strategic room to work within a particularly low-volatility environment. As what is possibly the lowest volatility card game in any casino, this game gives you a lot of flexibility with your bet sizing strategies as well.
Introduction to Pai Gow Poker
Something really interesting about casino card games is how many people gravitate toward strategic titles, even if they don’t have all that much interest in learning how to play particularly well. Players simply like the idea that the results of their decisions will have legitimate impacts on their bottom line.
Pai Gow Poker is a game with a whole lot of strategy but not so much that it requires hours of study and analysis like blackjack or video poker.
With that said, it definitely has more strategy than games like Three Card Poker or Vegas Three Card Rummy to the point that there is probably no person on the planet who can consistently play Pai Gow Poker perfectly. There’s an interesting dynamic where there are certain types of hands that offer particularly high levels of complexity while most hands are fairly straightforward to play once you understand the involved strategies.
The Rules of Pai Gow Poker
We’re going to jump right into how this game is played because it’s not particularly complicated, but it is something where you’ll need to know a few terms to be able to discuss and ready about strategy for it.
- The deck used has the usual 52 cards plus a joker.
- The joker is not wild in the traditional sense. It can be used to make straights, flushes, straight flushes and royals but is otherwise used as an ace. When it’s used to make made hands, it always counts as the highest card available or needed within that suit or run of consecutive titles.
- The player and dealer are given seven cards each, and they have to be split into two hands of five cards and two cards. You don’t get to see any of the dealer’s cards.
- The five-card hand is called the high hand, and the two-card hand is called the low hand.
- The five-card hands use standard poker hand rankings (with an exception shown below this list*), and the two-card rankings are only based on pairs and high cards.
- The five-card hand has to be a higher (or equal) value to the two-card hand.
- The strategy in this game is about deciding how to split your seven cards up into two hands.
- Each five-card and two-card hand is compared to see who wins. If an individual hand is a push, the dealer wins it. If you win both hands, you win overall. Winning one and losing one is a push for the entire bet. Losing both is obviously a total loss.
- If you win both hands, you get paid back at 0.95:1, which is like 1:1 with a 5 percent commission.
* The hand A2345, which is typically the worst straight, is the second-highest straight for this game. That makes the order of straights AKQJT, A2345, KQJT9, QJT98, etc.
These rules produce an interesting style of game that gives players a lot of room for creativity when it comes to setting their hands. However, there is a set strategy that is mathematically correct that’s not too difficult to learn for a majority of hands. With that said, some hands are pretty difficult to learn to play correctly, and we’re going to tackle all of this in the strategy section below.
A Note on Volatility
Pai Gow Poker is known for being a game that has a whole lot of ties for the overall hand. That means that the volatility of this game is super low.
In most situations with a game that has a low volatility, you can increase your bet size to boost your excitement without having to worry about big swings.
This is the case in Pai Gow Poker as well, and it’s an effective strategy for players who would otherwise grow bored with a strategy-based title that has so many ties like this one.
With that said, another way to think about this is in terms of general bankroll management strategy guidelines. When a game has a really low volatility, you need fewer units in your bankroll to play it comfortably, which translates to using a larger bet size per hand that you might use in other types of games.
Pai Gow Poker Strategic Principles
We have to break up Pai Gow Poker strategy a bit based on the types of hands being used. There are some general principles that we will use with a cluster of common hands, and then we will get into the special cases and special types of hands that are particularly difficult to play (ie: two pair hands) compared to others.
General Principles: High Card Hands and Single Pairs
When you have seven cards without any pairs or other types of made hands, you’re going to follow a really specific pattern that always works to play perfectly from a mathematical standpoint.
With high-card hands, put your second-highest and third-highest cards in the low hand with the five other cards in the high.
This is a concept that works with pairs as well. With one-pair hands, you’ll never want to split the pair up, so it’ll always have to go in the high hand since you can’t have a high-card hand in the high with a pair in the low (since the high hand has to be better in the poker rankings.
That leads to this general guideline for playing one-pair hands in Pai Gow Poker:
Put the two highest non-paired cards in the low with the pair and remaining three unpaired cards in the high.
This is as simple as it gets, and it works for all high card and single-pair hands, which equates to more than 50 percent of the hands that you will be dealt.
Learning Exceptions to the Rule: Three of a Kind
Playing three of a kind hands in Pai Gow Poker is a lot like playing high-card hands and one-pair hands. You can get the general idea and see that you should probably put the three of a kind in the high with the next two best cards in the low.
However, there is one exception to this rule that is extremely important, and if you ignore it, you will give away a significant amount of value when these situations come up.
If you have three of a kind in aces, then you should split things up a bit so that you have two aces in the high with one ace in the low. Along with the ace in the low, you should include the largest non-ace card to give it the highest kicker.
The reason for this is that increasing things to ace-high in the low gives you a bigger boost to your win percentage there (even if you would have otherwise had king-high) than what you lost by dropping from three of a kind in aces down to a pair of aces.
Increasing Complications: Two Pair Hands
Playing with two pair in Pai Gow Poker is one of those incredibly complicated spots compared to most of the regular hands you’ll see in this game. The best way to approach it, which is an approach that has been standardized for several years, is a point-based system.
Here’s a summary of how to use this point-based system to score your hand:
- Assume that jacks are worth 11, queens are worth 12, kings are worth 13 and aces are worth 14 points.
- Add up the individual cards that make up your two pair. For example, if you have sevens and jacks, you would add 7 + 11 to get a total of 18.
- Make note of the best non-paired card you have as well since this is what will determine your low hand if you keep both pairs in the high.
The decision you’re trying to make with this scoring system is whether you should keep both pairs in the high or whether you should split them up and put the lower of the two pairs in the low. The following is how you use the point system noted above to make this decision:
- 17-27 points – Always split the pairs
- 12-16 points – Split the pairs if you can’t put ace-high in the low
- 7-11 points – Split the pairs if you can’t put king-high or better in the low
- 5-6 points – Split the pairs if you can’t put queen-high or better in the low
This is a little more complicated than the other general strategies we have given for the game, but the basic idea is pretty solid.
Understanding Playing Better Hands
When you play hands that have a flush or straight available, sometimes you have to deal with situations where you have to decide between keeping your made hand or splitting it up to put something stronger in the low.
For example, with a one pair hands, you’ll never split your flush or straight and will always play the best low hand that you can that maintains your made hand in the high.
However, with something like two pair or three of a kind, you can actually largely ignore the fact that you have a flush or straight. The reason for this is that your chances of beating the dealer’s high aren’t that much larger with a straight (for example) than with something like a higher pair, and we’re talking about as a total percentage of hands. At the same time, you can get a pretty big boost in how often you win the low by breaking up that flush or straight, so you actually gain something in the process.
The issue with Pai Gow Poker strategy is that it’s pretty complicated in certain situations and not complicated at all in others. We have set things up to give you a pretty good balance between the two sides here, and we strongly recommend that you start by learning how to play three of a kind, one pair and high-card hands first.
Along similar lines learning to play two pair hands should come later once you’ve got some time to devote to learning the system that we have described above. Combine that with solid bankroll management, and you put yourself in a good space to have great chances of coming out on top.