Pai Gow Poker is the rising star of the casino floor. It's got low house edges, a recognisable format, and very simple etiquette, making it a great game for card players of all levels.
Pai Gow Poker is an Americanized version of the Pai Gow, which is originally played with Chinese dominoes. The poker version is played with a 52-card deck, plus one joker. The game is played with six players and one dealer. The object of the game is to attempt to defeat the banker, or dealer. As a player, your goal is to create two poker hands with a seven card hand.
The game's inventor, Fred Wolf, was the casino manager of the Commerce Casino in the early 1980s. Wolf cleared an unused floor of the building specifically for Super Pan-9 and Pai Gow Poker. Both of which became immediate crowd favorites.
Six players line up against the dealer (or the 'banker'). Each player is dealt seven cards, from which they form two hands: a five-card 'High' hand and a two card 'Low' hand, both of which conform to standard poker win rankings. The Joker is also included: some casinos play it as wild, others say it can complete a straight or flush in the High hand, or represent an Ace.
Beat the dealer with both hands to win, beat the dealer with one and it's a push. Fortunately, Pai Gow Poker is a slow game, so there's plenty of opportunity to check details with the dealer and pick up the finer points as you play.
An empty seat isn't always an available seat. If the chair back is propped against the table, it's reserved. A 'dragon hand' (second hand being played by someone at the table) may also be in play. The safest time to nab a spot is after the shuffle, but don't be afraid to ask the dealer if you're unsure.
After the shuffle, the dealer will call for bets. Don't bet, or attempt to touch your chips, outside of this period. Some tables let you back the banker. Don't be afraid to do so if you want a less hands-on approach. To play your own cards, simply lay your bet in the circle above the spaces marked for your High and Low hands.
Some casinos also offer a side bet that pays out when you hit certain poker hands. The house edge is higher than in the main game, but it requires no extra effort to play: the dealer just calculates your best possible five-card hand and pays out where appropriate. Payouts vary from table to table, though, so check before you bet.
You may also be offered the dragon hand if there's still an empty spot after the shuffle. Usually when the dealer offers, the first player to call it, gets it.
Some casinos don't let players touch their cards at a Pai Gow Poker table, and simply set the High and Low hands according to the 'House Way'. Check before you join if that's the case. If not, you'll be required to arrange your cards yourself.
While most players will get frustrated with anyone who agonises for ages over setting their cards, this is also the part with the most strategy, and you can justifiably spend a little time considering your decision.
The only rules you must follow, wherever you play, are that the High hand has five cards and the Low has two. And that the Low hand cannot be better than the High hand (so if you only have one pair, it must go in the High hand).
Other normal rules of etiquette that apply are:
Pai Gow Poker is one of the most sociable, fun and friendly games that you can play in a live casino environment. Even new players should not let their inexperience keep them them from the table.
Pai Gow Poker is increasing in popularity, but far from eclipsing its tile-based predecessor, it's encouraging more and more players to give it a try: and London is a great place to sample this ancient Chinese game.
Playing these games, along with applying the right strategy, will give you the best chance of winning at the casino.
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