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Pai Gow Poker - FAQ

I play pai gow poker in Atlantic City. Frequently I observe a player playing two hands. My question is: does looking at 14 cards out of 53 give the player any kind of advantage. If so, how much, what kind of change in strategy does entail. Would appreciate any advice.

John from Baltimore, Maryland

Sometimes in pai gow poker the dealer sets aside a dragon which is offered to each player in turn. This is like playing two hands and is likely what you are observing. However, when playing the dragon hand the rules generally specify that it must be set according to the house way.

Even if the player could use information from 14 cards when setting his hand, I doubt it would help that much, and making proper use of the information would be complicated.

Wizard, love your site. In Pai Gow Poker should the Fortune side bet be made in your opinion. Thanks, I enjoy all your info.

Eddie from West Memphis, Arkansas

No, you should not make the Fortune side bet, or any other side bet. Generally speaking, they are sucker bets that carry a high house edge. For more information on the Fortune side bet visit my pai gow poker side bets section.

Do the odds at table games change when the number of players change? In other words, if there are more hands dealt, do the odds change? If not, is there anything at all salient (odds wise) about the number of players partaking in a particular game? This will settle a "bet".

Steve from Detroit, USA

Generally, no, the odds do not change depending on the number of players. The only exception I can think of is side bets like Fortune in Pai Gow Poker, which feature an envy bonus, and thus pay better according to the number of players.

What is the probability of getting a three pair in Pai Gow Poker? Are the chances lesser or greater than three of a kind?

Alex from Long Beach, Mississippi

Not counting a three of a kind and two pairs, the following are the ways to get a three pair and number of combinations.

No wild card: combin(13,3)*10*63*4 =2471040
Wild card used to compete pair of aces: combin(12,2)*10*62*42 = 380,160
Wild card used as singleton ace: combin(12,3)*63 = 47,520

The total number of combinations is 2,898,720. This is less than half of the 747,0676 combinations for a three of a kind.

I have read everything you have to say about the Fortune side bet but I can't decide whether it's totally stupid to play it or not. I know the odds are long, but it's still a fun "what if" bet. If you have any thoughts about that I would love to hear them.

Richard

Gambling is supposed to be fun, so if you think you get 39.5 cents worth of fun every $5 you bet, then you should play it. That is how much you will give up in the house edge, assuming no other players.

Hi, I am regular player of Pai Gow Poker, and I noticed your site has a lot of great information on the game. The other day when I was playing with a friend of mine he was dealt a 9-high hand, which I believe is the lowest hand possible. In all the time I had spent playing the game I had only seem it happen once before. Then five hands later he got the exact same hand(2-3-4-5-7-8-9). We couldn't believe it and were wondering what the odds of that happening were so we thought we would ask you. Thanks for your time and your great site.

Doug from Calgary, Canada

There are two ways to arrange the ranks for form a 9 high hand, the one you mentioned and 2-3-4-6-7-8-9. The number of suit combinations without forming a flush is 47-4*(combin(7,5)*3^2+6*3+1) = 15,552. So the probability of a 9 high hand is 2*15,552/combin(53,7) = 31,104/154,143,080, or 1 in 9,911. If you were to play just five times the probability of getting 2 9-high hands would be 1 in 9,826,685. That this happened is a coincidence I believe as opposed to a fault in the random number generator or the coding of the program.

In your rules for pai-gow poker you state that A-2-3-4-5 is the 2nd highest straight. Why isn’t 9-10-J-Q-K the 2nd highest straight. Please explain.

Gordon from Lewiston, New York

I have always wondered this myself. It is probably just one of those weird things like why we spell colonel the way we do.

In you play-for-fun pai-gow poker, if you have nothing and drop your 2nd and 3rd highest cards to the front hand, the Advice will occasionally swap the 3rd highest for the 4th highest. I haven't been able to figure out the rule -- first I thought it always did that when your back hand was ace-high, but that didn't hold up. Is it because the house way requires the dealer to drop the 2nd and 3rd highest, so if you and the dealer have equally bad hands, the front hand will be decided by your 2nd highest card but keeping the 3rd highest in the back hand has a better chance of winning? If so, why doesn't it do that all the time? I'm confounded by this. I haven't been able to see the pattern. Please enlighten me!

Sarah from Chicago, USA

Sometimes the two-card hand is so bad that it is better to put the third highest card as a kicker in the five-card hand. There is no rule of thumb to advise exactly when to do so but I have noticed it tends to happen when the second highest card is rather low. The logic my program uses is a large array of probabilities that each hand will win and goes with the hand with the greatest possible sum of probabilities that won't spoil the hand.

As a math/statistics instructor, I must say that your site should be required reading before anyone ventures into a casino. I like to bank when playing Pai Gow Poker in Nevada casinos. In Tahoe I can usually bank every other hand. I'm in Vegas far less often and there are more casinos to check out. Do you know which ones will allow you to bank every other hand at a full table (if no other players wish to bank)? It seems to be one in seven some places and one in twelve others.

Also, some Tahoe casinos have a jackpot game based on how a players five-card hand. A sucker bet, but as a banker I like it when other players bet it. They'll often set their hand for the jackpot (paid by the house) at the expense of there standard wager (against me) by splitting two high pair to play a straight with 2 singletons, or keeping a full house together and putting two singletons up instead of 3 down, pair up. Do you have any idea which Vegas or Reno casinos do this?

Tom from Fairfield, USA

Thanks for your kind words. Actually, I have been asked about teaching a coarse on the mathematics of gambling at UNLV. pai gow poker is not my game, so I don't follow the details very closely. I do know, as you stated, that some rotate and some zig-zag the banker between the players and dealer. However I don't keep track of who does it which way, sorry. I've also seen that progressive side bet at lots of casinos around town. Again I don't keep track of who specifically has it. However that is a great idea of banking against it, I have never thought of that. Sorry I wasn't of much help.

I was recently playing Pai Gow Poker at the Barona Casino near San Diego, CA. They have different rules from Las Vegas, namely 1) They collect a commission on every hand played - $0.50 on bets between $5-$25 and $1.00 on bets between $30-$100. If every player at the table pushes, the commission is not collected for anyone on the next hand. 2) The Joker is a true "wild" card. Not only does it fill out straights and flushes, but it can be any other card needed in any case. For instance I had the Ks Kd 6c 6s 9h 9d and the Joker. I was able to put the two Kings in the low hand and keep the other 5 cards for a Full House! My question: Is this a better game for the player than the Las Vegas versions, even with the commission on every hand? (I seemed to like it. I ended up winning $142.50 after playing for 3 hours.)

Don from Racine, Wisconsin

Good question. I assume player banking is still allowed. The 5% commission at the Nevada casinos costs the player 1.46%. The house edge in your game depends on how much you bet. It is lowest for a $100 bet, at 1%. I’m ignoring the rule about everybody pushing, that will lower the edge even more. Much like the card rooms of in the Los Angeles area I think there is potential to beat the house edge if you bank enough of a percentage of the action.

What is the probability of being dealt a natural seven card straight flush in pai gow poker? I work in a casino and just saw this for the first time in 15 years. The lucky patron won $40,000.

Michael from South Haven, Mississippi

There are 32 possible natural straight flushes (4 ranks times 8 possible spans of 7 cards). There are combin(53,7) = 154143080 possible ways 7 cards can be drawn out of 53. So the answer is 32/154143080, or 1 in 4816971.

In Stanford Wong’s book, "Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker", he presents an analysis of when to keep any two pairs together. Have you done a similar analysis? If not, do you think his analysis gives the optimal plays?

Mike from New York, USA

Yes, I have done a similar analysis. It can be found in my pai gow poker appendix 2. There are some important difference between my strategy and his. Wong’s is much more detailed, considering the highest two singletons, while mine considers only the single highest. Wong also differentiates between whether the player is banking or not. Finally Wong’s book is based on the California game with no 5% commission, unlike my strategy. I do trust Wong’s work and don’t disagree with his table.

Hi, my friends were playing pai-gow and one of the other players had a royal flush with a 3 and 4, and the house also had a royal flush with a 3 and 4 (so the player lost with a royal flush, poor sucker). I was wondering, what are the chances of this happening? Thank you! I really enjoy your website.

Diane

The probability of two specific players ties with a royal flush and any two other cards are about 1 in 290 billion.

Which are the most and least volatile games?

Anonymous

Pai gow poker is the least volatile and on average keno is the most.

Where I play pai gow poker the commission on a $25 bet is $1, or 4%. How much does this reduce the house edge?

Anonymous

A 4% commission lowers the house edge by 0.29%.

At the new Seneca/Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls NY they refuse to give me a copy of their house way for pai gow poker. I would like to know the house way before I play. Do they have to provide that info?

Anonymous

They probably don’t have to. Once at the Tropicana in Atlantic City their pai gow poker rules said the house way was available upon request. So I requested it and they ran out of public copies and couldn’t show me a house copy because it didn’t have the Gambler’s Anonymous disclaimer on it. In my opinion the player should always have the right to know the rules of a game, but unfortunately all gaming authorities seem to think differently.

I see on your site the house way in pai gow poker varies from one casino to another. Which is the one that gives the player the best odds?

Anonymous

The various house ways are all very similar and only differ in rare or borderline plays. I have often heard dealer’s comment that their casino uses a conservative house way that tries to balance the hands, resulting in more pushes. However I would doubt if anyone has ever done a comparison study.

I go to Vegas once a year and enjoy playing Pai Gow poker there because all casinos near me do not allow banking. My question is: How big of an etiquette breach is it for players to pull away bets and not play a hand when someone decides to bank. This has happened to me often (usually at smaller casinos, Sahara, etc...) and usually players say "If I wanted to give another player my money I’d play in the poker room" This really bothers me and I just wanted your thoughts.

Anonymous

This would make me furious too. While not banking it should not make any difference who is banking. I have never heard of an etiquette rule written about this situation but it falls under a breach of common courtesy in my opinion.

In Washington State there are a few clubs with a variation of the payouts for Fortune Paigow. They offer the lower pay-outs (Royal Flush 125-1 instead of 150-1) but they also push on three pair. How does this affect the house advantage on the side bet?

Anonymous

The player loses 0.42% because of the lower royal flush pay-out. However I show the probability of a three pair to be 1.88%. So overall these changes decrease the house edge by 1.46%.

I’m a big fan of your site. I was playing some hands of Pai Gow Poker on my own and came across an unusual situation. After splitting hands, the Player had a flush: A,Q,10,8,3. The House also had a flush: A,joker,10,5,4. So who wins? The rules simply state that the joker can be used to complete a flush but does it have a rank? Can it be used as a second Ace of the flush suit?

Anonymous

Thanks. I just asked a dealer and he confirmed that the house would win that hand because the joker would be used as a king. The general rule is the joker can substitute for any specific card not already in the same hand as long as it completes a straight, flush, or straight flush. Otherwise it is treated as a fifth-suit ace, thus allowing for the possibility of five aces.

Love your site! I enjoy casino gambling but generally can only afford a small bankroll (less than $100 per session). What game would you recommend to maximize the life of my bankroll and chances for a winning session?

Anonymous

Thanks. Considering both odds of winning and bankroll preservation I think the choice comes down to blackjack (which favors winning) and pai gow poker (which favors bankroll preservation). If you can find a $5 table in either game I would go with blackjack. If the minimums are $10 then I would go with pai gow poker.

Can the player gain an advantage in Pai Gow Poker by looking at the other player’s cards?

Anonymous

I think this would put a small dent in the house edge, assuming you know how to make the correct strategy adjustments, but will not come anywhere close to overcoming it.

In Las Vegas the majority of the casinos I’ve played in require a $100 blackjack bet for 4 hours daily to get a room comped. I’ve calculated that playing with S17,RSA,DOA,LSR assuming 100 hands per hour it is costing me $120 per day if I play basic strategy. Is there another game that I would lose less if I played? I’m mainly concerned with the cost of Pai Gow if I never bank playing $100 a hand 4 hours a day. However, I thought you might know of another game it would be even cheaper for me to play.

Jay F.

The rule of thumb when it comes to comps is that the casinos give back some percentage, usually one-third. So if your goal is to get the room with as little expected loss as possible then whatever game offers the lowest house edge is what you should play. You will probably earn that room faster and with less bankroll volatility playing pai gow or pai gow poker. However the house edge is higher so your expected loss will be greater than in blackjack. In my opinion you should play whatever you would play if there were no comps at all. Then consider comps as icing on the cake.

I ran into a situation in Reno a couple years ago that no one else seems to have heard before. At a full pai gow poker table, the dealer set her cards, I believe it was a Jack/Ten in the 2-card hand and a flush in the 5 card-hand. The dealer had missed the fact there was a straight with a higher 2-card hand, but set it and went through 4 players when the pit boss came over and said "You set that wrong" and proceeded to re-set the hand. They then went to the discard tray to replay the hands. This resulted in two of the players going from a push to a loss. The pit boss actually went to the players’ stacks and took the monies from them after consulting the videotape to confirm the wager amounts. We were all told to stay at the table until the situation was resolved, but after it was, despite not knowing each other, we all left not only the table, but the casino entirely. It would strike me that once a hand is set and the first hand is settled, there can be no change. Also, for PR purposes, that pit boss lost my business forever over a mess that netted the casino $20. What do you think?

Kevin H.

The casino had the right to do this. However in my opinion it was a bad business decision. Not only did the casino waste time resolving this mess but as you point out it resulted in bad feelings on the part of all players. This just goes to show the folly of following rules religiously. Personally I think rules should be weighed against common sense.

At the Trump Casino in Gary, Indiana (near Chicago) the fortune bonus in Pai Gow Poker pays out the regular bonuses for a 3 of a kind or better, but also pays 1 to 1 for 3-pair. Statistically speaking, how will this increase your chances of winning on the bonus? What percentage of the time will a player have 3-pair in their hand?

Anonymous

The number of combinations for a three pair without the joker is combin(13,3)*10*combin(4,2)^3*4/combin(52,7) = 2,471,040. The number of combinations of a three pair with the joker being used to complete a pair of aces is 23776. The number of combinations of a three pair with the joker as the singleton is 61776. So the total combinations are 2556592. Out of total combin(53,7)=154,143,080 possible the probability of a three pair is 1.659%. So changing a three pair from a loss to a win of 1 to 1 decreases the house edge by 3.32%. Assuming the standard pay table on the other hands this would sway the odds in the player's favor with 3 or more other players.

I was recently in Las Vegas, and the casinos’ methods for playing two pair in Pai Gow Poker vary somewhat significantly from your methodology. I was wondering whether your rules are devised to optimize the player’s chances because you know how the house will play, or whether your methodology is simply a better strategy than the house method. If the answer is the former, then if a player banks, the player should play the house way instead of your way? If it is the latter, then your method should always be used. However, if it is the latter, why don’t the casinos use your methodology?

Anonymous

My two pair rule is optimized to play against the house way. However I think it is probably just any reasonable strategy. For example I would use it when banking against other players. The reason the casinos use a more complicated and less powerful rule is probably out of tradition. Whoever invented the game probably came up with that strategy rather arbitrarily and it since become a hard habit to break. Two other rules I find ridiculous are counting A2345 (known as "the wheel") as the second highest straight and bothering to state an exception in the house way that if the dealer has five aces with a pair of kings to play the pair of kings in the low hand. The probability of getting this hand is 1 in 25,690,513. In my estimation this hand may have come up about 100 times in the history of the game, but has probably never affected the outcome of a hand compared to the alternative of playing a full house in the high hand. Yet every single dealer to have dealt the game had to be bothered with learning the exception.

At the Borgata casino in AC, they have a different rule regarding commission for pai gow poker than the rest of the casinos. They only charge commissions in 50 cent increments, rather than the 25 cent norm. When I played and won a $25 hand, I only paid commission of $1. To what degree does this lower the house edge?

Anonymous

From my pai gow poker section we have the following probabilities.

Player wins both 28.61%
Tie 41.48%
Banker wins both 29.91%

So you are getting away with a 4% commission. As player your expected value is .2861*0.96 - .2991 = -2.44%. As banker (going one on one) is .2991*0.96 - .2861 = 0.001036. So a 4% commission lowers the house edge by about 0.3%.

P.S. In May, 2008, a reader wrote to say that the Borgata does use quarters in pai gow poker, and forces bets to be in increments of $5.

Me and my girlfriend go to the casino often and play Pai Gow poker. I was wondering if it was statistically better for us to each play half our money, or one of us to play with it all, or are they identical odds?

Beau B from Marysville, WA

The odds are the same. However it will be less volatile for both of you to play at half the bet size.

Firstly, thanks for a great and informative website. I have a quick question about Fortune Bonus Pai Gow. I realize that the fortune bonus bet is a sucker bet as it only pays off less than 20% of the time, however I like to play it anyways, just in case I hit a big hand. At the Trump Casino in Gary, Indiana (near Chicago) the fortune bonus pays out the regular bonuses for a 3 of a kind or better, but also pays 1 to 1 for 3-pair. Statistically speaking, how will this increase your chances of winning on the bonus? What percentage of the time will a player have 3-pair in their hand? Thanks again,

Greg

You're welcome. Here is the number of ways to make a three pair:

No joker: combin(13,3)*10*combin(4,2)3*4 = 2,471,040
Joker used in a pair of aces: combin(12,2)*10*42*combin(4,2)2 = 380,160
Joker used as singleton: combin(13,3)*combin(4,2)3 = 61,776

The total number of possible combinations is combin(53,7) = 154,143,080. So the probability of a three pair is (2,471,040+380,160+61,776)/154,143,080 = 0.0189. So, changing a three pair from a loss to a 1 to 1 push would reduce the house edge by 1.89% .

Back in 2002 you answered a question about Washington State and commission free pai-gow, or fortune pai-gow as it’s called, saying that since the house always banks, the house advantage is 1.44%. Well, they do allow player banking with commission free pai-gow, so how does that now effect the house advantage?

Michael from Marysville

According to my sources in Washington state many casinos waive the 5% commission if the player makes the Fortune side bet. The most common pay table for the Fortune bet in Washington I’m told is 2/3/4/5/25/50/150/400/1000/2000/8000, which has a house edge of 7.83% less 1.07% for each additional player at the table. So the expected loss of a $5 Fortune bet is 39.14 cents less 5.34 cents for each additional player. The following table shows the breakeven point between making and not make the Fortune bet according to the number of players at the table, including yourself.

  • 1 player: $27.36
  • 2 players: $23.63
  • 3 players: $19.90
  • 4 players: $16.17
  • 5 players: $12.44
  • 6 players: $8.71
  • 6 players: $4.98

For example, if there are four players (including yourself) you should make the Fortune bet if your pai gow poker bet is $17 or more, and not if it is $16 or less.

First off, thanks for maintaining this site! I find it helpful, and also being a fellow actuary, I can appreciate the amount of detail that you put forth here, and how you can explain the math behind these games in layman (i.e. - non-actuarial) terms. Anyway, I have an etiquette question regarding Pai Gow Poker. I often play this game while in Vegas with friends, and several of them will pull back their bet and sit out a hand when a fellow player decides to be banker. I personally don’t do this, being of the mindset that, (a) if I lose, I’d rather my money go to another player instead of the house, or (b) if I win, if the banking player wagering the money, and they’re willing to lose it, so it’s not difference to them if I get the winning or the house does. I’m curious as to what your opinion is on this practice. Thanks again for maintaining this site! Keep up the great work!

Andy from Chicago, IL

Thanks for the kind words. I always like to hear from real actuaries out there. My opinion is that it is very bad etiquette to pull back a bet when another player is banking unless the player banking doesn’t mind. Sometimes there is collusion between players to not bank against each other, to reduce losses and volatility. Absent that, refusing to play against a player banker denies the banker the favorable odds the dealer usually enjoys. That just isn’t cool to happily give your money to the casino but not a fellow player. It would be like refusing to give somebody your luggage cart at the airport when you were done with it, even if offered the 25-cent refund.

Love the site!! As mentioned in response to another question, some casinos offer a Dragon Hand in pai gow poker. My theory is to play it if I have, trips or better, preferably without the joker. Others play when they have nothing. Is there any logic to either methodology?

Michael from Las Vegas

I never play the dragon hand myself because it always loses on copies. Regardless of what is in your hand you have the same odds of making any given hand as the dealer, assuming the same strategy. So if you must play it you may do so whenever you like.

There’s this Pai Gow Poker sidebet in Casino Niagara which pays out of a jackpot rather than at fixed odds. I’m wondering what amount the jackpot has to be at for that bet to break even (assuming one set the hand to maximize return of jackpot bet).

William from Mississauga, Ontario

The break even point is $102,680.24. I just added an analysis of this bet to my section on Pai Gow Poker side bets.

I was playing pai-gow poker last week at a Las Vegas casino. The other player at the table got tired of losing to the dealer and decided to bank the next hand. Once that hand’s cards were dealt he immediately picked up his hand and started to set it. I told him that since I could potentially look at his cards it wasn’t a good idea to do that before I set my hand. I also added that he probably wasn’t even allowed to set his hand early. The dealer said that it was in fact allowed since it could only put him at a disadvantage. I didn’t look at his hand, but if I had I could have split my pair to strengthen the low hand and salvage a push. So I have two questions.

Is a banker required to wait to set his hand until after the other hands are set?

If he does not do so, is it poor etiquette to use the information to the player’s advantage? I would think that it is since doing so is essentially spying on the banker’s hand.

Brian from Crystal, MN

Here in Vegas they always seem to tuck the cards under your bet when you bank and don’t allow you to touch them until everybody else has finished setting their hands. If you try to look at them early the dealer will give you a sharp rebuke. However in your casino I wouldn’t hesitate to try to take a peek if the banking player is setting his hand early. Just try to be discreet. I would liken it to a dealer in blackjack flashing his hole card. That is great information to have and it is perfectly legal to use it.

Great Site! Could pai gow poker be a positive expectation game if the other players bet enough while you are banking?

Michael from Knoxville, TN

Yes! The following table shows the house edge as both player and banker according to the number of other players. The last column shows the ratio of overall action as banker to player to break even. So with seven players, or six opponents, you would need to bet 13 times more as banker than player.

Required Banker Ratio to Break Even in Pai Gow Poker

Players House
Edge
Banker
House
Edge
Player
Breakeven
Ratio
2 0.2% 2.73% N/A
3 -0.02% 2.73% 136.5
4 -0.1% 2.73% 27.3
5 -0.15% 2.73% 18.2
6 -0.19% 2.73% 14.4
7 -0.21% 2.73% 13

For pai gow poker at Mohegan Sun Casino in CT, the casino allows you to bet your commission (i.e. bet $21 to win $20). I see it as a small advantage because you are not paying commission on the extra 5% you are betting. Is it truly advantageous to do so? How does it change the house odds?

Jay R. from Shelton, CT

From my pai gow poker section, the probability of the banker winning is 29.91%. So instead of paying the usual 5% commission as player you are paying 4.76%. That will lower the house edge by 0.2991*(0.05-0.0476) = 0.07%.

In Pai Gow Poker, the high hand must be greater than the low. I didn’t notice a similar rule for tiles, though your Java game enforces one. Are players (not banking) allowed to set hands foul, and then forfeit, as in pai gow poker? Do you know what happens in tile tournaments? Can a player request "house way" in a tournament?

Tabby Cat from Huntington Beach

In pai gow tiles, it is always obvious which hand is higher. You don’t need to know where to place the high hand. Just make any two stacks of two tiles each, and the dealer will figure it out. I have never once heard of a pai gow tiles tournament. However, the Las Vegas Hilton has an annual pai gow poker tournament. I’m not certain whether you can request the house way, but I would bet against it. It is a very strict rule in most tournaments that the dealer can not give advice of any kind.

While playing pai gow poker, I was dealt a bad pai gow hand. As it turned out, the dealer had the identical numeric sets of cards, so I obviously lost $5. The dealer blurted out she had never seen that before and the pit girl agreed. What are the odds that the odds of a double copy, when the player has a pai gow?

Charles N. from Las Vegas

For the benefit of other readers, a "pai gow" hand is one with seven singletons, and no straight or flush is possible. The probability that the dealer will have the same seven ranks, without using the joker, is 37/combin(46,7) = 2,187/53,524,680 = 1 in 24,474.

Sometimes in Washington State, they don’t charge the 5% commission in pai gow poker. They make a profit from the banker’s advantage and voluntary side bets only. How does this change the odds?

Dean from Washington

With no commission, the banker has a 1.3% advantage, and all others have a 1.3% disadvantage, assuming the player follows the casino’s house way. If the player banks half the time, then the overall house edge is exactly 0%. If the player banks 1 in 7 hands, then the overall house edge is 0.93%. If the player banks 1 in 14 hands, then the overall house edge is 1.11%. If the ratio of hands that you bank is b, then the overall house edge is 1.2% - 2.4% × b.

Sometimes in Washington, the player will be required to make the Fortune side bet to have no commission. I address this rule in my Ask the Wizard column #159.

For pai gow and pai gow poker, is it true that there is no table limit on bets between players when a player is banking? What happens if a player, or group of players, bets more than the banker can cover?

dk

To answer the second question first, the banker must have enough chips on the table to cover all bets. If he doesn’t, the dealer will give him the choice to buy more or forfeit his turn to bank.

As for the first question, the table limit still applies when a player is banking. It would seem to be good business to allow any bet, because the casino will stand to get 5% of a larger amount. I asked about this at three different casinos. The following is what I was told, in the order I asked:

Casino 1: The Gaming Control Board needs to approve increases in the maximum bet, which they can not do on short notice.

Casino 2: The Gaming Control Board has nothing to do with it. Instead, a casino vice president needs to authorize any increase in the maximum bet, and it is generally only done for known good customers.

Casino 3: Casinos don’t need Gaming Control Board approval to raise the maximum bet on a table. My source hadn’t heard of a casino allowing unlimited bets in the case of player banking and added, conceptually, there isn’t any exposure for the casino, so there wouldn’t be a reason to preclude it.

I would add that in my many hours of playing pai gow, I have never once seen anything close to this situation come up. Usually, players don’t like to bet against other players, and the maximums are sufficiently high that players rarely bump up against them, regardless of who is banking. However, if the situation happened often enough, I think casinos would indeed re-think their policy and allow unlimited bets.

This question was raised and discussed in the forum of my companion site Wizard of Vegas.

What is the proper etiquette for banking in pai gow or pai gow poker when other players are at the table?

SplittingAA

The rules of etiquette are not firmly established, so I can only tell you my opinion. First, if you want to bank, then you are perfectly entitled to when it is your turn. Sometimes other players will moan about it, or blatantly complain about it in Chinese, but don’t let them make you feel ashamed to invoke your right to bank. Second, if another player is banking, and you want to bet, then you don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to.

However, if you want to go beyond the call of duty, it would be good to talk to the other player to ensure both of you are happy. If you ask to bank, then you risk a confrontation if the other player says he prefers that you don’t. Usually you can get an idea what he will say anyway. If you think he won’t object, then I would ask. If you wish to bet while another player is banking, it would be a nice thing to do if you didn’t bet more than he was comfortable with, while still betting enough to make it interesting for you. I think it is bad manners to over-bet, in an effort to cause a banking player to back down. This is something I’ve seen happen several times.

To summarize, if the other player you would be betting against looks like a reasonable person, then I would try to work out something mutually agreeable. If he seems like the "to hell with you" type, then I would just do whatever you want.

This question was raised and discussed in the forum of my companion site Wizard of Vegas.

A player in Pai Gow Poker is dealt the following hand: Jh Qh Kh Ah Qs Ks Joker. How should the hand be set?

  1. Royal flush & A-K
  2. Two pair (KKQQJ) & AA

rdw4potus

My pai gow poker appendix 1 is useful for questions like this. To answer the question, add the low and high hand power ratings for all viable ways to play the hand. The following table shows the sum of the power ratings (for not banking) for both viable ways to play the hand. It shows that breaking up the royal, while painful, is the much better play.

Pai Gow Poker — Power Rating Table

Low Hand High Hand Low Power Rating High Power Rating Total Power Rating Expected Value
KQ Royal flush 0.452967 0.999507 1.452474 0.416162
AA KKQQJ 0.989071 0.821870 1.810941 0.765667

This question was raised and discussed in the forum of my companion site Wizard of Vegas.

What is the probability of a tie hand in pai gow poker in the front, back, and both at the same time?

Cary L.

Based on a simulation of 7.7 billion hands, assuming the player follows the house way, the probability of a tie in the front (low) hand is 2.55%, or 1 in 39.24. The probability of a tie in the back (high) hand is 0.038%, or 1 in 2,637. The probability of a double tie is about 1 in 78,200.

Why do the casino house ways for pai gow poker bother to list an exception for splitting up five aces with a pair of kings? How often can that happen, and what are the odds that exception makes a difference when it does?

Anon E. Mouse

Good question. The house way says to split up five aces, playing two aces in the low hand. The exception is to retain the five of a kind in the high hand if you can play two kings in the low. My pai gow poker page indicates seven house ways from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and all of them include this exception. The three from outside those two cities do not.

The probability of getting four aces, the joker, and two kings is 1 in 25,690,513. Assuming the dealer is banking, the only situation where this exception would help is if the player had a four of a kind or better in the high hand. The probability of that is about 1 in 300. The probability of both happening is about 1 in 7.6 billion.

According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, there were 306 pai gow poker tables in Nevada in 2009. If we generously assume 60 hands per hour, two players per table, and every table is open 24/7, then it would take 23.7 years for this exception to occur and make a difference in the outcome.

So the casinos are requiring every single pai gow poker dealer to memorize this exception when it may never have made a difference in the outcome in the history of the game. I speculate the same person who thought of adding that rule was the same person who decided that the A2345 straight, known as "the wheel," is the second highest straight.

I work in a casino, and two days ago, my boss comes out with a memo saying that a three of a kind beats a straight in pai gow poker. Not the bonus payout, the actual hand rankings. We have all argued with him that he is incorrect, but he says this comes down from Shuffle Master. Is this true? Did Shuffle Master change hand rankings on their pai gow games? Can they do this?

sugabush26

The probability of a three of a kind at 4.98% is lower than that of a straight at 7.16%, due to the wild card rules. In Shuffle Master’s Fortune side bet, a Three of a Kind pays more. While they are allowed to have any rules they like for their own games (subject to the approval of regulators), I doubt Shuffle Master would have the audacity to change the rank ranking of the base game. Not only would the change be un-poker like, but it could result in untold complaints by disaffected players. I suspect the supervisor is confused with the three of a kind paying more on a side bet and incorrectly assumes that means it ranks higher in the base game.

This question was raised and discussed in the forum of my companion site Wizard of Vegas.

What is the best hand you can get in pai gow poker when not banking?

Paigowdan

There doesn’t seem to be any unbeatable hand when not banking. So let’s consider two hands. The first can’t be beaten or tied in the high. The second can’t be beaten or tied in the low.

(1) AAAAW/KK (W=wild)

The five aces cannot be beaten in the high, but the pair of kings could be tied in the low. The number of combinations with two kings is combin(44,5) = 1,086,008. The number of total combinations of 7 cards out of the 46 left is 53,524,680. So the probability of two kings is 1,086,008/53,524,680 = 2.03%. With many of those combinations the dealer will not play the KK in the low. According to my Pai Gow Poker Appendix 1, the dealer will have a pair of aces or less in the high 74.93% of the time. That means he will make a two pair or better, allowing him to play the kings in the low, 25.07% of the time. So the probability the player will get two kings, and be able to play them in the low, is 2.03% × 25.07% = 0.51%, or 1 in 196.

(2) AWQJT (suited)/AA

The royal can be tied in the high, but the aces cannot be beaten or tied in the low. Here I’m using the wild to substitute for a king to make a royal, but it could also have substituted for the Q, J, or T. I don’t want it to substitute for an ace, because then there would be two aces left in the deck for the dealer to tie the low. This way, the dealer can only tie the high with another royal. What are the odds of that? There are three suits left for the royal, and the other two cards could be anything. So the number of combinations that push is 3×combin(41,2) = 2,460. I get the 41 from 46 cards left in the deck after the player removed 7 from the original 43, and then subtract 5 more for the 5 cards in the dealer’s royal. We have combin(46,7) = 53,524,680 in the denominator. So the odds of a tie with wild royal/AA is 2,460/53,524,680 = 0.004596%, or 1 in 21,758.

Before some perfectionist writes to me, there may be some bizarre situations where the dealer doesn’t play the hand the way I intended. I’m not looking to get an exact probability of each situation, but to substantiate why I think wild royal/AA is the best hand you can get in pai gow poker when not banking.

This question was raised and discussed in the forum of my companion site Wizard of Vegas.

In pai gow poker, what would be the player advantage if he played only when his first card was an ace or a joker?

Eliot Jacobson

The following table shows the possible outcomes, assuming the player is not banking, and the Trump Plaza house way. The lower right cell shows a player advantage of 16.09%.

First Card is an Ace or Joker

Outcome Pays Probability Return
Win 0.95 0.383010 0.363860
Tie 0 0.413936 0.000000
Lose -1 0.203054 -0.203054
Total 1.000000 0.160806

In your last column, Eliot Jacobson asked about the expected value in pai gow poker if the player knew the first card would be an ace or joker. I assume this had something to do with being able to bet after seeing this card. Do you know more about why Eliot was asking?

odiousgambit

At the risk of making the advantage player community angry again, I'll just say there are some situations where the astute player can make a wager knowing what his first card will be.

The following table shows the probability of each card and the advantage, if greater than zero, when it is the first card. The conditional return is the expected win, given what the indicated first card is. The expected return is the product of the probability and conditional return columns.

Pai Gow Poker — First Card Queen or Better

Card Probability Conditional
Return
Expected
Return
Joker 0.018868 0.257773 0.004864
Ace 0.075472 0.136483 0.010301
King 0.075472 0.038914 0.002937
Queen 0.075472 0.000534 0.000040
All other 0.754717 0.000000 0.000000
Total 1.000000 0.018141

The above table shows that if the player plays only when the first card is a queen or higher his advantage per hand seen is 1.81%. The player will make a bet 24.52% of the time. The advantage per bet made is 7.40%.

Note how the advantage with a queen is 0.05% only. If we don't play those hands, then the table looks like this.

Pai Gow Poker — First Card King or Better

Card Probability Conditional
Return
Expected
Return
Joker 0.018868 0.257773 0.004864
Ace 0.075472 0.136483 0.010301
King 0.075472 0.038914 0.002937
All other 0.830189 0.000000 0.000000
Total 1.000000 0.018101

The above table shows that if the player plays only when the first card is a king or higher, then his advantage per hand seen is still 1.81%. The player will make a bet 16.98% of the time. The advantage per bet made is 10.66%.

Here is that table if the player plays aces or the joker only.

Pai Gow Poker — First Card Ace or Joker

Card Probability Conditional
Return
Expected
Return
Joker 0.018868 0.257773 0.004864
Ace 0.075472 0.136483 0.010301
All other 0.905660 0.000000 0.000000
Total 1.000000 0.015164

This shows that if the player plays only when the first card is an ace or joker, then his advantage per hand seen is still 1.52%. The player will make a bet 9.43% of the time. The advantage per bet made is 16.07%.

See discussion about this question in my forum at Wizard of Vegas.

I was playing Pai Gow Poker at an Indian casino and received a hand of Kings and Queens and was counting my winnings in my head. Then the dealer flipped over TTTJK*A (*=wild), with no flush possibility. She set her hand as TTTKJ, A*. I asked to see the house way since I thought that TJ*KA, TT would be a better play and I had a financial interest in the outcome.

They showed me the house way and it did not clearly address this hand. They ended up taking my money and giving me double my bet in non-negotiable chips so that the game could continue, which was okay. There was a pow wow in the pit with 4+ suits about how to set the hand and it lasted well over half an hour. They finally decided that TTTJK/A* was the proper way to set it and would change the house way as such.

My question is what is the house way for this hand and how do you interpret the house way for confusing hands like this?

bigfoot66

Pai gow poker was a badly designed game from day one and decades later nobody has bothered to clean it up. Flaws to pai gow poker include:

  • An overly confusing and complicated house way.
  • The ridiculous rule that the A2345 straight is the second highest.
  • Option for player banking and co-banking, which almost nobody, except me, invokes.

When I briefly worked for a major Strip casino, that shall remain nameless, I offered to create a house way that would have been shorter, more powerful, and clearly covered every possible situation. Not just for pai gow poker, but tiles as well. Of course, that suggestion was shot down without comment.

Now that my rant is out of the way, I'll try to answer your question. While there are some differences from one house way to another, they are all more or less organized the same way. The Foxwoods house way is typical. Using your hand as an example, it isn't clear whether to treat is as a straight hand and play it as AKQJT/TT or a full house hand and play it as TTTJK/AA.

Not that you asked, but let's look at what would be the mathematical better play for the house. Using my pai gow poker appendix 1 we get the following, assuming the dealer is banking:

Table TitleExpand

High
Hand
Low
Prob.
High
Wins
Prob.
Low
Wins
Prob.
Net
Win
Prob.
Net
Push
Prob.
Net
Loss
Expected
Value
AQKJT TT 0.966111 0.952117 0.966111 0.032266 0.001623 0.964569
TTTKJ AA 0.874877 1.000000 0.874877 0.125123 0.000000 0.874877


By playing the hand as a straight the dealer can expect to win 96.46% of the money, as opposed to 87.49% as a full house. So, going by the straight rule is significantly better.

Personally, the way I code pai gow poker is to start with the highest ranked hand (five aces) and move my way up the page in an if/else if/else if/else if/end loop. In other words, I classify the hand according to the highest possible five-card hand that can be made and then follow those rules.

I think that this is how the house way is intended to be interpreted. As evidence why, consider the Canterbury Park house way. In particular the rules for flush hands, which reads as follows.

Six and seven card flushes play the highest two cards possible in the Low Hand.  
(Exception: If two pair are with the flush, the two pair rule will apply.)


As with all other house ways, the lowest hands are listed first. If the hand was supposed to be played by the first set of rules encountered, then they would have followed the two pair rule anyway. There would be no reason to explicitly make an exception to follow the two pair rule, since it was listed before the flush rule.

For practical purposes, I asked two dealers how they would handle this hand. They both pretty much said that the written house way is just a guideline and that in the event of a confusing hand, ask the floor what to do, and then just do as you're told without asking why. One of the dealers said that an unspoken policy is to go by the rule that seems to fit that situation best. In the case of Foxwoods, there is a rule for straight hands with a three of a kind. Since that most specifically describes the hand in question, follow that rule, despite the fact that the full house rule covers it too.

To make a long story short, no casino house way I have ever seen, in either pai gow poker or pai gow tiles, clearly explains how to play every possible hand. They are full of contradicting rules. Until somebody cares to do anything about it, you'll have to go by the interpretation of whoever is working the floor. In my experience, these confusing cases seem to usually get ruled against the player.

I hope one of these days a player will get fed up with this and make a complaint to the appropriate Gaming authority the next time an ambiguous hand is set in a way that favors the dealer.

This question is raised and discussed in my forum at Wizard of Vegas.