Pai Gow Strategy
How to Play a Pai Gow Hand
But what is the best strategy when separating your cards into two hands? Here we’ll go through possible scenarios that might occur in a game of Pai Gow.
The easiest way to determine how to correctly play a hand is to see what possible hands you can make from your seven-card hand. Do you have a pair, trips, flush, full house or maybe a combination?
When you don’t have a pair, straight, flush or any other real poker hand, put the highest card in the five-card hand (you are forced to do so.) Then place the next two highest in the two-card hand.
Five-card hand: A-8-7-3-2
Two-card hand: Q-J
Always put the pair in the five-card hand and the highest two cards in the two-card hand.
Five-card hand: K-K-6-5-4
Two-card hand: Q-7
Two pair is a trickier hand to play. In some cases you should separate them and have one pair in the five-card hand and one pair in the two-card hand, but sometimes it’s correct to play two pair in the five-card hand.
It all depends on the value of your pairs, and even more often, the strength of your side cards.
If you for instance have J-J-3-3-A-K, you should consider keeping the two pair in the five-card hand and putting A-K in the two card hand. There’s not much difference between 3-3 and A-K, but your five-card hand becomes a lot stronger with two pair compared to a pair of jacks.
These are a few rules to follow when you have two pair in Pai Gow:
Always split a pair of aces and any other pair.
Five-card hand: A-A-8-3-2
Two-card hand: T-T
Always split face-card pair and a pair of 6s or higher.
Five-card hand: K-K-J-5-2
Two-card hand: 7-7
Keep a small two pair in the five-card hand if you can play an ace or king in the two-card hand.
Five-card hand: 7-7-2-2-8
Two-card hand: A-9
These examples don’t cover every scenario, but keep this as a rule of thumb:
With two small pairs and high side cards, consider playing two pair in the five-card hand. With small side cards and high pairs, split.
Three pairs is a really strong hand in Pai Gow. Put the highest pair in the two-card hand.
Five-card hand: K-K-T-T-2
Two-card hand: A-A
Three of a Kind
You should always play three-of-a-kind in the five-card hand, unless you have three aces. With aces, place a pair of aces in the five-card hand and ace high in the two-card hand.
In some scenarios you might even consider splitting kings, especially when the side cards are very low.
Five-card hand: A-A-6-4-2
Two-card hand: A-7
Straight or Flush
With a straight or flush – or perhaps both – the easiest way to determine what to play is to look how strong you can make the two-pair hand.
If you for instance have a six-card flush or six-card straight, make sure you put the highest possible cards in the two-card hand.
If you can create both a flush and a straight, choose the one that makes the highest two-card hand.
Five-card hand: 9h-8c-7h-6h-5c
Two-card hand: Ah-2c
If you have flush or straight and two pair at the same time, ignore the flush or straight and play the hand as if it was only two pair.
Now we’ve mostly talked about how to break up a straight or flush, and the truth is that you should do that quite often, but if you can’t do anything to your two-card hand, just play your straight or flush and hope to win at least one way.
In general, you should always split a full house – trips in the five-card hand and pair in the two-card hand. However if you have a small pair and high side cards you should consider playing the full house.
Five-card hand: Q-Q-Q-2-2
Two-card hand: A-K
Since 2-2 and A-K are almost equal in strength, it’s better to play A-K in this situation. In doing so you’ll beat straights, flushes and inferior full houses with your five-card hand.
Two Three of a Kind
With two three of a kind you should always put the highest pair in the two-card hand and play the lower three of a kind in the five-card hand.
Five-card hand: 6-6-6-Q-2
Two-card hand: Q-Q
Four of a Kind
A four of a kind can be treated as a two pair, but you shouldn’t split as often.
With a low four of a kind – 2 to 6 – you should keep it in the five card hand.
With higher cards – 7 to 10 – you should normally split, unless you can play an ace and a face card in the two card hand.
With a high four of a kind, split it, unless you have another pair you can place in the two card hand.
Five-card hand: Q-Q-J-6-3
Two-card hand: Q-Q
There’s not much difference between a straight flush and a normal flush or straight. The strength of the two-card hand dictates what you should do. See straight and flush above.
Other Common Terms Used in Online and Casino Pai Gow
Banker - The banker is the player's opponent in a Pai Gow poker game.
Co-banking - And option that is available in some casinos (not all), where the player and the house are 50/50 partners as the bank.
Copies - Another name for a tie. When the player's and the banker's hand have the same value, the hand is won by the banker.
Dragon Hand - A hand dealt to an empty seat at the table. In some casinos a player may be allowed to pick up the dragon hand and play it as his/her own.
Flush - A hand with all five cards in the same suit, i.e., spades, hearts, clubs or diamonds. All suits have the same value.
Four-of-a-kind - A hand that contains four cards of the same value.
Full House - Three cards of the same value plus two of another (same) value.
Hand Behind - The name given to the five-card hand in Pai Gow, as it is placed behind the smaller two-card hand.
Hand in Front - The name of the two-card hand placed in front of the five-card hand.
High Card - If no player has a poker hand with a pair or better, the highest card, or sequence of cards, will determine the winner.
High Hand - Same as "Hand Behind," see above.
House Way - A predetermined strategy used by the dealers when they set their hands.
Joker - A card that works as a "wild card" in Pai Gow. It can be used to complete a straight, a flush, or a straight flush. If it can't be used this way, it is automatically used as an ace.
Low Hand - Same as "Hand in Front," see above.
Pair - A hand with two cards of the same value.
Royal Flush - The highest hand in poker. A-K-Q-J-T of the same suit, i.e., spades, diamonds, hearts or clubs.
Straight - A hand with five sequential cards, i.e., 9-8-7-6-5, regardless of suit.
Straight Flush - A hand with five sequential cards of the same suit, i.e., 9-8-7-6-5, all hearts.
Three-of-a-kind - A hand with three cards of the same value.
Two Pair - A hand with two pairs (cards of the same value).
Wild Card - Another name for the Joker, see above.
Pai Gow Strategy Summary
Pai Gow is one of the harder casino games to play optimally. There are many tricky hand combinations you can receive.
But if you play according to the strategy tips above, you will make very few mistakes. And if you make a mistake, it will be minor and won’t affect your overall performance that much.
Also, when you play online Pai Gow, you can choose to play “the house way”. When you do that the casino will split the hand for you.
Finally, Pai Gow is a very underrated game in our opinion. It requires a lot of thinking and you won’t get bored that fast. Every hand is unique and if you chose to not to “go the house way” you have to be on your toes all the time.
To be honest, that’s not the case with most casino games.
Pai Gow Terminology
Like all casino games, pai gow has its own lingo. And if you’ve ever stepped up to a casino game in a live casino without knowing the terminology, you may feel a bit stupid and therefore don’t want to play. Here we go through the most commonly used terms in pai gow poker. You’ll learn about dragon hands, copies, front hands and so on. Give this article a quick read and you’ll understand what everybody is talking about at the pai gow table.
Pai Gow History
Pai Gow has its roots in ancient China where it, back in the days, was played with dominoes instead of playing cards. We don't know exactly how old the game is, but at least a couple of hundred years, which makes it one of the older games on the casino floor. In the late 20th century, the old Chinese game was mixed with poker. The result was the game we call pai gow today – a card game played in casinos throughout the world.