Most casino gamblers consider poker to be a separate component of the gambling economy, with tournaments and cash games held in a reserved room far from the table game pits.
But every major casino, land-based or online, makes sure to spread the exciting and challenging table game known as Pai Gow Poker. Since making its debut in the 1980s – head down to the History section for the full story on Pai Gow Poker’s development – this Asian-inspired game based on “setting” poker hands has become all the rage.
You’ll find many versions of Pai Gow Poker nowadays, all of which use slightly different rules and gameplay setups, but the basic premise goes like this. After putting up your Ante bet, you and the dealer will both take seven cards at random from a 53-card deck. The deck includes the standard 52-card arrangement, along with a wild Joker card that can be used to help form premium hands.
Once you have seven cards to work with, the goal of Pai Gow Poker is deceptively simple – set them into two different hands, one with five cards and another with two cards. The five-card poker hand goes on the bottom, and it must always rank higher than the two-card hand on top.
That means a seven-card deal like Q-Q-K-K-2-3-4 would put the pair of Queens up top in a two-card hand, while the pair of Kings (plus 2-3-4) would go on the bottom. Once you’ve set your hands, the dealer will do the same – using a proscribed method known as the “House Way” – and the showdown commences.
You’ll need to beat both halves of the dealer’s hand to win even money (less a 5 percent commission) on your Ante bet. If you can only beat one half, however, while dealer has a winning half of their own, you’ll simply get your Ante bet returned in a push.
That’s the CliffsNotes version of Pai Gow Poker rules and gameplay, but there’s a ton more to it, so new players should pull up a full description to learn about all of the little wrinkles involved. Jokers can only be used to make certain hands, the A-2-3-4-5 “wheel” straight is actually the second-best straight, and so on – so taking the time to study up on Pai Gow Poker’s intricacies is essential to success.
Playing Online Pai Gow Poker vs. Live
The live Pai Gow Poker tables are action-packed affairs, with up to six players taking on the dealer in seven-card duels.
New players can often be intimidated by the rituals borrowed from the Chinese game Pai Gow, including a dice tumbler used to determine who will “bank” the hand. Players can bet with the dealer or against them, or against one another, creating a confusing experience for newcomers.
Fortunately, the online Pai Gow Tables simplify things immensely be removing the banker role altogether. Instead, you’ll be playing a standard house-banked table game pitting you against the dealer.
Other than that fundamental shift, however, the transition from live Pai Gow Poker to the online arena is relatively smooth. No complicated pay tables to worry about, nor crazy side bets that add a different dimension – just the five- and two-card hand setting process and nearly even money payouts on winning deals.
Pros & Cons of Playing Pai Gow Poker Online
If you’re a fan of the back and forth player banking process, online Pai Gow Poker might not be for you.
Conversely, if that element of the game is what keeps you from the live tables, firing up a Pai Gow Poker game online is much more appealing. Many of the online casinos out there even include a “House Way” button that takes care of the hand-setting for you.
Instead of parsing through the various strategic choices given your seven cards – Pai Gow Poker is one of the only casino games that hasn’t had its optimal strategy “cracked” by the computers yet – using the automatic House Way option ensures you’re always setting your hands sensibly.
Another pro in favor of online Pai Gow Poker is how the rules are spelled out clearly in print form, usually right there alongside the game layout. When you’re playing one of the more complex casino table games ever invented, having the full rules handy at all times is definitely a huge help.
Characteristics of the Best Online Pai Gow Poker
The best online Pai Gow Poker operators make sure to lift the proverbial veil, making everything as easy to learn as they possibly can.
So if you find a site that doesn’t have the rules readily available, or charges more than the standard 5 percent commission on winners, just shop around until you find an online casino that plays things straight.
Because the rules and gameplay follow the same script for the most part, players tend to look for online Pai Gow Poker tables that look and feel the way they like. Clickable chip graphics are a big hit, as are colorful card animations that help you distinguish between the four suits (clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts).
Types of Online Pai Gow Poker Bonuses
Set yourself up with a new online casino account and the best operators in the industry will gladly treat you to a generous Welcome Bonus.
Just check the Promotions page to find the latest bonus code, enter it in before you place your first deposit, and you’ll score a sizable sum in free bonus funds. Welcome Bonus offers typically award a percentage match based on your deposit amount, so something like 200 percent on a $100 transaction would put $300 in your starting bankroll.
If lady luck doesn’t look your way in the early going, and you need subsequent deposits later on, look for a similarly structured Reload Bonus offer. These usually use a lower percentage match, but you can easily turn another $100 into $150 using a 50 percent match rate.
And if you become a regular player on that particular platform, top-quality online casinos will top your current account balance off with a little extra via the No Deposit Bonus. You might get an email notification letting you know you’ve earned a No Deposit Bonus, while many online casinos use Player Points which can be piled up and redeemed for cash.
Online casino bonuses vary by type, but they all have one thing in common – playthrough / rollover requirements. Depending on the site, you might see the term playthrough or rollover used, but both mean the same thing. Because the operator would bleed money if bonus funds were immediately available for withdrawal, they require players to place a certain number of wagers before the bonus money becomes “unlocked” for cash out purposes.
You’ll see figures like 20x, 30x, or 50x for these playthrough / rollover requirements, and those are simply multiples of your total deposit + bonus amount. Thus, the $100 deposit + $200 bonus example mentioned earlier creates a $300 bankroll, and at a 20x playthrough / rollover rate, you’d need to place $6,000 in total wagers before the bonus (and any associated winnings) can be withdrawn.
That can often feel like a bait and switch tactic at first glance, especially when you’re talking about thousands of dollars in bets, but clearing your playthrough / rollover requirements is actually quite easy to accomplish. If you bet $10 per hand playing Pai Gow Poker online, for example, and you grind out 100 hands in an hour, you’ll already hit $1,000 in total wagers.
Pai Gow Poker is one of the best table games around for playthrough / rollover purposes, because the 40 percent push rate ensures that many of your bets won’t dent your bankroll whatsoever. You can simply put the bet up, push the hand, and repeat the process to rack up a high volume of wagers.
Pay attention to the Terms and Conditions page though, which is where you’ll find “wagering contribution” tables listing the exact percentage of a wager devoted to playthrough / rollover. The slots send 100 percent of every bet to playthrough / rollover, because they’re a high house edge game that can be played quickly.
More skilled games with a lower house edge, like blackjack and video poker, typically tend to use a lower wagering contribution of 10 percent.
Pai Gow Poker, on the other hand, straddles the middle ground perfectly with a healthy wagering contribution rate of 50 percent on average.
History of Pai Gow Poker
Long before there was Pai Gow Poker, gamblers in China and all over Asia enjoyed the highly strategic domino-setting game known as Pai Gow.
The original version uses 32 numbered tiles that resemble dominoes, and players try to set two “hands” in such a way that both beat the dealer’s arrangement. The tiles are dealt at random, but players must use common sense and cleverness to come up with the optimal formation given their holding.
You can find traditional Pai Gow games running in any major casino, but while Asian-Americans flock to these tables, they remain a niche offering for the most part.
One casino that specialized in old-school Pai Gow was the Bell Card Club in California, where owner Sam Torosian found his operation hemorrhaging cash back in 1985. Pai Gow itself was quite popular with the local Asian-American community, but Torosian needed a new game that would appeal to non-Asians.
According to Torosian’s recollection, a regular player at Bell Card Club who hailed from the Philippines made passing mention of an obscure Chinese card game called puy soy. In that game, playing cards replaced tiles and gamblers tried to set their random 13-card allotment into three distinct hands.
Torosian put his thinking cap on and envisioned ways to turn puy soy into a poker-based table game that American players could appreciate. He eventually settled on a seven-card deal, after which players tried to set their cards into one five-card poker hand alongside a two-card hand.
He dubbed his new creation Pai Gow Poker, obviously hoping to garner interest from Asians and non-Asians alike. The game proved to be an immediate hit with both crowds, and after starting out with a two-table trial run, it only took a week before Torosian had more than two dozen Pai Gow Poker tables running around the clock.
Torosian’s pal George Hardie asked for permission to spread Pai Gow Poker in his Bicycle Club casino, and the game soon became a bona fide hit all over California.
Unfortunately for Torosian, an acquaintance who worked as an attorney informed him that playing card games couldn’t be covered by patent protection. That advice was obviously dead wrong, but Torosian took the man at his word and never explored a patent application.
After a one-year window passed without a patent in place, Pai Gow Poker officially entered the public domain, meaning any casino operator in America could spread the game without infringing on Torosian’s intellectual property.
In 2002, the Los Angeles Times published a profile on Torosian and the invention of Pai Gow Poker titled “Casino Boss Can’t Cash In on Game He Developed.”
The article quotes Moe Mostashari – who worked for Torosian as the Bell Card Club’s casino manager before inventing (and patenting) No Bust Blackjack – in a particularly heart-wrenching passage:
“Sam got the wrong advice. Talk about a lost opportunity…. Nobody has ever lost more money by not patenting a game than Sam.”
Peter Ruchman, a casino gambling analyst based in Las Vegas at the time, also told the newspaper that Torosian could’ve easily cleared $70,000 per month for the rest of his life if only he had secured a patent on Pai Gow Poker:
“He should, by all rights, be receiving a royalty check from every casino that uses his game around the world, and he doesn’t.
But that’s gambling. Life in the casinos takes very strange twists.”
Pai Gow Poker eventually arrived in Las Vegas casinos, along with card rooms and gambling halls from coast to coast and worldwide. The game also went on to become a staple offering of the best online casinos, where players enjoy the leisurely pace and challenging strategy to this day.
Real Money Pai Gow Poker FAQ
“When I bet $5 and beat the dealer on both hands, why is the payout light at only $4.75?”
The house charges a 5 percent commission on winning bets in Pai Gow Poker, similar the setup used on winning Banker bets in baccarat. This is because the probability of winning both hands is 30.38 percent, which is slightly better than the 29.11 percent chance that you’ll lose both hands. By charging the 5 percent commission, Pai Gow Poker operators ensure themselves a house edge of 2.84 percent.
If the commission fee bothers you, just look for “Commission Free Pai Gow Poker” or “EZ Pai Gow Poker” within your online casino’s table games menu.
“I played a hand the other day where I tabled a 5-6-7-8-9 straight on the bottom, and A-K up top, but when the dealer turned over the exact same hands on their side I still lost my bet… did I get scammed?”
Nope, not at all, you simply got unlucky to tie the dealer. Pai Gow Poker rules state that any exact tie between the bottom and/or top hands result in a dealer win. So while the game is famous for its 40.49 percent push rate – on hands when you win one side and the dealer wins the other – actual ties like your 9-high straight vs. 9-high straight aren’t pushes at all.
This “tie goes to the dealer” caveat actually provides 1.27 percent of Pai Gow Poker’s total 2.84 percent house edge, so casinos put this rule in place for a good reason (good for them anyway).
“OK, so I didn’t get scammed there, but what about when I played the 9-10-J-Q-K straight on the bottom and still lost to the dealer’s A-2-3-4-5 ‘wheel’ straight? That can’t be correct, can it?”
Welcome to the wacky world of Pai Gow Poker rules, where the best straight on the board is “Broadway” (10-J-Q-K-A) like usual, but the “wheel” (A-2-3-4-5) takes runner-up honors.
Nobody really knows why that oddball rule made its way into the game, but most online casinos spreading Pai Gow Poker still use it to honor tradition. If it’s any consolation (and that’s definitely doubtful), you did have the third-highest possible straight on that losing hand.
To help you sort out the straight situation in Pai Gow Poker, just consult the following list: