When playing poker you need to arrange your cards into poker hands. The back hand (or big hand/high hand) is a standard 5-card poker hand. The front hand (or the small hand/low hand) is made up of just two cards. Your low hand can only be two high cards or a pair.
If you’re dealt the joker as the joker is included in the deck for Pai Gow Poker play it can be used to substitute for a card in three ways: Can be any card to complete a straight, Can be any suit to complete a flush, If it can’t be used for either of those, the joker will always be an ace
In the two-card hand a joker is always an ace. Your 5-Card Hand must Be Higher
The only rule for separating your two Pai Gow hands is simple: The five-card hand must outrank the two-card hand.
Your 5-card hand is ranked according to the standard Poker Hand Rankings with one notable exception in some casinos: The A-2-3-4-5 straight (also known as a “wheel”) is considered the 2nd-highest straight. It’s a weird rule and a lot of casinos have dropped it now but many still hold true with it. So you need to check with your local house rules to be sure.
Basic Pai Gow poker strategy to set your hand
Because you can’t lose your money if just one of your hands is better than the dealer, it’s common strategy to split your hand in a way which gives you the strongest possible two-card hand (without outranking your five-card hand).
The exception to this strategy is if you’re able to make a very strong five-card hand such as a straight or better. In that scenario your five-card hand is almost sure to be a winner allowing you to freeroll on any two card hand you play.
When playing hands with no pairs (ie a totally unconnected set of 7 cards) the commonly accepted method is to:
- Leave the highest-ranked card in the back (big) hand
- Put the second two highest-ranking cards in the front (small) hand
That makes your front hand as strong as possible without outranking the back hand.
If you have one pair in your dealt hand:
- Play the pair in your big (high) hand)
- Play your two other highest cards in your low hand
If you’re dealt two pairs you should always split them if you have:
- A pair of Aces
- Two high pairs (JJ-AA)
- One high pair (JJ-AA) and one medium (77-TT)
Unless you have an Ace in your hand you should also split:
- Two medium (77-TT) pairs
- One high (JJ-AA) and one low (22-66) pair
Unless you have an Ace or a King you should always split:
- One medium (77-TT) pair and one low (22-66) pair
- Two low (22-66) pairs
Always play 3-of-a-Kind in your High hand unless you have 3 Aces. If you have 3 aces, play a pair in your high hand and Ace-high in your low hand
Play straights and flushes in your high hand unless you also have two pair. Then split them according to above rules for two-pair hands
- Split quads (4-of-a-kind) into two pairs if they are JJ or above
- Keep 4-of-a-kind 6s or lower together
- Keep 4-of-a-kind (77-TT) together only if you also have an Ace.
When you have a Full House:
- Always play the pair in your 2-card hand and 3-of-a-kind in your high hand unless you also have a second pair
- If so, play the higher of the two-pair in your low hand
If you have five Aces including Joker:
Always split them unless you also have a pair of Kings (In which case play all five Aces in your high hand)
Pai Gow Poker Dealer Rules or “House Way”
In every casino Pai Gow game the dealer is required to set his or her Pai Gow hand in specific ways. This is called the “House Way.” This varies from casino to casino but is listed in every casino’s gaming guide. Check with each local casino to see what their House Way is.
You can determine the winner once all hands are set you must compare your two hands to the corresponding two hands of the dealer. If both of your hands are better than both of the dealer hands, you make 1:1 on your bet. If only one of your hands is better than the dealer’s, it’s a push. If both your hands are worse than the dealers, you lose your bet. Also note that in Pai Gow ties go to the dealer so if you have the exact same hand (eg a pair of 88s in your low hand) the dealer wins that hand.
Points to note
- In Pai Gow, you’re dealt seven cards, two of which you have to remove and play as a second hand. Your second hand can’t be a better hand than your first hand with five cards – meaning if you play a pair as your second hand, you need to have a higher pair or better in your first hand.
- If you only have a high card, it’s worth keeping the high card in the first hand and sacrificing the second hand. It’s better to build one strong hand rather than play two weak ones. This is more likely to result in one hand winning and the other hand being a push – meaning you don’t lose the stake. This mindset and gameplay style is why Pai Gow can take some time to play before you bag yourself a big win – it does have a somewhat complex reputation after all.
- If you’re playing Pai Gow at a land-based casino you can make your two card hand out rank your five card hand. If you do this, it’s called “fouling your hand” and you will forfeit the hand as a result.
- During a game of Pai Gow you play against the dealer, not other players. If you’re playing in a land-based casino this can pay off as a huge advantage for you as a player. Learn how the dealer builds his or her decks, and you can start to notice a pattern of which hand they pack to the nines if they only have one good hand. You can then formulate a strategy to play the opposite hand as your strong hand and go for the push.
- When you master the art of setting up your hands, you can cut the house edge down to a tiny 2.8%.
- As a new player or beginner in Pai Gow always first play this game online for free and learn the basics before indulging in real money.