Even before sitting down at the Pai Gow Poker table, the House has already ensured that players are at a disadvantage. There is a 5% commission taken from winnings on successful hands. What’s more, in games where the Dealer always plays the Banker hand, another slight margin accrues to the House on the order of 0.10% to 0.25%. Over the long term, casinos expect players to lose about £1~£2 out of every £100 wagered.
How, then, is it possible to win at Pai Gow Poker? The answer, of course, is over the short term. In each session, wins and losses occur. A player who has the fortitude to stop playing while holding a profit can avoid letting the long-term odds catch up to the wagering. Additionally, using all available strategies to minimise the House Edge can boost the likelihood of success for every session played.
American mathematician Stanford Wong wrote a ground-breaking book in 1990, examining Pai Gow Poker in the greatest detail possible. He titled it “Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker,” and in it he identified every one of the 27 types of seven-card hands that occur in Pai Gow Poker. Wong studied each possibility carefully and revealed a strategy for the best way to set any hand.
As thorough as the book is, learning every possible combination and the proper response is as difficult as it is time-consuming. Fortunately, beginners can use a shortcut to avoid committing elaborate tables and decision trees to memory. As it turns out, 90% of all Pai Gow Poker hands dealt fall into just six broad categories: no pair, one pair, two pair, three pair, three of a kind and a full house. A player who knows how to handle these will be able to arrange the cards in the optimum way nine out of ten times.
The basic Pai Gow Poker strategy is to seek balance in the strength of the 5-card High Hand and the 2-card Low Hand. Rather than loading up one hand or the other, an attempt is made to have both rather strong so that they both have a possibility of winning. Pushes add nothing to the player’s chip stack.
Because the 5-card High Hand must outrank the 2-card Low Hand, it is always arranged first. The cards that remain are used to set the Low Hand. In 16% of all hands, there will be no pair to deal with, so the very highest of the seven cards is placed in the High Hand, and then the next two highest cards make up the Low Hand. That’s all there is to it.
Another 42% of all hands will contain a single pair, which must of necessity be arranged in the 5-card High Hand. The two highest cards remaining go in the 2-card Low Hand Behind. The two procedures for no pair and one pair take care of more than half of all hands played.
Roughly 24% of all Pai Gow Poker hands dealt contain two pair. The basic approach is to split them, of necessity setting the higher pair in the 5-card High Hand and the lower pair in the 2-card Low Hand Behind. There are, however, a few exceptions. When both pairs are of low rank—pairs of sixes and smaller—keep the two pair in the High Hand, especially if a high value card like an Ace or Joker is available for the Low Hand. Holding three pair, the highest pair goes in the 2-card Low Hand. That takes care of 82% of all deals, enough for even a first-time novice to play with confidence.
The next 8% of all hand will contain a much less common occurrence—three of a kind. With one exception, three Aces, the three matched cards should be placed together in the 5-card High Hand. Three Aces, however, should be split, with a pair in the High Hand and the third Ace in the Low Hand.
Occasionally, a pair will be dealt along with the three of a kind. Do not treat this as a full house. Set the triplets in the 5-card High Hand and the pair in the 2-card Low Hand. The only exception to this is when the remaining two unmatched cards are both face cards, in which case the full house can be arranged in the High Hand.
The other 10% of all hands will most likely contain straights or flushes, and some of those will also feature pairs or high cards. The best approach is to avoid strengthening the 2-card Low Hand at the risk of weakening the 5-card High Hand. Straights and flushes should be kept together in the High Hand, almost certain winners.