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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Fun and (Table) Games: Try Pai Gow Poker

18 January 2005

Say there were a casino table game based on a time-honored Asian tradition, yet which used familiar poker rankings. Add appeal by challenging participants to make strategic decisions during every round, without having to memorize intricate rules to hold the edge within reason. Further increase its allure with a structure that gives bettors extended action on only moderate bankrolls. And, as a crowning touch, make it even more attractive by giving solid citizens a chance to obtain a mathematical advantage.

It's not too good to be true. It's Pai Gow Poker. And neophytes might want to give it a try if they're looking for a serious gambling experience, playing alongside seasoned bettors who won't scoff at anything they do, with a decent shot at a modest profit.

Here's the gist. Players and the Banker each get seven cards, which they split into two- and five-card hands. The two-card hands can only rank as pairs or high singletons; the five-card hands can be any poker combinations. Two constraints apply. 1) The five-card hand must have the higher rank, or the set is a "foul" and loses automatically. 2) The deck includes a joker; this is semi-wild, in that it can be used as an ace or to fill a straight, flush, or straight flush ?? but nothing else.

Bets are decided by comparing Players' hands with that of the Banker based on poker conventions. To win, both the two- and the five-card hands must have higher ranks. If one is higher and the other lower, the result is a "push;" it neither wins nor loses. Bankers hands have a slight advantage because exact matches, called "copies," go to them. After bets are settled, the house takes a commission of 5 percent off the top of all earnings.

There's a nice twist. In every round, one participant acts as the Banker and everybody else as a Player. The dealer, the person behind the table who gives out cards and runs the game, may Bank. However, the privilege of doing so moves around the table and is offered to each participant in turn.

Taking the Bank is desirable because of the theoretical advantage afforded by copies. However, the Banker must put up enough money to cover all Players' bets; this may mean a huge win, a crushing loss, or anything in between. Many veteran gamblers forego the Bank because they don't think the risk of a wipeout offsets the gain in advantage or the possibility of sweeping the whole table.

In a generic Pai Gow game without copies, half of all hands would push and a fourth each would win and lose. Lots of pushes explain why bankroll changes are slow-paced and you can anticipate a long session without buying-in for big bucks. And, you're projected stay close to quarter-half-quarter going with your gut, provided you bear a key principle in mind. Namely, sacrificing a two-card hand for extra strength in a five, or vice-versa, may hurt you by yielding a push rather than a win. For example, say you have three eights, two sixes, a four, and a nine. Expectation is better as triplets and a pair than a full house and singletons.

Pai Gow Poker has a few other quirks, but the dealer manages them and you can just go along for the ride. For instance, one Banker and six Player hands are dealt regardless of how many seats are occupied; cards at empty positions are void and get picked up by the dealer before the round proceeds. Another oddity is that the Banker shakes a canister containing three dice prior to the deal; the result determines which position gets the first hand.

One more thing. The gurus have worked out optimum strategies. But the dictates can get difficult and the improvements relative to balancing the strengths of the two hands intuitively are typically small. Also, it's easy to get expert help. Dealers, whether acting as Bankers or Players, must follow a procedure known as the "house way" in arranging their hands. House ways differ among casinos, but are all close to optimum. If you're uncertain how to arrange a particular hand, don't be embarrassed to ask the dealer to show you the house way to do it. It's as the winning wordsmith, Sumner A Ingmark, was wont to wheedle:

The path to success, often that of least resistance,
May not be to guess, but to call for deft assistance.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.