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Best of Alan Krigman
Fun and (Table) Games: Try Pai Gow Poker18 January 2005
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.
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,
Best of Alan Krigman