The game of pai gow poker arrived in Nevada in the late l980s, having gained popularity in California, where it is known as Asian Poker and Double Hand Poker. The Asian population is very fond of the game.
The game as we know it today made its first appearance at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino in l987 as a "bank" game, and much of the credit for the game's development comes from Bill Walsh, who worked at the DI as Pai Gow manager at the time. In fact, he authored an excellent book on the game titled Billy Woo's Pai Gow Poker II Revised (44 pages, paperbound, $8.95). He says the game seems to have originated in the Philippines and is a combination of Chinese dominoes (Pai Gow) and American poker.
As with several other newer table games, Pai Gow uses poker hands for its basic structure, and the player should know poker hand rankings before attempting to play the game. The major exception is the use of a joker, which can be used as an Ace or to make a straight, flush or straight flush.
Playing The Game
To begin, the house dealer shakes a cup containing three dice and then rolls the dice on the table. The number on the dice determines where the play begins. (A button is used to signify this.)
The house dealer then gives each player seven cards at once (starting with the button). Each player must then "set" those cards into two separate hands a five-card and two-card poker hand. The five-card hand must have a higher value in poker than the two-card hand. To win, the low hand must beat the low hand of the house. The high hand must beat the high hand of the house also.
If you do win, you will be paid about 95% of the amount you bet. (A 5% commission is charged on all winning wagers, which is similar to the game of baccarat.) Note, however, that if you beat only one of the dealer's hands, it is considered a tie and no money will change hands. However if the house beats both of your hands, you lose.
It's extremely important to know how to set your hands. If you set them incorrectly, you will lose automatically. If the dealer sets his hand incorrectly, the house loses. And, because of the complexity of hand setting, the dealer can (and does) make mistakes.
Pai Gow Poker has a few unusual twists you may wish to remember. Yes, there is a joker in the deck -- but only one. In your mind it might be a completely wild joker, but it's not. Remember it can be used only as An ace in a flush or a straight. And too -- this joker automatically assumes the highest rank possible to fill the hands.
As in a straight where you had a 6-clubs; 7-diamonds; 8-diamonds; 9-clubs, the joker would immediately fill in for the l0, not the five. And too -- the joker never helps form pairs, triplets, four-of-a-kind or five-of-a-kind with any other cards except Aces.
Another exceptional resource for the truly dedicated Pai Gow Poker player is Stanford Wong's Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker (l56 pages, paperbound, $l4.95). The heart of his book is instructing players on the optimal strategy for setting hands.
Wong clearly admits, "The optimal strategy for pai gow poker is so full of detail that few people will learn all of it. It is more reasonable to strive to learn just enough to play well." His book simplifies the best strategy to a point where it is easy to learn. He explains the frequencies of the various possible five- and two-card hands, based on a simulation of 3 million hands.
What, then, is the appeal of the game? Simply put, many, many hands end in a tie, which means you don't have to have a huge bankroll to play and, barring a run of atrocious luck, you will be able to play for an extended period of time.