How to Play Pai Gow Poker Online

If you’ve ever had the chance to play at one of California’s many great card rooms, you might have noticed there’s one section where the people always seem to be having a good time. Chances are they’re playing Pai Gow Poker. This is a fun game that’s played at a fairly relaxed pace, but has just enough strategy to keep you engaged. And you don’t have to be in California; you can play the Pai Gow Poker game at Bovada Casino anytime you like. Let’s see what makes this game so popular.

Online Pai Gow Poker Guide - Bovada Casino

Pai Gow Poker Overview

You may have heard of the ancient Chinese dominoes game called pai gow, which you can also play at card rooms in California, and at casinos in Las Vegas and around the world. There used to be a card room in east Los Angeles called the California Bell Casino; Sam Torosian bought the Bell club in 1984, and one year later, decided to invent a new game to drum up some business. He took the basic principles of pai gow, adapted them for use with playing cards, and just like that, Pai Gow Poker was born.

Unfortunately for Torosian, he got some bad advice (apparently from poker legend Mike Caro) about whether he could patent the game he invented. He didn’t, so when Pai Gow Poker quickly became a big hit across the United States, Torosian missed out on what could have been $100 million in royalties. But at least his casino was busy – for a while. It closed in 1988.


The thing about pai gow that inspired Torosian was the way the players split their dominoes into two hands: the front hand, and the rear hand. Then the hands are compared to the Dealer’s to see who wins. Torosian thought something similar would work with playing cards. When you play Pai Gow Poker, you place your bet, then receive seven cards from the standard 52-card deck, plus a Joker. You then divide those cards into two hands: Your front hand gets two cards, and your rear hand gets five cards.

The object of Pai Gow Poker is to make stronger hands than the Dealer’s. Your front hand is compared to the Dealer’s front hand, and your rear hand to their rear hand. If both your hands are stronger, you win the bet and get paid out at even money, minus a 5% commission. If both the Dealer’s hands are stronger, you lose the bet. If you have one strong hand and the Dealer has the other, it’s a push, and your original bet is returned to you. Any ties with the front or rear hands go to the Dealer.

Pai Gow Poker uses the standard hand rankings for poker, with a few exceptions. The Joker in question is a “semi-wild” card that you can use to complete Straights or Flushes. If the Joker is used for any other purpose, it’s considered an Ace; that means you can get Five of a Kind in Pai Gow Poker, but only if you have four Aces and the Joker. This is the highest-ranking hand in the game – it even beats a Royal Flush.

One other twist with the hand rankings: In regular poker, the lowest Straight you can make is the wheel: Five-Four-Three-Deuce-Ace. In Pai Gow Poker, the wheel is the second-highest Straight, behind only the Broadway Straight (Ace-King-Queen-Jack-Ten). Otherwise, the usual hand rankings apply. Note that with your 2-card front hand, you either have a Pair or you don’t. Two consecutive cards don’t count as a Straight, and two suited cards don’t count as a Flush.

Online Pai Gow Poker Guide - Bovada Casino

Odds and House Edge 

There are some other special bets you can make when you’re at the live casino, and you can even act as the Banker, which allows you to bet against the Dealer and the other players at the table. However, when you play Pai Gow Poker online at Bovada, it’s just you versus the Dealer, playing by the rules laid out above. Once you know these rules, you can use a little math to figure out your chances of making any particular 5-card hand. Here’s the breakdown:

Five of a Kind: 0.000732% 

Straight or Royal Flush: 0.137%

Four of a Kind: 0.199%

Full House: 2.72%

Flush: 4.00%

Straight: 7.29%

Three of a Kind: 4.85%

Two Pair: 23.1%

One Pair: 41.7%

High Card: 16.1%ds.

As for your 2-card Pai Gow Poker hand, there’s a roughly 13.39% chance you’ll have a Pair, although it ultimately depends on how you decide to split your cards. Put all those numbers together, and you’ll end up with a house edge of around 2.5%– not too shabby. That’s even better than the house edge for European Roulette (2.7%). But that’s if you play your cards the right way.


How to Play Pai Gow Poker

There’s only one decision point in Pai Gow Poker: How do you split your seven cards? It’s not quite as easy as it looks. If you’re at a live casino and you accidentally set your cards so the rear hand (the 5-card hand) isn’t stronger than the front hand, you’ll foul and lose your bet. That’s one of the great things about playing Pai Gow Poker casino games online at Bovada – if you foul, you get to try again without penalty.

The Dealer doesn’t have to worry about how to split their cards, either. Their decision is made automatically using the house way, which can differ slightly from location to location. You, on the other hand, have to decide the best way to split your cards. Here’s the good news: Thanks to computers, we can figure out exactly which two cards to set aside for your front hand, to keep the house edge as tiny as possible.



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Online Pai Gow Poker Guide - Bovada Casino

Optimal Strategy 

Learning that strategy isn’t quite so easy. If you’ve played any Blackjack games, you may be familiar with the “basic” strategy to use for optimal results. The optimal strategy for Pai Gow Poker is a lot more complex. It’s even more nuanced than the optimal strategy for Video Poker games – and that’s already a tough nut to crack.

Here’s some more good news: You’ll get almost all the benefits by playing a near-optimal Pai Gow Poker strategy. Just like Blackjack or Video Poker, these simplified strategies will get you close to the lowest house edge possible, and they’ll be a lot easier to learn and memorize than the optimal strategies. Here’s an example of a 20-step Pai Gow Poker strategy that will generate a house edge of around 2.7%. To use this strategy, first determine whether your seven cards have the power to make a Straight or a Flush. If they can, see which of the following categories apply to your cards, and follow the directions, remembering to maintain that Straight/Flush in your 5-card rear hand. If more than two categories apply, pick the one closest to the top of the list.

1. Four of a Kind: Play the highest Pair possible up front.

2. Three of a Kind and a Pair: If you have a Pair of Sevens or better, put them up front if you can maintain your Straight/Flush. If not, put Three of a Kind in your rear hand.

3. Three of a Kind: Play your best two kickers up front.

4. Three Pair: Play the highest of your Pairs up front.

5. Two Pair: This will depend on the strength of each Pair and the kickers left over. Definitely put your better Pair up front if the face value of the Pairs adds up to at least 17; for example, Queens and Fives (12+5). The lower you get from 17, the more you’ll want to keep that Two Pair in your rear hand.

6. One Pair: Play the best front hand you can – unless you have Queens through Nines, in which case play Ace-King up front if possible.

7. No Pair: Play the best front hand you can.



If your seven cards don’t have any Straight/Flush potential, use the following 13 categories instead – again, pick the one closest to the top if more than one category applies.

1. Five of a Kind and a Pair: Put two Aces in the front, and leave a Full House in the rear.

2. Five of a Kind: Put two Aces in the front, and leave a Set of Aces in the rear.

3. Four of a Kind and Three of a Kind: If your Quads are at least two ranks higher than your set, split those Quads and put a Pair up front, leaving a Full House in the rear. Otherwise, split your set.

4. Four of a Kind and a Pair: Put the Pair up front.

5. Four of a Kind: If you have Queens or better, split them up and put a Pair in your front hand. If you have Fours or worse, keep your Quads together in your rear hand. Everything in between will depend on the strength of the kicker you can put up front.

6. Three of a Kind and Three of a Kind: Split your higher-ranking set and put two of those cards up front.

7. Three of a Kind and Two Pair: Put the higher Pair up front.

8. Three of a Kind and One Pair: Put the Pair up front.

9. Three of a Kind: Put the two highest kickers up front, unless you have three Aces, in which case use an Ace and your highest kicker.

10. Three Pair: Put the highest Pair up front.

11. Two Pair: Follow the same strategy you use when you have seven cards that can make a Straight/Flush.

12. One Pair: Put your best two kickers up front.

13. No Pair: Put your second- and third-best kickers up front.

That’s still a lot to handle if you’re new to Pai Gow Poker, and as you can see, there are a few steps (No. 5 on each list, and No. 11 at the bottom) where you still might have to decide for yourself what to do. But this near-optimal strategy won’t take too long to get ingrained – you can use the Practice Play mode at Bovada Casino and try it out for free before hitting the real money Pai Gow Poker tables. Best of luck, and we’ll see you on the felt.