Comprehensive Guide to Playing Pai Gow Poker Online

Pai Gow Guide

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote in 1889 that East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Kipling was wrong: You can get the best of both worlds when you play Pai Gow Poker at Bovada Casino. This ingenious casino game is a combination of poker and the classic Chinese dominoes game known as pai gow. It’s a lot of fun, and with a little strategy, you can get the most out of your Pai Gow Poker sessions at Bovada's online casino.

Our comprehensive online Pai Gow Poker guide will help you. We’ll show you how this great game was born, how to win at Pai Gow Poker, and the best Pai Gow Poker casino game strategies you can use to your advantage. But first, we travel back in time to ancient China, where they played arguably the first casino game ever invented.

History of Pai Gow Poker

It’s hard to say if pai gow (literally “make nine” or “card nine”) is indeed the world’s oldest casino game – because we’re not sure exactly when they first started playing. Pai gow has been around for centuries, maybe even thousands of years; it’s a game of dominoes, also known as tiles, where each player receives one stack of four and has to divide it into two “hands,” each containing two tiles. Then the hands are compared to the Dealer’s; if one wins both hands, one wins the bet.

Poker is a newer Western invention, although it does have roots tracing back to Eastern games like As-Nas. Chances are you’re familiar with it; the 52-card play deck contains four suits (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds), and 13 cards for each suit: Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and Tens through Twos (aka Deuces). The Ace counts as the highest or lowest card in the deck. The object in poker is to make the best five-card hand possible using the standard poker hand rankings, with the Royal Flush (Ace-King-Queen-Jack-Ten of the same suit) being the strongest.

So how did these two casino games come together? In 1985, at the California Bell Club just outside of Los Angeles, owner Sam Torosian was looking for a way to bring customers into his struggling card room. Pai gow games were getting some action, but not much – it’s a somewhat difficult game to learn, and not very popular outside the Asian community. Poker had yet to experience the Moneymaker Era. So Torosian combined the two, using a Chinese card game called pusoy (aka “Chinese Poker”) as a guideline. The rest is casino playing history.

How to Play Online Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker games uses the same deck as standard poker, but with a Joker included, making it a 53-card game. After one places one's play bet at Bovada's online casino using the virtual chips provided, one will receive seven cards, face-up, while the casino Dealer’s seven cards will be face-down. At this point, one splits one's cards into two hands; the “high” hand will have five cards, and the “low” hand will have two. Once you’ve made your decision, the casino Dealer will do the same, using a predetermined method known as the “house way,” and the hands will be compared to see who wins.

How to Organize Your Hands in Pai Gow Poker

There’s an important rule to keep in mind when you split your hands in Pai Gow Poker games, online or live: The high hand (the one with five cards) must rank higher than your low hand. If you were to get this wrong at a live casino, you would “foul” your hand and lose your bet. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about this happening at Bovada's online casino; if you make a mistake with your split, you’ll be allowed to try again.

Winning at Pai Gow Poker

In order to win your real money bet at Pai Gow Poker games, online or live, which pays out even money minus a 5% commission, both your high and low hands have to rank higher than the casino Dealer’s. If only one of your hands is better, it’s a push – all bets returned. If the casino Dealer has both the better high and low hand, you lose the bet. Any tied hands go to the casino Dealer.

The same standard hand rankings for poker are used in Pai Gow Poker games, online or live, but with a couple of twists. Since there’s also a Joker in the deck, you can make monster hands like Five of a Kind – the best possible hand, online or live. Here are the hand rankings for Pai Gow Poker from top to bottom, with example hands included:

Five of a Kind (As-Ac-Ad-Ah-Joker)

Royal Flush (Ah-Kh-Qh-Jh-Th)

Straight Flush (7c-6c-5c-4c-Joker)

Four of a Kind (5s-5h-5d-5c-As)

Full House (3c-3s-3d-2s-2h)

Flush (Kc-9c-6c-4c-3c)

Straight (Ts-9c-8c-7c-6h)

Three of a Kind (Qh-Qs-Qd-4h-3h)

Two Pair (Ks-Kh-2s-2d-9h)

Pair (7c-7h-As-Qd-3c)

High Card (Qd-Js-7c-2h-Joker)

Note that the Joker is a semi-wild card in Pai Gow Poker: It can be used to complete Flushes and Straights; otherwise, it counts as an Ace, online or live. That means the only way you can get Five of a Kind is with the four Aces and the Joker. Also, if you get the wheel (a Straight containing Five-Four-Three-Deuce-Ace) in Pai Gow Poker, that’s the second-highest Straight behind Broadway (Ace-King-Queen-Jack-Ten), as opposed to the lowest possible Straight, as it is in standard poker.

These rankings apply to your high hand, of course. Your low hand in Pai Gow Poker only has two cards, so the only possible hands you can make are Pairs and High Card – connected cards and suited cards don’t matter. Just remember to split your cards so your high hand ranks better than your low hand.

Pai Gow Guide

What is the Banker’s Edge?

If you’ve seen Pai Gow Poker at the live casinos, or played it yourself, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the Banker’s edge. That’s because the players have the play option of banking the game during the hand, meaning they collect the bets and pay out the winners with real money. The banker can also bet against the play Dealer and the other players. Choosing to bank can actually give you an edge in Pai Gow Poker, but a lot of players choose to forfeit this play option; banking is a bit complicated, both financially and socially, and you need enough money on hand to cover the table. When you play Pai Gow Poker online at Bovada, you’re the only player at the table – all the banking is done for you by the house.

Pai Gow Poker House Edge

As with all casino games you'll find online, every hand of Pai Gow Poker comes with a house edge attached. This is the real money commission you pay the casino to provide the games. Since Pai Gow Poker is a game of skill as well as luck, the house edge will depend on how good your Pai Gow Poker strategy is. If you play your cards right, you can whittle that house edge all the way down to around 2.5%, which is even lower than European Roulette at 2.70%.

Pai Gow Poker Strategies

So how should you play your cards in Pai Gow Poker, online or live? Thanks to the power of computers, we know the answer – although the optimal strategy is rather complex, and will take quite a while to learn. A more simplified, near-optimal strategy will help you get that house edge close to 2.5% without melting your brain, and you’ll be less likely to make costly real money mistakes along the way.

The first thing to do with your seven cards in Pai Gow Poker is see whether a Flush or Straight is possible. The next thing to do is see whether you have five cards to any other “made” hand (at least a Pair). Depending on what you have, you’ll either keep all those play cards in your high hand, or split them so you can have a more powerful low hand. For example, if you do actually have four Aces and a Joker, the correct strategy is to split them and put two Aces in your low hand – thus giving you the best low hand possible, and a likely winner for your high hand with the other three Aces.

You can find recommended play strategies for Pai Gow Poker online, some simpler than others. Feel free to use these while you’re playing at Bovada's online casino; we recommend sticking with the easiest ones first, then moving up to more optimal strategies as you get a feel for how to play the game.

Pai Gow Poker Side Bets

Side bets like Dealer Bonus, Emperor’s Challenge and Lucky 8’s are very popular in the live version of Pai Gow Poker, but that’s partly because players are allowed to do the banking. These money side bets have been left out of the online version of Pai Gow Poker to keep things simple. 

You can give the game a try for free at Bovada's online casino using the Practice Play mode. Once you’ve gotten accustomed to how it works, and maybe practiced some play strategy, switch to Real Play mode and play Pai Gow Poker like a true end boss. It might even be your new favorite game to play online at Bovada.

Pai Gow Guide

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