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Pai gow poker

Pai Gow poker (also called Double-hand poker) is an Americanized version of Pai Gow (in that it is played with playing cards bearing poker hand values, instead of Pai Gow's Chinese dominoes). The games of Pai Gow poker and Super Pan-9 were created by Sam Torosian and Fred Wolf. The game is played with a standard 52-card deck, plus a single joker. It is played on a table set for six players, plus the dealer. Each player attempts to defeat the banker (who may be the casino dealer, or one of the other players at the table).

Object of the game

The object of Pai Gow poker is for a player to create two poker hands out of the seven-card hand he/she is dealt by the dealer: a five-card hand, and a two-card poker hand. The five-card hand's value must exceed the two-card hand's. The two-card hand is often called the hand "in front" or "on top", or the "small" or "minor" hand. The five-card hand is called the hand "behind", or the "bottom" or "big" (as they are placed that way in front of the player, when the player is done setting them).

The deal

The cards are shuffled, and then dealt to the table in seven face-down piles of seven cards per-pile. Four cards are unused regardless of the number of people playing.

Betting positions are assigned a number from 1 to 7, starting with whichever player is acting as banker that hand, and counting counter-clockwise around the table. A number from 1 to 7 is randomly chosen (either electronically or manually with dice), then the deal begins with the corresponding position and proceeds counter-clockwise. One common way of using dice to determine the dealer starting number is to roll three six-sided dice, and then count betting spots clockwise from the first position until the number on the dice is reached.

If a player is not sitting on a particular spot, the hand is still assigned, but then placed on the discard pile with the four unused cards.

Hand rankings

The only two-card hands are one pair and high cards.

Five-card hands use standard poker hand rankings with one exception: in most Nevada casinos, the hand A-2-3-4-5 ranks above a king-high straight, but below the ace-high straight A-K-Q-J-10. At most casinos in California and Michigan this rule doesn't apply; the A-2-3-4-5 is the lowest possible straight.

The joker plays as a bug, that is, in the five-card hand it can be used to complete a straight or flush if possible; otherwise it is an ace. In the two-card hand it always plays as an ace, except in several southern Californian casinos where the joker is completely wild.

Determining a win

If each of the player's now-separated hands beat the banker's corresponding hand then he wins the bet. If only one of his hands beats the banker then he pushes. If both of his hands lose to the banker then he loses, and loses again.

On each hand, ties go to the banker (for example, if a player's five-card hand loses to the banker and his two-card hand ties to him then he loses); this gives the banker a small advantage. If the player fouls his hand, meaning that his low hand outranks his high hand, or that there are an incorrect number of cards in each hand, there will be a penalty: either re-arrangement of the hand according to house rules or forfeiture of the hand.

In casino-banked games, the banker is generally required to set their hand in a pre-specified manner, called the "house way", so that the dealer does not have to implement any strategy in order to beat the players. When a player is banking, he is free to set the hand however he chooses; however, players have the option of "co-banking" with the house, and if this option is chosen then the player's hand must also be set in the house way.

Californian casinos typically charge a flat fee per hand (such as 5 cents or one dollar) to play, win or lose. Other casinos take, out of the winnings, a 5% commission (usually known as the rake). While this may seem high, a hand of Pai Gow poker takes a long time to play compared to a game like blackjack, and there are many pushes; therefore the house doesn't collect that 5% as often as it would collect the house percentage on other games.

Basic strategy

Generally speaking, players should try to set the highest two-card hand that they can legally set: the best two-card hand that still leaves a higher five-card hand behind. More specifically, players should expect an average hand to be something like a medium-to-high pair behind in the five-card hand and an ace-high in front. Detailed computer analysis has been done to determine the ideal strategy, but this requires memorizing large tables; a close approximation can be done with only a few rules of thumb: when playing in a casino and in doubt, a player can always ask that his hand be set house way. Most house strategies are quite reasonable and can be quite close to optimal strategy.

  • If a player has no pairs, straights or flushes, he can set the second- and third-highest cards in his two-card hand. For example, with K-Q-J-9-7-4-3 he can play Q-J and K-9-7-4-3. There are a few minor exceptions to this, for example, with A-Q-10-9-5-4-2 it is slightly better to play Q-9 and A-10-5-4-2, but these situations are rare and do not affect a player's win rate much.
  • If a player has nothing but a single pair, he can set it in his five-card hand and put the two highest remaining cards in his two-card hand. For example, with A-Q-Q-9-6-5-3 he can play A-9 and Q-Q-6-5-3. There are no exceptions to this rule. This and the above rule will cover approximately 65% of played hands.
  • Two pair is the most common case where strategy isn't obvious. A player can either play high pair behind and small pair in front, or else two pair behind and high cards in front. The smaller the high pair and higher the remaining cards, the more inclined he should be to play two pair behind. If his side cards are small or his larger pair is large, he should split the pairs. He should always split the pairs if his high pair is of aces, and should almost always split if his high pair is of kings or queens: they are high enough by themselves. With cards like J-J-4-4-A-Q-5 he can consider playing A-Q and J-J-4-4-5- since A-Q in front is not much worse than 4-4; however, two pair behind is much better than a single pair of jacks. A player with jacks and tens might be more inclined to split, because tens in front is much better than A-Q. With pairs as small as 7s and 8s, a player might consider playing two pair behind if he can play a king-high or better in front. With 2s and 3s he may even play as little as a queen-high in front. If he has no side cards higher than a jack, he should always split pairs, even 2s and 3s (most house ways split if there's a pair of 6s or higher, and split small pairs if there's no ace for the low hand).
  • Three pair is a very good hand. A player should always play the highest pair in front with no exceptions. For example, with K-K-7-7-4-4-A he should play K-K and 7-7-4-4-A.
  • If a player has three of a kind and nothing else, he should play three of a kind behind and the remaining high cards in front unless they are aces. He should always split three aces, playing a pair of aces behind and ace-high in front. Occasionally, he can even split three kings if his remaining side cards are not queen-high; for example, with K-K-K-J-9-7-6 it is slightly better to play K-J and K-K-9-7-6 than to play J-9 and K-K-K-7-6. Most house ways only split three aces.
  • If a player can play a straight or a flush or both, he should play whichever straight-or-better five-card hand makes the best two-card hand. For example, with K♠-9♠-8♣-7♠-6♣-5♠-4♠ playing the flush would put 8-6 in front, playing the 9-high straight would put K-4 up front, but the correct play is K-9 and 8-7-6-5-4. Occasionally the player will have a straight or flush with two pair; in that case, he should play as if it were two pair and ignore the straight or flush. This rule applies even if a player can play a straight flush; if a straight or flush makes a better hand in front, play it that way.
  • With a full house, a player should generally play the three of a kind behind and the pair in front. The exception is if the pair is very small and the side cards are very high; for example, with 5-5-5-3-3-A-Q it might be better to play A-Q with the full house behind. However, these cases are rare, and a player will never be making a big mistake if he never play a full house behind. House ways usually split the full house.
  • With two three of a kinds, a player should play the higher as a pair in front and the smaller three of a kind behind. For example, with Q-Q-Q-7-7-7-A he should play Q-Q and 7-7-7-A-Qno exceptions.
  • With four of a kind, a player should play as if it were two pair, but should be slightly less inclined to split. For example, with 10-10-10-10-J-5-4 he should play 10-10 and 10-10-J-5-4, and with 3-3-3-3-K-Q-7, K-Q and 3-3-3-3-7. Most house ways always split the four of a kind.
  • With three pair and a straight or flush (only possible with the joker), a player should play his hand as three pair (with aces in front).

The cases below rarely happen, but deserve mention:

  • With four of a kind and a pair, a player should play the pair in front unless it is very small, and the four of a kind is very large. For example, with 9-9-9-9-7-7-K he should play 7-7 and 9-9-9-9-K, but with K-K-K-K-3-3-9 he might play K-K and K-K-3-3-9.
  • With a full house and a pair, a player should play the higher pair in front and a full house in back.
  • With four of a kind and three of a kind, a player should split the four to play a pair in front and full house behind, unless the three of a kind has a higher rank than the four of a kind; in that case he should play the four of a kind, with a pair from the three of a kind in front.
  • With all four aces and the joker, a player should play a pair of aces in front and three aces (or a full house) behind, unless the back pair is of kings.

A strong "house way" and tournament players' sample strategy sheet is included below:

  • Pai Gow hand (high cards): Highest card in five card hand, 2nd and 3rd strongest on two card side.
  • One pair: Always play pair in five card side, with next two strongest cards up
  • Two pairs:

Always split Ace-high two pairs, and Kings with 7’s or better. Always keep two pairs together with an Ace-face for the top, - Except: always split two pairs of four face cards without an AK top. Split two pairs Kings with 3’s or better, Q’s with 5’s or better, and Jacks or 10’s with 9’s or 8’s with an ace-low top. Never split two pairs of 6’s and lower. All other two pairs keep together with any ace top, else split the pairs.

  • Three pairs: play highest pair in two-card side.
  • Three of a kind:

Three aces always split 2-and-1, as a pair of aces for the five-card side. Three Kings always split 2-and-1 with Jack or lower top, else keep together with an ace or a queen top. All other three of a kinds (queens and less) never break up.

  • Two three of a kinds: split off a pair from the higher group for the top.

Straights and/or flushes:

  • Straight and/or flush

Straight or flush with Ace-face or pair for the top: Always play as straight or flush with an ace-face or pair top, except if two pairs Aces with 8’s or better can be played, and when the straight or flush does not have a pair.

Straight or Flush with two other pairs: Play as two pairs only if: The straight or flush does not have an ace top, AND: i. Face-high two pairs are present (e.g., Q’s and 5’s), OR ii. Two pairs with any ace-high two-card can be played, Only then play as a two pair hand.

Straight or Flush with one pair: If you can play a face pair with an ace-face top when the straight or flush gives only a Q-x or lower top, play the strong pair with an ace-face top. (e.g., KQQJ*93, play Q’s with *AK up). Also: play AAxxx with KQ up when the straight or flush is Q-x or less top

Straight with Flush: if you cannot produce a good hand with method above with either the straight or the flush, then play the one with the higher top. Except: if the tops are adjacent or essentially the same with both the straight and flush, (e.g., A-9 vs. A-6, K-Q vs. K-J, or both tops are Q-x or lower), then always play the stronger flush with essentially the same top.

Straight or flush with three pairs: Always play as three pair hand.

Straight or flush with three of a kind: always play as straight or flush with pair or ace up. (Play 9888765 as 98765/88, and AA*2459=A2*45/A9)

Straight or flush with full house: Play as split up full house if a pair of aces can be put up as the two-card side when the flush or straight cannot, else play the straight or flush if a pair can be put up for the two-card side, else play as a split up full house.

6 or 7 card long straight or flush: play the lower straight or flush to give the best two card side.

Straight flush or Royal Flush: Handle as straight or flush, above.

  • Full house:

If your full house’s pair is 5’s or less, and your hand has an AK (AQ with 4’s or 3’s, AJ with 2’s), then keep the full house, and play the Ace-face up. (This is to beat players’ straights and flushes with a strong top.) Else, split the pair part into the two-card hand. If you have a full house with an extra pair, then play the higher pair up, and, If your full house has a straight/flush, see “straight of flush with full house. If your full house is two three-of-a-kinds or a four-of-a-kind with a three of a kind, see “two three of a kind,” above, or “four of a kind with a three of a kind,” below.

  • Four of a kind, with no pair or three of a kind with it:

Aces: split into two pairs of aces if playing against dealer, - but split into three aces with an ace up if a banking player or casino dealer.

Four Kings: split into two pairs only without an Ace – else keep the four kings together with A-J or AQ, but split into 3 kings and AK top with Ace-10 or lower.

Four Queens: keep together with A-8 or better top, or into 3 Q’s and A-Q with an Ace-7 or less top, else split into two pairs of Queens with no ace.

Jacks or 10’s: keep the four Jacks together with any Ace, else split into two pairs.

9’s and 8’s: keep together with any King-face top or better, else split.

7’s and 6’s: keep together with a QJ or better top, else split.

5’s or less: always keep together.

  • Four or a kind - with a pair: Never split up a four of a kind with a pair to create a high two-pair with a just a higher pair top, (even holding AAAA55x,) - because you will now beat all three of a kinds, straights and flushes by keeping the four of a kind together, with a very acceptable pair for the top.

Except: Four Aces or Kings with a pair of 3’s or 2’s, then split off a high pair from the four of a kind, to play two pairs down with a very high pair up.

  • For four of a kind with a three of a kind, split off pair from the higher group for the top, unless the groups are adjacent, then keep the four of a kind together.

History

In addition to being a games inventor, Fred Wolf was the casino manager of the Commerce Casino in the early 1980s. Fred Wolf decided to sublet a third of the casino floor space of the Bell Club, in the city of Bell, California, to introduce his new Super Pan-9 game. Fred Wolf needed to innovate new gaming structures in order to overcome the competition of the larger Los Angeles area card casinos, such as the Bicycle Club and Commerce Casino. The games of Pai Gow Poker and Super Pan-9 became immediate crowd favorites, quickly spreading to the entire Californian gaming market, and then, worldwide. Subsequently, Fred Wolf invented, and obtained U.S. patents on, several new gaming devices which included "Three-special-dice", and games such as "Sweepstakes Blackjack", "Fast-action hold 'em", "Lucky Pan-9" and "Pai Gow jokers".

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