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I Confess! I Love Pai Gow Poker!26 July 2007
The gods that rule the casino gambling world are having some fun with me. I used to pass the "new" table games and chortle and snort my displeasure at table games with such high house edges and lightning-fast speeds as Three-Card Poker, Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud and Four-Card Poker.
Why play the above games when you can play craps and/or blackjack and keep the house edge at one-half percent with little or no effort?
Well, the gods of gambling are snorting and chortling at me now because I have become a fan - and I mean a fanatic fan - of Pai Gow Poker, a game that has been around a long, long time and one I wrote about for my book Guerrilla Gambling and then totally put out of my mind as I pursued the glories of blackjack and craps.
A long series of bizarre events recently occurred to me that started me playing the game again, for research purposes only mind you, and before you could say, "Scoblete is playing a negative-expectation game? You've got to be kidding!" why Scoblete was playing a negative-expectation game and enjoying every minute of it, too!
When the research period ended, I didn't scurry back to the blackjack and craps tables and make them my only mistresses - I added copious quantities of Pai Gow Poker play into the mix as well. It's that great a game.
There are two ways to play Pai Gow Poker - the right way, which is, naturally, my way - and the wrong way, which is most other players' way. I'll explain.
The game of Pai Gow Poker is very easy to understand: You have a high hand, composed of five cards, and a low hand composed of two cards. Every player and the dealer are dealt seven cards from which they make their five-card high hand and their two-card low hand. How the cards are dealt is strictly random. Today most of the games are dealt from a shuffle machine that thoroughly mixes the cards. The first person to get cards is different on each round and goes around the table from left to right on each subsequent deal. The deck is 52 cards plus a joker that can be used as an ace or as a linking card in a straight or as part of a flush.
Your five-card high hand must be a stronger hand than your two-card low hand. To beat the dealer, you must beat both his high hand and his low hand. If you win one and lose one, it is a push - no money exchanges hands. In even numbers, the dealer wins about 31 percent of the hands; the player wins about 29 percent of the hands, and the other 41 percent of the hands are pushes. Every winning player hand has a 5 percent commission extracted from it.
The high hand is ranked based on poker values and most casinos make A, 2, 3, 4, and 5 the second highest straight. The highest low hand is a pair of aces; the lowest two-card hand is a 2-3.
The game can be banked by the casino or by the player in rotation. Sometimes the banking goes back and forth between house and player; sometimes it goes in order around the table. This banker option is an important tool for lowering the house edge, as I shall show. The person who is banking the game gets certain benefits: if the banker has a hand that ties one of the player's hands and wins on the other hand, the banker wins the hand. If the player and banker tie the hands exactly - the banker wins again. Because of this option, becoming the banker at the game is vitally important.
To be banker you must have enough money on the table to cover all the other players' bets. The good news is that most Pai Gow players are small-stakes players and being banker won't generally hurt you too badly should you lose to each and every player.
Pai Gow Poker is played differently at different casinos - some options are allowed, some aren't. I only play at tables where I am the only player who acts as banker. That means that 50 percent of the time I actually have a slight edge at the game - somewhere around two-tenths of one percent - when I am the banker. The bad news is that when I play against the dealer when he banks, the house usually has about a 2.5 percent edge (or sometimes higher) over me. So we switch back and forth.
By acting as banker 50 percent of the time, the casino has about a 1.4 percent edge over me.
What makes the game so glorious is the fact that it is slow, you make decisions that determine whether you win or lose, and, if you don't know how to play a hand, the dealer will show you the "house way" to set your cards. The house way is a very strong way to play and for most players I recommend it.
Now here is the good news: Most players do not bank. They can't afford to. It is rare that you get players who wish to go up against the other players. That leaves the banking option open for me. That's also why my strategy of play is the best approach since banking the game really cuts into the normal house edge.
Knowing how to split your hands up is the second most important strategy decision. Sometimes you split two pair and sometimes you play two pair in the high hand. Generally, if you have an ace, you will play your two pair in the high hand, because it takes a pair in the low hand to beat your ace. However, sometimes you don't do this. If you have an ace in a six-card straight, you play the lower-value straight in the high hand and put the ace in the low hand. Keep in mind, you must win both the high and low hand to win.
A huge tome would be needed to go over every possible way to play every possible hand - but you don't need a tome, you have the dealer. When in doubt about your hand, just ask the dealer and you'll have a powerful method for dividing up your cards. My advice is not to gamble on eccentric ways of splitting up your cards. Go with the house way.
To add a slot-like playing feel to the game, many Pai Gow tables have incorporated bonus hands for a side bet. These side bets are not high house edge bets as they are at Let It Ride and Caribbean Stud. They will come in with between a 1 and 3 percent for the casino -sometimes depending on how many players are at the table. Any bet that wins on another player's hand is best made when the table has a full compliment of players. Of course, your side bet is active on each and every deal - so even a one dollar bet can become about $50 an hour in wagering terms.
Pai Gow Poker is a slow-moving, decision-driven game, that allows you to compete with the dealer and the other players, yet its low house edge can give you hours of enjoyment without many sessions of brain-bashing as can happen at the faster games.
It has now become one of my three favorite games. The gods are laughing at me but I really don't care. The fact is I now must admit - I am in love with a negative-expectation game.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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