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Pai Gow poker strategy

Pai Gow strategy

Pai Gow Poker is a card game where a player tries to arrange seven cards in 2 separate combinations of five and two cards, which (according to the rating of poker hands) should be stronger than the opponent's ones. This poker variation has grown in popularity in recent years.

If you are well acquainted with the general poker rules, then you will obviously have no problem understanding pai gow poker. We recommend that you familiarize yourself with the rules of this game in our dedicated article.

Now, we will go through fundamental rules to stick to if you want to win in this discipline and offer some gow strategy advice that will definitely help you play pai gow poker in the most effective way.

How to win at Pai Gow Poker

If you want to improve your chances of winning, then you have to learn a proper pai gow poker strategy. This game is not complicated in strategic terms since there are no betting rounds so that you will not need to make tough betting decisions as in traditional hold'em or omaha – players only post their ante bets at the beginning of the Pai Gow hand.

In order to achieve the greatest advantages in Pai Gow, players can use two different poker strategiesconservative and aggressive. Each takes account of the controversial moments of the game and offers the best possible solutions to them.

 Pai Gow Poker

  1. Through conservative strategy, a player uses most of the strong cards to make a bottom (high) hand and places low cards up top (to form a low hand). This increases the likelihood of a draw and reduces the likelihood of losing, just like winning.
  2. Aggressive players, on the other hand, always tend to improve the prospects of a true victory, even if they have to split an almost unbeatable high hand. This strategy increases the likelihood of losing and lowers the chance of a push situation (when a player gets their bet back).

When selecting the optimal strategy, you should think about whether to separate a strong combination and thereby get greater chances of winning/losing with regard to two combinations or keep it together in one hand.  Both strategies are identical for most starting combinations; however, they still have some differences. 

Let’s examine how the two strategies are connected to the degree of seniority of all possible starting cards in greater detail.

Conservative strategy

The biggest thing in pai gow is to understand how to separate your starting cards correctly. Below, we will consider the basic rules of splitting different combinations according to the conservative approach.

No combination

You will often encounter situations in which there are no poker combinations at all. If your cards do not make any hand, then you should place the second and third highest cards out front (low hand).

One pair

In case you happen to receive one pair, you should always keep it in the high hand and play the two highest cards in the low hand. 

One pair

Example. Suppose you got A-A-10-K-9-5-4 as your starter. Here, you should hold a pair of aces in your high hand and play the two strongest cards (King and Ten) in the low hand. This is the best way to split the given 7-card combination.

Two pair

Before proceeding to the consideration of the best ways of splitting Two Pair, it’s worth noting that this hand is a part of your starting cards in 23% of the cases. Your strategic choice should be made based on the value of your two pairs. 

All paired cards are usually seen as follows:

  • High – JJ, QQ, KK, AA.
  • Medium – 77, 88, 99, 1010;
  • Low – 22, 33, 44, 55, 66;

As you can see, this ranking is identical to the traditional ranking of poker hands. Here are some useful tips on playing two pair in pai gow poker.:

  1. If two pairs are composed of 6, 5, 4, 3 or 2, then it is advisable that you keep both pairs in the high hand; otherwise, place the low pair out front. If you have an ace and two pairs that are 7 or worse, then keep the ace in the low hand and both pairs place in the back (high hand). In all other cases, you should separate these pairs and place the weakest one up top. 
  2. If you have an ace, then move it to the low hand and keep two pair in the high hand in the following situations: the high pair is 10 or better and the low pair is 6 or worse. In all other cases, separate the pairs and move the weakest pair to the low combination.

    Two pair

    Example. Look at the picture above. You have two pairs – tens and sixes, and there is no ace in your hands. According to the above procedure, you should separate these pairs in the following way: move the weakest pair (6-6) to the low hand, while keeping 10-10 in the back. If you had an ace among the starting cards, you could hold two pairs in the high hand, but 4-2 is a very weak hand to play it up top.

    Three pair

    There are situations when you can be dealt three pairs at once. In this case, place the highest pair out front, that is in the low hand, and keep the other two pairs in the bottom hand.

    Three pair

    Example. Suppose you are dealt 7-7-6-6-Q-8-8, which gives you three pairs: sevens, sixes and eights. These are two low pairs (6-6 and 7-7) and one medium pair – 8-8. Your cards aren't really strong, but you can keep the low pairs together in the back and move the high pair up top to try to win both hands. 

    Three of a kind

    You should always keep 3 cards of the same rank in your high hand, unless they are aces, and move the two highest cards to your low hand. If you have 3 aces, place one ace and the highest card out front and play a pair of aces in your high hand.

    Three of a kind

    Example. Assuming you have 8-8-8-K-Q-10 and a Joker. In this case, you should keep the eights (three of a kind) in the back and play King and Joker in your low hand. Remember that Joker acts as an Ace here. You can't use the Joker to complete a straight or a flush as you are still one card short to make these combinations.

    Straight

    It would be advisable to play a straight in the high hand unless it contains other combinations. If you have extra straight cards, use the two strongest cards to make a top hand.

    When you have a straight and two pair – keep the straight in the high hand if each pair is 9 or worse. If they are 10 or better, separate the straight and place the low pair out front. The high pair, in turn, should be placed in the back.

    Straight

    Example. Let's take a look at the following situation:

    • Your cards: Q-J-A-5-9-8 and a Joker (picture A)
    • Dealer's cards: 10-10-J-6-4-A-Q (picture B)

    Here, you have a "gutshot straight draw" of Q-J-9-8, but there is no chance of completing it at the next stage of the game. However, you got a Joker that can help you complete a straight by "assuming the role" of 10. Therefore, you should place the straight in the back and play A-5 in the low hand. 

    Now, let's consider your opponent's cards. The dealer moved 10-10-J-6-4 to the high hand (which gives him a pair of tens) and placed A-Q in the low hand. Thus, you have an advantage in the high hand because your straight beats the dealer's 10-10, but your A-5 in the top hand loses to the dealer's A-Q. This is a push (tie result), which means that you get your bet back.

    Flush

    Flush is a very powerful hand in traditional poker, but things are different in pai gow – you will sometimes need to separate it: 

    • Hold a flush in the high hand unless it contains other combinations. 
    • In case you have an extra flush card (or all seven cards are of the same suit), use the strongest extra card (or two strongest cards) to make a low hand.
    • When you are dealt a flush and two pair, it’s advisable to place the flush in the back if two pairs are 9 or worse. If they are 10 or better, you should split the flush and play the low pair in the low hand, while moving the high pair to the bottom (high) hand.​

    Flush

    Example. Considering the picture above, you play with A-K-Q-9-7-4-2, and six cards of your starting hand are of the same suit (diamonds). Knowing poker combinations, you understand that you have a flush and two low cards of different rank and suit. You move 4-2 to the low hand, playing the flush in the back, which corresponds to the recommendations above, except for one thing: you should have played 4-A instead of 4-2 in the top combination in order to have greater chances to win both hands.

    Full house

    This combination should be separated: hold three of a kind in the high hands, placing a pair up top. If you are dealt two pair and three cards of the same rank, then play the highest pair in the low hand.

    Full house

    Example. In this case, your starter is 10-10-10-8-6-3-3 that gives you a full house. You could win a huge pot with this hand if you played holdem poker, but here, you divide the full house, placing 3-3 up top and three cards of the same rank (10-10-10) in the back. 

    Four of a kind

    If your four cards of the same rank are 8 or worse, place them all in the back, moving two highest cards to the low hand. If they are 9 or better and there is no ace or other pair, split four of a kind and play pairs in different hands. When your four cards of the same rank are nines and there is an ace or another pair, keep all nines in the high hand, placing the ace or pair out front. Always separate four aces to play them in different hands.

    Straight flush

    You would be lucky to hit a straight flush (especially royal straight flush) in traditional poker, but in Pai Gow things are different. Keep the straight flush in your high hand unless it contains any other combination of cards.

    Five aces

    You may think that there is a mistake as the poker deck has only 4 aces, but everything is correct. It should be reminded that Pai Gow Poker is played with 52 cards and one Joker, which is considered an Ace in most situations (except for straight, flush, and straight flushes). Therefore, if you have four aces and the joker in your starter, it means that you have five aces. You should separate 5 aces, moving two of them to the top hand.

      Aggressive strategy

      The aggressive approach has different solutions for separating two pairs, four of a kind, straight, flush, and straight flush. Let's take a closer look at these differences.

      Two pair

      If two pairs are 5 or worse, then you should keep both pairs in the high hand; otherwise, place the low pair out front – that is, move it to the low hand.

      Two pair

      Example. Assuming you received 5-5-3-3-Q-7-2 as your starting hand. These cards aren't the best, but you can split them in a way that will give you at least some chances to win both hands. Therefore, play Q-7 in the low hand and keep your two pairs (5-5 and 3-3) in the bottom hand as guided above. If you had one pair better than 5, for example, 10-10 or K-K, you could place the low pair up top and play the high one in the back.

      For of a kind

      If you are dealt four cards of the same rank and they are sevens or worse – keep all sevens in the high hand. If they are eights or better, then separate them placing one pair up top and the other one in the back. When you have four eights or better with an ace or another pair, then keep all 4 cards in the high hand while moving the ace or pair to the top (low) hand.

      Straight, flush, straight flush (royal flush)

      If you have a choice between straight, flush and straight flush (or royal flush), then you should choose the combination that allows you to move the two highest cards to the low hand.

      Royal flush

      Example. You are playing with Q-10-9-8-K-A and a Joker – all cards are of the same suit (spades). These cards give you a few options to separate them, as you have a queen-high straight flush, a king-high straight flush and an ace-high straight flush that is commonly called a royal flush. Note that you don't have a Jack, but its role is performed by a Joker. You decide to keep the queen-high straight flush in the bottom hand and play K-A in the low hand, which is fine. 

      Here, you could have also moved Ace and Joker to the top hand and kept the flush of K-Q-10-9-8 in the back, but it would be less powerful than the queen-high straight flush. On the other hand, two aces (ace of clubs and joker) are stronger than K-A. Both options are suitable and give you high chances to win both hands.

      Playing for the bank

      When you are playing for the bank, you have a great edge over your opponents. This advantage manifests itself in the following situation: if players collect the same combinations, then the banker is the one to win. Therefore, it is advisable to play for the bank whenever possible, that is, when it's your turn to play and when other players refuse to play for the bank.

      Important! During the first game, the banker's duties are performed by the dealer; in the future, any participant is able to intermittently play for the bank.

      Conclusion

      Now you know how to win at pai gow poker. You can choose any of the two strategies described above as both give you roughly the same percentage of benefit. But, bear in mind that by applying the conservative strategy, your play will be smoother with a high chance of a push, while choosing the aggressive style – your play will be more dynamic.

      The advantage of the player who is familiar with the main strategies of Pai Gow is that other players are ignorant of this knowledge. Besides, they often make mistakes when splitting cards by drawing up a dead hand.

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      Cardmates journalist, news editor and translator since 2018. Specialization: poker news and review of events.
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