The Empire Strikes Back

            No game played in the U.S. is shrouded in more mystery than Pai Gow Tiles.  I remember seeing this game more than 20 years ago in Las Vegas and wondering why they were playing dominoes!  My father simply told me that it was a complex game that was played almost exclusively by people from Asia.  There, it was immensely popular.  So, it is no wonder that somewhere along the line, someone decided to ‘Americanize’ it creating Pai Gow Poker.  To be clear, the tiles were not simply converted to cards for this transformation.  Instead, the rules of play for Pai Gow (tiles) were meshed with a poker-based game. 

            As a result of its Asian roots, I think that many still avoid the game as being too complex or intimidating.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.   Pai Gow Poker is a very simple game to understand.  The strategy is a bit complex, but unlike most other casino games, in Pai Gow Poker you can ask the Dealer for help and he’s allowed to help and will almost certainly give you the correct information. 

            The rules of play are rather simple for Pai Gow Poker.  The game is played with a 53-card deck (standard 52 plus a Joker).  The Joker is ‘semi-wild’.  It can complete a Straight OR a Flush (or a Straight Flush) or count as an Ace.  So, if you have 2-2-7-7-10-JKR, you have Two Pair with an Ace Kicker.  If you have 2-4-5-6-10-JKR, you have a Straight (or a Straight Flush if the cards are suited).  The Player makes a single wager to begin play.  Each Player and the Dealer is dealt 7 cards.  The Player must split the cards to create a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand (only Pairs and Ranks matter, no Straights or Flushes).  The only rule is that the 5-card hand MUST outrank the 2-card hand.

            The Dealer will also set his cards in this manner using the “House Way”, which is a set of rules which tell the Dealer how to play his hand.  As the House Way is considered the optimal way to set cards, the Player may ask the Dealer to set his cards using the House Way, essentially removing the need to know any strategy at all.

            Once all the cards are set, the Dealer reveals his cards and then begins to compare them to each of the Player’s hands.  For the Player to win, BOTH of his hands must beat the Dealer’s respective hands.  If each Player and Dealer win one of the hands, it is a push.  If the Dealer wins both, the Player loses his wager.  The house advantage comes from two sources.  The first is that the Dealer wins all TIES.  In this case, a Tie DOES NOT mean each wins one hand, but if the Player and Dealer’s two-card or five-card hands are ‘ties’, then it is considered as if the Dealer won that hand.  So, if the Player wins the 5-card hand and ties on the 2-card hand, each Player and Dealer has won one hand and it is a Push.  The second source of house advantage is that the Player pays a 5% commission on all wins (i.e. he is paid 19 to 20 for all wins).

            In the end, the payback winds up at just over 97.25%.  The Player can shave this down considerably by acting as the ‘Banker’, but I’ll save that for another column.  As a result of the two-hand single wager betting, a very large amount of hands end up as a Push (more than 40%), which can be both good and bad.  On the positive side, a small bankroll can last a long time.  On the bad side, the Pai Gow Poker by itself can be considered to be rather slow. 

            As a result, numerous sidebets have been created to spice up the game.  One of the more creative ones is ‘Imperial Pai Gow Poker’ developed by John Feola, President of  New Vision Gaming.  With Imperial Pai Gow, a single sidebet wager gives the Player two opportunities to win a bonus.  He can win if he can form at least a Straight/Three of a Kind or better using any 5 of his 7 cards OR if the Dealer’s 7-card hand is a Jack High or less.  If BOTH occurs, the Player will be paid for BOTH wins!  It really doesn’t get much easier than this.  The paytable in use is as follows:

Player's Hand

Five Aces - 1000
Royal Flush - 200
Straight Flush - 50
Four of a Kind - 25
Full House - 5
Flush - 4
Straight - 2
Trips - 2

Dealer's Hand

9 High - 100
10 High - 20
Jack High - 5

* Pays are TO 1

            This paytable affords the Player a 97.19% payback, which is quite respectable for a sidebet.  Remember that you’re not playing one or the either, you get them both.  So, if you’re dealt a Full House and the Dealer has a 10 High hand, you’ll win 25 to 1.  With Imperial Pai Gow Poker, you get to root for your hand AND against the Dealer’s hand.

            Imperial Pai Gow Poker is already live in several casinos and jurisdictions with more coming on-line in the next few weeks.  It started at the Hopland Sho Ka Wah Casino (Hopland, CA).  John Feola asked that I give a shout out to Mike Gutierrez, the Table Games Manager there, as a thank you for being the first casino to place the game.  It can also be found at The Eldorado Casino in Reno, John Ascuga’s Nugget in Sparks, NV and the Wild Rose Casino in Emmetsburg, IA.   This coming week it should be going live at Terrible’s Lakeside Casino in Osceola, IA and at the Harrington Raceway in Delaware.  Later this month it should make its debut in Gulfport, MS at the Island View Casino.