Despite being around casinos since I was about 14 years old, I have to admit that it was only the past decade or so that I learned anything about Pai Gow Poker and Baccarat. All I knew about Baccarat was that James Bond seemed to like to play it and apparently you play it for a lot of money. With 007 playing it, I always assumed it was a game a lot like blackjack which relied on a good deal of strategy and potentially card counting, which would be why the suave super spy loved it so much. Little did I know that it is a game of essentially no strategy, albeit there are some similarities to blackjack.
My knowledge of Pai Gow Poker was limited to the fact that it was based on the game of Pai Gow Tiles which is an Asian game using domino like tiles (or are they more Mah Jong like?). I remember coming to Las Vegas 25+ years ago and watching them play. The Dealer would 'shuffle' the tiles (sort of the way you mix domino tiles) and then give some to each Player. The Players would split them into two 'hands'. After that, I had no clue why the Player won or lost. Pai Gow Poker uses the same concept of two hands, but the similarities end there. Pai Gow Poker uses a 53-card deck (1 Joker). Each Player gets 7 cards to make a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand. Standard Poker rules apply, but the Joker is 'semi-wild'. It can be used to complete a Straight, a Flush or as an Ace. So, two Kings and the Joker is two Kings and an Ace. The 5-card hand must outrank the 2-card. hand. The Dealer sets his hand according to set of rules (the house way). If the Player wins both hands (outranks the Dealer's hands), he wins. If he wins one and loses one, it is a push. If he loses both the Dealer wins. If a single hand ties with the Dealer's hand it is as if the Player lost that hand.
There is one interesting commonality between Baccarat and Pai Gow Poker, which is why I mention them today. They both have a commission when the Player wins. In Pai Gow Poker, it is any time the Player wins. In Baccarat, the Dealer deals two hands, a Banker Hand and a Player hand. The draw rules (which are fixed and do not allow for any decision making) give the Banker hand a small edge. So, if you wager on the Banker Hand and it wins you pay the commission. In both games, the commission is 5%. Another way of thinking about this is that you don't win even money. You win 19 for 20 when you win. If you're playing at a $5 table, this gets very messy. Even at higher denomination tables it slows down the play.
It is no wonder then, that several 'no commission' versions of each game have cropped up. In the case of Pai Gow Poker, a hand that would normally cause the Dealer to lose (most of the time) is instead turned into a push. One of these varieties does this when the Dealer Plays a 2-Card hand of 9 High. Since he plays his hands according to a specific set of rules, the Dealer cannot control when this happens. When the Dealer Plays a 9-High hand, it is very likely that the Player will win or at least push. In this no commission version of the game, it will now automatically push. This will happen about 2.5%-2.7% of the time depending on the specific house way. The end result is a payback very similar to the original Pai Gow payback, but now you don't have to worry about a commission. There is another version of the variant that pushes when the 5-Card hand has a Queen High played in it. Again, the final payback is very similar to the original version without the hassles of a commission.
A very similar mechanism is used for Baccarat. But, in Baccarat, a hand that would likely WIN for the Banker hand is turned into a push. In one sense this is the same as Pai Gow Poker, which can be looked as taking a hand the Player normally wins and turning it into a push. But to me, it seems more like a Dealer hand that is likely going to LOSE is turned into a push. The bottom line is that a relatively rare outcome is changed slightly in order to eliminate the commission. For example, in one of these variants, if the Banker hand has a 3-card 7, it will automatically push. A 3-card 7 will win most of the time. If the Player hand had an 8 or a 9, it would've been a natural and a 3rd card would not be drawn. If the Banker draws to a 7, it would required the Player to draw to an 8 or 9 for the Banker hand to lose.
It should be noted that for both of these games, the trigger hand ALWAYS becomes a push. In the case of Baccarat, even if the Banker hand LOSES 7-8 with a 3-card 7, it will be a PUSH. Winning will happen far more frequently, but the Push occurs regardless of the details of the outcome. This is all accounted for when determining the final payback of the game. As was the case in Pai Gow, the new payback is very similar to the payback of the original version. The goal was not increase or decrease the payback but to get rid of the commission which speeds up the game, which, in theory makes the casino more money.
One last point to ponder. Most of these games will offer a sidebet that the particular even will occur. So you can wager that the Dealer will have a 2-Card 9-High hand or a Queen High 5-card Hand (depending on which variant you are playing). The payouts will be set to return 80-90% (generally speaking), so they are a bit low, but they will afford the Player the opportunity for a quick large win should the event occur.