I remember my first trip to Las Vegas, when I was 18. It was between my Freshman and Sophomore years at college. My parents had just announced that they were going to retire to Las Vegas and they wanted my brother and I to see what all the fuss was about. We stayed at the Tropicana (back when it was still gold and only had one tower!). The goal of the week was to show us around as much of the city as they could. Since they were planning on moving here, you would have thought the emphasis was on the residential areas. We saw that too, but as a first time visitor to Las Vegas, we spent most of the time doing what tourists do and saw about everything there was to see on the strip and downtown.
One of the casinos we meandered into was the Imperial Palace. I was amazed to find them playing a game that reminded me of my mother's mah-jongg game. It was played with tiles that resembled dominoes. I was amazed at how the Player and Dealer would review their 4 tiles and split them with ease in what appeared to be no particular pattern to me. Many years later, I would read more about the game and get a general understanding of what was going on. Virtually all of the Players and Dealers were Asian and the game was Pai Gow Tiles. It would be a few years later that a gaming inventor would attempt to Americanize the game.
The way the story goes, this inventor brought his idea to an attorney who told him it wasn't patentable. He then showed the game to several other people. Apparently one of these people like the idea and eventually the game wound up in the casino. Unfortunately, the way patent law works, it had now been a year (plus) since the game was made 'public' and now it truly could not be patented. As a result, the game of Pai Gow Poker is in the public domain and casinos are allowed to use it without paying anybody anything for it. Many gaming companies have added sidebets to the game in order to generate some revenue, but somewhere out there is an inventor who should be filthy rich. Instead, I'm guessing he's raving mad!
Ironically, there are very few similarities between Pai Gow Poker and Pai Gow Tiles. In Pai Gow Tiles, the Player is dealt 4 dominoes/tiles. In Pai Gow Poker the Player gets 7 cards from a 53-card deck that is a standard deck plus a semi-wild Joker. Semi-Wild means the Joker can complete any Straight, any Flush or count as an Ace. So, if you have 2, 3, 10, J, JKR, you have an Ace-High hand. The Player must break apart his 7-cards into a 5-card hand (High) and a 2-Card hand (Low). The 5-card hand must outrank the 2-card hand. The 2-card hand only cares about Pairs and singles. Flushes and Straights are meaningless.
The game is fairly simple from here. If both of the Player's hands outranks both of the Dealer's hands, the Player wins. If one of the Player's hand outranks the Dealer's hand, it is a push. The Player's hand must OUTRANK the Dealer's. If two hands are a 'copy' (identical in rank) that counts as a Dealer win. When the Player wins, he pays a 5% commission. Alternatively, you can look at this as the Player wins 19 to 20 (95 cents for every dollar wagered).
As you can imagine, there are a LOT of pushes. About 40% of the hands wind up as a push. The Player wins about 29.1% of the time and Dealer hand wins about 30.38% of the time. This nets to about a 2.7% house edge. This is somewhat high compared to a lot of other games, but it is a relatively low wager game. What you bet at the beginning is all that you are risking. There is no Raising, Folding or Doubling.
In some casinos, Players are allowed to bank the game. In essence, the Player becomes the Dealer (financially speaking) and plays against the other Players. He now has the advantage of WINNING copied hands, but he still pays 5% commission on hands he wins. With this, the Player is playing a game with only a 0.25% house edge. The option to 'bank' the game usually rotates around the table, but a Player is free to decline. In some casinos, if a Player declines the house takes over as the banker, while in others the next Player gets the chance to bank. It is very advantageous for the Player to bank a game, but he has to have enough bankroll to cover the wagers of all the Players. So, it can be rather risky as well.
The Dealer will set his hand according to the House Way. This can vary from casino to casino a bit. Most hands will be the same, but a few hands (usually those containing Pairs/Trips of High Cards) might have slightly different rules. In the last few years, Shuffle Entertainment (now Scientific Games) introduced its i-verify product, which tells the Dealer how to set his cards, greatly reducing errors.
I've never had the opportunity to fully analyze Pai Gow Poker (but I'm almost done with my analysis), but the general consensus is that the Player should mostly follow the House Way. There are a few exceptions to this, but I can't verify this yet. If you ask the Dealer to set your hand according to the House Way, he should oblige. The i-verify is also capable of telling each Player how to set his hand and you may ask the Dealer to show the i-verify results to you so that you can do this.
Pai Gow Poker can appear to be an intimidating game, but in reality it is one of the simplest in the casino. It is a relatively slow, non-volatile game, except for most of the sidebets which give Players the opportunity for very big wins.