Friday, June 29, 2007

Pai gow primer

I'll be focusing on pai gow instead of blackjack during my July bonus hunting. It's got a lower house edge than blackjack (zero instead of around 1%), and much less variance. So that you'll know what I'm talking about, here's how pai gow is played.

In Washington casinos, they offer "no commission Fortune Pai Gow Poker", which, if I understand correctly, differs from Vegas pai gow in that Vegas casinos take a 5% commission on your wins. In Washington, there is no commission.

At the pai gow table, there are six positions for players and one for the house. It's statistically irrelevant, but some players think it's very important that Player 1 be determined randomly. Most Washington casinos assign the seven seats sequential numbers 1-18, giving the house seats 7 and 14, so that all players have a 31/216 chance of being player 1, and the house a 30/216 chance of being player 1. Like I said, it's statistically irrelevant, so don't worry about it. Play the hand you're dealt.

Using a 53-card deck (one joker), a hand of seven cards is dealt to each of the seven positions. The remaining four cards are discarded. Empty positions have their hands discarded.

From those seven cards, you must create a two-card poker hand and a five-card poker hand. Your two-card hand must be lower than your five-card hand. The joker can only be used in straights or flushes, or as an ace. "Pai gow", as best as I can tell, is Chinese for "crappy hand", because players were rooting for the dealer to have a pai gow, which is a hand that had no pairs, straights, or flushes.

If your two-card hand is higher than the dealer's two-card hand, and if your five-card hand is higher than the dealer's five-card hand, you win 1:1. If both hands are lower, you lose. If one is higher and the other is lower, you push. If one hand ties, the winner of the other hand wins. If both hands tie... I don't know. I expect it's a push. If it is a push instead of a house win, this is truly a zero house edge game if you play the same published strategy that the house uses. In theory, there's slightly better strategies out there ( has them explained), but the difference is so minimal that it's maybe one out of 1000 hands.

There's a crappy "fortune" side bet that everyone always takes, and if you don't take the bet, the other players and the house will look at you funny, but don't do it.

One thing I've heard about, but had never seen until last night, is the option for a player to be the dealer. As the dealer, that player pays out wins and collects losses from the other players (and the house, which will be the same amount that the dealer bet last time). You can't be the dealer in consecutive hands. Washington has a $200 per hand bet limit; I don't know what happens if the amount that other players bet totals more than $200.

As I said, the player-as-dealer is very unusual in Washington, although I hear it's much more common in Vegas (perhaps the dealer keeps the commission?). Last night at Happy Days was the first time I saw it, and it got very confusing with two of the players using match plays. Heck, it was confusing for the house even without the match plays, because it got her out of her rhythm of comparing players cards to hers.

The player in the far right seat wanted to be banker for a hand, and after everyone's hands were set, the house turned over its cards and incorrectly tried to compare them to another player's hand. The dealer/player stopped her, called the pit boss over, and they slowly went step-by-step to make sure they did it right. The house compared its cards to the dealer/player. The house lost. The house gave the dealer/player $15. The house mucked its losing cards.

The player in the far left seat mucked his cards, and the dealer took them, his money, and his match play. As the player walked away from the table, the pit boss decided that match play coupons can't be used with a player as dealer, so he called out to the guy to come back. The guy didn't, and the pit boss eventually threw the match play ticket in the trash. I knew my hand had lost, but I didn't muck my cards, and the pit boss collected my $10 but gave me my match play coupon back. They resolved the remaining three positions, the player/banker came out well ahead, and we moved onto the next hand.

I won the next two, with match plays, for +$40.

If I were properly capitalized, and didn't feel queasy at the thought of the possibility of losing $200 a hand, there might be an advantage to play as dealer as often as possible. Although the house shouldn't play less than perfectly, other players are much more likely to do so.

No comments: