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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Deal Me In: When in doubt, let the house set your hand

7 November 2008

Dear Mark: As someone new to pai gow poker, would you a) play the game, and b) advise letting the dealer set my hand since I'm a beginner? Pat T.

Pai gow poker is a variant of American seven-card poker. It is played with a standard 52-card deck and a joker, but differs from the typical seven-card game in that you play against a banker, not against the other players at the table.

Each player is dealt seven cards with which he must make two hands based on poker rankings -- a front hand of two cards and a back hand of five cards. The five-card hand must outrank the two-card hand.

You win if you defeat the banker on both your front and back hands. You lose only if the banker beats you on both hands. A "copy," or push, always goes to the banker.

I see no reason why you, as a newbie, wouldn't want the house to set your hand correctly, mostly because the casino advantage on the game will be lower if they do, and, as someone new to pai gow poker, you are prone to make two typical novice-errors. You risk failing to see a five-card flush, and/or you risk incorrectly setting your hands when dealt two pairs. Two-pair hands appear fairly often, and setting them correctly is incredibly important. (Note: Here's the quick rule of thumb for playing two pairs: If your hand has either an unmatched ace or king, keep the two pairs in your five-card hand. If you have neither, play the lower-ranking pair as the two-card hand.)

So what's the house edge by having the house set your hand? Two and a half percent, about the same as if you were to use perfect basic strategy.

Now, Pat, let's talk about that 2.5% for just a moment. At first glance, you'll note it's higher than my ageless recommendation: "never give the casino higher than a 2% edge." But with this negative-expectation game, slow is good, very good.

Pai gow poker can be really slow; sometimes no more than 40 hands in an hour are actually played to completion. Compare that to mini-baccarat, which, although a lower house-edge play, is an extremely fast game where 200 decisions can be made in an hour.

Here's the arithmetic, Pat, on why it's not such a bad play. If you were to play pai gow poker at $5 a hand, 40 hands an hour, giving the house 2.5%, you would lose, over the long run, just $5 per hour. With mini-baccarat at $5 a whack, and even though the house edge is only 1.17%, if you were to play just the banker hand, by seeing 200 decisions an hour, you would have an hourly loss of $11.70.

Pai gow poker, even as a beginner and allowing the house to set your hand, is pretty cheap entertainment, Pat, for a measly five bucks an hour.

Dear Mark: Often in your column you mention the benefits of basic strategy in blackjack. Basic strategy tells us to always hit a 16. Isn't the smart move to let the dealer bust instead, even if he has a 7-10 showing? Ted R.

The basic strategy I often mention in this column is a set of computer-derived rules for playing every hand against every possible dealer up card.

Let's examine your hand example, the one we all get, all of the time, that godawful 16. If you hit this crappy hand, you will bust over 60% of the time. The other option is to stand and let the dealer bust out. The problem is that when you stand as well, you will lose approximately 70% of the time.

The dealer's chances of having a 17 or more when he shows a 7, 8, 9, 10 or ace are between 74% and 83%. For that reason, correct basic strategy dictates that you always hit your 16.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Don't fight a battle if you don't gain anything by winning." --General George Patton

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.