As a Las Vegas resident and a long-time fan of casino games, you learn to focus on the games with a low house edge. Pai Gow Poker is excellent in that regard. There is very, very little house edge and the commission you pay on most winning hands is five percent. While you can’t make a career of playing this game, for a slow game to pass the time and have some fun in a casino, Pai Gow Poker is a pretty good choice.
I developed this article based on an early Sunday morning trip to a local casino in the Summerlin area of Las Vegas. The villain in this tragic comedy is a pit boss at this casino. He was a very friendly and knowledgeable man; this was one of the few casinos where I didn’t have a player’s club card and he was very helpful in signing me up. But he managed to catch my attention with an interesting comment on Pai Gow Poker that earns its place in my Stupid Things You Hear in Las Vegas series.
Pai Gow Poker Basics
There are many excellent books that can hep you with the rules and mechanics of Pai Gow Poker. So I will only present a brief summary here, particularly the items that relate to this story.
As a player, you are dealt a total of seven cards from a deck of 53 cards – the standard poker deck and 1 joker that can be used to complete straights and flushes or serve as an Ace. The casino dealer is also dealt 7 cards. From those seven cards, you need to make two poker hands, one with 2 cards and one with 5 cards. The hand with 2 cards (also known as your “front hand”) has to have a lower value than your “back hand” with 5 cards. In order to win your bet, both your front and back hand need to beat the casino dealer’s front and back hand. If you one beat one of their hands, then it is considered a “push” and you neither win nor lose money. If the casino dealer beats both of your hands then you lose your bet. The pushes happen quite often and you can keep yourself playing for a long time on a modest bankroll.
It’s a pretty simple game that most people can pick up in a short time. If you have trouble, you can simply turn your hand over and ask for the “house way” and the casino dealer will set the hand for you in the same way that the casino would. Pretty easy, right?
Pai Gow Poker and the Ceremony
Many players enjoy the “ceremony” associated with each hand of Pai Gow Poker. One of the rules is that all cards are dealt out during each hand, no matter how many players are playing. Since each player gets 7 cards, at any one table there can be a maximum of 6 players and 1 casino dealer. As the hands are being dealt out by the automated shuffle machine, you are not allowed to touch your cards until all players have received theirs. In addition the dealer may also flash the backs of the remaining 4 cards that are not in play since this demonstrates a fair deal by the casino. Finally, it should be noted that there is a random number generator built into the Pai Gow table. It displays a number 1 – 7 that indicates which player gets the first set of 7 hands to be dealt. That then starts a rotation where all the players get their 7 cards in subsequent order from where the random number generator started.
Back to my early Sunday morning casino trip: I was having a session of ups & downs with Pai Gow Poker but otherwise having a good time chatting with the dealer and our villain pit boss. The casino was quite empty at this hour so I was enjoying the constant waitress attention and ordering my usual bottles of Pellegrino water. The pit boss was clearly knowledgeable on Pai Gow as both a player and a dealer. He helped me set some hands and was otherwise cheering me on to do well. That was until he said . . .
You know, the beauty of Pai Gow Poker is that you can just move seats and the random number generator will give you different cards and that can change up your luck!
Pai Gow Poker and Random Elements
I think that this statement is something that many players can be talked into, but is clearly wrong. It sounds good because:
- Pai Gow Poker is the only casino table game that has two random elements in each hand. Blackjack (twenty-one), craps, three-card-poker, those are all games where there is only 1 random element, which is the shuffle of the cards or the tumble of the dice.
- Pai Gow Poker is the only casino table game where there are more hands dealt than needed. I was playing alone with the dealer and could clearly see 5 other hands that were dealt to player spots but not actually used. It can lead a player to believe, “well, one of those hands just had to be a winning hand, I’m just in an unlucky spot!”.
As a data scientist, I recognize that (assuming a fair casino) the presence of two random elements does not change the odds of Pai Gow Poker in any way. Both of these elements – the shuffle of the cards and the spot where the random number generator start the cards – are both independent of each other and independent events from hand-to-hand. One hand does not have an effect on future hands and one random generator selection or shuffle of the card does not have any effect on future hands.
In many ways, this is a psychological effect on gamblers. We want to blame some other third-party for the inevitable laws of probability and statistics. You see this at the Blackjack table where some players can blame actions by other players for “taking the dealer’s bust card” or “not playing the right way”. We would all win every hand in every single table game, if only it weren’t for this one other thing . . .
So, no, the random number generator in Pai Gow Poker is not having an effect on your losses. I presented it in this article as ceremony and it should be taken as such. The law of independent trials has not been suspended for Pai Gow, it’s just another element of randomness when you enter a casino.