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Pai Gow Poker players enjoy easy pace, fairly low house edge

| Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

Ken Glozer likes to play blackjack and craps, but lately, he's been biding his time at the Pai Gow Poker table.

Glozer, 70, a policy analyst from Ashburn, Va., who frequently visits relatives in Uniontown, enjoys the game's slow pace.

"It's a good place to go when you're waiting for someone who wants to play slots" for a couple of hours, he says. "You'll occasionally win a bet, but you usually don't lose a lot."

The game boasts a relatively low house edge. Gambling site puts it at 2.73 percent when played against the dealer. In other words, for every $100 bet, a player can expect to lose $2.73 over the long run.

If you can find a casino offering the option, you can cut the house edge on some hands to only 0.2 percent by assuming the role of banker. Rivers and Meadows casinos do not have that option. In casinos that do, the choice rotates around the table and a player may not be the banker two hands in a row. When the option is available, the overall house edge drops to 1.46 percent.

Pai Gow Poker is played with 53 cards, a regular deck plus a joker. The joker can fill out a straight, flush or straight flush; otherwise it plays as an Ace. You can't use the joker to make trips out of a pair of nines, for example.

Each spot at the table, even those where no one is playing, gets seven cards, with the first position determined by a random number generator or dice roll.

Each player splits his cards into two poker hands, one with two cards and one with five. The five-card hand must be better than the two-card hand; for example, if your seven cards are Ace-10-9-7-6-6-2 in three suits, the sixes would have to play in the five-card hand; your best two-card hand would be Ace-10.

Players win only if they beat the dealer on both hands; in that case, they pay a 5 percent commission, netting $9.50 for every $10 bet. The house wins only if the dealer beats a player on both hands. If the dealer wins only one of the two hands, it's a push.

A push happens 41.48 percent of the time, says. A player wins both hands 28.61 percent of the time and the dealer wins both 29.91 percent of the time.

Like most carnival games, Pai Gow Poker has a money-siphoning side bet. The "Fortune Bonus" bet offers a 5,000-to-1 payout for a seven-card straight flush without a joker as well as lower bonuses for straights or better. With at least a $5 "fortune bonus" wager, a bettor can get up to a $1,000 "envy" payout if another player hits a big hand. says the house edge on the side bet of about 8 percent. That's almost as high as the edge on Pennsylvania slot machines.

The dealer must follow rules in setting his two hands. The "house way" varies among casinos, but differences tend to be minor.

For players, most decisions in setting the two hands are obvious. Players often struggle with deciding what to do with two pairs. They could put the lower pair in the two-card hand, figuring that will be good enough to guarantee a push, or they could keep both pairs together in the five-card hand.

Michael Shackleford, the "Wizard of Odds," advises splitting the pairs unless:

• The sum of their ranks is 9 or less and you have a single king or ace

• Or, the sum of their ranks is 15 or less and you have an ace singleton.

"Sum of their ranks" means adding the face value; a pair of sixes and a pair of twos have a sum of eight.

Pai Gow Poker has a few wrinkles. Wagers must be in increments of $5, because the commission is 25 cents per $5 bet. "The wheel" -- an Ace through five straight -- ranks as the second highest straight, behind "Broadway," or 10 through Ace.

Bottom line: Pai Gow is easy to pick up, with fairly low risk and the potential for long playing time on a modest buy-in.

"I like the game," Glozer says. "You don't have to worry about not playing it for a while and forgetting the strategy. I don't see any (big) disadvantage."

State passes N.J. in gambling revenue

With gross gaming revenue of $245.9 million in November, Pennsylvania moved into the country's No. 2 spot for the month.

Pennsylvania topped New Jersey's monthly total of $245.1 million, state figures show. New Jersey historically ranks No. 2, behind Nevada, in gambling revenue. This is the first time the 10 Pennsylvania casinos have outgrossed the 11 in Atlantic City.

Gross revenue is what casinos win from table game and slot play. It is not profit.

Money trail

Slot players lost $39.2 million in Pennsylvania casinos during the week ending Dec. 18, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $35.4 million in the comparable week last year.

The state gets 55 percent of "gross slot revenue," or what's left of wagers after all jackpots are paid.

Since the fiscal year started in July, the statewide slot payout rate is 90.1 percent. For every $100 bet, the machines return $90.10. Payout rates in Western Pennsylvania casino:

  • 89.87 percent: Rivers; weekly revenue of $4.32 million, up from $3.78 million last year.
  • 89.75 percent: Meadows; weekly revenue of $3.61 million, down from $3.72 million last year.
  • 90.48 percent: Presque Isle in Erie; weekly revenue of $2.39 million, up from $2.05 million last year.

Question of the week

Should an occasional blackjack player double more often than "the book" says -- for example, with a hard seven or hard eight against a dealer's six• (from Ray Fisher, Green Tree)

Whether you play once a year or once a day, you're best off following basic strategy. That means never doubling on a hard seven or eight. If you draw anything other than an Ace on your seven, you win only if the dealer busts. Even when showing a five or six, the dealer busts less than half the time.

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