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Pai Gow poker is for friends

16 November 2009

For as long as groups of friends have been making trips to Las Vegas and other gambling destinations, finding the game that everyone wants to play has been the Holy Grail.

Among buddies, bankrolls and interests will vary. Some friends prefer to play blackjack. Others would rather play craps. And no one wants to play poker against each other. That's just no fun -- and you can do that home.

And with limited -- and varying -- bankrolls, no one wants to lose a good chunk of their money playing a high-volatility game they don't like for the sake of camaraderie. So what ends up happening is friends gamble apart, and gather only to eat or watch/bet sports at the sports book.

But as I discovered last week, it doesn't have to be like that. The Holy Grail exists -- and its name is Pai Gow poker.

Pai Gow poker satisfies the most important elements of a good group game -- low volatility and slow play to accommodate multiple bankrolls, socialization and fun.

Pai Gow poker is they type of game where you can sit down with $50, and four hours (and several free cocktails) later, you'll still have $50. I played three Pai Gow poker sessions last week and ended up $50 ahead, $7 ahead and $3 down. Not bad. And at no point in any session was I down more than $15.

Pai Gow poker is an astonishingly simple, clever and social game. Players and the dealer are dealt seven cards. Players then create the best possible five-card poker hand and two-card poker hand they can, using all seven of their cards. The only rule in setting the hands is the five-card hand has to be better than the two-card hand. You can not have straights and flushes in the two-card hand. And just to keep things interesting, there's a joker in the deck. The joker can be used only as an ace, or to fill in a straight or flush.

Once a player sets his hand, he's playing heads up against the dealer. If player's five-card hand beats the dealer's five-card hand, and the player's two-card hand beats the dealer's two-card hand, then the player wins. If the player wins just one of the hands -- it doesn't matter which one -- then the hand is a push. If the player loses both hands, he loses the bet. (Strategy tip: Make you're two-card hand as strong as possible. That's the hand that will make or break you.)

The rules and the game play create a very a natural social setting. First, game play is slow because players are actually handling the cards (very cool) and setting poker hands. The slow play of the game combined with all the pushes keeps losses at a minimum.

As players set their hands, they are free to show their hands to other players at the table. They can talk about hands before setting them, with everyone trying to maximize their chances to beat the dealer. This happened to me several times last week. Although I wasn't playing with friends, everybody at the table felt free to show their cards when they couldn't figure out how to set their hands. Most discussions centered on splitting pairs. Should you play two-pair in the five-card hand and high-card in the two-card hand? Or should you split the pairs, playing one in each hand? The answer depends on the type of pair you're holding (split two little pairs unless you have an ace kicker was the consensus). And nothing builds camaraderie like players banding together to try and beat the dealer.

When the dealer reveals his hand, everyone is actively rooting for him to have a bad hand, which also creates a congenial spirit around the table. And after a hand ends, it takes a while for the dealer to make payouts and shuffle, giving friends plenty of time talk and socialize about other things.

All of these things combine to make the perfect social game. The slow play limits losses (For players that like action, there are side bets that pay off nice odds for big poker hands) and creates time to socialize. The nature of the run of play gets players talking to each other. And all the rooting against the dealer creates a great sense of camaraderie and congeniality. It doesn't get much better than that for a group of friends.

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Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.