Ed's
Pai Gow
Poker

Strategy Page

Devoted Solely to the Proper Way to Play Two Pair


by 
Edward D. Collins

 

One of my favorite casino games is Pai Gow Poker. It is a surprisingly enjoyable combination of the Chinese game Pai Gow, and poker. Although the house edge is not as low as blackjack (which is probably my favorite casino game), nor is it as low as craps or Baccarat, the house edge in Pai Gow Poker is still a somewhat respectable 2.84% (approximate) against you.  (Several other popular casino games and betting propositions are far worse.)  

Because of the somewhat slow pace and the large number of pushes, your bankroll often lasts a long time.  It is relaxing, socializing game and if you're a poker fan, I suggest giving it a try.

The following information on this page assumes you already know how Pai Gow Poker is played, as it is played in the casinos of Las Vegas.  If you don't know how the game is played I suggest you first visit one of the many websites that explain the rules before proceeding any further.  For example, visit Online Casinos CA if you want to learn how to play poker and other games, read casino reviews and play online! 

Note that this page is devoted solely to the proper way to play two pair.  And not just any two pair, but two pair that doesn't also include the possibility of a straight or a flush.

Since the chances of getting two pair occurs often quite often (about 22% of the time - compare this to the chances of getting three of a kind, which is 5%, or a full house, which is less than 2%) it undoubtedly is the most frequently dealt hand which requires a "non obvious" decision.  The dilemma is simple... should I keep my two pair together in my five-card hand, or should I split them up, and use the lower pair as my two-card hand?  

Most of the time the answer depends upon not just on the specific pairs you have, but on the other cards in your hand.

The following strategy table, from Stanford Wong's excellent book Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker, indicates the proper way to play all possible two pairs:

  22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 1010 JJ QQ KK
AA SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL
KK A-Q SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL -
QQ A-8 A-10 A-J A-K A-K SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - -
JJ A-4 A-4 A-4 A-9 A-10 A-Q A-K A-K SPL - - -
1010 K-Q A-4 A-3 A-3 A-3 A-5 A-J A-Q - - - -
99 K-10 K-J K-Q A-3 A-3 A-3 A--3 - - - - -
88 K-4 K-5 K-J K-Q A-3 A-3 - - - - - -
77 K-4 K-4 K-3 K-10 K-J - - - - - - -
66 Q-J K-4 K-3 K-3 - - - - - - - -
55 Q-9 Q-10 K-3 - - - - - - - - -
44 Q-5 Q-6 - - - - - - - - - -
33 J-10 - - - - - - - - - - -

 

The far left column indicates the high pair in the player's hand.  The very top row indicates the low pair.  The ranks given in the cells are the minimum two cards needed for your two-card hand, if you want to keep your two pair together in your five-card hand.

A few examples:
A pair of kings and a pair of fives should always be split.  (SPL is short for split and this means to break up your two pair - use the two kings in your five-card hand and the pair of fives in your two-card hand.)

If you want to keep a pair of queens and a pair of deuces together, you need at least an Ace-8 for your two-card hand.  (A-7 or A-3, for example, are not enough but A-J or A-K would be fine.)

A pair of eights and a pair of threes should also be kept together, providing you are able to create a two-card hand of at least K-5.

 

Now, how in the world does the average player memorize that table?  The task seems rather formidable!  And do you want some bad news?  The above table assumes you're the player.  There is a different table to memorize if you're the banker!  

(I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.  When I first started playing PaiGow Poker, a dozen or so years ago, and saw how eager the house was willing to help you set your hand, I immediately suspected the proper playing strategy for the house, which wins all copies, was not necessarily the proper playing strategy for the player.  Turns out I was right.)

Fortunately, the differences between the banker table and player table are quite minor, and since most of the time when playing Pai Gow Poker you're going to be the player, for the purposes of this discussion we can direct our attention solely to the player chart.

 

First let's make a few modifications to the table without changing its requirements.

The above table indicates that if you're dealt a pair of tens and a pair of fives, you need an A-3 or better in your two card hand, in order to keep you two pair together in your five-card hand.  Well, if you have an ace, then by default the lowest possible ace you will use in your two-card hand will be at least A-3!  For example, if you're dealt 10-10-5-5-A-2-3, if you keep your two pair together, then of course you're going to use the ace and the three (not the A-2) as your two-card hand.  So A-3 in the table, in all cells, is really the same thing as saying "any ace."  You can't help but put at least an A-3 there!

Likewise with A-4, K-3, and K-4, wherever they may occur in the table.   For example, if you're dealt a pair of sevens and a pair of threes, the table requires a minimum of a K-4 needed as your two-card hand.  Again, if your hand is 7-7-3-3-K, you have to have at least a four.  How could you not?  The lowest possible 7-7-3-3-K hand is 7-7-3-3-K-4-2.  If you decided to keep your two pair together, you're not going to play 7-7-3-3-4, K-2.   You would, of course, play 7-7-3-3-2, K-4.

What this means is, we can slightly simplify the chart by removing all of the second card requirements that are meaningless, as described above.
  22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 1010 JJ QQ KK
AA SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL
KK A-Q SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL -
QQ A-8 A-10 A-J A-K A-K SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - -
JJ A A A A-9 A-10 A-Q A-K A-K SPL - - -
1010 K-Q A A A A A-5 A-J A-Q - - - -
99 K-10 K-J K-Q A A A A - - - - -
88 K K-5 K-J K-Q A A - - - - - -
77 K K K K-10 K-J - - - - - - -
66 Q-J K K K - - - - - - - -
55 Q-9 Q-10 K - - - - - - - - -
44 Q Q-6 - - - - - - - - - -
33 J-10 - - - - - - - - - - -

 

So now, for example, a pair of fives and a pair of fours require a queen in your hand in order to keep your pair together... any queen at all, not Q-3 as the first table indicates, since by default, the lowest possible 5-5-4-4-Q hand has a three!

Let's make a few more, simple modifications.

1) A pair of threes and a pair of deuces require a jack.  Not just any jack but the best possible jack, jack-ten.  For our purposes, we can step up this requirement by one notch, and stipulate this particular two pair now requires a queen... any queen.

This was the only jack in the entire table (where the jack was the high card) so now, no matter what two pair you have, if you don't have at least a queen to place as the high card in your two-card hand, you must split your two pair.  I'll say that again:

All two pair hands require a side card of either a queen, king, or ace 
to even consider keeping the two pair together.

If you have two pair but your three odd cards don't include at least a queen, you should split your pair.


2)  A pair of eights and a pair of threes require at least a K-5.  Let's modify this and just say a king is needed.  Yes, it's possible you might be dealt the lowest possible 8-8-3-3-K hand, which would be 8-8-3-3-K-4-2, and if you believe that simply a king is needed, you'd put the K-4 up as your two-card hand, and you'd be wrong, since you really need at least a K-5.  However, the chances of you being dealt that hand are very small and the cost of you doing so is small too.


3) Let's do the same thing with Q-6 and A-5.  Let's modify them to indicate any queen (instead of Q-6) and any ace (instead of A-5) is required.


This gives us the following table:

  22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 1010 JJ QQ KK
AA SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL
KK A-Q SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL -
QQ A-8 A-10 A-J A-K A-K SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - -
JJ A A A A-9 A-10 A-Q A-K A-K SPL - - -
1010 K-Q A A A A A A-J A-Q - - - -
99 K-10 K-J K-Q A A A A - - - - -
88 K K K-J K-Q A A - - - - - -
77 K K K K-10 K-J - - - - - - -
66 Q-J K K K - - - - - - - -
55 Q-9 Q-10 K - - - - - - - - -
44 Q Q - - - - - - - - - -
33 Q - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Not bad, but it's still a lot more than the recreational Pai Gow Poker player is willing to memorize!

Let's continue.  Let's make a few more concessions, specifically, modifying the highlighted cells below.  In doing so, you will be able to utilize a simple method that will make it extremely easy to know what your action should be for every cell!

 

  22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 1010 JJ QQ KK
AA SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL
KK A-Q SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL -
QQ A-8 A-10 A-J A-K A-K SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - -
JJ A A A A-9 A-10 A-Q A-K A-K SPL - - -
1010 K-Q A A A A A A-J A-Q - - - -
99 K-10 K-J K-Q A A A A - - - - -
88 K K K-J K-Q A A - - - - - -
77 K K K K-10 K-J - - - - - - -
66 Q-J K K K - - - - - - - -
55 Q-9 Q-10 K - - - - - - - - -
44 Q Q - - - - - - - - - -
33 Q - - - - - - - - - - -

 

All of the minimum requirements for the above highlighted two pair hands will be stepped up exactly one notch.  If A-K was required before, now that's an automatic split.  The two K-Q requirements (the highest possible king) now becomes any ace, the one Q-J requirement now becomes a any king, etc.  A few others will be stepped up too.  A-Q also becomes a pair, K-J becomes an ace, Q-10 becomes a king, etc.  Let's make all of these adjustments and lets color-code our table.

 

  22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 1010 JJ QQ KK
AA SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL
KK SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL -
QQ A A A SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - -
JJ A A A A SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL - - -
1010 A A A A A SPL SPL SPL - - - -
99 K A A A A A SPL - - - - -
88 K K A A A A - - - - - -
77 K K K A A - - - - - - -
66 K K K K - - - - - - - -
55 Q K K - - - - - - - - -
44 Q Q - - - - - - - - - -
33 Q - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Hey, now we're getting somewhere!  A definite pattern is starting to emerge!  In fact, you can now use the following method to determine your action.

Add up the value of the two cards that make up your two pair.  

If the total is greater than or equal to 17, split the pair.

If the total is 12 thru 16, an ace is needed in your 
two-card hand if you wish to keep the two pair together.

If the total is 8 thru 11, a king is needed in your 
two-card hand if you wish to keep the two pair together.

If the total is 5, 6, or 7, a queen is needed in your 
two-card hand if you wish to keep the two pair together.

That's it!  We're done!

A few examples are in order.  

Example #1:  A pair of eights and a pair of threes gives us a total of 11.  (8 + 3 = 11)  As mentioned above, any total of 11 requires at least a king in your two-card hand if you wish to keep your eights and threes together.  If you don't have a king, you should split the pair.

Thus, if you were dealt 8-8-3-3-K-9-5 you now know to keep your two pair together... your total is 11 and have the requirements for your two-card hand, a king.  But if you were dealt something like 8-8-3-3-Q-J-10, you must split the pair... Q-J in your two-card hand is not good enough.


Example #2:  A pair of tens and a pair of fives total 15.  (10 + 5 = 15)  As mentioned above, any total of 15 requires at least an ace in your two-card hand if you wish to keep the two pair together.  If you don't have an ace, split the pair.

Thus, 10-10-5-5-K-Q-J is not good enough to keep your two pair together, since K-Q in your two card hand does not meet the requirement.  You need at least an ace.



Question: What would your action be with a pair of queens and a pair of fours, assuming one of your odd cards was a king?

Figure it out.  And do so without looking at any of the previous tables.  Simply do the math and remember your "rule."  

Answer: A pair of queens and a pair of fours total 16.  (12 + 4 = 16.  Note: jacks = 11, queens = 12, kings = 13)  As mentioned in the preceding example, any total of 12 thru 16 requires an ace.  Thus, the king is not high enough to put in your two-card hand, so you need to split up your two pair.


If you spend all of ten minutes and practice adding up the totals of various two pair hands, and then contemplating how you will play them according to our "rule," the process will become automatic almost immediately!


You will probably wish to remember a couple of noteworthy exceptions.

Exception #1:  If you look back at the very first table near the top of this page, (the absolute best way to play) you'll see kings & threes are always split.  They should be split regardless of how high you might otherwise be able to make with your two-card hand.  If you forget this, and all you remember is our new method, you might play this hand incorrectly.  You would add up this hand and come up with a total of 16  (king + 3 = 16) and if your hand also included an ace, you would then keep your pair together, as per the rule, which would, in this case, be incorrect.  (You always want to split kings & threes.)  Likewise with kings & deuces.  The rule says you need an ace, but you really need the best possible ace, A-Q.  Most of the time your kings & deuces should be split.


Exception #2: In order to create our "method/rule" we made a big concession with nines & eights and tens & sevens.  Again, from the very first table, both of these two pair hands require an ace. (9-9-8-8 requires any ace and 10-10-7-7 requires a very low ace, A-5.)  Since both of these totals add up to 17 you should try to remember that these two hands, which according to our total method should be split, should actually not be split if you can put an ace in your two-card hand.  

Exception #2a: Jacks and sixes, another two pair hand that also totals 17, requires an A-10.    

Thus, don't be so quick to automatically split these three hands that total 17.


Exception #3:  Queens & threes, which total 15, (12 + 3 = 15) and queens & fours which total 16 (12 + 4 = 16) require an ace, according to our rule.  Try to remember that a moderately strong ace is actually needed, since the original table indicates a minimum hand of A-10 and A-J is required.  If all you can two-card is, for example, A-9 or A-8, you really should split up the two pair.

There are a few other very minor exceptions and each player will have to determine how much "work" they are willing to do to remember as much of the original table as possible.  Obviously, the more of the original table you can remember, the better off you will be.  However, the method described above, of 

adding up your two pair, 

arriving at a total, 

and then deciding whether you need an ace, a king, or a queen based upon your total,

works very well in most all cases, and I find it extremely easy!

 

Okay, let's quickly review everything we've learned.

Two pair with aces as the top pair should always be split up. 
(This is actually easy to remember, especially if you play blackjack, since a pair of aces should always be split in that game too!)

All two pair with kings as the top pair should almost always be split up, especially kings & threes (a total that falls short of 17 by one).  The one exception is kings & deuces, but note this two pair requires the highest possible ace, A-Q.  (Most of the time when you have kings & deuces, you're not ALSO going to have an A-Q, so you'll be splitting them up anyway.)

In order to keep all other two pair hands together, it will require either an ace, a king, or a queen in your two-card hand.  If you don't have at least a queen, you don't have to total your hand or go any further... simply split up your two pair.

Add up the total of your two pair, as described above.  If the total is 17 or greater, split the two pair.  A total of 12 thru 16 requires an ace in your two-card hand, a total of 8 thru 11 requires at least a king and the few hands that total 7 points or below require at least a queen.

Three notable exceptions involve the total of 17 when it consists of jacks & sixes, tens & sevens, and nines & eights.  Don't be so fast to split these, as our rule indicates.  If you have any ace at all, keep your tens & sixes and nines & eights together.  And if you have at least A-10, keep your jacks & sixes together.

Another exception worth noting is queens & threes and queens & fours.  Our method says all you need is an ace in your two-card hand, but in reality you need a moderately strong ace.

 

I've created a color-coded table, as a GIF file, that can be used as your Windows wallpaper (1,024 by 768 resolution).  If shows the original table, and my modified table.  (The few exceptions worth noting are marked in my table.)  You are welcome to download it and use it as a study aid.

Good luck and happy playing.

Ed Collins
July 4, 2014