Poker: Banking on the players' strategy

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THE EARTHQUAKE in Los Angeles, so I am informed, has not destroyed the main highway out to the Bicycle Club - quite a relief to poker players. 'The Bike' is an immense palace of poker situated in an LA suburb. A noisy, brash, pulsating, comfortless shed, the Bike's attraction is that it features some 300 poker games at any one time, half of them Chinese games.

Pai Gow Poker, the playing card version of the Chinese domino game, is most popular in southern California, where the oriental population is crazy for gambling. If you find yourself in LA one night, with nothing else on offer, the Bike is the place to be.

Pai Gow Poker is banked by the house. Each player is dealt seven cards, from which he has to make two hands - a front hand of two cards and a back hand of five cards. A 52-card deck is used, plus a joker which counts only for aces, straights and flushes.

The skill lies in setting these hands, the only rule being that the back hand must be higher than the two-card front hand. After all the players have set their cards, the banker turns his own two hands over.

If you win both, you get paid evens on your stake. If you win one and lose one it is a stand-off. The bank's edge comes from the rule that if the banker ties one of the hands, he wins it. In addition, the bank takes a 5 per cent commission, as in baccarat, on player's winning hands. The bank has an advantage of about 5 per cent, falling to 2.5 per cent against best play.

However, the attraction of Pai Gow for serious poker players is that you can also run the bank yourself. Smart players will hold the bank as long as possible, because they can then turn the 2.5 per cent edge in their favour, which in gambling terms is a pretty big edge (about the same as single-zero roulette).

The object at Pai Gow, of course, is to win both hands. Strategy runs between conservative play (going for safe wins on one hand) and aggressive play (playing for a higher proportion of decisions on both hands).

For example, if you were dealt four aces you should split them, rather than play them all in the back hand. If you got dealt a flush (which happens quite often with the joker) a safe but nave strategy would be to set it in the back hand.

A more aggressive strategy, such as the banker might play, would be to split the flush if the seven cards also contained two pairs, setting the lower pair in the front hand. The banker's skill is to read the other players' strategy.