You Should Play: Pai Gow Poker Fever

[These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.]

I’m no degenerate gambler, but I do enjoy spending a few hours on the casino floor from time to time. My favorite table game to play on trips to Vegas and Reno/Tahoe is Pai Gow poker.

Basically, Pai Gow poker (not to be confused with Pai Gow, a Chinese tile game) is a seven-card game in which you split your cards to make the best possible five-card hand and two-card hands. To win or lose money, you need to win or lose both the five-card and two-card hands against those of the dealer. There’s one joker in the deck, which can only be used as an ace or to complete a straight or flush.

Pai Gow is also relatively relaxing for several reasons:

  • Because you play against the house, there’s generally no animosity towards your fellow players. There's no “You took the dealer’s bust card, jerk!” as there is in blackjack. That makes for more interesting and relaxed conversion with your fellow wagerers.
  • Unlike blackjack, a new player arriving at your table doesn't disrupt the game or the cards you'll get in each hand. This has to do with the unique way in which the cards are dealt: A random number between one and seven is generated to determine where the first hand is dealt, and then the rest of the hands follow in order. Regardless of how many players are seated at the table, each spot at the table is dealt cards for every hand. Then, the dealer collects the hands that aren't being played.
  • Because you need to win or lose both hands in a round, it makes for a lot of pushes. Therefore, your money tends to last longer than it does when playing other table games. Due to the evenness of the game, the house takes a five percent commission on all your non-bonus wins.
  • Because the rules of the game are fairly simple (the five-card hand just has to be higher than the two-card hand), you don't need to make as many hard decisions as you do in other games.

It’s taken a long time for me to find a Pai Gow poker game for iOS that comes anywhere close to authentic Vegas-style play, but with Pai Gow Poker Fever I think I’ve finally discovered such an app.

Play is pretty simple. You drag chips to the circle reserved for your bet, and you also have the option of dragging chips to the Bonus circle above it (more on that shortly). Then you tap the Deal button and watch as your cards are dealt. To set your hands, you tap the two cards for the "low" hand and then tap the Split button. The game rearranges your hand so the five remaining cards line up in the High area, while the two you selected move to the 2nd Highest area.

The game stats screen indicates what a bad investment the bonus bet is, among other things.

The dealer’s cards are then revealed, and the app determines which of your hands win or lose against the dealer’s. The app is very clear about showing you which hands are winners, using banners with text overlays.

During the game, you may be wondering whether you should, say, split two pairs or keep them together because you have an ace in your low hand. If you’re stuck on what to do, there's an Advice button. Tap it, and the app sets your hand the “house way” (that is, using the rules that casinos typically follow for their hands to decrease the likelihood of losing money), but lets you decide whether to accept that recommendation before tapping the Split button.

Using the Advice button is a great way to help learn the game, but it’s not the only way. Tapping the question mark button next to your bank roll takes you to a series of help pages that explain how Pai Gow poker in general, and the app specifically, work. One thing it helps explain is what the bonus bet is all about, which isn’t obvious if you’ve never played Pai Gow poker in a casino.

The bonus bet is a side bet that pays odds if you have a three of a kind or better in your seven cards, regardless of whether you keep the those cards together in your high hand. Although a straight is a higher poker hand than a three of a kind, it pays the lowest odds (two-to-one) because of the existence of a joker in the deck. Three-of-a-kind pays three-to-one, a flush pays four-to-one, and on and on—up to 8000-to-one for a seven-card straight flush. If you don’t have one of those hands, you lose the bonus bet, independent of the regular game’s outcome.

Here’s what makes Pai Gow Poker Fever so nice.

Authentic: The bonus bet is one of my favorite parts of playing Pai Gow, and it’s really nice to have that feature in the app. The fact that it’s virtual money makes it easier to watch the house take that bet 80 percent of the time.

Informative: Speaking of betting, one nice thing about the app is that it tracks stats for the number of hands played and the number of hands won, lost, and pushed. You can also see the number of bonus hands played and how many you’ve won, as well as a graphical representation of how many of each type of bonus you’ve won (nothing higher than a full house for me on the iPad so far). Looking at these stats tells you what any gambler already knows: The bonus bet is somewhat of a sucker bet.

Universal: Of the few Pai Gow poker apps, only three are universal apps that run natively on the iPad in addition to other iOS devices. Pai Gow Poker Fever is one of them, although it has a small black border on the iPad instead of taking up the entire screen. At a mere $1, Pai Gow Poker Fever is also the least-expensive of the Pai Gow poker apps, which makes it an easy way for those new to the game to give it a try on any iOS device.

Inventive: The Fever in Pai Gow Poker Fever comes from an optional mode that offers additional fun. When enabled, winning three hands in a row puts you in a special Fever mode—after being dealt the next hand, you have the option to discard and draw one replacement card. You can also replace your entire hand with a new seven-card hand.

Speedy: Even when played on an original iPad, all the movements are quick and smooth. The in-game action looks fluid and fast, from dealing hands to flipping cards to watching chips coming and going.

Developer: Arthur Min
Platforms: iOS 3.0 or later on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad
Price: $1

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