East Meets West At The Pai-Gow TablesPai Gow, a game that has become almost synonymous with Chinese gambling, according to poker and online casinos guru Mike Caro, can trace its roots to France rather than the ancient Chinese empires. The words Pai and Gow are archaic French and translate into “spotted brick”, referring to the dominoes used to play the game. The name of the game “Pai Gow” coincidentally translates into “Makes-Nine” in Chinese.
The game was mostly played by French prostitutes, until the 1700s, when it became a game popular with military personnel serving abroad. French soldiers taught the game to Chinese rail workers in Finland in the 1700’s and the game then took on its oriental flair, with new formalized sets of rules and with Chinese dominoes used instead of European dominoes.
The Chinese dominoes used in Pai Gow follow the tradition of Chinese dice and color the one and four spots red, although this adds no real benefit to the game except for its sense of history and respect for tradition.
Although tantalizing, the new and improved game of Chinese Pai Gow is difficult for American Gamblers to understand. In the 1800’s an new version of Pai Gow was developed based on standard Western poker hands and played with a deck of 53 cards to make it easier for American gamblers to enjoy. The game was not only developed because of its inherent appeal to poker players, but to get around early gambling laws in California that restricted other longer-established American games. In 1987 Pai Gow started appearing in Las Vegas casinos after having already been popular and widely available in California Card Rooms for several years.
Pai Gow (dominoes) and Pai Gow Poker are two games where the convergence of east meets west produces a happy middle ground where Westerners can quickly pick up the game of dominoes and Easterners can easily understand the poker variation.
The familiar Chinese game of Pai Gow (dominoes) is played throughout casinos and card rooms across America with three generally accepted rule variations know as “The House Way”. In Foxwood’s Casino, America’s largest, the following rules apply
Always keep pairs together except:
1. Split supreme pair with 6-4, 6-5, or 6-6.
2. Split 2s or 12s to make 6-8 or better. Also split with 9&11.
3. Split 9s with any two of 2,10,12.
4. Split 8s with any two of 2,10,11,12. Also split with 9&11.
5. Split 7s with any two of 2,10,11,12.
Play 2 or 12 with a 7,8, or 9. With both a 2 and 12 play the 12 in the high hand. Play high 9 over wong and gong and gong over wong except:
1. Play wong over gong when fourth tile is 11.
2. Play wong over high 9 when fourth tile is 11.
3. Play gong over high 9 when fourth tile is any 4 or when third and fourth tiles are low (mixed) 8 and 5.
Make the low hand as high as possible. This includes playing the high domino in the low hand when given the choice. Exceptions:
1. If the low hand does not have a value of at least long 3 (a total of 3 with the long domino or higher) and a 7 or higher is possible in the high hand then make the high hand as high as possible. This includes playing the high domino in the high hand when given the choice.
2. If the two hands total 8-9 or more then play the high domino in the high hand.
3. 2, 5, 6, 12: play 7, high 8.
4. High 8, low 8, high 4, any 7: play 2, high 5.
5. High 10, low 10, high 6, any 7: play 6, high 7.
6. High 10, low 10, high 6, low 8: play 6, high 8.
7. High 10, low 10, high 6, any 9: play 6, high 9.
8. High 10, high 8, 11, low 7: play 7, high 9.
9. High 4, low 4, gee (mixed 6), 5: play high 7, 9.
10. 2 or 12, any 6, 5, gee: play 7, 9.
11. High 6, low 6, 11, gee: play 7, high 9.
12. High 8, low 8, any 7, 9: play high 5, 7.
Pai Gow Poker is essentially based on the same root principles as Pai Gow (dominoes) played player against banker each trying to match the best possible hands. The Poker variation however, is played with a pack of 53 cards (52 Suited cards plus a wild card joker) rather than dominoes, and relies on standard Poker rankings to determine high and low combinations. The only exception to ranking is that an A-2-3-4-5 is the second highest straight combination. Contrary to most poker variants, seat position is unimportant in Pai Gow. In fact the starting position is random and determined with a roll of the dice.
The game starts with each player receiving 7 cards which he must arrange as a five card high-hand and a two card low-hand. To win a player’s high and low hand must beat the dealer’s corresponding hands. If the player beats only one of the dealer’s hands the player pushes, and if the player can’t match either hand the player loses. In the event of a tied hand, the tie goes to the house. If the player mistakenly arranges hi low-hand to a greater value than his high hand it is a “foul” and both hands lose. Winning hands are charged a 5% commission.
As you can imagine, push is a common result in Pai Gow Poker and as a result the game is generally slower paced than other Poker variations. In many casinos the player can assume the role of the banker, greatly magnifying winning and losing streaks as the player (turned banker) now assumes the liability against all other players including the dealer (who is now considered a player). As banker, players pay a 5% commission on winnings minus losses, but ties now go to the player in the event of identical hands. It is thus advantageous for the player to bank, assuming the player has the bankroll to assume the liability. House rules often mandate that the player and the house alternate roles of the banker.
By far not the most popular game in the casino, Pai Gow nonetheless represents the melding of gambling cultures separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of centuries. Both Pai Gow (dominoes) and Pai Gow Poker are two means to the same end. Weather you consider it a French game, a Chinese game or an American hybrid, it proves that gamblers around the world are a community of like minds and similar tastes.