In nearly every casino in the country you can find a few tables surrounded by frantic players calling out and celebrating in a foreign language. The game they’re playing uses tiles that resemble dominoes, and almost always the player base will be of predominantly Asian descent.
Pai Gow is an ancient Chinese gambling game that serves as an ancestor for both modern dominoes and baccarat. In fact, pai gow is loosely translated to make nine, as the object in both Pai Gow and baccarat is to approach a total closest to nine.
Because of the game’s status as a cultural pursuit, non-Asians can often be intimidated by the prospect of playing Pai Gow. And indeed, there are many unfortunate superstitions in place which brand non-Asian players as unlucky. Nonetheless, playing Pai Gow represents a gaming experience unlike any other, and from an odds standpoint, the low house edge makes the game a tremendous value.
In order to enjoy Pai Gow, you must prepare yourself to absorb a ton of knowledge regarding the traditional scoring system, optimal strategy for setting your hand, and the unique vernacular used by players and dealers.
It’s no understatement to declare Pai Gow as one of the most difficult casino games for new players to get a handle on. But for the most part, those who persevere and learn how to play Pai Gow end up adopting a new favorite game, one that offers a slow pace of play, a high likelihood of chopped pots (and thus a preserved bankroll), and a very favorable house edge when compared to other table games.
Unshrouding the Mysteries of Pai Gow
A game of Pai Gow begins with 32 wooden tiles randomly stacked into eight stacks of four tiles each. This is known as the woodpile, and to further achieve true randomization, a series of ritual shuffles are performed to rearrange the woodpile.
Pai Gow tiles look very much like traditional dominoes, but the 32 tiles are arranged into various matching pairs, with different arrangements of the numbers (or pips) signifying different values. The pips on a Pai Gow tile can be either red or white, and these colorations do matter when applying an often complex scoring system.
Players place their wager after these shuffles are completed, and each player is dealt four tiles, along with the house dealer. Using these four tiles, players can set their front and back hands using any two tiles. The objective is to set your front and back hands in such a way that both approach as close to nine as possible (although, there are a few special hands in Pai Gow that make 10s and still win, but these will be explored later).
For example, if you receive a tile containing one pip in one half and three pips in the other, this tile is valued at four. With another tile containing two and three pips, valued at five, you can pair both to form a front hand of nine. However, if doing so leaves you with a very low back hand, rearranging your placement to achieve two medium strength hands might be the optimal play.
One thing about Pai Gow to keep in mind is that it plays similarly to baccarat in a sense, so when your total exceeds 10, the left hand digit is always dropped to render a new total. This means two tiles valued at nine can be paired to form an eight, because the 18 is reduced by dropping the left hand digit.
You’re competing against the dealer’s front and back hands in Pai Gow, so one of three results will occur on every hand:
Your front and back hands both beat the dealer’s hands, in which case your bet is paid out.
One of your hands beats one of the dealer’s hands, while the other loses, in which case your bet is pushed.
Both of your hands lose to both of the dealer’s hands, in which case your bet is lost.
Over the long haul, 41 percent of Pai Gow hands wind up as a push, which makes the game a favorite for players looking to enjoy themselves for a while without blowing through their bankroll.
The Traditions and Intricacies of Pai Gow
Part of what makes Pai Gow so difficult to grasp for many new players is that the game seems to be operating under a different language altogether. Indeed, what you see is not always what you get in Pai Gow, and that’s because rather than basic numerical ranks, a specialized hierarchy of pairs is used in the game. The 32 tiles in Pai Gow can be formed into 16 pairs, but while 11 of these are represented by the typical matched pair variety (i.e. a six and a six), five Pai Gow pairs can be formed using unmatched tiles.
Matching pairs are always worth more than nonmatching pairs, but all pairs are valued higher than basic non paired hands. Finally, the system used to score matching and unmatched pairs is not based on numerical rank, but instead on a traditional Chinese order. This order can be seen below:
|Hand Name||First Tile (pipcolor/pipcolor)||Second Tile|
Confused at this point? Just wait, it only gets better.
The tiles with 12 and 24 pips are called Gee Joon tiles, and these serve as proverbial wild cards for the game. Each of these Gee Joon tiles can be used as either a 3 or 6 depending on which will score higher.
Finally, the double one and double six tiles (1Red/1Red and 3Red3White/3Red3White) are called the day and teen tiles, respectively. These tiles can be used along with eight value tiles to form scores higher than 9 that can still qualify to win. In other words, if you have the day tile for a two, you can pair it with an eight to reach a score of 10 rather than zero. These hands are known as gongs. The day and teen tiles can also be combined with nine value tiles to reach a score of 11, and this is known as a wong.
Because of this long litany of Pai Gow rules, the casino allows players an out in the form of the house way. This is simply a standard way to set any four tiles, so if you find yourself stuck in an uncertain spot, you can always ask the dealer to set your hand according to the house way.
That’s how the dealer will be setting their hand as well, so the strategy can’t be all that bad, but the house edge on the house way is 2.44 percent, while optimal strategy can lower than number to 1.66 percent.
Pai Gow is an extremely intricate game involving several aspects that will be unfamiliar to the uninitiated. But just like craps and other games that seem complicated at first, understanding Pai Gow is really all about understanding the terminology and gameplay.
Once you’ve committed the unusual system for ranking pairs to memory, a few rounds of play will give you a better mastery of the concepts, and soon enough the system will become second nature.
Pai Gow Strategy
Playing correctly in Pai Gow is all about knowing how to set your front and back hands in the most effective manner. With four tiles to choose from, there’ll always be three possible combinations to form two pairs, and knowing which of these three options to choose from is the key the game.
Experienced players know when to sacrifice a potential winning hand for a sure chop, and how to set their front and back hands perfectly in relation to the dealer’s four tiles.
Just like blackjack and video poker, you can easily find optimal strategy charts for Pai Gow that neatly breaks the game down into every possibility along with the most profitable play. Studying these charts and memorizing them as much as possible will help you make the best decisions you can.