If you’ve never seen a hand of Pai Gow, or given this engrossing game a go, you could soon be in the minority. It wouldn’t be fair to say that this traditional Chinese game is having a surge in its popularity – there are too many people in Asia who have been playing it for too many generations for that. But it has certainly been reaching a wider audience in recent years.
Where once it was only a common sight in Macau casinos and on the Chinese Mainland, casinos in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia are now offering players a chance to try their hand at the oldest game around. And you’re missing out if you haven’t had a go – this is a game that has been popular for a very long time, and for good reason.
Pai Gow might look confusing for the first hand or two, but with the help of our little introduction below, after your first couple of winning bets you could well have found your favourite Online Casino game..
Pai Gow is a genuinely ancient game, whose name simply means ‘domino nines’. We can’t know for sure exactly when it was first played, but we know that it was widespread and popular in China by the time of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279AD). To put that in a little bit of context, here are a couple of other things that were first made popular in the Song Dynasty that you might have heard of: gunpowder weapons, and using a compass to find magnetic north.
As you would expect with a game that’s older than guns, Pai Gow has changed over its long lifetime. It has always made use of Chinese Dominoes, which were the inspiration for both western domino sets and likely for playing cards, too.
Pai Gow retains all the characterful naming conventions that have been attached to the dominoes over centuries of games, but the beauty of the game is in its simplicity. If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, Pai Gow has to be rated pretty well flattered
Pai Gow is the foundation of no lesser game than Baccarat, and the inspiration for Pai Gow Poker, which has been played regularly by millions of gamblers, both online and in casinos, since its invention in the 1980s.
Pai Gow is played at tables that accommodate 8 players. Players place their bets, and a die is thrown to determine which player’s place is dealt to first. The tiles are dealt to all eight places, whether there are players at the seats or not, with each place receiving four tiles.
From their four tiles, the players and the dealer make two hands: a ‘front’, or lower hand, and a ‘back’ or higher hand. Each player’s hand is compared to the dealer’s, front against front and back against back. Players who beat the dealer on both hands win. Players who have two lower hands lose, and if you win one hand and lose the other, you have a ‘stand-off’, and your stake is returned.
It is this simple dynamic that you might recognise from Pai Gow poker, and it is the reason for Pai Gow’s popularity. Hands can be played quite quickly, and the player is required to make only a few, key decisions on each hand. Players new to the game can sometimes find the ranking of hands takes a moment to get to grips with, but it’s simply a case of familiarising yourself with the ranking of the tiles: we’ve laid out a summary for you below – the order of hands is no more complex than in poker, for instance.
At the start of a game of Pai Gow, the dealer will arrange the tiles into a stack, called the ‘woodpile’ and will shuffle them (in a specific, ritualised way – this is a game that was born in ancient China, remember...).
Pai Gow uses a set of Chinese dominoes, which represents in tiles all the possible outcomes of the throw of two six-sided dice. The spots are coloured red and white simply because, in China, dice traditionally have their ‘one’ and ‘four’ pips coloured red – plus the dominoes colour half of the pips on the 6-6 tile red to make them stand out (red is thought in China to be a lucky colour!). The colours play no part in the game of Pai Gow, except to look great, and can be safely ignored when you’re making your hand.
There are 32 tiles, representing all the outcomes of the dice throw – that means eleven matching pairs and ten unique tiles. Pai Gow was once a much more complex game, and retains some of that rich history in the named ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ suits: the matching pairs are the ‘civilians’, and the ten solo tiles are the ‘military’ suit.
The suits are ranked: a higher-ranked pair beats a lower-ranked pair. Any ties are also resolved by this time-honoured ranking of the tiles. These are the equivalent of the rankings of hands in poker – you’ll get the hang of them pretty quickly. Don’t worry too much about the names – we’ve just put them in our summary below to keep some of the appeal of Pai Gow’s rich history. You won’t even need to memorise these rankings, as they will usually be displayed near any Pai Gow table...
As a basic rule, you are looking to make pairs from the four tiles in your hand, because pairs out-rank other combinations, as you will see below. We have started our summary with the highest ranked combinations:
Gee Joon (The Supreme Pair)
At the top of the list sits the ‘Supreme Pair’ – Gee Joon. These are the wildcards in the woodpile, the 4-2 tile and the 2-1. They are not wildcards in the sense of most card games: rather than substituting for any other tile, they may simply be used as each other – that is, as a 3 or as a 6. This is useful when combining them with other tiles when you have no pairs, but when you can put them together, they trump any other hand in the game.
Bo (The Pairs)
Beneath the ‘Supreme Pair’ come all the other pairs. These are ranked not in numerical order, but by their traditional precedence. Unfortunately, this is something you just have to get the hang of – but there will be charts around the table to help you out, and you can always ask the dealer for clarification. Here are the pairs:
The ‘Civilian’ Pairs
These are the easiest to spot in your hand – two identical tiles. They are ranked like this:
The ‘Military’ Pairs
A little more awkward for the beginner, these pairs add up to the same number, but are not identical. They are, though, ranked by their numbers;
A Wong in Pai Gow is any tile whose pips add up to nine paired with either a double six tile or a double one tile. The double six pairs out-rank the double one pairs, so they end up in this order:
After the Wongs come the Gongs – they work in just the same way, but they are a double six or a double one paired with any tile whose pips add together to make 8. They rank like this:
And The Rest...
If you haven’t got any of the hands ranked above, simply add up the pips on both tiles - this is the part of the game that is the basis for Baccarat – and score only the second digit if the score is ten or more. So, a total of four pips would give a score of 4, and so would a total of 14 pips.Simple.
Types of bets on Pai Gow
In traditional Pai Gow, you simply put down a stake for each hand, and if you win you take away even money (typically less a casino’s commission). There are a couple of modern extras, too – the Bonus bet and the Tie bet.
Betting on a tie will win you even money if just one of the player’s hands beats the banker’s (if the player’s lowest hand is at least a Gong, the payout is higher). The Bonus bet sets out eight ‘Bonus’ hands of four tiles each, and the bet is won if a player receives any of the winning combinations as his hand (each has its own payout, right up to 200-1 for a Gee-Joon and Tin pair!).
Putting together your Pai Gow hands
By this stage you will be getting an idea of what are the best hands to make from the tiles in front of you. Part of Pai Gow’s appeal is the speed with which players can make the key decisions that affect the game. In fact, it is very common for players to rely on superstition to allocate their hands, always looking for those auspicious combinations that have won for them in the past.
By way of a basic strategy guide, though, you could do worse that follow the same process each hand. First, look for pairs, being careful you’re not missing an unmatched ‘military’ pair, which can be hard to spot. If you haven’t got two pairs, look next for a 6-6 or a 1-1 and try to make a Wong or a Gong. If you’re still looking for a hand, then try to put together the two smallest tiles that total seven, eight or nine.
It is in the combinations that you will really find Pai Gow engrossing. They say that every hand can be played three ways, so this example of Pai Gow hands might help:
If you were dealt 5-6, 3-2, 6-4 and 4-3, you could make a high hand of 4-3 and 3-2, for a score of 2 (the pips add up to twelve, and the first digit is dropped), and a low hand of 5-6 and 6-4 for a score of 1 (the pips add up to 21, for a score of 1). This is not a good hand.
But, with the same tiles, you could make a high hand of 8 (5-6 and 4-3) and a low hand of 5 (6-4 and 3-2), giving you a much higher chance of at least a push. The higher your high hand, the better, especially if you have put money on a tie.
Consider, though, that with the same tiles you could put together a high hand of 7 (6-4 and 4-3) and a low hand of 6 (5-6 and 3-2). Many players believe this to be a better hand, since you must beat both the banker’s hands to win. You will have to work out your own preferences and your own playing style...
Where to play Pai Pow in Australia?
As we mentioned at the outset, Australia is one of the countries where Pai Gow is regularly offered in casinos, and you can’t do much better than Crown Casinos Melbourne. With half a kilometre of gaming floor, plus the Mahogany, Teak and Las Vegas Rooms, Crown Casinos is big enough that you will always find a seat at the table, and offers enough choice that you will be able to play in an atmosphere that suits you.
Add to that luxurious hotel and spa facilities, plus restaurants that offer dishes from around the world alongside mouth-watering local seafood, and you have one of the premier gaming venues in the Southern Hemisphere. We were particularly impressed with the friendly and knowledgeable staff – it is a real help to have a dealer who is willing and able to take you through the rules of Pai Gow when you are playing for the first time.
And trust us, once you’ve played a few hands, you will understand why so many gamers keep coming back to Pai Gow, and why they have done for a thousand years...