Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker came to casinos in the 1980s, invented by a Los Angeles casino owner desperate to bring new customers into his card room. Pai Gow Poker borrows the concept of splitting hands from an old Chinese domino game of the same name.

When applied to poker it requires players to split a seven-card hand into two poker hands of five cards and two cards. The rank of the five-card hand must be higher than the two-card hand. To win the bet the player must beat the dealer or banker, if it is another player, on both hands. Winning one hand results in a push and losing both hands will forfeit the stake. Side bets are popular in a Pai Gow poker hand where the pace of play is slow and a table often bonds over common wins and losses.

The History Of Pai Gow Poker

Despite its name, Pai Gow Poker's origin story does not spring from a mysterious ancient Asian gambling den but rather an increasingly empty 1980s Los Angeles card room. Sam Torosian was the son of Armenian immigrants who earned a living as a bread delivery man until he banked enough money to invest in southern California real estate. He restricted his gambling to betting on the success of small retail stores but his wife enjoyed draw poker in Los Angeles County club casinos.

One of Vicky Torosian's favourite haunts was the struggling California Bell Casino. She encouraged her husband to take a look at the place and in 1984 Torosian sunk $750,000 into the gaming hall and plunged into gambling business. At the time California allowed only three games to be dealt: draw poker, low-ball and panguingue. The local casino bosses got together for monthly strategy meetings to discuss ways to challenge the antiquated century-old law but Torosian and others took a different tack. They went in search of brand new, poker-like game that might circumvent the prohibition.

In Torosian's version of the tale he spent days wandering the California Bell trying to come up with a game, accompanied only be the echoes of his footsteps in the crushingly empty card room. One night he spoke with a Filipino patron who told him about puy soy, a Chinese card game where players are dealt 13 cards and then split them into three poker hands to play against a banker's three hands. Torosian thought 13 cards would be too unwieldy and slow but maybe seven cards broken out into hands of traditional five and two might work.

He also liked that the practice of splitting hands was adapted from Asian traditions. Pai Gow is a domino game where the hands are split. The term roughly translates to "near nine" which had nothing to do with Torosian's vision for his card game but he gambled that the melding of Eastern and Western influences would catch the fancy of his clientele. Pai Gow poker was introduced in the California Bell Casino in 1985 and it dodged any potential regulatory backlash. The first Friday the game was dealt on two tables. The following Friday Torosian had to set aside 30 tables. He began adding tables in the hallways and practically in the bathrooms.

To enhance the Asian flavour of the game Torosian outfitted Pai Gow tables with a heavy brass dice cup the players slam to determine when the deal begins. Pai Gow Poker not only breathed life into Los Angeles card rooms as it spread from casino to casino but it soon appeared on the Las Vegas strip and then jumped worldwide. The success of Pai Gow poker was due in part to its exotic nature and the social conviviality of the game but also to the inconvenient reality that Sam Torosian never patented the game. He got bad legal advice from his attorney who counselled him that it was not possible to patent single-deck card games. By some estimates Torosian has left 100 million pounds on the table by not filing a 1000-pound patent.

How To Play Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker is dealt from a 53-card deck that includes a single joker. During game play the joker can be used to complete a straight, flush or royal flush; otherwise it plays as an ace. It is possible to find some casinos that play a variant of Pai Gow Poker with the joker as completely wild. Players receive a pile of seven cards delivered face down which are split into two hands, one of five cards and the other of two cards. In doing so the five-card hand must always be of higher poker rank than the two-card hand. Therefore, a two-card hand presented as a pair can only be played if the five-card hand boasts at least a higher pair. After all players set their hands the banker sets his two hands according to pre-set game rules known as the "house way," eliminating any strategic play against the player hands by the house.

There is only one bet on the two hands. To win, the player must beat the banker with both hands. The payout is 19:20 with the house keeping a 5% commission on the hand. If the player wins one of the two hands the result is a push. If the player loses both hands the original stake is lost. Ties in the hands generally go the banker, providing a small edge for the banker if the dealer is another player or the house if the game comes from a dealer. Side bets can also be made not only against the dealer but other players in Pai Gow Poker.

Game Variations

Pai Gow Mania permits two side bets per game rather than one. Other variants allow players to wager on being dealt high-ranking poker hands. The side bet in Fortune Pai Gow is on being dealt trips or better and Emperor's Challenge allows a side bet on the entire seven-card Pai Gow hand. Some tables have added a progressive jackpot, which grows with each £1 side bet.

Pai Gow Tips & Advice

While they vary little from casino to casino the "house way" is published for players to familiarize themselves with the hand-splitting strategy the dealer will be forced to employ. Knowing this will help dictate the player's splitting of the seven cards. You can also study the probabilities involved in Pai Gow strategies for playing as the banker and against the banker. But even without knowing optimum strategy most hands are obvious how to split, pushes are common so that Pai Gow Poker is a low-risk casino game.