Pai gow is an extraordinary table game played with tiles. A combination of luck, skill and culture, its complexity has scared many away, but if you take the time to learn you will have found one of the truly great games to play, rich in both Asian heritage and culture.
Explaining pai gow is such a large subject, we’re going to split it into three articles:
Part A: The tiles and basic play (the article you are reading now)
Part B: Pairs and standard hands
Part C: Wongs, gongs, high 9s and gee joon
Parts B and C will be in future issues of WGM.
The basics of pai gow
- The name of the game in Chinese is 牌九, which is pronounced pai gao in Cantonese but usually
- spelt “pai gow” in casinos. The literal meaning of pai gao is “card nine” and indeed the number nine does play an important part in the game, but as you’ll see below the game is played with tiles not cards.
- The game is played by precisely 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 players (including the house dealer).
- The object of the game is to beat the banker. The banker is not necessarily the house dealer, one of the other players can be the banker, and sometimes you might be the banker. If you are the banker the object is to beat as many of the other players as you can (including the house dealer, who becomes just another player).
- Each player can have a turn at being banker.
- The game is played with a “deck” of 32 tiles, similar to dominos.
- There is a playing card version of the game called “pai gow poker”, but the term “pai gow” on its own refers to the tile game.
- The game is dealt on a semi-circular table similar to a blackjack table.
- Just like baccarat or blackjack, you must place your wager prior to the deal. You cannot change your bet once the tiles are dealt.
- Many casinos have their own style of shuffling. Some of these are ritualistic, and some are the personal style of the dealer, but all are simply different ways of randomizing the distribution of the tiles.
- After shuffling the 32 tiles the house dealer places them in eight stacks of four tiles in a line running from his right (first stack) to his left (last stack).
- The banker rolls three dice in a cup to determine who receives the first set of four tiles using the following procedure:
- The banker is considered number 1, the spot on his right number 2, on his right number 3 and so on around and around the table all the way to number 18 (the house dealer is considered one of the spots). Therefore the banker is considered number 1, number 9 and number 17. The spot four spots on the banker’s right is considered number 5 and number 13.
- All eight spots are numbered (the seven spots for players plus the spot for the house dealer), even if there are no players playing those spots.
- The three dice are rolled and of course just as in the three-dice game of sic-bo, the total of the three dice must be between 3 and 18 inclusive.
- The spot with the number corresponding to the total of the three dice receives the first stack of four tiles (that is the stack to the house dealer’s extreme right), then the next spot to the right receives the next stack, and so on around the table. Even if a spot has no players, it still receives tiles, until all players have tiles.
- Once all players have tiles, the tiles dealt to the empty spots (that is, the spots with no players) are retrieved by the dealer and play no further part in the hand.
- Once the tiles are dealt, you decide how to “set” your tiles (which we will discuss in detail later). After everyone has set their tiles both the house dealer and the players reveal their tiles.
- The player’s tiles are then compared to the banker’s. Each player who wins receives even money less 5 percent commission, just like baccarat. So, if you win a $100 bet you will be paid $95 in winnings. If you lose, you lose your entire wager. If you tie or “push”, your wager is returned and no commission is paid.
- Some casinos will allow players to put their commission up before the hand, as part of the hand. This is best illustrated by an example. Imagine you bet $100 and put $5 commission up as part of the hand. If you lose, you actually lose the entire $105. But if you win, you’re paid $100, with the $5 taken as commission. This effectively reduces the commission from 1/20th of your bet (5 percent of your bet) to 1/21st of your bet (about 4.8 percent of your bet), but does increase your betting turnover by 5 percent.
The pai gow tiles
The tiles are similar to domino tiles. Most (but not all) tiles can be thought of as two conjoined squares, with each square having between one and six pips pressed into one side, like dimples. Each tile is therefore twice as long as it is wide, and has between 2 and 12 pips. Below are a few random examples of tiles.
It is possible to play this game blind if you learn the feel of the pips on the tiles. The opposite side of each tile is completely smooth and black. You cannot identify the pips while the tile is face down, exactly the same as any other tile or card game. Both the pattern and the number of pips on each tile are important.
As you can see from the tiles above, the pips are either white or red in color, and the tiles themselves are black. Just as the color of the pips on dice is irrelevant, the color of the pips on pai gow tiles makes no difference to the game at all. The differentiation of color only makes it aesthetically easier to recognize the number and pattern of the pips. Tiles have no top or bottom. Many players run their fingers along the tiles without looking at them, an experience similar to squeezing the cards in baccarat.
The 32 tiles are comprised of:
- 11 identical pairs, each made up of two identical tiles with the same number of pips and same pip pattern. These 11 identical pairs total 22 tiles. Each pair has a one-word name.
- Five non-identical pairs. Each non-identical pair has a two word name:
- Chop gow, chop bot, chop chit and chop ng. Each of these four non-identical pairs comprise two tiles with the same number of pips but different pip patterns. Note each name starts with the word chop followed by the words gow, bot, chit or ng, which sound similar to the Cantonese words for nine, eight, seven and five respectively, which just so happens to be the number of pips on each of the tiles in each of the four respective pairs.
- Gee joon. This is a very special pair, comprising one tile with three pips and one tile with six pips (yet it is still considered a pair). We’ll talk more about the special properties of the gee joon tiles in part C.
The pairs are ranked in order from 1 to 16 (as shown below), with the lowest rank number being the strongest (just think 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on). Over time, you will learn the order of the ranks of the pairs. There is no logic to the ranking order. It has nothing to do with the number of pips on the tiles. The order is simply the order and it is more than acceptable to have an image of the tiles such as the one below to refer to whilst playing the game.
The mechanics of the game
Now that we have introduced the basics of both the game and the tiles, let’s have a look at the mechanics of how the game is played.
- You are dealt four tiles.
- You must then divide the four tiles into two hands, each of two tiles.
- The hand with the higher value will be known as your “high hand” and the hand with the lower value will be known as your “low hand”. These are sometimes referred to as the “back hand” (high hand) and the “front hand” (low hand).
- It is still very important to make the strongest possible value with both your high and low hands.
- Don’t be confused by the poker usage of the term “low hand”. In poker, the lower a low hand is, the stronger it is. In pai gow, the higher a low hand is, the stronger it is. A low hand is only called a low hand because it is lower than the high hand. Theoretically your low hand could be the second best hand possible (if you were dealt precisely a gee joon pair and a teen pair)!
- The player makes no official announcement of his high and low hand, he simply organizes his four tiles into two hands of two tiles each. The tiles are said to announce themselves based on the strength or weakness of the two respective hands. This is identical to the poker concept of “cards speak”.
If you think about it you’ll soon realize that with every deal there are three possible ways to set your hand. Pick any tile and you have a choice of three other tiles to go with it, and the two remaining tiles are your other hand.
Most of the time there will be a clearly right and clearly wrong way to set your tiles. You have the option to ask for your tiles to be set the “house way”, meaning that the dealer sets the tiles exactly as he would for himself. This is a great option for a beginner. Once you master the basics of the game, you can then debate the optimal way to set your tiles.
Determining whether your bet wins or not is very simple. Your high hand goes up against the banker’s high hand, and your low hand goes up against the banker’s low hand. If you win both, you win. If you lose both, you lose. If you win one and lose the other, the result is a push.
In comparing two hands (either your high against the banker’s high or your low against the banker’s low), occasionally the two hands will be of the same rank or value. In this case, as a tiebreaker the hand with the highest ranked single tile in it wins. The rankings of the individual tiles are the same as the rankings of the pairs they belong to, with the exception that the gee joon tiles count as the lowest ranked tiles not the highest.
There are two additional things to remember about tiebreakers:
- If both the player and the banker have a hand with a value of zero (hand valuing will be explained in part B), the player loses even if he has the highest ranked tile.
- On the very rare occasions you both happen to have the same highest value tile, then the banker wins the hand. You do not compare the two lower value tiles.
This will become clearer when we start to explain hand and tile rankings and values in part B of our series on pai gow.