***Updated: November 14, 2018***
Although the name Pai Gow Poker conjures up images of exotic Asian gambling dens, the origins of the game trace back to nothing more romantic than a dispiritingly empty card room in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Sam Torosian grew up in California as the son of Armenian immigrants and started his business empire by delivering bread until he saved up enough money to buy real estate. His wife enjoyed playing draw poker but Torosian never gambled on much more than property values.
Vicky Torosian had a fondness for the California Bell Casino, which like its fellow Los Angeles County card rooms, was bleeding money in the 1980s. This was due to California casinos only being permitted to deal a total of three games: low-ball, draw poker, and Panguingue. The later is a rummy-like game that dated back to the Gold Rush days of the mid-1800s, just like the restrictive laws that governed the state’s casinos.
Vicky persuaded her husband to take a look at the California Bell and he eventually decided to invest $750,000 into the card room. Once in the gambling business, Torosian started looking for loop holes in the California laws that would allow him to generate more revenues.
One night he learned about a Chinese card game called “Puy Soy” that gives players 13 cards, which would then be broken into three poker hands played against a banker’s trio of hands. Torosian liked the idea of splitting hands but he did not see much profit from the slow play of all those cards on the table. He then had the idea of seven cards being divided into hands of two and five, as they would probably play fast enough to both attract players and make the game profitable.
Torosian gave his game the name of “Pai Gow,” which is a Chinese dominos game where hands are also split, with the term translating roughly to “near nine.” None of this had anything to do with his card game of course, but Torosian was in full marketing mode now and was banking on the mystical powers of the Far East.
On a Friday night in 1985, Torosian set out two tables for Pai Gow Poker. Word spread so fast that the next Friday he needed 30 tables and players were sitting in hallways. Most importantly, Pai Gow Poker was approved by the California lawmakers and legally allowed to be dealt.
Torosian went all-in with the Asian mythology around his new game. He added a heavy brass cup to the Pai Gow tables to initiate the deals. No one seemed to care that these traditions dated to the year 1985 and not 1589. The new game not only helped to take Los Angeles card rooms off of life support, but it was soon being dealt in Las Vegas as well.
Pai Gow may be fun to play but the biggest reason it infiltrated the worldwide gambling community is that Torosian’s attorney told him it was not possible to patent a single-deck card game. That was costly bad advice as Sam Torosian never bothered to file for a patent and pay the $1,000 registration fee. This meant that any casino in the world was able to provide the game to their players for free. Therefore, Torosian gave up around $100 million in royalties on the Pai Gow Poker table. Talk about a bad beat.
In Pai Gow Poker players compete against the banker, which can be the House in a casino or rotate among the players depending on the rules of the table you’re sitting at. Hands are dealt from a 53-card deck, making this table game one of only a few in the casino that includes a joker. The joker plays as a fifth ace except when it can be used to complete a flush or a straight.
Each player is dealt seven cards from which a five-card hand and a two-card hand are then formed. The five-card hand must always be the higher of the two hands. So, a pair of aces can only be used for the two-card hand if the five-card hand has at least two pairs.
After all of the players have divided their cards, the banker creates two hands from a prescribed set of rules referred to as the “house way”. Therefore, like blackjack, the house cannot manipulate its hand against the players. Also like blackjack, there is only one opening bet in play and it covers both hands.
To cash, the player must win both hands. If one hand results in a win and the other a loss, the result is a push. If both hands lose you cough up your entire wager. Any ties in hands go to the banker, which provides a small edge for the House or player dealing. The payout is 19:20 on all bets so the casino keeps a 5% commission.
As if there wasn’t enough action in this game, Pai Gow also offers side bets that allow players to wager against the banker, as well as other players at the table.
How to Play
The “house way” varies from card room to card room but is always published so players know how the banker will split cards. With this knowledge players can use basic splitting strategies posted by Pai Gow Poker experts.
However, the most advantageous way to split hands is usually obvious and pushes are quite common. Because of this, side bets are eagerly made which generally builds bonds at the table and a Pai Gow game is often joined for its camaraderie rather than its potential for large wins.
Some operators play the joker as completely wild, and certain variants offer different side bets or rules. For example, Pai Gow Mania includes two possible side bets, Fortune Pai Gow pays for hands of three-of-a-kind or better, and Emperor’s Challenge rewards side bettors on hands formed from all seven cards.
Some places even convert the $1 side bets into a progressive jackpot. In short, there’s never a dull moment when you’re playing this fun casino game for real money whether with friends or complete strangers. Buckle up and enjoy the wild ride.