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Solving the mysteries of pai gow tiles

Apr 15, 2009 5:00 PM

Dale S. Yeazel, Special to GT

It is overdue for me to demystify the game of pai gow. No, I don’t mean pai gow poker; I mean the real pai gow, the one played with tiles (dominos).

This game takes time and skill to learn, but the results can be gratifying for those willing to put in the effort.

If someone has a working knowledge of baccarat and pai gow poker (both games are offshoots of pai gow, which was invented thousands of years ago) it isn’t that difficult to understand the basics of pai gow.

Pai gow poker is a game where the player is dealt seven cards and then must arrange them into a five-card poker hand (high hand) and a two-card poker hand (second highest hand). The dealer does the same, then comes the showdown where the player’s high hand must beat the dealer’s high hand and the player’s low hand (second highest hand) must beat the dealer’s low hand for the player to win his bet. If both of the player’s hands are beaten by the dealer’s hands he loses. If the player wins one of the hands but loses the other, he pushes.

The game of pai gow tiles is played the same way except that instead of being dealt seven playing cards, the player is dealt four dominos. He then makes two hands of two dominos each (high hand and second highest hand). As with pai gow poker, both hands must beat the dealer’s to win or both hands must lose for the player to lose. If the player wins one of the hands, he pushes.

But what is a hand and why do those dominoes have all those funny white and red spots on them? Forget about the colors of the spots, the colors mean nothing.

As for the hand, I look at it like this: If I give you a pair of tiles you either have one of the 20 ranking pairs in the game or you don’t. If you don’t, then it becomes a baccarat hand. You add all the spots together between both tiles and you are trying to get closest to nine.

If one tile has five spots and the other has two, then that hand is a seven. If one tile has nine spots and the other has seven then the total is sixteen, but like baccarat, we only consider the last digit, so the total is six. By the way, "pai gow" means "to make nine."

Just like the ace in blackjack (another offshoot of pai gow), which can be used as a one or 11, pai gow has two tiles that can be used as three or six. When these tiles are together they comprise the highest of the twenty ranked pairs called "gee jun."

The pair on the left (see illustration) is the highest-ranked pair called "gee jun." The hand on the right would only make a total of two, but since it contains one of the "wild cards" the player uses the three as a six for a total of five.

If a player’s hand and dealer’s hand have the same total, the tiebreaker is the hand contains the highest-ranking domino. The rank of the dominos is exactly the same as the rank of the pairs, except that the highest-ranked pair of gee jun contains the two lowest-ranked individual dominos. The highest-ranked tile is the one contained in the second-highest pair, known as "teen" (on the left). The second-highest ranked individual tile is the ones contained in the third-highest ranked pair, known as "day" (on the right).

This means the dominos contained in a ranked pair are "promoted" by one when being considered for high individual rank. For instance, if a domino were contained in the 13th ranked pair, individually that tile would be the 12th highest.

As for the 20 ranks of pairs, I just don’t have space to describe them here. Pai gow tables almost always have "cheat sheets" that illustrate all 20 ranked pairs. What you need to be aware of is this: if two of your tiles are identical, they are a pair and should be played as a hand unless you understand the pair splitting exceptions to the rules of optimum play. Sometimes pairs don’t contain identical tiles, such as "gee jun." The others fall under the categories of "chop pairs," "wongs" and "gongs." There are four chop pairs. A chop pair is a pair in which each domino contains the same number of spots, but the tiles aren’t identical.

A "wong" is a pair of tiles that contain a nine and a 12 or two. The "teen wong" (17th ranked pair) contains a 12 (highest individual tile) and a nine. The "day wong" (18th ranked pair) contains a two (second-highest individual tile) and a nine.

A "gong" is a pair of tiles that contain an eight and a 12 or two. The "teen gong" (19th ranked pair) contains a 12 and an eight. The "day gong" (20th ranked pair) contains a two and an eight.

Now armed with this info we are ready to play the game. You sit down on the game and make a bet in one of the seven betting spots. The dealer shuffles the tiles and arranges them so they are eight stacks of four tiles. The dealer then shakes and exposes the dice, just like in pai gow poker before mechanization took over, the dealer will then deliver the stacks of tiles to the betting spots. The key difference is that unlike pai gow poker with its six betting spots, pai gow tables have seven betting spots. So instead of the banker being 1, 8 and 15 on the dice, he is now 1, 9 and 17.

You now have to decide how to play your hand or if you are going to ask the dealer to help you set it. If you are blessed enough to be dealt two pairs, you merely stack each half of the pair on top of each other and set your two stacks in front of your betting circle.

If you have one pair you will play it unless the result makes your low hand too low. In this case you might split up your pair if it will result in a better average between your low and high hand. Unfortunately, most of the time you won’t be dealt a pair and you will be trying to set your hand so that each hand is as close to nine as possible.

If given the choice between playing a 3-9 or a 6-6, you would play the 6-6 since that would make the low hand as high as possible. If by averaging your hand you can’t get at least a three for a low hand, and by abandoning the low hand, you can get a high hand of seven or higher, then play the high hand as high as possible.

The last factor that needs to be considered is where to place the highest-ranking tile when given the choice. Generally speaking, the high tile is played in the low hand unless the hands total 8-9 or higher. Don’t forget that you only have three combinations of playing the four tiles into two hands, so even if you guess, you have a one in three chance of getting it right.

I am aware that I haven’t given a complete understanding of the game but I hope you have learned something of the game. If you want to know the game better I would recommend "Pai Gow Without Tears" by Bill Zender.