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Get yourself comfortable, grab a drink if you wish, and settle in because pai gow is probably the most difficult casino game to explain. Although the ranking of the hands is rather involved the concept of the game is quite simple. Once you get over the learning curve pai gow is a lot of fun, has a low house edge, and your money should last a long time at the table.

The Chinese have been betting on Pai Gow for centuries. Today Pai Gow can be found in casinos that attract a strong Asian clientele. It may be hard to find in Las Vegas but I believe every casino has it in Atlantic City. The Taj Majal, for example, has three pai gow tables.

If you are already familiar with pai gow poker then pai gow will seem familiar. Pai gow is played with a set of 32 dominos displayed below. Notice that some dominos appear once and some twice.

Rules
The object of the game is the same as in pai gow poker, to beat the banker. Unlike most casino games, in pai gow the player can have a turn to be the banker in which case the goal is to beat everybody else. The dealer also acts as a player in pai gow acting as banker in turn. When the dealer is not banking he will bet an amount equal to the bet the banker made the last time he played against the house bank. The dealer always plays his hand according to predetermined rules known as the house way. If a player wishes to bank but is uncomfortable with the financial risk of covering all other bets on the table he may request to co-bank with the house. If this option is selected his hand must be set according to the house way. The opportunity to bank is offered in turn to each player and dealer in a counter-clockwise direction.

The game is played with a set of 32 dominos, three dice, and a dice shaker. Play begins with all players making a wager. As the players decide how much to bet the dealer mixes up the dominos and puts them in 8 neat stacks of 4. Then the dice are rolled to determine who gets the first stack and then proceeds counter-clockwise. After the dice are exposed the player may not change his bet. Each player is given one stack of 4 dominos, which they are to arrange into two groups of two.

Each pair of dominos has a ranking. The player must decide how to arrange his dominos into the strongest possible pairs. Sometimes the choice is obvious but often a decision must be made whether to have a strong hand and a weak hand or two more balanced hands. At most there will be three possible and viable ways to play the hand. After a decision is reached the player should lay the dominos face down with the higher pair laying horizontally and the lower pair vertically. Only after all players have set their hands can the banker examine and set his dominos.

After all dominos have been arranged the banker and player will turn over their hands. Each player will in turn compare his hands to those of the banker. If the player wins both hands his bet pays even money less a 5% commission. If the player loses both he loses his entire wager. If the hands split, one win and one loss, then the bet is a push. After all bets have been settled the banker pays a 5% commission on the net win, if there was one.

Ranking
How the hands are ranked is the complicated and there is no easy way to memorize the order. The highest hands are the matched pairs as follows. The highest pair, known as the supreme pair consists of the two wild dominos. Each of these wild dominos, known as "gee" may count as either 3 or 6 points if used individually. The Chinese name for the supreme pair is "Gee Joon" which is also the name of a restaurant in Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas.

Strategy
There is no simple answer to what constitutes good strategy. Most of the time the correct play will be obvious. However sometimes the player must decide whether to weaken the high hand for the benefit of the low hand.

In his book Pai Gow Chinese Dominoes Michael J. Musante presents what is known now as the Musante house way which has influenced the house way of many casinos. Dr. John Gwynn later analyzed the effects of various strategies played against the Musante strategy. Assuming the player used the Musante strategy as well the house edge would be 0.6182% as the banker, 2.3896% as a player, and 1.5039% on average. Assuming the player used an optimal single strategy designed to defeat the Musante strategy the house edge would be -0.1387% as the banker, 1.6376% as a player, and 0.7495% on average. Assuming the player used two optimal strategies depending on whether acting as the banker or a player the house edge would be -0.1472% as the banker, 1.6225% as a player, and 0.7377% on average.

The most practical of these statistics for the novice player are those for the Musante vs. Musante. These figures also show that to minimize the overall house edge the ratio of money wagered as banker is much more important than the strategy used. Assuming the player banked half of his/her total bets and used the same strategy as the dealer and other players the house edge would be about 1.5%.

The House Way
Following is the house way for the Foxwoods casino. Of the three casino house ways I have I find this one to be the easiest to explain.

Always keep pairs together except:
Split supreme pair with 6-4, 6-5, or 6-6.
Split 2s or 12s to make 6-8 or better. Also split with 9&11.
Split 9s with any two of 2,10,12.
Split 8s with any two of 2,10,11,12. Also split with 9&11.
Split 7s with any two of 2,10,11,12.

Play 2 or 12 with a 7,8, or 9. With both a 2 and 12 play the 12 in the high hand. Play high 9 over wong and gong and gong over wong except:

Play wong over gong when fourth tile is 11.
Play wong over high 9 when fourth tile is 11.
Play gong over high 9 when fourth tile is any 4 or when third and fourth tiles are low (mixed) 8 and 5.

Make the low hand as high as possible. This includes playing the high domino in the low hand when given the choice. Exceptions:

If the low hand does not have a value of at least long 3 (a total of 3 with the long domino or higher) and a 7 or higher is possible in the high hand then make the high hand as high as possible. This includes playing the high domino in the high hand when given the choice.
If the two hands total 8-9 or more then play the high domino in the high hand.
2, 5, 6, 12: play 7, high 8.
High 8, low 8, high 4, any 7: play 2, high 5.
High 10, low 10, high 6, any 7: play 6, high 7.
High 10, low 10, high 6, low 8: play 6, high 8.
High 10, low 10, high 6, any 9: play 6, high 9.
High 10, high 8, 11, low 7: play 7, high 9.
High 4, low 4, gee (mixed 6), 5: play high 7, 9.
2 or 12, any 6, 5, gee: play 7, 9.
High 6, low 6, 11, gee: play 7, high 9.
High 8, low 8, any 7, 9: play high 5, 7.
Finally, there is an unwritten common sense rule that you never play a hand in a way that an alternative would result in either two stronger hands or one equal hand an one stronger hand. For example with a pair of 12s, 6, and wild. The splitting 12s rule says to split to make 6-8 or better, which you can do making 8/8. However pair/9 beats 8/8 on both hand and low hands, thus overrides the pair splitting rule.

 

 


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