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It may take its name from the ancient Chinese domino game but pai gow poker is in fact one of the new kids on the block in terms of casino table games. The story of the game tells the tale of successive attempts to create a casino game similar to this ancient game played with tiles. Through a succession of steps we arrive at the game we have today which retains some similar aspects of the original but is presented in a format much more attractive to today’s modern casino clientele.

Pai Gow

Our story begins with the aforementioned domino game which was first played as long ago as the year 960 AD. This game features up to eight players who each select four dominoes from a face down pile of tiles. These four tiles must be sorted into two hands containing two dominoes apiece. The weaker of these two hands is called the front hand with the stronger referred to as the rear hand. The front and back hands are compared with the dealer’s corresponding hands and if the player wins both confrontations they are paid out at even money on their wager. So far so similar. While the essence of the game may be simple enough to grasp, the dominoes used to play the game have proved to be anything but.

At first glance a pai gow set seems not too different from a standard set of dominoes, albeit one with two different colours of spots. However the waters start to become rather murky for the uninitiated when they try to commit to memory the special rules regarding gongs and wongs, which domino is a matching pair and which is an un-matching pair and the special power of the Gee Joon tiles. This is one game which appears to have been lost in translation and whilst it has been played in Vegas this has only ever been on a small scale, never taking off with Western casino-goers who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of pai gow.

Puy Soy (Chinese Poker)

A casino owner by the name of Sam Torosian had long been keen to attract the Asian gamblers away from their traditional games and towards the table games of his Bell Card Club. When introduced to the game of puy soy by one of his Filipino patrons he must have thought he had struck gold. Here was a game that featured the hand setting element of pai gow but was played with a universally recognised deck of standard playing cards. Sam introduced the game to his club in 1985.

Sam’s high hopes for the game failed to materialise largely due to two factors. Firstly as the game required players to be dealt 13 cards each, only three players plus the dealer could play at any given table. Secondly the sorting out of thirteen cards into three distinct poker hands proved to be a rather slow and laborious process, particularly for the Western clientele more acquainted with much faster paced games such as craps and roulette. A slow game with few players per table is exactly what a casino doesn’t want, but Sam didn’t give up on the idea.

Pai Gow Poker

During this era Torosian rented some of his floor gaming space to game’s inventor Fred Wolf. The pair, having already successfully introduced the game of Super Pan-9, a game similar to baccarat, came up with some inspired adjustments to the game of puy soy to make it more palatable to the American market and more profitable for the casinos. The first of these was the reduction of the number of cards per hand from 13 to seven. This immediately dealt with two of the major issues which had held puy soy back.

More players could be sat per table and it was much more straightforward to create one hand of five cards and one hand of two, as opposed to two hands of five and one of three. This also brought the game more into line with the original domino game, each featuring two hands which would face off against the corresponding holdings of the dealer. To reinforce this similarity the game was given the name pai gow poker. The final inspiring move was the addition of a joker to the deck to be used as a semi wild card. This acted to increase the excitement of the game by making higher hands more achievable.

With these adjustments Wolf and Torosian had transformed a game they were struggling to get anyone to play into one which now dominated almost every table in the club. Once the other casinos in the area caught wind off this new game’s popularity they were quick to introduce it at their own venues. Having taken a foothold in California, the game soon travelled around the country, reaching Las Vegas later in the 1980s. From there the game never looked back, travelling all around the world including back to the Orient where the original pai gow game was born. The game’s ease of play and relatively low risk have resulted in it also taking off online, where it can be found at almost all casino sites.

Sad For Sam

The creation of the game of pai gow poker was one of Torosian’s most inspired moments. Unfortunately he followed it up with one of his least inspiring moves. Sam didn’t file a patent for this game and has thus never reaped the rewards of its global success. Whilst he did subsequently have a hand in the invention and patenting of other gambling products, none of these went on to achieve anything like the success of pai gow poker. Conservative estimates suggest this error may have cost the game’s “inventor” upwards of $100m: now that’s a really bad beat!