Pai Gow Poker History

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Although “Pai Gow” is an ancient Chinese pastime played with domino-like tiles, the game known today as “Pai Gow Poker” has very modern origins. It is related to the original Asian game in only the most tenuous of ways.

Pai Gow traces its roots to the Song Dynasty (960~1279), when up to eight players would arrange four tiles each into two pairs called the “front hand” and the “back hand.” The object of the game is to defeat both of the Banker’s hands, respectively, to claim even money on a wager.

Such a complex system is used to determine the winners of Pai Gow hands that it has never been very popular outside Chinese gambling salons. As of 1979, only one Las Vegas casino offered the game—Caesars Palace—and “Lo Fon” (non-Orientals) rarely joined in playing.

Pai Gow Poker, on the other hand, is an American invention. It was first played in California in 1985 at the Bell Card Club. Owner Sam Torosian had been trying to find a new way to bring wealthy Asian gamblers to the tables of his club. A Filipino patron introduced Torosian to “Puy Soy,” a card game from China that pitted players against a Banker by dividing 13 cards into three separate poker hands.

Torosian liked the idea, but as it turned out, his patrons found the 13-card game too slow paced for their liking. Then, the club owner cut the number of cards dealt to seven and the number of hands played to two. This made it much more similar to the ancient game of Pai Gow, with a “Hand in Front” and a “Hand Behind.”

To win even money, both of the Banker’s hands would have to be beat. Winning one hand would result in a draw, and losing both hands would lose whatever amount had been wagered.

Torosian also added two more innovations. Into the standard 52-card deck, he inserted a Joker to serve as a kind of “wild card.” He also applied the basic rules of Poker to determine winning combinations, and that made the game much easier to learn and play.

This new “Pai Gow Poker” was introduced at two of the Bell Card Club’s tables on a Friday night. A week later, the 30 tables were devoted to the game, and soon Pai Gow Poker tables took over the entire property. They were jammed in so tightly that they blocked the front door and the entrance to the restrooms, and a few had to be set up in the hallways.

Pai Gow Poker fascinated card players with its unique blend of ancient Chinese heritage and American West-style showdowns. Taking notice was George Hardie, the owner of the Bicycle Club, which at that time was the world’s largest card club. When he introduced Pai Gow Poker to his patrons, it was met with the same enthusiastic response.

By 1981, the new card game began appearing in the casinos of Las Vegas. From there, it quickly spread to Atlantic City and then overseas to Buenos Aires and Monte Carlo. Eventually, Pai Gow Poker completed its circumnavigation of the planet by coming full circle to China, where it was embraced by casinos in Macau—at that time still a Portuguese colony.

Today, Pai Gow Poker has a worldwide following, not only as a mainstay of casino pit areas at land-based casinos but also a popular choice on gaming sites online. The game is very easy to learn and play, and it has the added attraction of being low risk. Wagering at one-to-one odds doesn’t win or lose much in the short term. Many compare the game to Baccarat in that regard. And just like the classic French game, Pai Gow Poker easily lends itself to high stakes play, too.

The story of Pai Gow Poker’s rise has a rather sad ending, however—at least for its inventor and original proponent. Sam Torosian never filed a patent before the game took off. Some experts say he lost out on a fortune, perhaps $100 million or more, rather than retiring without ever seeing a penny in royalties.

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