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Pai Gow Tiles

The game of Pai Gow is an ancient Chinese gambling game that may date to the Song Dynasty (between 960 and 1279). If this dating is accurate, the game actually precedes baccarat, which has similarities. Pai Gow (牌九; pinyin: pái jiǔ; jyutping: paai4 gau2) is played in Macau and other Asian casino locations, and is also popular in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, as well as Atlantic City. The card clubs of California have featured the game for many years, and online casinos also offer the game.

The name Pai Gow is loosely translated as “make nine,” and in the slightly similar game of Pai Gow poker, a “Pai Gow” is a hand with no pairs, straights or flushes – and a nine-high Pai Gow is the very lowest hand; one that players hope the dealer will have. In baccarat, a 9 is the opposite – the best hand.

Pai Gow is played with a 32-piece set of Chinese dominoes, often of a very hard, white material. In years past these were made of ivory and bone. For home games, wooden dominoes are more popular. The 32 tiles provide 35,960 possible four-tile combinations, which means the rules are a bit complicated and some good memory is important for choosing the best combinations.

pai gow tiles

All the pieces found in a traditional set of Pai Gow tiles. Image credit: PaiGow.com

How to Play Pai Gow Tiles

To begin, players make their wagers and the dealer goes through a somewhat complicated series of shuffling and mixing of the tiles before arranging them into a new “woodpile” of 8 stacks of 4 tiles. Although the dots on the dominoes may be colored, the color is irrelevant. However, keeping the back (non-dot side) of the dominoes clean is important, so players cannot read which tiles are which when they are the banker.

A set of dice are rolled to determine which stack of 4 tiles go to which player, and to the dealer. The players set their four tiles into two groups of hands. To win, both of the players’ hands must beat the dealer’s (or banker’s) hands. If they do, you win even-money on your wager and the house collects a 5% commission. If the player wins one hand and loses one hand, it is a push, and no money is exchanged. Unfortunately, like Pai Gow Poker, a player and dealer hand may be exact (a copy), and the dealer always wins a copy.

Setting the Hands

Each player and the dealer must set their dominoes into two-tile hands. Like baccarat, when the total of the dots exceeds 9, the tens-digit is dropped, so 3:6 and 4:2 hands total 15, but for scoring the total is 5. Numbering is referred to in a top-bottom fashion, so again, a 3:6 means 3 dots on the top, and 6 dots on the bottom. As with baccarat, a total of nine is the best hand with a few exceptions when a hand is allowed to equal 10 or 11!

Obviously a simple set of two tiles with a 1:3 and a 2:3 will total nine. Unfortunately this isn’t an instant winner, since it can be trumped by a 10 or 11. These totals can be made with two tiles only, the Day and Teen tiles.

Day and Teen Tiles

A tile with a 1:1 is called a Day. The 6:6 tile is called a Teen. If you play either of these tiles with an eight, such as 3:5 or 4:4, the total is called a Gong, and the value is 10, which beats a nine.

When a 1:1 or 6:6 tile is played with a nine tile, such as 4:5 or 3:6, the total is called a Wong, and the value is 11, which beats a nine.

Gee Joon Tiles

The Gee Joon tiles are the 1:2 and the 2:4. These are sometimes called wild cards, since they can be used as a value of 3 or 6. Regardless of which tile these are paired with the value will be set as either 3 or 6 to make the best score.

Pairs

To further confuse the players at Pai Gow Tiles, there are 16 possible pairs that can be made, including the number one pair, which is actually not a numbered pair, but the two Gee Joon tiles. For even more confusion, the pairs are not valued by totals, but by aesthetics decided hundreds of years ago. A pair always beats a non-pair hand, regardless of the dots, as pairs are considered 12 points.

Rankings of Pairs in Pai Gow Tiles

RankingTiles
11:2 and 2:4
26:6 and 6:6
31:1 and 1:1
44:4 and 4:4
51:3 and 1:3
65:5 and 5:5
62:2 and 2:2 vertical
72:2 and 2:2 vertical
82:2 and 2:2 horizontal
95:6 and 5:6
104:6 and 4:6
111:6 and 1:6
121:5 and 1:5
134:5 and 3:6
142:6 and 3:5
153:4 and 2:5
162:5 and 1:4

Ties Are Not Always a Tie

Although a player and banker hand may tie in points, the hand which has a higher value determined by the pair ranking will win. If the point-value in both the player and banker’s hand is identical, the result is a copy, which the banker wins. There are two exceptions to this rule. One is when the Gee Joon tiles form the highest-ranking pair, but have no value when evaluating ties. The second exception is that any zero-zero ties are won by the banker.

Pai Gow Tiles Strategy

Each grouping of four tiles must be set into two hands of two tiles each, and there are three ways to arrange them. The obvious strategy is to set them into the best two hands that have a chance to beat both of the banker/dealer hands. This decision must include which grouping will at least allow the player to break a tie. Often the best option is simply to try and attain a push and keep from losing the hand’s wager.