What are The Most Popular Chinese Gambling Games and Why
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China has a long and illustrious gambling culture that dates back more than 1000 years, with traditional games like Keno, Mahjong and Pai Gow an others regularly played in China then and now, and further afield at leading land and virtual casinos across the world.
Today most forms of gambling are banned in China with the exception of state-run lotteries, Keno, sports betting, scratch cards and virtual lottery terminals (VLTs), which are similar to slots. However, despite this ban China has a vast ‘underground’ gambling culture that encompasses traditional games, Western casino games, and unofficial lotteries.
The only permitted Chinese land casinos are located in the country’s special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong, which were introduced decades ago when they were still Portuguese and English colonies, respectively.
China’s regulatory stance on gambling is highlighted by Article 303 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, which was adopted in 1979 and revised most recently in 1997.
It states: “Whoever, for the purpose of profit, gathers people to engage in gambling, runs a gambling house or makes gambling his profession shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention or public surveillance and shall also be fined.”
Despite the threat of imprisonment, however, due to their high frequency the majority of gambling offenses in China are rarely punished by more than a fine. Perhaps it’s for this reason that although free slots sites have “popped up everywhere” many Chinese and other players actively seek out popular, traditional and lucrative Chinese gambling games like:
Ironically, despite being one of China’s oldest and most popular gambling games, Mahjong is currently banned in China, but widely played in underground venues. In fact, it tops the list of China’s most popular gambling games because it is a game of calculation, strategy and skill with a touch of luck or chance.
Sometimes described as an Asian version of Gin Rummy, Mahjong is a tile-based Chinese gambling game played with 144 tiles adorned with ancient Chinese symbols and characters, and a pair of dice. The aim of the game is for players to make the best possible hand with 14 tiles which is known as a Mahjong.
Mahjong tiles fall under one of 7 categories and are illustrated as such: Bamboos (4 sets of 9), Dots (4 sets of 9), Characters (4 sets of 9), Winds (4 sets of 4), Dragons (3 sets of 9), Flowers (4) and Seasons (4). A game of Mahjong is typically played with 4 players.
How Mahjong is Played
Before the start of each round of Mahjong, all players must roll a pair of dice, and the player with the highest dice becomes the dealer. Next, all of the tiles must be turned face down and shuffled thoroughly before each player takes 13 tiles and keeps them hidden from the other players.
The rest of the tiles are stacked facedown which players can draw from to help make their winning hands. The aim of the game is to pick up and discard tiles (from either the stacked tiles or discarded tiles) in an attempt to make matching pairs or sequences known as melds, of which there are 3 types – the Pung, the Kong and the Chow.
The Pung consists of 3 identical tiles, the Kong 4 identical tiles and the Chow 3 suited tiles in a sequence (not unlike a straight in poker). As such, a winning Mahjong hand must include a combination of Melds plus a pair to make a 14-tile winning hand which they must declare by saying ‘Mahjong’ out loud.
After each hand, the player to the right of the dealer becomes the new dealer and so the game goes on until 16 rounds have been played, where every player has dealt twice. At this point the player with the most points (each winning Mahjong hands has a different value) and wins all of the wagered money.
Why Mahjong is So Popular
Mahjong is popular amongst most Asian or Chinese gambling game fans because it’s a very symbolic game where every tile has a different meaning and can be interpreted in some way. For non-Chinese players, however, it’s a different yet entertaining gambling game that requires alertness and concentration and is a hybrid of Gin Rummy and dominoes.
Like Mahjong, the gambling game of Pai Gow has been played in China for around 1000 years, and is still as popular today as it was then. To the Western eye, Pai Gow closely resembles the game of dominoes. However, unlike dominies, Pai Gow is far more complex and is mainly a gambling game rather than a purely recreational one.
The popular online and mobile casino game Pai Gow Poker (which is played with cards not dominoes) should not be confused with Pai Gow. The only thing these two games have in common is that to win players of both must make the best two hands (a low hand + a high hand). They must win both to win, lose both to lose, or win one and lose one for a push (tie).
Pai Gow is played with 7 players, 1 dealer and 32 numbered dominoes or tiles, most of them matched. For this reason Pai Gow is also commonly known as Chinese dominoes. Roughly translated as “make nine”, the maximum score for a hand in Pai Gow is nine (with a few rare exceptions) when the pips (dots) are added up on both tiles and the ten value is dropped.
How Pai Gow is Played
Before the start of every round of Pai Gow, all of the tiles must be placed face-down and thoroughly shuffled before being arranged into 8 piles of 4 tiles each known as ‘woodpiles.’ These can be re-arranged by players until everyone is satisfied that they are as shuffled as possible. At this point players are free to place their bets.
Once betting has been completed, every player as well as the dealer get one stack of tiles (4 tiles) and must use them to make two hands of two tiles each – a low value hand (the front hand) and a high value hand (the rear hand). The aim is to solely beat the dealer’s hands. To do this, the player’s front and rear hand must beat the dealer’s front and rear hand.
Only if the player beats both of the dealer’s hand will they win their bet. If they lose both, they lose their bet, and if they win one but lose the other, their original bet is returned to them as a push. Although this sounds like a simple game, it’s interesting to note that in Pai Gow the 32 tiles can yield and astonishing 36,000 possible woodpile combinations.
In terms of ranked winning pairs (high or low) there are only 16 in Pai Gow. Winning hands are split into 4 categories in descending order – a pair, a Wong, a Gong and 9 to 0. Pairs are self-explanatory where two tiles must match each other in value, a Wong which is 2 or 12 tile and any 9 tile, a Gong which is a 2 or 12 tile and any 8 tile, and lastly 9 to 0 pips.
Why Pai Gow is so Popular
One of the best features of Pai Gow is that it’s a deceptively simple game, but is actually very challenging in terms of the order of hands and tiles players have to memorize so as to know which hands beat other hands. Another big benefit of this game is its typically slow pace (around 30 hands every hour) which means players can stretch out their chips.
Although its exact origin is unknown, the Chinese gambling game of Keno is thought to have originated many hundreds of years ago to raise funds for the building of the Great Wall of China. True or not, it’s a compelling story, and more importantly, Keno is a game still loved (and legal) in China and beyond at a host of top international land and online casinos.
Keno is one of the easiest and most entertaining gambling games to come out of China which is why it is so popular globally. A combination of bingo and the lottery, the premise of Keno is for players to pick 5 to 10 numbers from a predetermined set (between 1 and 80) and then to wait and see if they match 20 randomly generated numbers by the game.
The more numbers players match correctly, the greater their winnings. Despite its Chinese roots, the name Keno is derived from the French “quine”, which means “set of five”. It’s thought Keno was introduced to the West by Chinese immigrants that came to America to work on the railroads, before it ended up in land casinos and eventually online casinos.
How Keno is Played
Today Keno is mainly an electronic and virtual game, where state-of-the-art random number generator (RNG) software generates the numbers. Players must first select a Keno game to play and a bet size to suit their budget. Next, they must choose 2 to 10 numbers from 1 to 80. At that point the game will randomly choose 20 numbers from the same range.
If the numbers match, they’re paid out according to the pay table of their respective Keno game. The fewer numbers they pick (2, for example), the lower their odds of matching them, and thus the higher their pay outs if they do. Similarly, the more numbers they pick (10, for example), the higher their odds of matching them, but with lower pay outs.
In most land, online and mobile Keno games, players have an auto-play option where they can choose to play their selected numbers 1, 5 or 10 times. Thereafter they can either pick a new set or play the old set again and again if they choose. All of the outcomes of Keno are 100% random which means this is a Chinese gambling game that requires zero skill.
Why is Keno so Popular
There are two main reasons why Keno is so popular in China and farther afield. The first is the game’s simplicity and ease of use. Unlike Mahjong and Pai Gow, Keno requires no skill and in fact is 100% luck-based. The second is that the pay outs in Keno for matching the most numbers can be extremely high, even when the initial bets made are low.
Also published on Medium.