Pai Gow: China’s Lost Legacy

“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.” (Ancient Chinese Proverb)

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IMAGE Source: Pixabay

If there’s one thing that helps summarize Chinese culture – aside from the century-old traditions, the cuisine enjoyed around the world, and the cultural practices infused in the modern-day Western world (feng shui, reiki, karate etc.) – it’s the Chinese heritage of games.

While Chinese Checkers may not have its roots in the Orient, Pai Gow certainly does. With 35,960 tile combinations, and hundreds of people dedicated to matching them all in intense games across China and in Chinese communities worldwide, Pai Gow’s legacy exceeds South East Asia in a bid to conquer the world.

Pai Gow is a Key to Understanding China’s Past

Pai Gow – whose origins predate the Song Dynasty, and whose name translates roughly to ‘make nine’ – is a game played with 32 Chinese dominoes, the goal of which is to create a winning hand. In this way, the game doesn’t differ too much from poker. Like poker the dominoes in pairs are ranked from best pair to have to worst. The demarcations of the pairs boil down to Chinese mythology, with the best pair being the Supreme Creator, and the others being Civilian Pairs (Earth, Goose, Plum flower) and Military Pairs (based on the numbered military ranking from 1 – 9). To win, players must make the best of two hands, a low hand and a high hand. The pips on the dominoes for 1 and 4 are red, while the rest are white, in tradition with classic Chinese dominoes.

Pai Gow Today

The most modern form of Pai Gow played nowadays is Pai Gow Poker, which is actually extremely popular and shows that some traditions are worth keeping alive. Pai Gow Poker was invented by Sam Torosian to save his Californian club in 1985, yet he never patented the Chinese-based poker game. As some struggled to comprehend the pairings of the dominoes, these were removed and replaced with cards, updating Pai Gow to a card-based game. Pai Gow poker is far more widespread than people assume. For example, it is available as an online casino game to play, and was even made into an app for iOS on the iPhone back in 2011. Several books have been dedicated to Pai Gow strategy, including Pai Gow Poker Tommy’s Way and two editions of Billy Woo’s Pai-Gow Poker.

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Image source: Twitter

Pai Gow on the Big and Small Screen

In order to ensure traditions are kept alive, the medium of film can burn an image on celluloid to keep it frozen in time forever. That’s exactly what happened with the production of the film Premium Rush (2012), dubbed the “greatest Pai Gow movie of all time”. The film is an action movie that relies on the understanding and playing of Pai Gow as a key plot point in order to rescue either the protagonist, Nima (Jamie Chung) or antagonist Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). The film’s fast-paced excitement is shown in much the same way as Casino Royale depicts a game of high-stakes poker. As for the TV show How I Met Your Mother, it features fan favorite Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) dabbling in a complex game with a group of Chinese men in the casino based on Pai Gow.

Pai Gow Strategy

Despite the somewhat simple nature of the game, there is a lot of strategy involved in Pai Gow, from understanding the pairings and what would be considered a high and low hand to memorizing which hands should be played at which times. The more a player practices Pai Gow, the greater their chance of winning, which is why it has been so popular in the past, especially in older Chinese areas, such as Lijiang. The ancient Chinese proverb refers to choosing a time to stop playing Pai Gow due to the ability to allow the game to drag on and on.

Pai Gow is a huge part of Chinese culture, which technology is rendering at risk of being forgotten in history. By modernizing Pai Gow and bringing it into the digital age with us, we are able to keep the tradition alive for generations. Pai Gow’s popularity has remained steady since its days as a staple of entertainment in the Song Dynasty. As China has grown and developed, so has the game, to reflect the modern ideals that are still infused with the traditions and culture of China’s rich heritage. While the uptake of younger people learning Pai Gow may stall each year, the ways in which we continue to connect with it will keep the game alive as a symbol of China’s tenacity for years to come.

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Also published on Medium.