Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Pai Gow Diaries: The Cult of the Dragon

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I can't explain what makes the no-frills vibe of the Gold Coast stand out from the rest of Las Vegas, but it's become one of my favorite haunts because of the way the muted yellow lights bounce off the faded green felt illuminating 20-month old stains from hundreds of spilled comped cocktails, beers, and tepid cups of coffee served by top-heavy past-their-prime cougars, who were once the cream of the crop in Vegas twenty years ago, but now they hump the swing shift serving hot tea to crazy Asian zombies gambling their waking life away at baccarat, and delivering endless rounds of booze to my ravenous and thirsty friends at the Pai Gow tables.

You can still smoke at the tables inside the Gold Coast, but the usual thick layer of second-hand smoke is nowhere to be seen, because the most overlooked element of Gold Coast is the fake balconies that hover over the gaming tables. I usually feel constricted and claustrophobic in casinos (especially downtown with those low-hanging ceilings and the wafting aroma of soiled adult diapers and menthol cigarettes), but the Gold Coast has an wide open area above the tables which allows excess cigarette smoke plenty of room to dance instead of festering in a space a few inches above my head.

The Pai Gow tables are not brushed as often as it should, and a thin layer of ash covers some of the farthest corners of the torn and frayed felt, as black bits of expired cigarette papers mix in with shades of grey and white that form miniature mountains of soot. Remnants from previous gamblers are warning signs to those who want to be warned, because the last person who sat in your space attempted to chain smoke their way out of their losing streaks, and in the end all they had to show for it were a couple of watered down cocktails, an empty pack of Reds, and a series of bad beats from a porcelain doll-like dealer from Vietnam named Hong.

The shade of beige making up the $1 chips at the Gold Coast resembles diarrhea. Fitting description considering that all you do is shit away $1 chips at the Pai Gow table by brazenly tossing them into the bonus circles (either the newly added Pai Gow insurance or the cagey Fortune Bonus). The $5 redbirds are no better. Many of them have that smooth-to-the-touch feel because they've been worn down for excessive usage. The color is supposed to be cherry red with a few snazzy white stripes, but most of the $5 chips attracted some sort of fungus and they are infected by random and unexplained black markings, sort of like aging spots on old people, except these are black splotches are comprised of who know's what -- probably a mixture of snot, saliva, semen, urine, feces, dirt, ash, dead flies, toe nail clippings, lint, fuzz from the felt, and a splash of the sweet and sour sauce from the Noodle Exchange.

The green $25 chips are outright pathetic. When betting in the pits, you want a chip of that denomination to feel like a marker of success, and not like food stamps, but that's what the decrepit green chips feel like. The black $100 chips are nothing to brag about and new black chips have not been issued since the casino opened. Each black chip represents a bullet that I load into the chamber for a game of Russian Roulette, but it's under the guise of Pai Gow. With every hand of Pai Gow, you are essentially taking a deep breath and pulling the trigger. If you're lucky, you shoot a blank. If you're unlucky, you shit yourself the moment that the bullet passes through your cranium and your brain explodes.

Dragons were mythical powerful creatures that once ruled the world according to integral part of folklore from both Western and Eastern cultures. Today's symbols of dragons represent prosperity and achievement. Hyper-successful people in China are considered dragon personalities, while less than powerful people are signified by less impressive animals and creatures. You get the gist. Only a select few in this world get to be dragons, while the rest of us are sheep, and you know how the saying goes -- sheep get slaughtered.

Enter the Pai Gow Dragon.

I used to think that the Dragon Hand was a savior, or one of the good spirits that manifest itself in the form of a Dragon Hand to present you with a ticket to prosperity. These days, I'm convinced that the Dragon Hand is nothing more than an agent of evil. Nothing good could come out of the temptation to double up or cut your loses.

The Dragon Hand is one of the most amazing and dangerous instruments ever invented in the world of gambling. The Dragon represents a second chance -- if you have a spectacular hand and want to press your luck, you buy the Dragon Hand for a shot at beating the dealer twice. If you've set an abysmal hand, then the Dragon Hand is an opportunity at redemption, and a rare chance to break even or even come out ahead. I don't know of too many games that give you a slight edge with a second chance bet. The edge you gain is the knowledge of your initial hand and the rest of the hands that are set at the table. The more players at the table who arrange their hands face up gives you a minor edge in determining what cards are left that can hurt you or help you. That's why playing with friends is an added bonus -- you get to hang out, have fun, and share critical information. In short, it's group angle shooting. Sometimes I wonder if the casinos permit that behavior on purpose to deceive you into thinking that have a greater edge.

Sometimes you notice that everyone at your table set atrocious hands, for example nothing but a slew of Pai Gows or baby pairs with ten-high and Jack-high up top. So, you know that there's the potential to snag a sensational Dragon, or you'll get a shitty Dragon and get royally fucked twice when the dealer reveals a monster.

The Dragon Hand can be your worst enemy when playing heads-up against the dealer. I found this out the hard way in my last few encounters with my Pai Gow demons. Raging solo is something that everyone has to do at some point during a Las Vegas sojourn, but I advise that you think twice about playing the dealer heads-up Pai Gow. For one, you lose the advantage of seeing several hands before making a decision about buying a Dragon. At the same time, you're essentially playing two hands every time because there's no one else at the table interferes with your ability to play a second hand. That bodes well if the dealer turns over a Pai Gow, but it could also be disastrous when the dealer goes on a rush and crushes any decent hands that you can throw together.

Maybe Pai Gow is a game that can't be beat? Sure, the house edge is much lower than other games such as craps, Roulette, black jack, slots, and video poker, but they have to be making some money otherwise they wouldn't offer it up. Besides, what other game charges you juice -- when you win?

At off-the-beaten-path joints like the Gold Coast, the Pai Gow tables are usually packed because of the affordable limits ($10 minimum bets) and the fact that the Pai Gow tables are lumped in with a section of Asian table games specifically designed for crazy Asian gamblers. To make sure that the Gold Coast retains all of those gamblers and keeps them inside the casino until they go busto, the Gold Coast is home to two popular Asian eateries in Las Vegas -- the Noodle Exchange and Ping Pang Pong, which is home to the best dim sum in the state.

The baccarat tables at the Gold Coast are never empty. Every time I visit the Gold Coast, I tell myself that I'm gonna sit down and engage in some serious degen gambling at baccarat, however, there's rarely an open spot because the wait list is a few Asians deep. Gold Coast offers up low limit baccarat and those tables are also in high demand.

Gold Coast spreads four Pai Gow tables and a high percentage of players are locals of Asian decent, many Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and naturalized citizens who have jobs in the gaming industry -- including a Pai Gow dealer or two from other casinos. Two of the tables at the Gold Coast feature Pai Gow bonuses, simply put, those tables pay you off if you get kicked in the junk and dealt a Pai Gow. You have to buy Pai Gow insurance, of course, which is how the casino makes money in the long run. It's much harder to get dealt a Pai Gow than you think. I'm not positive on these numbers, but Grubby once told me that you're dealt at least an Ace-high or better 90% of the time and that you chop 4 out of 5 hands. Essentially, you're betting insurance that you'll get paid off if by chance you get dealt crapola. Nine-high Pai Gow, the worst possible hand, pays off the most, while Ace-high Pai Gow net you 3-1 on your insurance bet. Like most table games that offer customers a "bonus", the real odds are not what they pay out. Once again, the illusion of a bargain attracts the weak-minded. It sort of reminds me of an old Dennis Miller joke about anything that is billed as Buy 1, Get 1 Free is inherently a horrible deal.

"Folks, two of shit is shit. If they really wanted to fuck you, they'd give you three."

Double Dragon-assisted Pai Gow wins are like simultaneously banging red-headed twins because you're flirting with the Apocalypse. Gingers suck the soul out of humanity, and engaging in intercourse with two of them is like dropping your penis into a black hole and getting it chopped off. If you fall for the wrong Dragon, you'll lose every molecule of your life force. You're dunzo.

Much like the Pai Gow Fortune bonus, I'm in the group of gamblers who consider Pai Gow insurance a long-term sucker's bet. However, in the short term, I'm all about maximizing your streaks -- even if it's a bad one. If you know you're running bad and then Pai Gow insurance is auspicious goldmine.

Last Thursday night, I watched in astonishment as AlCantHang continuously got dealt Ace-high and King-high Pai Gows. He was collecting "commission-free money" in his words every time he got dealt a shitstain of a hand. That was one of the few instances when the player came out ahead by abusing the Pai Gow insurance. Most of the time, however, it's a futile bet. On Friday, AlCantHang ran too good for Pai Gow insurance, but not good enough to beat the dealer. Wanna talk about some bad beats? Ask him about the endless string of baby pairs -- deuces and treys -- that ruined his chances at commission free money.

Once in a while you slay the Dragon, but most of the time, the Dragon fries your ass.

On a few instances, I used the Pai Gow insurance circle as a hedge bet. Whenever, I bet $100 or more, I tossed a $5 chip into the circle that the majority of the time remained vacant. For example, if I got an Ace-high Pai Gow, the bonus lowers my overall net loss for the hand to $85. The shittier the Pai Gow, the more I got back -- like a casino's version of a welfare check.

The Gold Coast has been ground zero for more Pai Gow battles than I can count. The origins of the infamous Keno crayon incident of 2006 spawned from a horrible session at those Pai Gow tables. Every summer, we somehow lure more of our friends and colleagues to the dark side and they get hooked on the game. I feel like the Reverend Jim Jones standing in the People's Temple handing over a cup of killer Kool-Aid to the latest inductee into the cult of the Dragon.

Pai Gow is a deceptive game that seems so simple: you get seven cards and have to make two poker hands out of them -- a five card hand and a two card hand. If you win both then you get paid, but if you lose both then you lose your bet, however, if you split then it's a push. A wise man once said, "A push is as good as a win." I'm sure that was some derivative of the pearls of wisdom from your former little league baseball coach who constantly shouted from the dugout, "A walk is as good as a hit!"

Any team player will say that a walk gets the job done, and they'd be more than happy to accept a free pass to first base. But selfishly speaking, nothing beats connecting for a hit by crushing a baseball and nailing the shit out of it right in the sweet spot. The moment you make contact, you know it's a goner. If only the rest of life were that simple and absolute, but alas, life is a bitch and not as simple as hitting a baseball. Sadly, the reality of Pai Gow is that you keep fouling off a pitch after pitch after pitch until you get one right down the pipe. Sometimes you swing and miss, and on the rare occasion, you connect.

That's why you take a seat and play the game -- for a chance to hit the sweet spot one more time.

The exhilaration at winning a big Pai Gow bet is among the greatest highs I've experienced. I've dabbled with the entire encyclopedia of pharmacopoeia and know the difference between airborne and blasting off into Jupiter's orbit. Gambling wise, the amount of money won in other areas doesn't compare to even the smallest of Pai Gow bets. I've shipped a couple sizable pots in poker (back when I actually played PLO cash games on Party Poker) worth a few grand, and I've cashed sports betting slips that were probably worth more than the blue book value on your car, but nothing gives me more satisfaction than squeaking out a marginal win with my initial Pai Gow hand and then following that up with a clutch victory with a purchased Dragon Hand.

The speedball of Pai Gow.

I thrive on that burning sensation and sink down as that glorious feeling spreads throughout my body and pumps through my bloodstream and I grow more and more dizzy until the hit wears off and I'm jonesin' to maintain that high, but any addict will tell you that nothing beats the first high of the day.

Editor's Note: This is another edition for a series of posts on my Pai Gow addiction. Other installments include Dilettante Pai Gow and Mr. Pai Gow.


  1. Drizztdj11:33 AM

    Long live Hong!!  It's the Ice Queen pit boss you need to worry about.  Blonde hair, pale skin, cougar-ish body, too much lipstick.

    I think it was the 2007 WSOP when I stayed at the Gold Coast with Speaker that my love for 3am Pai Gow in Vegas was born.

    See you in 27 days behind a decision to split two pair or not.

  2. on_thg4:10 PM

    Paigow insurance?  Holy **** what a concept. 

  3. I like to go the opposite direction. I hit up TI for the elegant experience of classy Pai Gow. The drinks there are served in big tumblers and are usually strong. Spend a couple hours there and you end up wobbling to the mens room to take a piss.

  4. Trisha Lynn1:57 PM

    When I was in AC for the Fourth of July weekend (don't ask), we played Pai Gow on the bus trip up, which prepared me for more Pai Gow at the Showboat. Every time I decided that I was done for the evening and thought to myself (and said out loud), "I'm gonna bet the SHIT out of this hand" and tossed a chunk of chips into the circle, I got paid off.

    I ended up only losing a little of my initial roll. And now I gotta go back sometime...

  5. PokahDave11:40 PM

    This is quality shit! Some of you guys tried to teach me how to play pai gow at the IP in '07. That was the first...but i'm sure....not last time I delve into the Pai Gow abyss!!!!