Casinos and gambling are a huge part of Asian culture and have been for centuries. In fact, Vegas is no longer considered the gambling capital of the world. That title has been taken over by the tiny nation of Macau, which is off the coast of China.
You’ll notice many good luck charms in Chinese restaurants or even just spending some time watching other Asian television programming. That’s because luck, chance, and fortune are tied into the culture.
The casinos in Macau cater largely to Asians, so paying attention to which games are available there can be helpful if you want to know which Asian casino games are worth trying.
In this post, I list some of the most popular Asian casino games along with notes about how to excel at each of them.
1 – Sic Bo
One of the first games I ever played in a casino was called sic bo, which is played with three 6-sided dice.
I was familiar with the probabilities when rolling three dice because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager.
Besides baccarat, sic bo is probably the most popular game in any Asian casino. It’s also popular in Atlantic City, which has a devoted Asian clientele.
Many Las Vegas casinos no longer offer sic bo, although many of them might have a single table available.
The game of sic bo reminds me a little bit of roulette, because you have a table full of betting options. The payoffs for all the bets are always at a rate lower than the odds of winning.
Unlike roulette, though, sic bo doesn’t offer a host of bets that all have the same house edge. The casino’s edge varies based on which bet you take in sic bo. The best thing to do, mathematically, is to always take the bet with the lowest house edge.
Betting on small (or betting on big) is your best bet. The house edge is 2.78% for either of those bets. A bet on small wins if the total of the three dice is less than 11, but you lose if there’s a 3. A bet on big wins if the total of the three dice is more than 10, but you lose if it’s a total of 18. In fact, on either of these bets, if you get three of a kind, you lose.
Most of the other bets at sic bo have a house edge greater than 10%. Those bets just aren’t worth making, although you’ll see people placing those bets all the time.
2 – Baccarat
Baccarat isn’t specifically an Asian game, but it’s the most popular game in Macau. In American casinos, slot machines dominate the gambling floor. In Asian casinos, baccarat tables do.
Baccarat seems complex, but that’s mostly because the rules are complicated. There’s no strategy to winning at baccarat, and the odds are almost as good as betting on a coin toss with your buddy, which is close to a 50/50 proposition.
Always bet on the banker, as that’s the bet with the lowest house edge (1.06%). You CAN bet on the player, but you face a slightly higher house edge (1.24%).
But never, under any circumstances, bet on a tie. The house edge for that bet is 14.36%.
Those percentages vary slightly based on how many decks and which other rules conditions are in effect at your table, but they’re not too far afield at all.
3 – Fan Tan
Fan tan uses a cup and a wand along with a stack of white buttons to play. You play on a large table, and the middle of that table is covered with a plastic dome. The edges of the table are where the players make their bets.
The game begins when the dealer puts the cup over a random number of buttons. You can then choose from any of the bets on the table. After that, the dealer uses the wand to count how many buttons he had in the cup.
These buttons are counted off in groups of four, and the outcome is determined by the last set of buttons, which always consists of one, two, three, or four buttons.
The payout odds for all of the bets are the same as the odds of winning, but the casino takes a 5% commission. This makes the house edge in fan tan 5%, regardless of which bet you place.
4 – Pachinko
Pachinko reminds me of a pinball machine, only instead of being oriented horizontally, it’s oriented vertically. It’s basically the Japanese answer to slot machines.
In fact, instead of casinos, Japan has pachinko parlors, some of which also offer slot machine games.
It’s illegal to bet real money in Japan, so pachinko is played for balls, which are later exchanged for money or other prizes.
For an end run around legal gambling, the pachinko market is huge. Revenue from pachinko parlors is more than that of gambling in Las Vegas, Macau, and Singapore.
5 – Pai Gow (and Pai Gow Poker)
Pai gow is basically an Asian version of dominoes. The tiles are put into stacks of four. There are eight of these. Then, players make bets.
When the bets are all placed, players each get a stack of tiles and have to use those four tiles to create two hands of two tiles each. One of these is the “front hand,” and the other is the “rear hand.”
If one hand wins, and the other hand loses, it’s treated as a push. A push is what happens in casino gambling when there’s a tie. The player doesn’t lose his bet, but he doesn’t get any winnings either.
Pai Gow Poker is an Americanized version of pai gow that’s played with playing cards instead of tiles. Both land based and online Pai Gow Poker use poker hand rankings, but the gameplay is similar.
Pai Gow Poker is a great casino poker game to play, by the way, because it’s relatively slow and results in a push a lot of the time. This results in a lower than usual hourly loss rate when compared with other casino table games.
6 – Niu Niu
You won’t see niu niu in many (or any) American casinos, but visit some of the gambling halls in southeast Asia, and it’s ubiquitous. You can also find versions online in casinos catering to Asian gamblers.
Niu niu is a card game where the playing cards have the same values they would have in baccarat:
- Aces are worth one point.
- Numbered cards are worth their ranking (e.g. the two card is worth two points).
- The jack, queen, and king are worth zero points.
Any time the total becomes 10 or greater, the number is converted to a single digit. A total of 11 becomes a one, a total of 13 becomes a three, etc. The 10 is just dropped.
You can bet on either or both of the following:
Each player gets five cards, and so does the dealer. The cards get sorted into whichever hand would be best. Here are the possible hands, from best to worst.
- A niu niu is a three-card hand worth zero points and a two-card hand worth zero points.
- A three-card hand worth zero points combined with a two-card hand worth more than zero points is the second best hand. The higher the number of points in the two-card hand, the better the hand is.
- Any hand where you can’t make a three-card hand with zero points.
If there’s a tie, you compare the highest ranked card in each hand to determine the winner. Aces always count low for this purpose.
If there’s still a tie, the suit of the highest ranked card breaks the tie. See the suits from high to low.
If you placed an “equal” bet, you win even money if you chose the winning side. But you have to pay a 5% commission.
If you placed a “Double” bet, you win a prize based on a pay table, but you still pay a 5% commission.
7 – Yee Hah Hi
If you ever wanted to play sic bo but without all the counting, you could try Yee Hah Hi. The game is a variation of sic bo. But instead of numbered pips on the dice, each side has a picture on it.
Yee Hah Hi dice have six different symbols in three different colors.
- The Coin
- The Crab
- The Fish
- The Gourd
- The Rooster
- The Scorpion
The symbols come in the following colors.
You can bet on things like “all are the same color” or “two of the dice are the same color.” The house edge for this game is actually surprisingly good at just 1.11%.
That’s my list of seven Asian gambling games worth trying. But it’s not even close to a comprehensive list. You probably have some favorite casino games that are also popular in Asia.
Which games would you add to this list?