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[PROFILE] Sam Torosian - Inventor of Pai Gow

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  • madchinaman
    Casino Boss Can t Cash In on Game He Developed Pai gow poker s originator never secured a patent By Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 13, 2003
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      Casino Boss Can't Cash In on Game He Developed
      Pai gow poker's originator never secured a patent
      By Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writer
      This is a gambling tale about a casino boss who took a seat at
      history's card table and bet the house on a royal flush of an

      He watched it change the course of California gaming and sweep the
      world -- then he walked away in anonymity as the revolution he
      created left him behind.

      Pai gow poker is the game.

      It is steeped in Asian superstitions, and even Hong Kong high
      rollers think it originated in China. But pai gow poker's first
      casino hands were actually dealt in 1985, in the Bell card club of
      Sam Torosian.

      The Boyle Heights-raised son of Armenian immigrants, Torosian was
      trying to save his struggling casino. He bet correctly that pai gow
      poker's blend of ancient Asian influences and straight-ahead poker
      would deal a winner.

      But even as pai gow poker's popularity crossed cultures and the
      globe -- from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, Macao to Buenos Aires --
      Torosian's dreams of fortune fizzled.

      One thing was missing from Torosian's plan: a patent. An attorney,
      Torosian says, told him that a game based on a 52-card deck wasn't
      patentable. Turns out it was.Over the years, Torosian watched
      hundreds of card games, including Caribbean stud, let it ride and
      even pai gow poker variations, receive patents. Demoralized and
      battered by debts and partner disputes, he eventually closed his

      Torosian, a short man who sports a pencil-thin mustache and whose
      dress is as sharp as his memory at 72, rarely sets foot in casinos
      anymore. When he does, only old-timers or former employees recognize
      him among the crowds of pai gow poker players.

      "I never forget good bosses like Sam," said Commerce Casino's
      restaurant chef, Tony Ortega, giving Torosian a hearty handshake on
      a recent visit.

      Torosian should be getting more than handshakes.

      In gaming, inventors earn royalties that are based on the number of
      casino tables offering their games. Conservative estimates have
      Torosian earning $70,000 a month, had he patented the game. Some
      experts say his fortune might have reached $100 million by now.

      Instead, gaming history is poised to forget his name, just as it has
      forgotten the names of the creators of blackjack and baccarat.

      "He should, by all rights, be receiving a royalty check from every
      casino that uses his game around the world, and he doesn't.... But
      that's gambling. Life in the casinos takes very strange twists,"
      said Peter Ruchman, a Las Vegas-based gaming analyst.

      Torosian, a onetime bread delivery man turned real estate investor,
      was already a successful entrepreneur in 1984 when he first toured
      the California Bell Casino.

      His wife, Vicky, a wig shop owner, liked to play draw poker there,
      and encouraged her husband to add to his mini-empire of hardware
      stores and food stamp distribution outlets.

      Torosian bought the casino for $750,000. It had dozens of tables and
      750 employees, but some nights there were only enough customers to
      keep four games going.

      It was a similar story at card rooms across southeast Los Angeles
      County, where a casino building boom had left dealers staring into
      space, shuffling alone.

      Nervous casino bosses held monthly strategy meetings at a conference
      room off the main bar at the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens.
      Torosian and the others agreed that they needed to start new games.
      Pai gow -- an ancient Chinese domino game that means "near nine" --
      had achieved some success, but its complexities and low revenue
      limited its appeal.

      Some bosses wanted to lobby lawmakers to change the state's gambling
      law, which was nearly 100 years old. Under that law, only three card
      games were permitted: draw poker, low-ball and panguingue.

      But Torosian had his own ideas.

      "My deal was, I'm not going to wait," he recalled telling his fellow
      casino owners. "I'm going to create something new."

      Torosian rarely gambled. The only numbers he knew were on the bottom
      line, and the most creative thing he had ever done was painting a

      The way Torosian tells it, he walked around his empty casino for
      days, letting the ideas swirl in his head. Then one night, an
      elderly Filipino poker player pulled him aside and told him about a
      game called puy soy.

      Puy soy is a Chinese card game in which players receive 13 cards and
      cut them into three poker hands. They then play against a banker's
      three hands.

      Torosian believed a 13-card game would be too slow. But, he thought,
      what if gamblers could play two hands: one with five cards, the
      other with two? Players beating the bank's two hands would win.

      Pai gow poker was a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western
      influences, "a modern game in Asian clothing," said George Hardie,
      the former owner of the Bicycle Club.

      The idea of splitting the hands came from the ancient pai gow tiles
      game, and the aces-high ranking system was borrowed from straight-
      ahead poker, which spread across America on trains and Mississippi

      But was such a hybrid legal?

      Torosian, card deck in hand, decided to visit Bell's top cop, Chief
      Frank Fording, now deceased. Sitting across from Fording's desk at
      the police station, Torosian dealt a few hands.

      "I said, 'What do you think, chief?' This is going to bring a lot of
      revenue in," Torosian recalled.

      "He said: 'I like it.' "

      The chief's approval was the first of several victories that
      eventually won the game legal status.

      A few gaming industry veterans doubt Torosian created the game. They
      say gamblers played a form of pai gow poker for years in underground
      gambling parlors in New York City's Chinatown.

      But no one besides Torosian has laid claim to pai gow poker, gaming
      experts say, and they agree that, even if he didn't invent it,
      Torosian is most responsible for its popularity.

      "With any game, there are always roots of dispute," said Bob
      Parente, vice president and general manager of Mikohn Gaming Inc.,
      which holds a patent on a variation of the game.

      "Some people emphatically say he did it, and others say it was
      already out there.... But [Torosian] is the only guy that we can
      actually pinpoint that is directly attributable to this game.... At
      a minimum, he built the market and visibility."

      Torosian launched pai gow poker on a Friday night at two tables.

      By the next Friday, 30 tables were filled with gamblers.

      "I'm telling you, it caught fire like you can't believe," he said.

      Torosian squeezed tables closer together, lined them in hallways,
      and pushed them close to bathrooms and entrances.

      Like gamblers hearing victory yells at the craps table, other casino
      bosses heard about the new game and began driving up the Long Beach
      Freeway to pay Torosian a visit.

      When Hardie introduced pai gow poker at the Bicycle Club, then one
      of the largest card clubs in the world, the game hit the big time
      and never looked back.

      Asian gamblers enjoyed pai gow poker's fast pace, and its borrowed
      Asian rituals, like the heavy, brass dice cup that players slam to
      the felt to determine where the deal starts. Casino owners liked the
      game because it generated far more revenue than traditional poker

      Pai gow poker, along with pan 9, which was created by Torosian's
      partner, Fred Wolf, helped keep the industry afloat in its toughest
      days and financed huge expansions.

      "Nobody ever thought that card clubs could win this kind of
      money ... and look at us now with our new beautiful hotel," said
      Howard Liu, an assistant manager at the Commerce Casino, which just
      completed an Assyrian-themed, 200-room hotel and casino addition.

      By the late 1980s, pai gow poker had jumped to the Las Vegas strip,
      and it is now played worldwide.

      These days, the only table where Torosian plays it is in the dining
      room of his South Pasadena home. He likes to deal to some of his
      four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

      Torosian lives comfortably after retiring from the business. But
      thoughts of how he missed out on a fortune for his family still
      rankle him and his wife.

      "Do you realize that if we had patented that game, I wouldn't be
      talking to you right now, I'd be counting the money," said Vicky,
      breaking into laughter.

      The Torosians appear to have been victims of a purist view of card
      games. Popular among old-time poker players, it holds that any game
      derivative of a 52-card deck shouldn't be patented.

      "Sam was upset with me because I advised him not to try to copyright
      it ... I told him that anything done with a deck of cards was in the
      public domain," said Michael Caro, an author of numerous books on

      "I gave them bad advice," he said. "But it was advice I felt was

      Torosian won't say which attorney gave him similar advice, but he
      soon learned it was wrong.

      His one-year window to lay claim to pai gow poker lapsed and the
      game entered the public domain, just like regular poker.

      Others didn't make the same mistake, including Torosian's former
      casino manager, Moe Mostashari, who went on to create, and patent,
      no bust blackjack.

      "Sam got the wrong advice," Mostashari said. "Talk about a lost
      opportunity.... Nobody has ever lost more money by not patenting a
      game than Sam."

      Torosian played his cards wrong, but he can now chuckle about it.

      Recovering from heart bypass surgery, he treasures his health and
      family, and spends his days watching Lakers and Dodgers games, or
      tending his garden.

      Still, when he walks across a packed casino floor and marvels at the
      wealth pai gow poker created, sometimes it's as if the former casino
      boss can hear the gaming world's back room celebration.

      The casino barons -- past, present and future -- are chomping their
      cigars, laughing all the way to the bank.

      And Torosian's not invited. "They never even bought me a cup of
      coffee," he said.
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