Pai Gow Poker

The first time I saw a Pai Gow Poker table was in a Hungarian casino located in the capital city of Budapest. Despite having years of experience playing Blackjack, Baccarat, Casino Hold’em and various other card games, I found the layout of the felt intimidating and complicated.

It probably didn’t help that I had previously witnessed people playing the original form of Pai Gow using dominoes, and that too had left me feeling confused and bewildered. I briefly considered sitting down to watch a hand or two, but after less than thirty seconds decided not to bother. I continued walking across the casino floor towards the Blackjack tables.

Later that evening in my hotel room, I decided to search for the game on the web. I quickly discovered that in spite of the apparent complexity of the layout, the majority of the various spaces were allocated to a range of side bets, and the core game itself was actually very simple. I was a little drunk at this point, but felt I had learned enough to warrant giving the game a try.

I was wrong – I lost my money quickly, much to the amusement of the locals gathered at the table. The moral of the story? Never sit down to play a casino game you do not fully understand – always make sure you learn to play the game properly first. If you can’t help yourself and simply must try this new and mysterious game you have never seen before, then at the very least be sensible and keep your bets small!

So, what exactly is Pai Gow Poker?

Pai Gow Poker (PGP) is a table poker variant which is based on the Chinese domino game of Pai Gow. In comparison to most other table games, PGP is very slow. Seven players seated at a Blackjack table can expect to play roughly 52 hands per hour, whereas the rate of play at a fully loaded PGP table is usually closer to 20-25 hands per hour.

As an interesting aside, the fastest casino table game is usually Three Card Poker, with many dealers able to handle around 75 hands per hour!

How Pai Gow Poker differs from other table poker variants

A large number of PGP hands result in a push, which when combined with the slow rate of play makes PGP a great game to choose if you have lots of time to kill in the casino, and want to minimize your chances of going broke. Like all forms of poker, PGP requires a degree of skill to play correctly, but you will also need plenty of luck on your side as well.

The correct strategy for PGP is easy to learn and remember, but anyone with even limited knowledge or experience of another poker variant will be able to recognize the correct decision in the majority of situations without the need for a strategy card to direct them.

Where did Pai Gow Poker come from?

Before we talk about the history of PGP, it seems fitting to first mention a little about the origins of the original game from which it got its name. Pai Gow is a game that originated in China roughly 100-120 years ago, and is played using 32 dominos or “tiles”, as they were referred to at the time.

Up to eight players can join in a game of Pai Gow, each of which receives four tiles at the start of each round. Players will then divide their tiles into a “front” and “back” hand, consisting of two tiles each. One player acts as the dealer or “banker” during each round of play, and all of the other players must aim to beat the front and back hands held by the banker. After each round, the responsibility of acting as the banker passes to the player seated to the left of the previous banker.

There is no easy way to assess the best way to divide your four tiles into front and back hands, so many players rely on superstition, tradition, or habit when making this decision. All gamblers tend to be somewhat superstitious, but the Chinese take this much further than most Americans and Europeans. Winning wagers pay even money just as in Blackjack, but determining winning wagers is a convoluted process that many American gamblers find unnecessarily complex.

Despite its faults, a small number of American gamblers and casino owners did invest the time required to learn the ins and outs of Pai Gow, and realized that it could actually be a lot of fun to play. In its current form, Pai Gow did not really suit the American gambling market, but one Californian casino owner saw potential in the game and decided to try and create a version of Pai Gow that would be more suitable for a US audience.

Sam Torosian and the birth of Pai Gow Poker

Sam Torosian was the owner of a Los Angeles based casino known as the Bell Card Club in 1985, and also happened to be a huge fan of Pai Gow. This was a different time in the gambing industry – regulations were extremely lax compared to those which are in place today.

Casino owners such as Sam essentially had free reign to experiment with new games and ideas as long as they did so only within the confines of their own premises. Full licensing and regulation was only required you wished to license or sell your game to other casinos, so Sam began to experiment with various different methods of translating Pai Gow for the US market.

Feedback from Torosian’s most loyal patrons quickly led him to the conclusion tha the unfamiliar multi-colored Chinese dominoes used in Pai Gow were a major factor preventing casual gamblers from giving his new game a try. It wasn’t long before Sam figured out that it should be possible to convert Pai Gow to use standard playing cards instead of dominoes – in hindsight, this was a genius move on Sam’s part.

A rollercoaster of unexpected events

Sam was a smart guy – he understood the potential of Pai Gow, he understood the American casino market, and he understood the mindset of the typical American gambler. Armed with all this knowledge, Sam created a version of Pai Gow that fit in perfectly alongside the Blackjack and Roulette tables of his casino.

Prior to launching the game, Torosian had demonstrated it to a number of other fellow casino owners. The responses were not encouraging – supposedly, even Sam himself was left with little hope that his game would become become a success at this point. Sam consulted a lawyer to find out if he should patent his new game, just incase, but was incorrectly informed that there was nothing protectable about his new card game.

As it turned out, Sam needn’t have worried – Pai Gow Poker was an instant success which, thanks to a heap of attention from the local gambling press, soon became the hottest game in town. The terrible advice that Sam had received from his lawyer meant PGP had been launched without any intellectual property protection whatsoever.

By the time Sam realized that his game was going to be a massive hit, it had already spread like wildfire and was being offered at every casino in California. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Sam here – he did all the hard work creating a brand new table game, but was unable to capitalize on its success in any way.

Today, Pai Gow Poker is one of the most popular table games in the whole of the United States, yet Sam has never made a penny from Pai Gow Poker other than the profits collected at his own tables. Every casino that wants to offer Mississippi Stud or Let it Ride has to pay a royalty to the games inventor. In the United States, this royalty is calculated based on the number of tables hosting the game in question.

Based on an estimate of the number of PGP tables currently operating in the United States, Sam Torosian should have amassed a fortune of over $100 million as of 2021, and continues to miss out on ongoing royalties in excess of $70,000 per month. Next time you lose a bet after making a mistake at a PGP table, spare a thought for Sam Torosian.

How to play Pai Gow Poker

The rules of PGP can be fairly complicated to understand at first, especially if you have zero knowledge of Pai Gow. Remember, Sam wanted his game to resemble Pai Gow as closely as possible whilst also being easier for a typical American gambler to understand. Here’s an outline of what he eventually came up with:

  1. Pai Gow Poker is played using a single deck of 52 standard playing cards. One joker is added to the deck and used as a wild card, for a total of 53 cards. A four-color deck is sometimes used, making it easier to identify flushes. Most four color decks use green for clubs and blue for diamonds, whilst the hearts and spades remain red and black as normal.
  2. The joker is regarded as being “semi-wild”, because there are a few limitations on its use. For example, it can be used to create a hand of five Aces, but no other five-of-a-kinds. This can sometimes create drama at the table if a player does not fully understand the joker rules. In short, the joker may:
  • Be used as an Ace
  • Fill any gaps to make a Straight
  • Act as the fifth card to form a Flush
  • Complete a Straight or Royal Flush
  1. Before the cards are dealt, all players must make a bet within the range of allowed table stakes.
  2. Once all wagers have been placed on the felt, each player will receive seven cards from the dealer. These will often be dealt face-up, as there is no reason to conceal your hand from the other players – you are all competing against the dealer.

The dealer also receives seven cards, however his hand is always dealt face-down.

  1. Each player now has to divide their seven cards into two hands, just as players do with their Dominos when playing Pai Gow. The difference is that rather than two sets of two dominos which are referred to as the “front” and “back”, in PGP players create a five card “high” hand, and two card “low” hand.

Note: Your high hand must be of a greater ranking than your low hand. So, for example, if the best thing you can make is a pair, it must be included as part of your high hand.

  1. Your high (five-card) hand is ranked according to conventional poker rules, with one exception – the “wheel”, or a straight comprising A-2-3-4-5, is considered the second highest straight in PGP. This means that A-2-3-4-5 beats 9-10-J-Q-K.
  2. The best low (two-card) hand you can make is obviously just a pair. If you cannot make a pair, the two-card hand is ranked according to the values of the two individual cards.
  3. Once all players have created their high and low hands, the dealer will turn over his seven cards and divide them in the same manner. Theoretically, you have a degree of flexibility in how you arrange your seven cards. In truth, there will usually only be one logical way to arrange them.

The dealer, on the other hand, must follow a set pattern known as the “house way”.

  1. All players cards will now be compared against the dealers. In order to win, both your high and low hands must beat those of the dealer. While suits are used to break a tie in some poker variants such as 7 Card Stud, in PGP, the dealer wins all ties.
  2. If you win both comparisions, you will be paid even money on your bet less a 5% commission. If you win one of the two comparisions, the hand is considered a push and you will receive your original bet back. Should both comparisions result in a tie (or a loss), you will lose your wager.
  3. If you wish to spice up the action and increase variance, you may opt to bet against other players as well as the dealer. Such wagers must be made before the cards are dealt.
  4. Just as in the original game of Pai Gow, one player is nominated as being the banker for each hand. In practice, most players will decline to act as the banker in PGP.

Pai Gow Poker Probabilities

Incase you haven’t picked up on it yet, PGP is not like any other form of Poker – your only aim is to beat the dealer (or banker), and it doesn’t matter how good (or bad) your hand is, as long as it is better than the one you are trying to beat.

Roughly 40% of hands will result in a push, with the remaining 60% being split almost evenly between wins and losses. These numbers change slightly depending on how you arrange your cards, and the “house way” in use by the dealer, but if you play optimally you will always have a slight advantage over the dealer. This is the reason why wins are subject to a 5% commission, whilst losses result in the loss of your entire bet.

Hand Probabilities

It is possible to calculate the odds of receiving a particular hand whilst playing PGP. I’ve listed these probabilities below, mainly to demonstrate just how rare some hands are – if you can look at the list below and see you have an extremely rare hand, you can be reasonably sure of beating the dealer.

Hand Probabilities in Pai Gow Poker
Hand Combinations Probability
Five Aces 1,128 0.000732%
Natural Royal Flush 4,512 0.00293%
Wild Royal Flush 21,620 0.014%
Straight Flush 184,832 0.12%
Four of a Kind 307,472 0.2%
Full House 4,188,528 2.72%
Flush 6,172,088 4%
Straight 11,236,028 7.29%
Three of a Kind 7,470,676 4.85%
Two Pairs 35,553,816 23.1%
One Pair 64,221,960 41.7%
Everything Else 24,780,420 16.1%
Total 154,143,080 100.1%*

* The total probability is shown as 100.1% due to rounding to three decimal places.

What is the “House Way”?

It can be useful to understand how the dealer is required to arrange his cards, as there are certain situations where you can exploit this in order to force a win or a push. The only trouble is, many casinos will use a slightly different house way, and just remembering all of the conditions – nevermind working out how to exploit them – is often just not worth the effort to many players.

I have described one of the most common house way strategies on the next page. This is used by numerous casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, including all of Bally’s properties. Many other casinos use something similar to this.

If you prefer to play online, the house way should be described somewhere in the information pages of the game. When you first begin to play PGP I would recommend keeping the house way onscreen at all times, and consulting it before choosing how to arrange your hand.

Common “House Way” Strategy

  • No Pair: Highest ranking card is assigned to the high hand, with the second and third highest ranked cards used to form the low hand.
  • One Pair: Play the pair as part of the high hand. Of the remaining five, the two highest ranked cards will be used to create the low hand.
  • Two Pairs: Each pair is assigned a ranking. A pair of 2s through 6s is categoried as “Low”, 7s through 10s are regarded as “Medium”, and Jacks through Kings are “High”.
    • 2 Low Pairs OR 1 Low Pair + 1 Medium Pair

Pairs will be split between high and low hands, unless the remaining three cards includes an Ace or King, in which case the high hand will be assigned both pairs, with the two highest ranking remaining cards placed in the low hand.

  • 1 Low Pair + 1 High Pair OR 2 Medium Pairs

Pairs will be split exactly as above unless one of the remaining cards is an Ace, in which case the dealer will play a high hand of two pairs with an Ace + Kicker as his low hand.

  • 1 Medium Pair + 1 High Pair OR 2 High Pairs: Pairs are always split between high and low hands.
  • Pair of Aces + Any Other Pair: Pairs are always split between high and low hands.
  • Three Pairs: The highest pair should be used to form the low hand.
  • Three-of-a-Kind: For all ranks except Aces, these should be used in the high hand. With three Aces, play a pair of aces high and a single Ace + highest available kicker low.
  • Two Three-of-a-Kinds: Play lowest trio in the high hand; two cards from the higher three-of-a-kind should be played low.
  • Straights, Flushes, Straight Flushes, Royal Flushes: Arrange hands such that the straight/flush/etc can be preserved as the high hand, with the highest possible two cards used as the low. For example if you have a six-card straight, you would use the lower five cards as the high hand.

If the straight/straight flush contains the joker AND an Ace AND does not form a wheel (A-2-3-4-5), split the straight/straight flush by playing a pair of Aces as the high hand and the next two highest ranking cards as the low hand.

  • Full House: If your full house includes a pair of deuces and you also have an Ace and a King, you should keep the full house and play the A/K as low. If your hand includes an additional pair as well as the full house, you should play the highest pair low, and the lower pair alongside the three-of-a-kind high. In all other situations, use the pair as the low hand, keep the three-of-a-kind in the high hand with the remaining two cards.
  • Four-of-a-Kind: Play twos through nines high, and the highest ranking of your remaining cards low.

Higher ranking four-of-a-kinds (eg tens through kings) should be split between the high and low hands, unless you also have an Ace. When this occurs, keep the four-of-a-kind and play the Ace low.

Four-of-a-kind Aces should always be split between the high and low hands.

  • Five Aces: If you also have a pair of Kings, play the Kings low and keep the Aces in the high hand. Otherwise, spit the hand and play two Aces low.

I can only imagine the terror on new dealers faces as they first catch a glimpse of the above list of rules after beginning their training at dealer school. The house way is a lot to take in, but of course there is a reason why the casinos choose to follow such a complicated list of rules: It’s an excellent strategy that will beat as many player hands as possible.

If you are able to learn the house way at your favorite casino (whether land-based or online), you can not only use it to try and counter the dealers actions, but you can also choose to follow it yourself. When playing online, you can keep the house way on screen whilst you play, making it much easier to consult and learn from.

Player Strategy

Right now, you might be confused – didn’t I mention that PGP was an easy game to learn, with a simple strategy? Perhaps I should have added one or two caveats to that statement; if you are willing to sacrifice a little house edge, then PGP becomes far easier to learn and understand.

The house way described above includes over a dozen edge cases – situations which will almost never occur, such as hitting a full house with an additional pair, or five Aces plus a pair of Kings. In fact, you can see just how unlikely some of the highest ranking hands are in the table shown in “Hand Probabilities” earlier in this guide.

Armed with this knowledge, how should you divide your cards when playing PGP? The following simple strategy results in a house edge of 2.69%. We’ll be looking at the house edge in more detail in the next section, so you can decide whether to follow the simple strategy, or go for the lowest possible house edge by taking account of all the extremely rare hands which might pop up from time to time.

Pai Gow Poker Strategy (No Straight or Flush Possible)

5 Aces Split, Play AA Low
4 fof a Kind + 3 of a Kind Highest Rank Low
+ Another Pair 4OAK High, Pair Low
2s / 3s / 4s 4OAK High
5s Split if below 10 High
6s Split if below Q High
7s / 8s Split if below K High
9s / 10s / Js Split if below A High
Qs / Ks / As Split High/Low
3 of a Kind + 3 of a Kind Highest Rank Low
+ 2 Pairs Highest Pair Low
+ 1 Pair Pair Low
Aces A+ Highest Kicker Low
Any Other 3OAK Highest Kickers Low
3 Pairs Highest Pair Low
2 Pairs

Add ranks together

Total 6 or Less Split if below Q High
Total 7 to 11 Split if below K High
Total 12 to 16 Split if below A High
Total 17 or More Split High/Low
1 Pair Pair High
No Pair Highest Ranks Low

 

Pai Gow Poker Strategy (Straight or Flush Possible)

4 of a Kind Aces Aces Low
Any Other 4OAK Straight/Flush
3 of a Kind + 1 Pair Below 7 Pair Low
Anything Else Straight/Flush
3 Pairs Aces Aces Low
Anything Else Straight/Flush
2 Pairs

Add ranks together

Total 6 or Less Split if below Q High
Total 7 to 11 Split if below K High
Total 12 to 17 Split if below A High
Total 18 or More Split High/Low
1 Pair 9s – Qs + AK Play AK Low
Anything Else Straight/Flush
No Pair Straight/Flush

1. Use right table if you can make a flush or straight with your cards, otherwise use left.

2. Below “X” High refers to the highest card in your hand. For example, left table shows to split four sixes between low/high if you do not hold a Queen or better.

3. When you have two pairs, you need to add their ranks before following the strategy chart. Six or less is only possible with 2x2s + 2x3s, 17 or more requires 2x7s + 2x10s, or equivalent.

4. Playing your straight or flush is almost always the best strategy. The right table lists exceptions.

This guide was inspired by Mike Shacklefords previous work on creating a simple Pai Gow Poker strategy.

Thank you Mike.

 

The House Edge of Pai Gow Poker

The house edge in Pai Gow Poker is actually quite difficult to nail down – while most games have a set house edge determined by their mechanics, PGP gives players a number of unusual choices which can have an enormous effect on the house edge. Many other sites claim that the house edge of PGP is 2.8%, but this is nothing more than a generalization that has been copied and pasted across the gambling echo chamber.

The strategy table on the previous page assumes that the dealer is acting as the banker, and results in a house edge of 2.6892%. If you choose to follow the house way instead, your odds are actually slightly worse at 2.7212%. If you are willing to research a few more edge cases that the above strategy does not cover, you can lower your house edge  to 2.5122%

When playing Pai Gow Poker, you will be offered the chance to be the banker at various points. Many players choose to forfeit this option, however if you are the banker during a round which results in a tie, you will receive your stake back. In this scenario, the house edge is reduced to just 0.2089%. For comparison, the house way detailed earlier results in an edge of 0.2540%, and perfect strategy can lower it all the way down to a staggering 0.0442%.

If you are playing online, the game will automatically assign banker privileges to you and the house every other hand. When using the simple strategy on the previous page, this results in a house edge of 1.4512%. Again, this compares favourably to the house way at 1.4876%, and can be reduced to 1.2893% with perfect strategy.

When playing at a land-based casino, the dealer will be acting as the banker the majority of the time. Because of this, I consider the overall house edge to be 2.69% as shown in the strategy table on the previous page, but as we have discussed, you can easily achieve better odds if you are willing to learn the game inside and out.

The Most Popular Side Bet in Pai Gow Poker

Almost every casino that offers Pai Gow will also offer a number of side bets you can play if you are craving a little more excitement. As a game that is based on poker, it is only natural that the most popular side bet is uses typical poker rankings to determine its payouts. This side bet goes under numerous names, but is most often simply called the “Bonus Bet” or “Fortune Bet”.

Hand Pays Envy Bonus
Natural 7-Card Straight Flush 8,000 to 1 $5,000
Royal Flush + 2 Deuces 2,000 to 1 $1,000
7-Card Straight Flush (with Joker) 1,000 to 1 $500
Five Aces 400 to 1 $250
Royal Flush 150 to 1 $50
Straight Flush 50 to 1 $20
Four of a Kind 25 to 1 $5
Full House 5 to 1
Flush 4 to 1
Three of a Kind 3 to 1
Straight 2 to 1

 

As with amost all side bets, the house edge increases considerably If you choose to place a side bet wager. If multiple players all place wagers on the bonus bet, they become eligible for an “envy bonus” if another player hits a hand higher than a four-of-a-kind.

If we assume everybody at the table including yourself places a $5 bonus bet, there are two ways you can win; if you get lucky with your own bonus bet, you will receive a payout of up to 8,000 to 1 on your bonus bet wager – a possible total of $40,000! If your own bonus bet loses but another player hits a winning hand, you will receive an envy bonus of up to $5,000. If multiple players all win with their bonus bets during a single round, you can potentially collect multiple envy bonuses.

It’s easy to see why this bet is so popular, but be warned – the house edge on bets lower than $5 is a massive 7.7%, and whilst this does decrease considerably for bets over $5 (especially is several players join you in placing the bonus bet), you are still looking at a house edge of 3.13% in the absolute best case scenario.

As I write this, I feel as if it is somewhat irrational to play the bonus bet. When I have been sat at a PGP table, however, I simply could not resist. In case you are wondering, my best win was just 25 to 1 for a single four-of-a-kind. That win probably did cover all of the $5 wagers I had made beforehand, but I soon lost it again as I continued playing the bonus bet.

Be warned, the probability of hitting a natural seven card straight flush is just 0.00000288% – that’s 347,222 to 1, in case you are wondering. Kind of makes the 8,000 to 1 payout seem a bit cheap, doesn’t it?

Online vs Land Based – Where is the best place to play Pai Gow Poker?

If you have time to kill and a small bankroll, PGP is possibly the best way to enjoy your time in a land-based casino. Let’s be honest though – most of us go to the casino hoping to win big money, we aren’t there to kill time. The slow pace of the game (especially at a full table) combined with the mediocre payout of just 1 to 1 irrespective of how good your hand is does make me wonder why PGP has become as popular as it has. I suspect I’m not the only player who falls for the allure of the bonus bet!

Digital online versions are much quicker, and you get to be the banker every other hand. This effectively halves the house edge every time there is a push, which is 4 times out of 10 in Pai Gow Poker. That’s a pretty significant difference. The fortune bet is still there to tempt you as well, but as it is just you and the dealer seated at the table there is no possibility of winning an envy bonus.

Overall, I prefer to play Pai Gow Poker online, but I’d definitely recommend experiencing it in a land-based casino at least once. It’s a unique game, there’s plenty of time for banter between players and the dealer, and it just feels much more relaxed than the blackjack tables.

Your Pai Gow Poker Questions Answered (FAQ)

At my local casino, players are instructed to conceal their cards at all times. You mentioned earlier that player cards are usually dealt face-up. Do you know what is going on here?

Some casinos fear that pseudo-counting techniques might be used in any card game which allows players to see the entire deck. Even if you are playing at a full table and are fast enough to work out what cards the dealer likely has, the information isn’t going to help you much – the cards have already been dealt, and are going to be shuffled again before the next round.

Should I play the Fortune/Bonus bet whilst playing Pai Gow Poker? The odds seem to compare extremely favourably to other poker paytables.

Yes, the prizes are very high, but the reason for this is that your chances of hitting anything are extremely low. I discussed the bonus bet earlier in this article, and pointed out that the true odds of winning the top prize of 8,000 to 1 are actually closer to 350,000 to 1. The casino is making a huge profit on this bet. I admit that I do play it myself quite often, but I know I really shouldn’t and would never advise anybody else does either.

Does the house edge change when more players join the table? The PGP tables in my local casino are often very quiet and it can sometimes just be me and the dealer.

Then you are lucky – this is the ideal situation, especially if you okay with taking the role of banker every other hand. It would be just like playing online. Most players decline the option to be the banker, so that can potentially have an effect on their own house edge, but it does not affect yours.

The only exception is the bonus bet – the more players participate, the better your chances are of winning an envy bonus. This considerably reduces the house edge on the side bet, so if you happen to sit down at a full table where everybody is playing the bonus bet, this is possibly the one time it isn’t a really terrible idea to place a wager on it yourself.

Your attitude with regards to the bonus bet is confusing – you seem heavily against it, yet you admit to playing it all the time. Can you explain why you are doing this?

When I go to the casino, I treat it as a big night out – I take as much money as I am comfortable losing, I dress smart, and I take my girl along and have a meal in the restaurant while I’m there. Essentially, a trip to the casino in a special occasion for me, so I don’t mind spending a little extra money. I understand that I am losing, on average, 40 cents every time I place those $5 bonus bets, and I’m okay with it in that particular environment and situation.

… And who knows, maybe one day I’ll hit something crazy, and be the hero of the table! The odds are far better than buying lottery tickets, and millions of people fall for that scam multiple times a week.

Why is the wheel considered to be the second highest straight? I’ve never seen this rule in any other form of poker apart from lowball.

I’m not sure why this rule was included when the game was invented – several people have ran the math, and it doesn’t seem to be related to the house edge in any way. It was probably just a quirky little thing thrown in there to differentiate the game, that has ended up being nothing more than a nuisance.

Actually, many casinos in the United States have already got rid of this rule, and I suspect that it will disappear completely over the years to come.

There was a story published a couple of years ago about this game, where a player hit a royal flush and still lost – the dealer scored a royal flush on the same hand, along with identical kickers! Is this even possible?

Well it’s possible, yes – but so unlikely that it will never happen again before the heat death of the universe. I did my best to run the numbers on this, and came up with odds of around 300 billion to 1. I find it difficult to believe this event actually happened, to be honest.

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