Chinese poker

Fancy a game that’s full of gamble? Here’s Hellmuth and Matusow with a lesson in Chinese poker

You’re looking to score big by setting yourself up with bonus hands

If you haven’t sampled the tasty action of Chinese poker yet you’ll almost certainly have heard of it. It may have come to your attention on an episode of High Stakes Poker, through a friend or on a forum, or you might have seen it being played in a casino.

One thing is certain, Chinese is becoming the action game of choice in tournament downtime.

Although variants have long been popular in the Asian community, the game has enjoyed only sporadic acceptance in the poker community at large. It was incorporated into World Series of Poker bracelet events in 1995 and 1996, with Doyle Brunson finishing as runner-up to Steve Zolotow in the inaugural $5,000 tournament, but it comes as a surprise that the game is currently enjoying a resurgence.

To meet demand Planet Hollywood has installed two Chinese Poker heads- up tables in its newly refurbished cardroom, while top pros at the Bellagio and Wynn are regularly spotted playing for high stakes.

What are the rules?

Chinese poker is a game for two to four players with a standard deck of 52 cards used. The normal poker hands ranking is the same but a points scoring system, more akin to gin rummy, is used rather than conventional betting. At the beginning of the hand each player is dealt 13 cards with which to make three separate poker hands: two five-card hands and a single three-card hand.

These are ‘set’ in order of a ‘back’ hand of five cards, a ‘middle’ hand of five cards and a ‘front’ hand of three cards. Your back hand must be the strongest, followed by your middle hand, with your three-card hand at the front being your weakest.

The aim is to pick up points by beating the corresponding hands of each of the other players. As the ‘front’ hand only contains three cards, the best hand is three of a kind, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘prile’. Three-card straights and flushes do not count in the front hand, only pairs, three of a kind and high card.

How does scoring work?

You win a single point from each opponent for every hand that beats their corresponding one. For instance, if your back hand Ace-high flush beats an opponent’s King-high flush you score one point. If you win all three hands against a single opponent you achieve a ‘scoop’ and are awarded an extra point giving you a total of four points.

If you’re playing against two or three other opponents you play all three of your hands against each opponent individually, rather than just the single person with the best front, middle or back hand. And likewise they compare hands against each other too.

Getting a scoop is obviously great, but where you’re looking to score really big is by setting yourself up with bonus hands. Quads, straight flushes, a full house or better in the middle hand, and a set in your three-card front hand will all bag you precious points.

You should never split a bonus up voluntarily, even if it leaves you with little else in your other hands, as the bonus points will almost certainly cover any other losses.

What is a point worth?

Before the first card is dealt all players must agree on how much each point is worth, and as you could easily be 25 points down in an hour, think carefully about whether you want to play for 10p, £1 or £100 a point. There’s no harm in starting with low stakes and raising them after you’ve bedded in. While chips are probably simplest for keeping score, pen and paper is almost as easy.

It’s easiest for everyone to play for the same points value, although different players can agree to play at whichever value they wish.

Do I have to play a hand?

Occasionally you’ll get dealt a hand that is so horribly unplayable that it’s better to ‘surrender’ than face the chance of being scooped. As play starts from the left of the dealer each player is given the choice to surrender their hand at the cost of three points, i.e. less than a scoop. In doing this you also avoid having to pay any extra points if any of your opponents are holding bonus hands.

How long is the game?

How long’s a piece of string? You could play for a few hands or all night. But like any game of poker, it’s impolite to hit and run, so it’s always a good rule of thumb to say at the beginning of the game how long you’ll be playing for if you haven’t got the stamina for a marathon session. Also, the stakes are often doubled for the last few hands, which can be tempting but dangerous when chasing big losses.

Remember to never play outside your comfort zone, because the emphasis in this game is far more on luck than skill. If the poker gods are laughing rather than smiling at you, you could be paying out faster than an ATM. However, there is a small edge for those who have studied the game and know their opponents, so it’s a great game to have in your armoury.

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