Many of the world’s top pros are leaving Texas hold’em behind for a new game. Michael Kaplan investigates why open-face Chinese poker is proving so attractive for poker’s biggest names
When a game goes on inside Aria’s esteemed poker room in Las Vegas and the dealer has to be coached on how to divvy out cards, you know that something is amiss. Phil Hellmuth and Brandon Cantu, both veteran World Series of Poker champions, sit a few seats away from each other, engaged in what feels like friendly heads-up competition. As they finish each hand, with $100 chips sliding back and forth, the two poker pros discuss various strategies that had just been deployed and try to work out what would have been the best plays.
Money’s involved, but so is education. The game they’re playing is called pineapple open-face Chinese poker with fantasyland. Among a certain set of poker players it is all the rage. The game’s newness contributes to its intrigue. That Chinese open-face remains essentially unsolved – unlike, say, Texas hold’em, for which seasoned pros know optimal plays – serves as part of the appeal. Most alluring of all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Players keep upping the stakes so high that, among nosebleed enthusiasts, six-figure swings no longer raise eyebrows.
When he first stumbled upon the game in 2012, says Hellmuth, ‘Chinese killed Texas hold’em for me. I was spending so many hours playing. It is so addictive and such a challenge. It’s a game that you can’t get enough of. The next big hand is always right around the corner.’ Driving this point home, open-face Chinese poker even has its own app, ABC Chinese Poker – Open Face, created by a former Google programmer named Nikolai Yakovenko and beloved by pros who play against each other on it for points, settling up later with cash.
The rules of the game
While details on this game’s precise evolution remain spotty, players believe that it started in Finland, moved on to Russia and was introduced to Americans in 2012. The rules of open-face Chinese poker in its earliest incarnation are simple. You get dealt 13 cards – five cards to start and then one card at a time – and need to make a stack of three exposed poker hands of descending strength. There is a five-card hand on the bottom that must be stronger than the five-card hand above it, and that middle hand has to be stronger than the three-card hand at the top. Mess up the order of strength and you forfeit or, in the game’s parlance, foul. The game is played for points, like gin, with a dollar amount assigned to each point. You pit each of your hands against those of your opponent and royalties are paid for the making of premium hands.
Recent augmentations, however, have created the need for new strategies, rewards for those who are willing to gamble and a speediness that the original incarnation lacked. One add-on, known as fantasyland, provides bonuses for players who make a pair of Queens or better on the top row. The risk here is that the two lower hands both need to beat Queens or else you foul. A third customisation calls for players to be dealt a total of 17 cards (five cards to start and then four divvies of three-cards) over the course of a hand and to discard four of them. So you still make three poker hands from 13 cards, but you have seen 17. Hence, the fully loaded version of this game is officially known as pineapple open-face Chinese poker with fantasyland. But usually people just call it Chinese poker, open-face Chinese or OFC.
Back at Aria, deep into their game of OFC, Hellmuth and Cantu seem to refine their strategies as they go along. On one hand, Cantu comments, ‘It’s all about fantasyland,’ meaning that making Queens or better up top is so rewarding that it’s worth risking a foul. A few hands later, though, he contradicts himself by keeping an Ace and a King out of the top spot. When asked why he didn’t go for it, Cantu says, ‘I was scared of fouling because I have a big hand down below.’
On the next deal, Hellmuth sets his cards in a manner that Cantu is not so sure of. As he gets ready to make his own hand, Cantu says, ‘The beauty of this game is that everybody disagrees on the same spots. And everybody may be right.’
One night in Paris
If not for a fortuitous moment at the venerable Aviation Club in Paris, Hellmuth and Cantu may not have a game to debate right now. A couple of years ago, Cantu was in the elegant casino on the Champs-Élysées, hunting for poker action. That’s when he happened to walk in on a young Russian gambler playing a Frenchman at a game that he’d never seen before. It was more primitive than the currently reigning form of Chinese poker, but compelling nevertheless. ‘The game resolved all the things that are wrong with poker: It’s slow, you wait forever for your turn, you’re often out of action, and it’s not fun to watch if you don’t know the hole cards,’ says Cantu, ticking off the drawbacks of hold’em. ‘With this, I found a game that has you constantly in action, it’s fun, it’s good to gamble at and it can be played by all kinds of people for all kinds of stakes and even for fun.’
Apparently, he was right. ‘Open-face has turned into a game that people play for 36, 48, and even 72-hour sessions,’ Cantu continues. ‘It’s almost like crack.’
Maybe because he recognised its addictive qualities, Cantu approached the game gingerly. He watched the guys going at this early, stripped-down version in which cards were dealt one at a time, there were no extra cards to contend with, and the fantasyland component had not yet been implemented. Fascinated, Cantu tried to absorb the proper strategies. In that manner, before playing his first hand, he intuited something special. Eventually, he participated in a few hands for ultra-low stakes, just to get a taste. ‘Almost everybody was scared of playing against the Russian kid,’ says Cantu, who kept dipping in during breaks and between hands of hold’em to watch and learn. ‘It was kind of a ‘be careful’ thing. You don’t want to go in there and get crushed.’
Cantu had spent about 16 hours watching the game being played before he happened to run into Shaun Deeb at the Aviation. Another high-stakes poker player from the US, Deeb is known for having a lot of gamble in him. He’s not shy about taking on a challenge. Perfect for Cantu who had a head start on open-face Chinese poker. The beauty of being first to find out about a new game is that you have a jump on everyone else. ‘I told Shaun that he has to check this game out because it is so amazing,’ says Cantu. ‘I told him that I don’t even want to play any other games.’
Deeb took the bait. ‘We started playing that night, for €100 a point, and I destroyed him,’ says Cantu who inadvertently set off a gambling gold rush. ‘I won €13,000 and told him that he is investing in his future right now. I told him that catching onto this game first and fast will make him so much money. I told him that this would be the game that everyone wants to play.’
As Cantu remembers it, Deeb found himself unconvinced and a little bitter over losing so much money so quickly. ‘That never makes the game fun,’ admits Cantu. ‘The weird thing, though, is that he wanted to keep playing. As we went on, I saw the errors that Shaun was making and he couldn’t see them. You can’t imagine the edge against a player who is new to this game. I would have played him for the next week nonstop. But I couldn’t. I got food poisoning. I puked everywhere and quit in the middle of playing him. If I hadn’t gotten sick, who knows how much money I would have won.’
Still, back in the States and back to health, Cantu went on a campaign to publicise open-face Chinese poker and generate action while he still had an edge, before everybody else divined what he already knew about the game. ‘It seems like such a hustle when you start talking about a new game. Nobody wants to play it,’ admits Cantu. ‘But then I ran into Shaun in Vegas. We started playing again. He was tweeting about it, showing other people the game. By the time of the 2012 World Series, it started to take off. Me, Shaun, Robert Mizrachi, Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu, we were all playing. There were maybe 15 of us.’
Recalling the early days of the game, Hellmuth says, ‘Brandon [Cantu] brought it in and won a million straight.’ ‘My winning streak only lasted for six months,’ Cantu says without apology. ‘But it was a very profitable six months,’ Hellmuth shoots back. ‘And it’ll never be played that way again.’
Bad times for Ivey
The change transpired serendipitously. Poker pro Daniel Weinman was at a tournament in San Remo, Italy, where he happened to run into fellow pro and recent Chinese poker acolyte Jason Mercier. Weinman introduced the version with Queens or better on top. Mercier took to it, brought it home, and told Deeb about it. Somewhere along the line, the augmentation got dubbed fantasyland. ‘I was living in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time and I flew to Fort Lauderdale where Jason lives,’ says Deeb, recalling that he was pumped to play the latest incarnation of this infatuating game. ‘I stayed with Jason and we played for four days straight. In the end, he won $30,000 and I won $5,000. We both managed to win because Scott Seiver [yet another high-flying poker pro] started booking action against me. After that, Jason and I played everyone we could find. We were the best for two weeks.’
Deeb may be short-selling the amount of time for which he and Mercier maintained their supremacy, but, inarguably, by then the stakes had gotten high and the profits that came with arriving early were fantastic. As Hellmuth attests, ‘I was in Fort Lauderdale for a poker tournament and started playing fantasyland for the first time with those guys. They smoked me. I lost $70,000. I saw them setting cards in ways that didn’t make sense. What the hell were they doing? But they had played fantasyland for 18 hours a day and saw patterns emerging. They were better than me and I didn’t understand it.’ Hellmuth shakes his head and adds, ‘But I had just won $1.2 million the month before and I was already ahead by $150,000 at Chinese. So I was ready to gamble. I think Shaun and Jason both made millions. They talked everyone into playing.’
With the current iteration, which incorporates pineapple (the extra cards), an innovation courtesy of pro Daniel Alaei, the game has become increasingly volatile and the variance can be brutal. On the night that I watch Hellmuth playing against Cantu, Hellmuth endures a 300-point swing to the negative. Lucky for him it was a friendly game, which was being put on, at least in part, for my benefit and the stakes were only $25 a point. Still, it cost him $7,500. ‘I remember at the end of this year’s World Series of Poker, playing Jean-Robert Bellande [a former contestant on Survivor turned poker pro who’s so notorious for violent financial swings that his Twitter handle is BrokeLivingJRB] and Phil Ivey. We were playing [for around $200] per point and somebody had a piece of me. I was ahead $90,000, lost a little and still won big. Ivey hated losing to JRB and quit.’
Deeb, who says that open-face Chinese poker is now the only game he likes to play, has had some amazing runs. ‘I’ll play as high as anyone is willing to play me,’ he says. ‘I’ve played as high as $3,000 per point. I was staked for it and had the biggest winning session, point wise, ever. It was a good time to run like God and I wound up winning $2.8 million in one day. Never before had I won 1,000 points in a session. My opponents were bad and tilting.’
This game seems to bring out the best and worst in people. There was one player who liked walking off to the bathroom for a smoke and taking his cards with him. The other players trusted this guy, the casino overlooked the gaming infraction (you are not allowed to leave a Las Vegas poker room with cards), and the fellow was clearly a moneyed amateur. Another time Deeb loaned a stranger at the table $1 million in order to prevent him from leaving the game. ‘It keeps things friendly,’ he says, ‘and you never know when you’ll need a loan.’ Then there was the night when Deeb saw a wealthy Chinese businessman miss a Queen that cost him nearly $300,000. ‘He high-fived everyone and took it well,’ remembers Deeb. ‘Anything to get his heart racing.’
For poker pros looking to rope in amateurs, this game looks like a natural. It moves quickly, provides lots of action, and incorporates enough of a luck curve that less skilled players have chances to win. In other words, it’s a great gambling game, but the most skilled players will inevitably prosper. ‘There are 100 guys in China who love open-face and love to gamble and have so much more money than we do,’ enthuses Deeb. ‘I played against some major businessmen who flipped for their $36,000 in odd change just to round things up and down. They were eventually flipping for $200,000.’
Hellmuth figures that the best players of the moment are chess specialists who are adept at calculating situations with complete information. That said, it may not be a coincidence that the pineapple version, which brings in unknown cards, has the potential to neutralise them a bit. It’s also fresh enough that newcomers can dip their toes into open-face Chinese and have a decent chance of getting up to speed quickly enough for it to become profitable. This is much more unlikely with entrenched games such as hold’em.
Wherever you come from, you need to rewire the way you look at the values of cards you’ve been dealt. ‘If you have J-7, that is a powerful hand; you’ll often make trips or a straight,’ says Hellmuth. ‘I’ve made a lot of money in this game by trying to get two-pair on the bottom, two-pair in the middle, and Aces or Kings up top. Lately, though, I’ve been converted to flush draws. I don’t know if that is right. But that uncertainty is what makes the game so good.’
For Cantu, it’s often about going deep in terms of analysing what he has been dealt and what has the likelihood of reaching him through the course of a hand. ‘It’s a game of creativity and how creative you can be in coming up with ways to score points,’ he says. ‘If I get dealt Ace-King-Queen suited, I’ll break the royal flush draw and set up for fantasyland. If I had a pair of Queens, a pair of Kings, and an Ace, I would jam the Queens up top. But there may be other ways to do it, and those other ways may or may not be slightly worse.’
In more general terms, says Deeb, ‘It’s a math-intensive game in which the passive players never maximise what they can win. Right from the start, I was overly aggressive. I would force Queens up top with small hands in the middle and back. People thought I was crazy and now they’re copying my style. I’m good at interpreting the deck, knowing how live it is, and recognising how good my decisions are.’
Deeb, who won the 2014 open-face Chinese poker tournament at the Poker Stars Caribbean Adventure in the Bahamas, acknowledges that it is getting harder and harder for him to stir up action among less seasoned players. ‘I beat two of the best guys from Macau and everybody thought I was the best in the world,’ he says, not needing to acknowledge that this tournament win may seal the deal. ‘Now, as much as I hate being the cocky kid, I have to be the best or else it seems I’m hustling.’
Still, he acknowledges that the initial, highly profitable days of open-face Chinese poker are far from over. ‘The gold rush will go on for a few more years. It’s on until a computer program starts playing better than the humans. Then it’ll go on for a couple years after that. You can only learn so much so fast.’