Eastern promise

Playing a variant where the ratio of luck to skill is the reverse of hold’em and the swings run into six-figure sums sounds like lunacy. So why are the pros going mad for it? We investigate the ‘new’ game of Chinese Poker

Hold’em is often estimated as being 70% skill, 30% luck; Chinese poker is the reverse. So any edge over other proficient players is small

Cranial surgery, canal locks and card games all have one thing in common – the Chinese invented them while we Brits were still hiding from Viking marauders and wallowing in pig filth. The Chinese have been playing cards for more than a millennium and have a whole poker variant named after them. Chinese poker – also known as 13-card poker, or occasionally as Russian poker in the US – is based on the usual poker hand rankings, but comparing it to hold’em is like comparing Play Your Cards Right to Mastermind.

So why should you care? Well, if you’re lucky enough to end up sitting next to a poker pro on a plane, you need to learn how to play it sharpish, as it has become the downtime game of choice. ‘Back in the Stu Ungar days everyone on the circuit used to play gin, but the game everyone plays now to pass the time seems to be Chinese poker,’ says rising star Erika Schoenberg. And no wonder: it’s ideal for planes, trains and automobiles, as you can play it without chips – and for a lot of money. Barry Greenstein, the cash game legend and Big Game regular, once famously lost $1.5 million to Ted Forrest in a month-long session of the game.


Chinese poker’s popularity has waxed and waned throughout its long history. However, when Emperor Mu-Tsung was playing ‘domino cards’ with his wife back in 969 AD – the first playing of a poker-type game on record – he can hardly have imagined what lay ahead. That early form soon developed into pai gow, a game as impenetrable to most non-native speakers as mah jong, due to the mandarin squiggles on the cards. Pai gow didn’t reach the US until the early 1800s with the first wave of Chinese immigrants, and luckily for quick-fix gamblers everywhere, it was soon combined with the home-grown American game to become pai gow poker, a highly addictive variant requiring minimal strategy that’s still popular today in casinos throughout the US.

If you change the number of cards per hand, take away the dealer and add some opponents, you have what has become known as Chinese poker. It got some cachet as a serious game when it was introduced as a World Series event in 1995 at both $1,500 and $5,000 buy-ins. That year’s $5,000 tournament was won by Steve Zolotow, a heavyweight who has taken two WSOP bracelets and more than $1.5m during his lifetime, cashing six times at last year’s championship (he also won the Hall of Fame Poker Classic Chinese poker event in the same year). It was an impressive field in 1995, too, albeit one of only 24 players: Doyle Brunson came second,Howard Lederer fifth.

By 1997, the organisers had changed their minds and dropped Chinese poker from the World Series. Many of the pros still love it, though, and the game is now acquiring new converts. Brunson, Greenstein and the other players at the Big Game are regular Chinese poker players. Phil Ivey and Greenstein often play together in what Ivey has described as a potentially ‘real expensive game’, which, coming from a multi-millionaire, is quite a frightening concept. Swings of hundreds of thousands of dollars have been reported in these sessions, which becomes less surprising when the ratio of skill to luck involved is taken into account.Hold’em is often estimated as being 70% skill, 30%luck; Chinese poker is the reverse – and then some.Or, to put it another way, the amount of skill involved versus luck is so small that any edge over other proficient players is a small one.


‘Chinese poker isn’t really poker, despite the name,’ says Greenstein. However, he still insists you can find an edge that makes the game worth playing – even for $1.5m. ‘I play better than Ted [Forrest],’ asserts Greenstein, despite the result. ‘I play with pros because I’m able to win. The players in the Big Game are good players, but I’m apparently better than most of them.’ Mind you, playing regularly in the Big Game requires a certain amount of self belief. Besides, Greenstein is, after all, better than almost everyone at most types of poker.

Daniel Fong is a self-confessed avid card player, semi-professional gambler and the owner and founder of chinesepokerfaq.com.He has been playing the game for 25 years and agrees with Greenstein that even though any edge is small, over time any difference in skill will make itself known. ‘There’s a large element of luck involved, but if players consistently make mistakes and fail to capitalise on goods hands, they’ll eventually be outclassed once the luck has evened itself out.’

Perhaps the best aspect of the game is that any sulking, physical violence or shouting matches over alleged string bets won’t take place until later. Aggression isn’t a factor in Chinese poker – it’s really just a languid movement of money around the table, with, in theory, a slightly larger accumulation of chips in front of the better players. That’s probably the crucial factor in making Chinese poker the pros’ favourite aeroplane game. ‘You can play the game with friends and have a good time without there being any bad blood,’ Fong says. ‘From personal experience, games such as hold’em that involve betting and raising can ruin what was supposed to be a get-together of friends.’

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