Alex Scott looks at the subtle strategy behind the deceptively complex game of Chinese Poker – an increasingly popular side game among top pros
Chinese Poker is a game of Asian origin, related to Pai Gow. It is popular as ‘side action’ among top pros, and it makes for a great travel game because all that is needed to play is a deck of cards and some willing participants – no chips are required. Despite its popularity, however, you won’t find Chinese poker commonly spread online. It’s a solvable game in which players using computer programs have an enormous, dominating edge. For that reason, reputable sites are reluctant to offer it.
How To Play
The goal of Chinese poker is to build three poker hands from the thirteen cards you are dealt: known as the front, middle, and back hands. The front hand consists of three cards and must be the weakest (flushes and straights do not count). The middle hand consists of five cards, and must be stronger than the front hand. The back hand also consists of five cards, and must be stronger than the middle hand.
After the cards are dealt, each player arranges their thirteen cards into a valid combination. When finished, they lay their three hands face down on the table, ready for the showdown. Before the showdown, each player, starting from the dealer’s left, has the option to ‘surrender’. A player choosing to do so relinquishes their cards, and automatically loses a fixed number of points to each of their opponents.
After the surrender option, each player compares their hand against their opponents in turn, with the dealer acting last. For example, if there are four players in the game, player 1 compares their hand against player 2, then player 3, then player 4 (the dealer). Then player 2 compares their hand against player 3, followed by player 4. Finally, player 3 compares their hand against player 4.
Chinese poker is played for points. Money is exchanged at the end of the game, depending on the points earned or lost by each player. For example, if we are playing £10 per point, and my final score is +10, I would win £100. If your score was -8, you would owe £80.
In the most common scoring system, known as the ‘2-4 System’, two points are awarded if you are able to defeat your opponent in two of the three hands (for example, if you show down a stronger front and back hand, but a weaker middle hand). If you choose to surrender, you lose two points to each of your opponents. Four points are awarded if you are able to ‘scoop’ your opponent (win all three hands).
When scoring the game, it’s important to verify the scores after each round. Let’s say that player A wins two points from player B. When scoring the round, you would write a ‘+2’ in player A’s column, and ‘-2’ in player B’s column. A quick way to verify that the scores are correct is to ensure that all the numbers for each round add up to zero.
Let’s look at a quick example of scoring in a two-handed game:
Back Hand: 3c-3h-3d-4d-4c
Middle Hand: 5d-6d-7h-8h-9c
Front Hand: As-Ad-2s
Back Hand: Kc-Qc-Jc-6c-5c
Middle Hand: 9d-10c-Jd-Qh-Ks
Front Hand: Ac-Qd-10h
In this situation, I win the back hand with a full house and the front hand with a pair of Aces, but I lose the middle to Phil’s higher straight. Therefore, I win two points from Phil. This example is, of course, somewhat extreme in that both our hands are very strong and pretty much play themselves. The real edge in Chinese poker comes from choosing between two close decisions, and doing so better than your opponent can.
The two most important things to remember in Chinese Poker are:
• Don’t Get Scooped: Set your hand to minimise the chances that you will lose all three hands.
• Scoop Your Opponents: Set your hand to maximise the chances that you will win all three hands.
These goals are closely related, and the best way to accomplish both of them is to set your hand so as to evenly balance the strength of the front, middle and back hands.
Probably the most common mistake a beginning Chinese poker player makes is to look for the strongest five-card hand they can build, put it in the back, and then think about what to do with the remaining eight cards. This approach often leads to an unbalanced hand, such as quads in the back with only a pair in the middle and nine-high in front. Against such a player, you can guard against being scooped simply by putting Ace-high or a small pair in the front – it’s an extremely exploitable strategy.
Let’s look at an example hand taken from a Chinese poker website, which is possible to set a number of different ways.
The two candidate plays are
1 4s-4c-4h-4d-3h, Ks-Kd-8h-7d-5s, Ah-Qs-Js
2 Ks-Qs-Js-5s-4s, 4c-4h-4d-7d-3h, Ah-Kd-8h
In play 1, we have extreme strength in the back (quad fours will win in the back a significant percentage of the time). However, one pair in the middle is very weak. Ace-Queen high in the front is medium-strong. In play 2, we sacrifice some strength in the back in order to boost the middle and front hands. We have a flush in the back, which is medium-strength, trip fours in the middle (medium to strong) and Ace-King high in front (medium to strong).
Play 2 is more balanced than play 1. Each hand is medium strength, which results in a better overall expectation for the hand. The general rule is go for three medium-strength hands rather than one strong, one weak, and one medium.
Adjusting To Opposition
The reason players with computer assistance have such an enormous edge in online play is because to work out the ideal way to set any hand, you simply consider every way to set your hand, compare it to every combination your opponents can hold, and work out the expected value of each candidate play in terms of points won or lost. A computer can do this pretty quickly, but it’s obviously not something a person can do in their head unassisted.
For that reason, some players have developed a scoring system for Chinese poker combinations. For example, Aces full or better in the back might be worth 20 points, and a pair of Queens in the front might be worth ten points. Using the scoring system, you can assign a value to each way of setting your hand, and the play with the highest number is the best play. The exact details of the scoring system are too cumbersome to be included here, but if you’re interested, a bit of research online can unearth an extremely profitable way to play Chinese poker.
There may be a mathematically correct way to play each hand, but you can actually improve on the maths by adjusting to your opponents’ tendencies, especially in heads-up play. For example, many players put too much emphasis on the back hand, and you can react by strengthening your middle and front hands. Other players always put a pair in front, in which case you can respond by keeping two pair in the middle, which you would normally split. Watching out for these tendencies can save you a lot of money in critical situations!