A card game based on poker hand rankings, Chinese poker is known to be a beginner-friendly game since to get going you only need a rudimentary grasp of these rankings.
What’s more, its format means there are often unexpected outcomes, therefore a strong element of chance is involved, so that a less experienced player still stands a decent chance of winning in the short term, even if their opponents have been playing for longer.
Of course, in general terms, skill has a role to play as well. After all, as American professional poker player Phil Hellmuth puts it:
If there weren’t luck involved, I’d win every time.
And nearly all high-stakes pros play Chinese poker, particularly in hotel lobbies during gaps between tournaments.
Typically, there are four players in Chinese poker, although you can also have two or three or even five.
Where it differs from other versions of poker is that there is no bluffing or trying to read your opponents’ hands – you just play your own hand and compare results with those of the other players and settle up.
Chinese poker has been part of the global gaming scene since around 1995 when it was part of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Bracelet event. However, it was dropped just a couple of years later, largely because it was hard to make this form of poker work in a tournament format, and there have been no WSOP Chinese poker events since 1996.
How did it all start?
While some insist that this variant of poker has been around for millennia, originating alongside the ancient game of Pai Gow, another theory holds that in fact, Chinese poker is a much newer development.
This school of thought claims it began when western poker was incorporated into Pai Gow – and the two games certainly have a lot in common.
Chinese poker rules explained
Especially if you already have some understanding of poker hand rankings, it’s not hard to grasp the basic rules of Chinese poker, which are pretty straightforward:
- Each player gets 13 cards – from a regular 52-card deck
- You then arrange these into three separate poker hands, two of five cards (known as the ‘middle’ and the ‘back’, and one of three (‘the front’); this dividing is known as ‘setting’
- Flushes and straights do not count in the three-card hand
- The ‘back’ has to be the highest-ranking hand, the front the lowest ranking
- Place your ‘back’ hand facing down on the table in front of you, then the ‘middle’ hand, again facing down, next to that. Then the ‘front’ hand goes in front of the ‘middle’ hand
- Having ‘set’ their hands, players announce in turn whether or not they want to play their hand, starting from the dealer’s left and working their way in a clockwise direction
- All players then show their hands and reveal their royalties or the extras that may be awarded to players who have especially strong hands
- Any player with three flushes or straights wins the hand automatically, no matter what the other players’ hands are
In Chinese poker, you play for units or sums of pre-agreed money. A player collects a single unit from every other player whose front, middle or backhand is not as strong as their own corresponding hand.
What that means is that, unlike most poker games, you can still win money even if you are the second-best at the table. Some variants reward players with an extra unit if they win in two or three of the hands.
Equally, sometimes there’s an extra unit if they win all three hands – this is also called a ‘scoop’.
As mentioned above, these must be declared before players reveal their hands. Some of the hands which commonly receive royalties include:
- Straight flush
- Four of a kind
- Full house or better in the middle
- Three of a kind in the front
Open-face Chinese poker
Open-face Chinese poker (OFC) is a popular variant evolved from the regular Chinese game, but, actually, you can play it even if you’re not familiar with ‘closed-face’ Chinese poker. OFC actually originated in Finland rather than China, in the mid-2000s, spreading to Russia afterwards.
In keeping with other poker variants, OFC players draw cards in turn from one deck, aiming for the best possible hand. Each player receives five cards to kick off with, and then once card in turn until everyone has a 13-card hand.
No bets are placed during play, and in this OFC differs from other poker versions. Instead, scoring is by points, as it is with other card games such as gin rummy or hearts.
Where can I play Chinese poker?
You can play an OFC version of Chinese poker with some well-known operators, including: