Chinese poker is a card game based on poker hand rankings. It is intended a beginner-friendly game, as only a basic knowledge of poker hand rankings is needed to get started. Additionally, the format allows for frequent unexpected outcomes, so there is a large element of luck involved, therefore a beginner has a good chance of winning in the short term, even against experienced opponents.
Standard Chinese poker hand
|Card rank (highest first)||A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2|
|Playing time||2 – 5 min. per round|
|Pai gow poker|
Open-face Chinese poker
|Literal meaning||thirteen cards|
Chinese poker is typically played as a four-person game, though it can also be played with two or three.
Playing a hand
In Chinese poker, each player receives a 13-card hand from a standard 52-card deck. Each player then has to divide their cards into three poker hands (known as "setting"): two containing five cards each (known as "the middle" and "the back"), and one containing three cards ("the front"); the back must be the highest-ranking hand, and the front, the lowest-ranking hand (note that straights and flushes do not count in the three-card hand). The back hand is placed face down on the table in front of the player, then the middle hand is placed face down in front of the back hand, and the front hand is placed face down in front of the middle hand. After all the players have set their hands, each player will announce in turn (clockwise, starting from the left of the dealer) whether or not they are playing their hand. All players then announce their royalties, before revealing their hands.
If a player makes three flushes or three straights they automatically win the hand, regardless of the other players' hands. As shown in the photo, the middle player has made all three hands flush and is an automatic winner.
The stakes played for in Chinese poker are known as units: an amount of money agreed on before the game starts. Basic scoring rules dictate that a player collects one unit from each opponent whose front, middle or back hand is beaten by their own corresponding hand. Thus, unlike most poker games, being second-best at the table is good enough to win money. In some variants players are also paid an additional unit if they win in two or three of the hands. In other variants players only get an additional unit if they win all three hands (known as a scoop). Also, due to the head-to-head nature of the comparisons, it is possible for different players to play for different stakes. For example, A and B could play for $100 per unit versus each other, while all other player pairings play for $10 per unit.
The two most common scoring systems used in Chinese poker are the 2–4 scoring method, and the 1–6 scoring method.
In the 2–4 method the player receives 1 unit for each of the three hands they win, and 1 unit called the overall unit is awarded to the player who wins two out of the three hands, or all of the three hands. In the event of a tie in one of the hands, no money is exchanged for this particular hand. If one player wins both of the other two hands, they collect 3 units (1 for each hand, and 1 overall). If they each win one hand, no units are exchanged (each win 1 unit, and there is no overall).
In the 1–6 method the player receives 1 unit for each of the three hands they win, and 3 bonus units (on top of the three for the hands) if they win all three hands.
In the 2–4 method, Bob would pay Amy two units; Amy receives two points for winning front and back, loses one for losing middle and receives one as the overall unit for winning two out of three hands. In the 1–6 method, Bob would pay Amy one unit; again Amy receives two points for winning front and back and loses one for losing middle, but they do not receive any bonus units.
Royalties, or bonuses as they are sometimes called, are extra units that may be awarded to players with particularly strong hands.
Royalties must be declared prior to the revealing of the hands.
Some hands and combinations of hands that are commonly awarded royalties are:
Naturals are special types of royalties where if dealt to a player, the player is rewarded immediately (prior to anyone surrendering), and the player does not set their hand:
- Three straights
- Three flushes
- Six pairs (counting all three hands)
- 13 unique cards (i.e. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A) known as a Dragon
- No picture cards (Ace counts as a non-picture card)
- Six and above (Ace counts as above)
- 12 or 13 of one colour
Players with the stronger natural wins and takes the bonus. If two players have six pair the player with the highest six pair wins otherwise it is a tie and no bonus is awarded. With flushes and straights the player with the highest back hand wins if that ties then the middle hand is compared. If that also ties then the front is compared.
In some variants all royalties are worth the same amount (e.g., 1 unit per royalty). In other variants each royalty is given a different payout (e.g., 1 unit for a four of a kind in the back, and 2 units for a straight flush in the back). Normally only the winner may be awarded a royalty (e.g., four sevens in the back beats four sixes in the back; therefore, only the player with sevens is awarded a royalty). Some modified rule sets allow the royalty bonus to cancel out and only the point for the hand/row is added. In some games players are allowed to break up straight flushes or four of a kinds and still receive royalties (e.g., a player is dealt four sevens; they may use three of them for a three of a kind in the front, and one as part of a straight in the middle). Some rules say that players are only allowed to claim one royalty per hand. The standard royalties point structure is listed below.
Point structure for royalties
While the royalty structure varies from game to game, the most common agreed-upon royalty structure is as follows:
|222||3||Full house||2||Full house||0 (no bonus)|
|333||3||Four of a kind||8||Four of a kind||4|
|444||3||Straight flush||10||Straight flush||5|
|555||3||Royal flush||20||Royal flush||10|
|No Broadway Cards*||3|
* Non-standard natural
If a player chooses to surrender their hand, they will pay an amount greater than the amount paid when losing 2 out of 3 hands, but less than the amount paid when getting scooped (losing all three hands). When surrendered, a player is not required to pay any royalties to their opponents. In some variations surrendering is not an option.
If a player mis-sets their hand (e.g., they put three of a kind in the front, but only two pair in the middle) then they must pay each of their opponents still in the hand (players who have not surrendered) an amount equal to being scooped. In some variations players are still required to play their hands.
Chinese Poker was played at the 1995 and the 1996 World Series of Poker. In 1995, the $1,500 event was won by John Tsagaris, and the $5,000 event by Steve Zolotow. In 1996 the $1,500 event was won by Gregory Grivas, and the $5,000 event by Jim Feldhouse. There have been no Chinese Poker events at the World Series of Poker since 1996.
Open-face Chinese poker
In this variation the players are dealt five cards in the beginning. These cards are arranged faceup on the table to the back, middle, and front hands. The cards cannot be rearranged later. Then the players receive a single card at a time for the remaining 8 cards. This means it is possible to make an illegal hand. This variation originates from Finland.
- Low in the middle—In this variation, the middle hand is played as a deuce-to-seven low hand.
- Criss Cross—This variation is played heads up: each player is dealt two 13 card hands and plays each of their hands against each of their opponents' hands. Players' hands are to be treated as two independent hands; they cannot exchange cards between the two hands.
- In this variation, The Wheel (A, 2, 3, 4, 5) is the second highest straight. Therefore, it is ranked above a 9, 10, J, Q, K straight, but below a 10, J, Q, K, A straight.
- Another variation scores the game 1 point per hand, with the winner of the game being the first to 11 points. If a player wins all 3 hands and there are 4 players, the winning player gets a 4th point.
- "Official Tournament Event Details: Tuesday, April 25, 1995 to Tuesday, May 23, 1995". World Series of Poker. Retrieved 2016-04-01.
- "Official Tournament Event Details: Monday, April 22, 1996 to Saturday, May 18, 1996". World Series of Poker. Retrieved 2016-04-01.
- Monroe, Billy (2009-08-24). "Where Are They Now – Steve Zolotow". Retrieved 2016-04-01.