How to Play Chinese Poker

A unique poker variant with origins in Pai Gow, Chinese poker is simple in concept but complex in strategy. The Tip Top Fox provides you with the top tips for getting started

A poker variant popular with many of the world’s top traveling poker professionals, Chinese poker is a unique, high-octane version of the game. How high octane? Well, any game where a seasoned player like Phil Hellmuth can lose over $500,000 in a single session to Phil Ivey could definitely be considered swingy. Of course, Helmuth and Ivey were playing the Open Face version of the game (more on that later) for $1,000 per point, which is slightly more than your average recreational players compete for.

However, that should not dissuade you from trying your hand at this exciting, if slightly more luck-based, poker variant mainly because it’s so damn fun to play.

There are many different variations of poker, but not many that don’t use chips. Chinese poker is radically different from more traditional forms of the game like Hold’em, Omaha, Stud, and classic Five-card draw.

While Chinese poker uses the same hand rankings as traditional poker, this is where the similarities end. Unlike other variants, Chinese poker can only be played by up to four players – three if you play the Pineapple version). Players compete against all opponents separately, with each hand won against each player worth one unit of a pre-determined value, such as $1. Units can vary in value versus specific opponents. For example, you could choose to play one player for $1 per point, and another for $10 per point in the same game. All you need to do is keep track of how much a unit is worth against each player.

Chinese Poker – The Basics

In the standard version, between 2-4 players are each dealt 13 cards from which they must make three poker hands; a front hand of three cards and a middle and back hand consisting of five cards each. The hands must be ranked (set) in order of strength from back to front. The back hand must be stronger than the middle hand, which must be stronger than the front hand.

Straights and flushes do not count in the three-card front hand. Other than this, hands follow traditional poker rankings. Once players have set their hands face down, play starts left of the dealer and moves clockwise. A player now has the option to ‘surrender’ where they fold and forfeit a set amount of points to their opponents. The remaining players then compare their three set hands against their opponent’s respective hands with the dealer acting last. 

Scoring

Unlike Texas Hold’em you do not need chips. Players compete against each opponent separately and play for points, with each point equivalent to a predetermined amount of money. A player earns a point off each opponent they beat with each hand (front, middle and back).

In this way, it is possible for a player to have the second-best hand and still make money. Depending on the scoring rules being used a player may make bonus points if they win all three hands (scoop). The two most common scoring methods are 2-4 and 1-6.

Using the 2-4 method a player wins one point for each hand they win. A bonus point is awarded if they win 2/3 hands or all three. No points are awarded in the event of a tied hand.

In the 1-6 method a player earns one point for each hand they win. Three bonus points are awarded if they win all three hands.

Whichever scoring system you chose to use, it’s important to keep track of the scores. The easiest way to do this is using either a pen and paper or a smartphone. Each player needs to track their scores versus each opponent separately, starting with the player to the left of the dealer. So in a four-player game, Player 1’s score sheet would look something like this:

Hand #Player 2Player 3Player 4Total
1-6-3+3-6
2+3+3-3+3
3+3-3+6+6
Total0-3+6+3

Example Hand:

2-4 Scoring

Using the above example, there are three players playing $1 per point/unit using the 2-4 method. Player 1 loses all three hands to Player 2 losing $4; $1 per losing hand and an additional $1 for losing all three hands (getting scooped).

Against Player 3, Player 1 wins the front hand but loses the middle and back hands. This means they lose a total of $3; $1×2 for losing the middle and back hands, and an additional $1 for losing two out of three hands. This puts them down a total of $7 for the round.

In addition to winning $4 from Player 1, Player 2 also makes $3 from Player 3, winning the front hand for $1 and the back hand for $1 with a bonus $1 for winning two out of three hands.

1-6 Scoring

Using the 1-6 scoring method, Player 1 would lose $6 to Player 2; $1 per losing hand, plus an additional $3 for getting scooped. However, they would only owe Player 3 $2 for losing two hands. As they did not get scooped they avoid paying the additional $3.

Similarly, while Player 2 would scoop Player 1, they would only make $2 from Player 3; $1 per winning hand with no bonus points as they did not win all three hands.

Additional Rules

In addition to the above scoring systems, there are a plethora of additional rules players can add to make the game more interesting:

Surrendering:

The first of these is the optional (but usually played) ‘Surrender Rule’ where a player has the option to surrender their hand for a predetermined forfeit amount before scoring takes place. This means the player will pay each other player in the game an amount (usually between 2-2.5 units) and give up their hand for the round. The surrendering player is then exempt from paying any additional ‘royalties’ that may come up for the round.

Winning Outright:

Any player that makes three flushes or three straights in their three set hands (see ‘naturals’ below) wins the entire hand outright, regardless of what the other players are holding. This means that in addition to the bonus points on offer for making either of the two mentioned ‘naturals’, they would also scoop 3 points/units from each player who has chosen not to surrender their hand.

Royalties:

These are a selection of bonuses awarded to players for making a particularly strong hand. These are usually agreed by players before the game begins and can be split into two types of royalties:

  • Hand-Ranking Royalties: This is where a predetermined amount of units are awarded for making a particular ranked hand in a specific location – such as 3-of-a-kind in the front hand, or 4-of-a-kind in the middle hand. In general, in a standard Chinese poker game these consist of:
  • Naturals: Should a players’ 13-card starting hand qualify as a “special hand” then they are awarded bonus points. These are awarded before any player can surrender, and the player in question will not play their hand. They are simply awarded the corresponding bonus points. The number of points per natural awarded can vary depending on the rules players agree on. As a general rule of thumb players usually receive the number of units per natural shown in the examples below. Should there be competing naturals in a single hand, then the player with the strongest hand wins. For example, should two players qualify for the three flush natural, the player with the highest flush in the back hand would win.

Naturals

Three Flushes: While it is usually not possible to make a flush in the front hand, the exception is if a player has three cards of the same suit in the front hand, in addition to flushes in both the middle and back hand.

Three Straights: Similar to the above, when a player has three consecutive cards in the front hand (4-5-6 for example) in addition to straights in the middle and back hand.

Six-and-a-half-Pairs: Any player dealt six pairs (12 out of 13 cards) receives 6 units off each opponent.

Four 3-of-a-Kind: Consisting of four 3-of-a-kind plus an additional card – this can also include 4-of-a-kind where the surplus card counts as the additional card.

Full-Colored: Also called a ‘Half-flush’ this is where all 13 cards consist entirely of one colour, either red or black.

All Low / All High: All 13 cards are either 8 or higher, or 8 or lower.

Three 4-of-a-Kind: Consisting of three 4-of-a-kind plus an additional card.

Three Straight Flushes: Similar to the three flush and three straight hands, while these don’t usually count in the front hand, should a player have straight flushes for all three hands, then they make an additional 24 points.

All Broadway: This is where all 13 cards consist of Broadway cards, where the ace counts as a picture card.

Dragon: All 13 unique cards ace through to king with no pairs or duplicates. Can consist of all four different suits. Being as this is one of the hardest naturals to get, it usually awards 36 points from each opponent.

Clean Dragon: A 13-card straight flush, this is the hardest natural to get dealt, and awards 108 points per opponent.

Mis-Set/Foul Rule:

Any player setting their hand incorrectly with a stronger hand in the front or middle than in the back is classed as mis-setting. As you can see from the below example, the player in question here has a pair of kings in the front hand, which is stronger than the pair of jacks they have in the middle hand. This counts as a mis-set or foul.

This means the player must pay each opponent as if they lost all three hands to them. So in a 2-4 scoring game played for $1 per unit, they would owe each other opponent $3. In a 1-6 scoring game they would owe each other opponent $6. A player who mis-sets does NOT have to pay a player who has surrendered for the round.

Chinese Poker Top Tip

While there is a large element of luck involved in Chinese poker the skill element is in how a player sets their hand. For example, say you are dealt 5 5♣ 7♣ 8♠ 9 10 J J♣ Q♣ K K♠ K A♣.

Many novices make the mistake of making the strongest five-card hand possible for their back hand (in this case K♣ K♠ K J J♣) leaving themselves weaker front and middle hands of A♣ Q 10 and 5 5♣ 7♣ 8♠ 9 respectively.

The key to success in Chinese poker is in playing to scoop. While a full house is a strong back hand it is not unbeatable. With each player getting 13 starting cards there is a greater chance of an opponent getting dealt four-of-a-kind or a straight flush. If you go for a powerhouse hand at the expense of the strength of your other two hands not only can you not scoop, you may even end up getting scooped by your opponent. Using the above example a better approach would be to have: 

Front: K♠ K 5

Middle: 8♠ 9 10 J Q♣ 

Back: A♣ Q♣ J♣ 7♣ 5♣

While you may lose to some opponents, you have a great chance of scooping others. If a player always goes for a strong back hand with two weak hands then make your front and middle hands stronger to compensate and win the bonus point. If an opponent likes to put a pair up front, setting your middle hand with two pair becomes more viable. The trick is to balance your starting hands and there is a mathematically correct approach for each hand. 

Chinese Poker Variations

There are two popular variations to Chinese poker, both of which are slightly more complex. The first is Open Face Chinese Poker. It was playing this variant that Phil Hellmuth lost over $500,000 to Phil Ivey. The second is a discard version of the game called Pineapple. This can only be played with a maximum of three players due to the discards. Both can be played with an optional rule known as ‘Fantasy Land‘, which will be explained a little later.

Open Face Chinese Poker

Just as in standard Chinese poker, the goal is to make a front hand of three cards and a middle and back hand of five cards each. However, in Open Face Chinese poker the way players’ cards are dealt and the way hands are set are different. While each player will eventually receive 13 cards, players only start with a hand of five cards.

Play starts to the left of the dealer, with each player taking it in turn to set these five cards face up to start constructing their three hands – front, middle and back. These five cards can be placed in any of the three hand positions. Once these cards and any following subsequent cards have been placed on the board, they cannot be moved.

After the initial round, starting with the player to the left of the dealer, each player then receives one card which they play face-up anywhere on their three boards. This continues until each player has been dealt and played a 13-card hand.

Being as players do not know what 13 card hand they will end up with, mis-sets and fouls are a lot more common in Open Face. In general, if a player fouls, then they must pay all other players who did not foul six units. A player can surrender at any time before the last card is dealt – unless this stops them from mis-setting or fouling – forfeiting two units to each player still in the game.

Open Face Scoring

When it comes to scoring in Open Face, it is identical to the standard version of the game, with each player receiving one unit per hand they win against each opponent. Usually, Open Face uses the 1-6 scoring method, meaning if a player scoops and wins all three hands, they receive three bonus points.

Open Face Royalties

When it comes to royalties, however, things are a little different from the standard version of the game. As players do not know their entire 13-card hand from the off, it is less likely that any of the hand ranking royalties will be achieved. It can also be tougher to make stronger hands upfront without the danger of mis-setting. This means that the royalty rewards for making specific hands in certain positions are significantly higher, as you can see below:

Open Face Naturals

Naturals work the same in Open Face as they do in the standard version of the game. They are of course optional, so do not have to be played. However, unlike in the standard version of the game, there is no ‘winning outright’ rule, and any natural royalties are calculated at the end of a hand and are added to a players’ tally for the hand.

Example Hand:

Let’s take a look at our previous example in a $1 per unit game and see how the Open Face royalties and the 1-6 scoring method affects the results.

Here you can see Player 1 has a pair of jacks up front which is worth 6 points, and a flush in the back hand, which is worth 4 points for a total of ten points.

However, Player 2 has a pair of queens up front which is worth 7 points, and a full house in the back hand, which is worth 6 points for 13 points in total.

This puts Player 2 up +3 points versus Player 1. Player 2 also scoops Player 1 for an additional 6 points (+3 points per hand won, +3 bonus points for the scoop) meaning Player 1 loses $9 to Player 2.

As you can see from the example, Player 3 has a pair of eights up front which is worth 3 points. They have a straight in the middle hand which is worth 4 points, and a full house in the back hand for an additional 6 points for a total of 13 points.

This puts them +3 ahead of Player 1 before the two players compare their hands. That means Player 1 wins the front hand with jacks for +1 point, but Player 3 wins the middle and back hands with their straight and full house respectively for +2 points putting them up +4 points ($4) in total versus Player 1 for the round.

Being as both Player 2 and Player 3 have 13 bonus points each for their hand royalties they are starting on a level playing field. Player 2 wins the front hand for +1, loses the middle hand for -1 and wins the back hand for +1, putting them $1 up against Player 3 for the round, with the score sheet looking like this:

Player 1Player 2Player 3Total
Player 1X-9-4-13
Player 2+9X+1+10
Player 3+4-1X+3

Fantasy Land

Another optional rule type that can be included in either an Open Face or Pineapple variation of Chinese poker. Should any player make a pair of queens or better in their front hand without mis-setting/fouling then they enter ‘Fantasy Land’. This gives them a huge advantage in the next round, with the player in question dealt all of their 13 cards for the round in advance. The player then sets their hand face down, just like in standard Chinese poker, only revealing them when it is their turn to play. Scoring then follows the Open Face rules.

To stay in ‘Fantasy Land’ for the next hand the player must make either:

  • Trips in their front hand
  • A full house or better in their middle hand
  • Quads or better in their back hand

Pineapple

A slight twist on the Open Face rules. Players receive five starting cards just like in Open Face, and must set them the same way. Just like in Open Face, play moves clockwise from the dealer. However, after a players’ initial five cards have been placed they receive three cards per turn. Two of these cards must be placed on their board, and the other must be discarded face down.

Due to the discards, Pineapple can only be played 3-handed. It is also a much faster game type, with only five turns in total between all players. When it comes to implementing ‘Fantasy Land’ rules, this works just like Open Face. The key difference is the player receives 14 cards the next round, one of which they discard face down.

  • Pineapple Top Tip: As opponents cannot see what a player discards, you should discard cards you know an opponent needs. That means cards of a specific suit if they are going for a flush. If they are going for a straight or a full house then the cards that help them should be your discard choices.

The Fox’s Top Tips

  • Don’t Foul: While this can be tough in Open Face and Pineapple as a player does not know their entire 13-card hand at the start of the game, there is no excuse for fouling when using the standard Chinese poker rules. This is a silly mistake that will cost you in the long run. Make sure you place your cards in the correct positions so your back hand is stronger than your middle hand, which is stronger than the front hand.
  • Start Off Small: When it comes to setting the stakes for your game, it’s better to start of smaller than you think. There’s a lot of luck involved in a game of Chinese poker. Add in royalties and rules like ‘Fantasy Land’ and you could easily end up losing more money than you might think. Just ask Phil Hellmuth…

Advanced Tips

  • Pay Attention to Your Opponents’ Up Cards: This only applies to Open Face and Pineapple where you can see how your opponents are setting up their boards and what cards they have played. This free information can help you determine how you should set you board if you are acting last. You can see what cards are out, and calculate the likelihood of making a specific hand.
  • The Front Hand is Important: In Open Face and Pineapple, don’t treat your front hand as a discard pile. It makes up 33% of the points you can score for the round. If you only concentrate on making strong hands in the back and middle, you are giving up points up front, which may cost you in the long run. Try and make the best all-around three hands you can to maximise your winning potential.
  • Pay Attention to Your Opponents’ Tendencies: Pay attention to how your opponent sets their board. Do they go for a powerhouse back hand at the expense of their other hands? If so, try and win the front two hands and beat them that way. How does a player set their board in the Open Face or Pineapple version of the game? Do they take risks in an attempt to make a huge hand or enter ‘Fantasy Land’? Then play it safe and make sure you don’t foul. You will win on points difference when they inevitably mis-set.

In Summary

Chinese poker is a great game and is a lot of fun when played between friends. The fact players can vary stakes versus specific opponents in the same game makes it ideal for players with different bankrolls. It’s possible to win money with the second-best hand and – depending on which game type you are playing – have full control over the way you set your hands. What are you waiting for? Get out there and give it a whirl.

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