Chinese Poker

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Chinese Poker (中国扑克)


As with most poker games, the origins of Chinese Poker are murky. What is clear is that the game bears a striking resemblance to Pai Gow poker, in the sense that both are 'setting games' where a player is dealt a predetermined number of cards from which they construct, or `set', multiple poker hands. In Pai Gow a player is dealt seven cards, and sets one five card poker hand and one two card hand. In Chinese poker a player is dealt thirteen cards, from which they are expected to make one three card hand and two five card hands. Since a version of Pai Gow can be traced back to the 10th century AD, it's likely safe to assume that Chinese Poker shares these ancient roots.


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The game has been popular in Mainland China and other locales in the Far East for some time, but it didn't demand the attention of poker players in the West until 1995, when it was featured as one of the events in the WSOP. The event was discontinued in 1997, but by then the game had already earned a loyal following amongst high rolling poker pros on the tournament circuit. The stakes at which the game is played-and the size of the losses which some of well known tournament pros have suffered while playing¬would shock the average poker player. Barry Greenstein is said to have lost approximately $1.5 million to Ted Forrest in a month long game of Chinese Poker. Phil Hellmuth reportedly lost over $500,000 to Phil Ivey in a game, and later said it was the first time he had ever lost that much of his own money in a poker game. If there's one consistent trait amongst poker games that originated in the Far East it's that the financial swings can be extraordinarily violent, and Chinese Poker is certainly no exception to this rule.

Rules of Play

Chinese Poker can be played with anywhere between two and four players (there is a variation that allows for five players, but this is less common). Each player is dealt thirteen cards, from which they must set three poker hands; one five card hand (called the middle hand), a second five card hand (called the back hand), and one three card hand (called the front hand). The back hand must outrank the middle hand, and the middle hand must outrank the front hand. In the front hand straights and flushes do not count; thus, the best possible front hand would be three aces. After each player has set their hands each hand is exposed, with the player who has the highest front, middle and back hands declared the winner for each of those respective hands. If a player mis-sets his hand then he must pay each player as if he were `scooped'; i.e., the same amount he would have to pay if he lost all three hands to each active player.


To date no standard scoring system for Chinese Poker has been established, so it is important that you decide which scoring system to use before beginning a game. The most common scoring system is probably the '1-3' system, in which a player wins one point for winning two out of three hands from an opponent, and three points for winning all three hands. In the '2-4' scoring system a player wins two points for winning two out of three hands, and four points for winning all three hands. Another popular scoring system is the 1-6' system, in which a player wins one point for winning two out of three hands, and six points for winning all three. A point can assume any monetary value you would like; some players have been known to play for in excess of $1000 a point, while other-and dare I say, more rational-players may choose to play for $1 or $2 a point (or even less, should you happen to strike up a game at a family function). Score can be kept either by pen or paper, whereby a running account is kept of how much each player owes another, or with chips, whereby the players exchange chips (which have been purchased from a community bank) with each other at the conclusion of each hand.

Bonus Hands

One popular variation of Chinese Poker involves the recognition of `bonus hands'. The 'bonus hand'system involves bonus payments for players who are lucky enough to have uncommonly strong poker hands in eithertheir front,middleorbackhand.Someofthecommon bonus hand payment amounts are as follows:
1. A straight flush in the middle or the back hand-player receives four additional points.
2. A four of a kind in the middle or back hand- player receives three additional points.
3. A full house in the middle hand- player receives one additional point
4. Three of a kind in the front hand- player receives one additional point.

Do recognize that the payment amounts for bonus hands are not standardized. This means that if you find yourself in a game that honors bonus hands you should make sure to ask what the point value is of the bonus hands before you're dealt your first hand.


As if the bonus hand system didn't make the game volatile enough, some players like to further ratchet up the stakes by playing with 'sweepers'. Sweepers are 13 card hands that are declared automatic winners. They must still be set, however, and they must be declared before the hands are exposed. You can find a list of the most commonly recognized sweeper hands, and their respective point values, on This Page.

Other Variations:

1. The Big Bike A five high straight is the second highest possible straight (behind an ace high straight).
2. Low Middle The middle hand is played as either an 'ace to five' or a'deuce to seven' lowball hand.
3. Surrender In this variation a player has the option of surrendering his hand, and paying to each player the same amount he would have to pay if he lost two out of three hands.
4. Pool Play In this variation each player puts an amount of money equal to three units into a community pool before the hand is dealt. At the conclusion of the hand the player with the highest front hand collects four units from the pool, the player with the highest middle hand collects four units, and the player with the highest back hand collects four units. This variation should be considered if you're looking for a less volatile game.


Make no mistake about it; Chinese Poker is a straight up gambling game. While you can decrease the 'action quotient' in the game by adopting the 'pool play' payment system, or by doing away with the bonus hands and the sweepers, this game was designed for players who enjoy big action and dramatic changes in fortune. If you think getting pocket kings snapped in hold'em is a cosmic tragedy, on par with the sacking of Rome or bombing of Dresden, then you are not emotionally prepared for the sinking feeling you will surely feel when you're playing in a game with bonus payments and find yourself setting a paltry two pair in the back hand. I consider myself nearly tilt proof when it comes to playing conventional poker games like hold'em and stud, but I cannot help but approach a game of Chinese Poker with more than a little trepidation, as I know first hand what can happen to one's bankroll in this game when the cards don't break right. As with Big Deuce - another 'poker type' game which is popular in the Far East - this game can really break your spirit if you're unfortunate enough to suffer through a sustained run of bad luck.
With that having been said, it's still a fantastically exciting and appealing game. If you've never played it before I strongly recommend giving it a try. There's a reason why this game is so popular amongst the high rolling poker pro set, and that's because the game plays quickly and the action is always heavy. If you're looking for a way to spice up your weekly poker game, orjust searching for a new way to play cards online, you just have to give Chinese Poker a shot. Win or lose, the game is guaranteed to get your blood running.