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Playing Well in Chinese Poker

This article originally appeared in Poker World in 1996.

If you play Chinese Poker for a while, you soon realize that your results in any given session depend very much on the cards you pick up. Sometimes, hand after hand falls into place and the chips just roll in. On other days, even your good hands get beaten time after time. This fact, the large short-run variance of Chinese Poker, leads many players to believe that skill is not an important part of the game. But, as the saying goes, the cards even out in the long run, and the better you play, the more likely you are to be a winner over time. In this article, we'll discuss what it means to play well in Chinese Poker.

There are two steps in the play of a Chinese Poker hand: finding the plausible alternatives and then choosing the best one. Often the alternatives are apparent as soon as you sort your cards, but not all hands are like that. Sometimes a thorough examination is needed to uncover plays that are disguised by more obvious ones. Many players underestimate how often they miss the best play until they use the CPOKER computer program, which gives its play of each hand after you have made your choice. It is really quite a shock when the program chooses a play that you completely overlooked and that you surely would have made had you seen it. Failing to find the best alternative can be very expensive. One player, who is also expert in Blackjack, told me: "It's like playing Blackjack and, every 100 hands or so, doubling down on 16 against the dealer's Ten". In games among good players, the frequency of missed plays is probably the biggest determinant of who wins the chips in the long run. So playing well in Chinese Poker means, first of all, that you very rarely overlook the best play.

To ensure that you are examining all the alternatives, you must develop a systematic approach to use on each hand. One method is to first look at all the possible plays if you choose to play a flush in the Back hand. With a six card or longer suit, be sure to consider the effects of removing each card (or group of cards) from the flush. Then consider what straights might be played in Back. Finally, look at the pair structure of the hand and see what happens if you choose a full house or two pair as your Back hand. Whatever method you select, use it on every hand and remember that your enemies are fatigue and lack of concentration. It is difficult but essential to maintain focus for as long as you choose to continue playing.

Now that you know the possible plays, the second step in playing well is choosing the best of them. There are two approaches to solving this problem: a well-developed intuition and a mathematical method of evaluating hands. Good intuitive players have, through long experience, developed the ability to judge which play will produce the best results in a variety of situations. But, unless they use a computer to check out their judgements, these players run the risk of making the same mistakes over and over again. An inferior choice might work out better than the best choice several times in a row, and the intutitive player will be misled into adopting tactics that will cost a lot of chips in the future. Mathematical players, on the other hand, estimate the "win probability" of each hand segment (they say, for example, that a KJ flush in the Back wins 50% of the time), and use those numbers to estimate the long-run expectation of a play. Their problem is the use of the word "estimate" twice in the last sentence. Win probabilities vary depending on the exact composition of a hand and the playing habits of opponents, and converting those numbers into expectation is not an easy task. As you might guess, the best players use a combination of the mathematical and intuitive approaches.

In the next few articles in this series, we're going to work on developing your judgement in evaluating alternatives. Then, later on, we'll introduce the mathematical approach. Here are a few of the hands we'll be considering soon. Take a deck of cards and see if you can find the best play with each of them:

1. (S)73 (H)3 (D)AT93 (C)AK9754

2. (S)KQJ54 (H)4 (D)A843 (C)K74

3. (S)KQJ (H)J9 (D)AT63 (C)AQ75

4. (S)Q543 (H)AT96 (D)J93 (C)Q2

5. (S)K543 (H)AT96 (D)A93 (C)Q2

Copyright 2000-2020 Don Smolen    This material is sponsored in part by PokerStars.