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Developing Intuition

This article originally appeared in Poker World in 1996.

Players who are new to Chinese Poker tend to err in a number of common situations. The goal of this article is to help beginners avoid these mistakes and develop an intuition for comparing alternative plays. This will be valuable for players who choose to use the mathematical approach to hand evaluation (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming article) and essential for those who play by the seat of their pants.

The typical beginner tends to put his best possible five card hand in the Back segment and then do what he can with the remaining eight cards. This is often a serious mistake because all three segments are equally important when the hand is scored. Consider this hand (all hands are shown in two ways - sorted by suit and sorted by "pairs"):

[1] ª KQJ © J9 ¨ AT63 § AQ75 -- AA QQ JJ KT97653

There are two plausible plays with this poor hand:

[1a] KQJT9 AA653 QJ7

[1b] AA653 QQT97 JJK

Play [1a] makes the best possible Back segment and would be probably be chosen by most inexperienced players. But [1b] is far superior because the pair of Jacks in Front is very strong. How much better is play [1b]? In a $10/point game (2-4 structure) against three opponents, [1b] will do $18 better in the long run than [1a] - a very significant difference. Here’s another example:

[2] ª 73 © 3 ¨ AT93 §AK9754 -- 333 AA 99 77 KT54

There are three possible plays:

[2a] 33377 §AK954 AT9

[2b] 33377 AAK54 99T

[2c] § K9754 33397 AAT

Don’t spend a lot of effort trying to choose between [2a] and [2b]; [2a] is better, but that’s another topic. The point is that [2c] is best by a wide margin - about $13 at $10/point. Once again, the strong Front and Middle more than compensate for weakening the Back segment. A final illustration of this point:

[3] ª KQJ54 © 4 ¨ A843 § K74 -- 4444 KK AQJ8753

There are two plays to consider:

[3a] 44443 KK875 AQJ

[3b] ª KQJ54 44435 AK8

If royalties are awarded for quads, [3a] is the automatic choice. In a game without royalties, however, [3b] is worth $6 more than [3a] in the long run. Here we weaken the Back segment for gains in both of the other two. To repeat, it’s important not to simply put the best possible hand in Back; look for the play that maximizes the overall strength of the hand.

Whether to play two pair in the Middle and high card in Front or split the pairs is a very common dilemma in Chinese Poker. Although we can’t give a definitive answer at this point, the following hands will be helpful in learning to assess this situation:

[4] ª Q543 © AT96 ¨ J93 §Q2 -- QQ 99 33 AJT6542

[4a] 65432 QQ993 AJT

[4b] 65432 QQJT3 99A

[5] ª K543 © AT96 ¨ A93 §Q2 -- AA 99 33 KQT6542

[5a] 65432 AAKT3 99Q

[5b] 65432 AA993 KQT

In hand [4], it’s correct to keep the pairs together, while in hand [5], it’s better to split them. Generally, a pair of Aces or Kings can stand alone in the Middle, but you should try to keep the pairs together when the higher one is Queens or lower, especially if you can play a good high card hand in Front. Of course, the lower your second pair, the more inclined you should be to keep the pairs together.

There are a number of other general rules that can frequently be applied in common situations. Even though they have exceptions, you may find them helpful:

  • With three pairs to distribute between the Front and Middle hands, put the highest in Front.
  • With a five pair hand, the highest pair goes in Front. Playing five pairs is often better than a pat hand in Back and two pairs for the other segments.
  • With a four pair hand, play two-pair/pair/pair when you have two high pairs; play two-pair/two-pair/high card when you have low pairs and can play a decent high card hand in Front.
  • Try to put a high kicker in the hand most likely to be tied. Aces and Kings are common in the Middle - they always get the high kicker. Medium pairs in front are more likely to be tied than low ones.
  • It’s usually worthwhile to break up two pairs to play a straight or flush in the Back. Conversely, it’s usually wrong to break up three pairs.
  • If you have a good hand in a 2-4 structured game, try to win two out of three segments. In a 1-4 or 1-6 game, go for a sweep.
  • With a poor hand, play to avoid being swept in 1-4 or 1-6 game. Don’t fear sweeps in a 2-4 game if a play gives a reasonable chance to win.

The discussion in this article was intended to help you develop a feel for the correct play when you look at a Chinese Poker hand. It has probably also shown you that it’s difficult to play this game well on intuition alone. There seem to be exceptions to every rule and no good way to decide between plays that look about equal. The solution comes from the mathematical approach to evaluating hands that I call the Basic Strategy for Chinese Poker. That will be our subject next month.

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