It’s been more than four years since I moved to China, and I’ve got a good insight into day-to-day life here. As you might expect, there are many differences between Chinese and Western cultures, especially regarding gambling. This fact significantly influences what goes down at the poker tables.
In this article, I’ll look at some differences between poker games in the UK and China, including poker dictionary terms. I’ll use my understanding of the cultural differences to say where I think these differences stem from.
Note: Before I start, I think it’s crucial to preface this article by clarifying that China is a vast place. My interpretation of Chinese culture comes from my experiences of living in Shanghai for four years. Shanghai is a very modern and wealthy city, and attitudes likely differ in other parts of the country (and from person to person).
The Standard of Poker
I’ve not been to Macao (Macau) yet (where the high stakes and ability to play online likely make the games much more challenging). But poker in Shanghai seems comparable to what you’d find in any other small live poker casino.
There are regs, but they are as easy to spot in Shanghai as they are anywhere else in the world. With that said, there is a smaller ratio of pros to recreational players than elsewhere.
This fact is probably because cash game poker is forbidden in Shanghai.
Winnings and Payouts
Gambling is technically illegal, unlike where to play poker in Vegas – which is everywhere! And you’re not allowed to be paid in cash in China, either. As a result, poker clubs have a points system instead. This concept involves buying ‘points’ which are held in your account.
You can use these to buy into tournaments and any re-buys you might need. If you ‘cash’, you will be paid in points to your account.
Officially, the points have no financial value, but you can exchange them for things like Mac computers, iPhones, and iPads. You can also transfer the points to other players. They will typically buy them at a slight discount to save a little on their buy-in.
It’s not uncommon to see a Chinese person in a Western cardroom:
- You might have noticed that many (especially the older ones) seem emotionally expressive, especially when they win or lose a big pot.
- It’s not uncommon to see Chinese players fist pump, cheer, or slam their hands on the table for all kinds of reasons.
It may seem that Chinese players have less self-control than their Western counterparts.
Looks can be deceiving, but this is not necessarily the case. Self-expression in China is way less taboo than it is in the West. For example, someone eating spaghetti in London is likely to take particular care to eat quietly and cautiously.
Slurping, grunting, and slopping are considered bad manners. In China, these gestures are interpreted as a sign of someone enjoying their food.
It all comes down to the importance of public perception:
- In the West, we are extremely worried about what other people think about us (probably too much so)
- In China, people are way less concerned with the opinions of strangers.
That’s not to say that Chinese people are selfish or rude. However, they can often come across this way to Westerners. It’s just that they place more importance on enjoying the moment than suppressing themselves in the name of good manners.
Slurping might seem rude from a Western perspective. But it’s simply someone minding their own business and enjoying themselves. What could be so wrong with that?
Chinese people only seem to care about the opinions of people they care about, like their bosses, family, or friends. It’s common to see people dancing or stretching in the street. I’ve often found myself at a traffic light beside someone resting their leg on a railing to get a quick hamstring stretch.
You’ll never see these things in the West. The competitiveness in Chinese people does lead to the occasional ‘showing off’ on social media. But, for the most part, the opinions of strangers they are unlikely to see again don’t matter.
How Does This Translate to A Poker Table
You’ll likely see this same sort of freedom of self-expression at the poker tables. I've seen some very elaborate outbursts in games where someone has got lucky or been outplayed.
Even in professionally run poker rooms, I’ve seen lots of screaming, shouting, outraged mumbling, heads in hands, victory dances, fist pumps and cheering.
It’s a massive contrast to the stoicism you see of so many players in Western casinos. Good banter about poker hands at the tables is becoming rarer and rarer.
Suppose you encounter a player sighing, moaning, or slapping the table in the UK. It's safe to assume that that person may be tilting. British culture discourages people from 'making a scene'.
So, Brits tend to suppress most of their emotional outbursts, especially if they think their opponent would get a kick out of it.
As a result, seeing an outburst is often a sign of a player who can't hold their frustrations in anymore. It's a likely indication that they may well be tilted.
Chinese people, however, seem to have a good sense of self-control and respect for discipline. For all the apparent outrage I've seen at the tables, I've yet to see an argument or fistfight.
People just don’t take things personally.
It’s essential not to misinterpret any behaviour you might see from a Chinese person at your table. It could be an indication that they’re tilted. But it’s as likely to be insignificant, fuelled by the different cultural attitudes towards emotional expression.
You might be playing into their hands if you incorrectly interpret an outburst. This thinking is something to remember before you start adjusting your strategy.
Personally, I love to see the emotional expressiveness of Chinese people at the poker tables. When comparing the games in China with those in the UK, poker has become too serious in the West.
It’s nice to see genuine emotion and passion at the tables – like in strip poker games!
It’s a reminder of the emotional roller coaster that poker is and why so many of us fell in love with the game in the first place.
Poker Fashion in China
We’ve already mentioned how emotive Chinese people are. Another way they express themselves is through their clothes. It’s not uncommon to see people walking down the street in anything from a t-shirt or suit to a Pokémon tracksuit or full Anime get-up.
You’ll typically see lots of hoodies, headphones and jeans in a British card room. However, you’ll see much more variety in a Chinese poker game.
- I’ve seen a bluff called by a guy in a ski mask. (How’s that for irony?)
- I’ve watched a girl wearing a cat tail and ears peering over a mountain of chips.
My experience of Chinese card rooms reminds me of the first day or two of the WSOP Main Event, where you’ll also see all kinds of wacky poker outfits.
Another reason that you might see Chinese people being emotional at the tables is how competitive the culture is. I've seen this first hand as someone who deals with 2-5-year-olds daily.
From an early age, parents push children to be the best. Assuming they can afford it, 2-5-year-old children in Shanghai typically attend school full-time. They take extracurricular classes like piano, ballet, and English during their time off.
Even as early as five, parents are already thinking about their kids’ university prospects!
Chinese law has changed recently. They've banned certain extracurricular classes to reduce the strain on parents and kids. But the reality is that university places are limited, and parents (understandably) want the best for their children.
As a result, Chinese culture is fiercely competitive. Winning - even in poker hand rankings - is essential!
Sheer Unabashed Extravagance
Chinese people love extravagance, especially in Shanghai, an unashamedly rich and modern city. The streets are riddled with designer shops such as Gucci, Prada and Rolex, but it goes much deeper than that.
Events are all about the frills, whether it’s a birthday, a wedding or simply a presentation. Chinese people go all-in to make things as authentic and extravagant as possible.
Even a school event will have way more than tea and cakes. I’m currently teaching 5-year-old kindergarten students.
For a random football fun day a year ago, the school did the following:
- They installed a temporary 5-a-side pitch.
- The school bought kits for every kid playing.
- They hired a film crew, rigged up a 15-foot-high TV to show the games.
- They even bought a smoke machine for the kids to make a grand entrance.
- There were countless balloons, streamers, and pompoms for those spectating,
- They somehow got away with giving the winning team champagne to spray (they’re 5!).
- They even hired a team of professional referees, which sounds reasonable. But then you remember these kids were three and barely knew what a goal was!
Western slang would call this ‘extra’, and it’s a trait that also finds its way into poker rooms. Take the WanTi Poker Club in Shanghai, for example. Although they host major poker events, the regular schedule is pretty modest. The stakes are comparable to those that you’d expect to find in a small western casino.
As such, you might expect the place to be pretty basic, especially since the club is not a casino.
But this isn’t the case at all.
Instead, each table has professional dealers and deep, comfortable bucket seats. The tables even have the same deep cushion-filled rails typically only used in high-end main events. There are also free drinks, pool tables, self-service fridges and even massage girls.
It’s clear they probably pay for all this with an inflated rake (I haven’t seen the tournament fee posted anywhere). But this fact doesn’t put anyone off, and the club is regularly jam-packed.
This attention to detail and desire to go all out has made my experiences in Chinese poker rooms a lot of fun. When stacking chips or peeking over the rail to check your cards, it’s hard not to get the buzz of a main event.
This enthusiasm adds a real sense of excitement to the game.
It’s like dipping a jam doughnut in sugar; it’s not strictly necessary, but it makes the whole thing way more enjoyable.
The Poker Lingo Language Differences
As you might expect, speaking English at the poker table in China is not mandatory. But most of the action goes down in Chinese. This fact can be a shock if you don’t speak ‘Pǔtōnghuà’.
But, in my experience, dealers are very accommodating. They will help you to figure out the bet with a series of gestures.
Chinese numbers are straightforward to learn anyway. They even have a system of counting to ten on one hand. So, it only takes a minute to learn. This fact is handy for communicating if your language skills need some work.
Registration can be challenging, but you’ll manage even if you don’t speak the lingo once you get to the table. I’ve never seen anyone being told off for speaking English at the table.
In most places in Shanghai, you will often find a random Chinese person wanting to practise their English. Chinese people are very friendly in a social setting.
Superstition On and Off the Felt
Chinese people are very superstitious. For example, the numbers 6, 8 and 9 are considered very lucky. Whereas 4 and 14 are avoided because the Chinese words for ‘four’ (Sì) and ‘die’ (Sǐ) are very similar (it’s the same word said in a different tone).
While many Westerners believe in luck, people take it far more seriously in China. Phone and license plate numbers that include a lot of sixes, eights and nines are in high demand. People will overvalue red things due to the colour being lucky.
You’ll undoubtedly notice this cultural superstition finding its way into the poker room. And you’ll likely see many more hands like 69, 68 and 89 finding their way to showdown. As tilting as it must be, it’s hard not to chuckle when you see Aces lose to 68o in a 4bet pot. The victor starts tapping the 8 as if to say, “I had a lucky 8; I had no choice but to see a flop.”
The main differences between poker in China and the UK are mostly linked to the atmosphere and environment.
Regardless of where you’re from, going to a card room in China is an experience you’re sure to enjoy!