The first time I went to the World Series of Poker was in the year 2000. In those days the WSOP was still held at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. It was a much smaller affair than it is today, but back then it was like an international convention of gamblers. Though fewer in number, folks still came from around the world to try to win the main event.
I remember walking around the poker room in awe of seeing so many of the legendary players I had only heard and read about. I also remember being in awe of all the money that was being splashed around. The side games around the tournament were the biggest poker games I had ever seen. And one of the biggest games in the room didn’t even appear to be poker at all. In the middle of the room Clyde “Puggy” Pearson sat across a table from Doyle “Tex Dolly” Brunson with a cigar chomped in his mouth and what looked like half a deck of cards fanned out in his hands. The two men fingered through these huge stacks of cards, setting them this way and that, before finally arranging all of their cards on the table next to each other. At that point the crowd around the table all leaned in for a better look. Tex Dolly and Puggy scanned each other’s hands and then whipped out huge stacks of hundred dollar bills, each thumbing off a stack and paying the other off. Then the dealer shuffled up the cards and dealt them out again.
The onlookers all started arguing with each other about how each of the men played their hands, what they should have done differently. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on. Was this poker?
“What is this crazy game?” I asked someone next to me.
“This is Chinese Poker, $200 a point.” he replied.
CHINESE POKER RULES
The rules of Chinese poker are simple if you know the rankings of poker hands.
- Each player receives 13 cards.
- You then arrange your hand into three different hands, two five card poker hands and one three card poker hand.
- Straights and flushes don’t count in your three card hand, only high card, pairs and trips.
- Your hands have to increase in strength, starting with the three card hand.
- Once you’ve set your hands, you compare each of your three hands with your opponents corresponding hands, with the best hand earning a point, and a bonus point being awarded for sweeping all three.
- There are also bonus points awarded to making certain hands, starting with straights on bottom and pairs higher than sixes on top. These bonus points can make the game incredibly swingy, especially if one player “fouls” their hand - fails to create three hands that ascend in value from bottom to top.
- In that case the player pays the sweep bonus plus any high hand bonuses. Depending on the agreed upon bonuses, hands can get up to thirty points or higher in some cases.
The game is unlike poker in that there is no betting and there is no bluffing or hand reading. You simply play your hand and compare your results to your opponent and settle up. But the game is a lot like poker in that it contains a perfect combination of luck and skill, though this game involves considerably more luck.
FROM WSOP TO OFCP
Chinese poker was introduced as a World Series of Poker bracelet event in 1995 with buy-ins of $1,000 and $5,000. After two years the WSOP stopped offering the event because of the challenges it posed in a tournament format. The game lived on as a side-game for years, and by the mid-2000s a variant of Chinese poker appeared on the poker tournament scene that has now taken it by storm.
Open Face Chinese Poker is played with the same rules as Chinese poker, but players are dealt five cards face up, then deal the rest of their cards one at a time. They decide where to set each card in their three hands as each card is dealt, and they do it face up so their opponents can see what hands they are trying to make and attempt to beat them.
OFCP first showed up in American poker rooms around ten years ago. Legend has it that the Russian poker pro Alex Kravchenko brought the game from Finland to Russia where it spread like wildfire among poker players there. Russian pros like Kravchenko who traveled the tournament circuit introduced the game to the tournament scene, which is probably why in the early days of the game’s popularity it was sometimes called “Russian Chinese Poker.”
By 2013 OFCP was everywhere despite not being spread live in hardly any casinos. Players would play it on their own on the side, in their hotel rooms, in bars, wherever they had room to spread the cards on the table. Then a few developers created apps so that people could play OFCP on their phones. After that, players would play OFCP with each other on their phones while sitting at the poker table playing in tournaments or cash games. OFCP had grown so popular that the WSOP actually considered introducing a bracelet event in 2013, but after dissent from popular poker pros like Daniel Negreanu and Todd Brunson, the idea was scrapped. Instead the Rio offered a $5,000 buy-in OFCP event as part of their “Carnivale of Poker” series. And the OFCP side games at the 2013 WSOP went almost around the clock, from $10 a point to $100 and higher.
There are a number of variants of OFCP, many of which create more volatility in the game, which in turn ratchets up the action. One of the most popular variants is pineapple OFCP, where players are dealt three cards at a time rather than one, and they set two and discard one. Players also introduced the concept of “Fantasyland,” where a player is rewarded by getting a pair of queens or better in their three card hand by getting their next hand dealt entirely face down. Other variants include playing a 2-7 low hand in the middle and playing two hands at the same time when you have the button.
OFCP is spread occasionally in some of the bigger poker rooms in Las Vegas, including the Venetian and Aria. It’s often spread for $5 a point, but during the WSOP in the summer months, games come together at much higher stakes. It is also played online. The Lithuanian poker pro (and member of the European Parliament) Tony G created the first online site to play OFCP on his Tonybet platform. Tonybet promoted the new site in 2014 by holding the world’s biggest ever live OFCP tournament at the King’s Casino in the Czech Republic, the €10,000 Tonybet High Roller. The American chess grandmaster Jennifer Shahade won the event and €100,000.
CHINESE POKER POPULARITY
While some pros like Todd Brunson eschew the game for its lack of betting or bluffing, the demand to spread the game in poker rooms continues to climb. And even more players are playing on their phones on the PlayPineapple app. Phil Hellmuth regularly tweets out screenshots of his biggest hands.
In an interview with the Today show last year, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps confessed that in the shots of him looking at his phone before a race, he was actually playing OFCP. This prompted poker pro Shaun Deeb to challenge Phelps on twitter to a game. Shaun Deeb is one of the game’s biggest proponents. He regularly plays high stakes OFCP, and he says the game is here to stay. “It went from Limit Hold’em to No-Limit Hold’em and now you look at most of the big games are PLO. There’s always going to be a switch from one game to another. And that’s just what happened,” he told Poker Listings. “Like I said from day one, the thing about open-face is that a complete random can walk up, watch the game, and figure out how to play. He can watch every decision people are making."
CHINESE POKER VS. TEXAS HOLD’EM POKER
It’s true that OFCP is growing at a rapid pace, but will it ever surpass Hold’em as the most popular card game? It’s unlikely that it ever will in brick and mortar casinos. The game can’t accommodate more than three or four players (depending on the variant you’re playing) at a time. It takes a long time to finish a hand, which means casinos need to charge for time at the table rather than rake a percentage of the pot. (Not to mention dealers wouldn’t make nearly as much in tips dealing OFCP) As for tournaments, they are historically tough to run for this format.
But there is a bright future for the game as it exists on mobile platforms, where many people are playing it today. Apps like Play Pineapple, which is currently the most popular OFCP app in the iOS store, deals over 100,000 hands a day. And they are tested and certified by NMi Meterology and Gaming Ltd, which is an approved gambling test house in the United Kingdom, so players can feel confident they aren’t being cheated or hacked by malicious players. While we may not see OFCP replace live Hold’em games, we’re likely to see more and more players sitting at our tables playing OFCP in between hands.
It’s true that OFCP is easy to learn, though difficult to master. Here are some useful tips to remember when playing the Pineapple variant of OFCP:
A gutshot straight draw on Second Street with all of your outs live is 76% to hit. An open end straight draw is 95%.
Don’t rush the flush! A four flush set is nearly 100% to hit by the end, so consider playing 3 to a flush on the bottom hand and using that fourth flush card to make a pair in the middle or a strong kicker on top.
Don’t stash your low cards on top. It’s a crucial hand and in games with Fantasyland it is even moreso. Use low cards in the middle, where two pair is good more often than not, and try to make big pairs up top.
Pay attention to your opponent’s hand! I’ve known players who get so fixated on their own hand they only pay attention to their opponent’s cards to look for their own outs, without thinking about what their opponent’s chances of making their hand or fouling may be. If your opponent looks like they are taking a shot at a big hand and are likely to miss, play safer! If they look like they’ve already made a big hand, don’t take risks that will lose for you anyway!
Play progressive pineapple. Progressive pineapple is a variant of pineapple OFCP that is catching on in popularity. In pineapple, when a player goes to Fantasyland, they get dealt 14 cards and discard one after setting their three hands. There is a lot of debate about whether or not this is even an advantage, given that when you play your hand normally and in turn you get to see a total of 17 cards, though only three at a time. In progressive pineapple, you are given extra cards depending on how good the top hand that got you into Fantasyland was. A pair of queens is good for 14 cards, a pair of kings 15 cards, a pair of aces 16 cards, and 17 cards for trips. Even at 15 cards, this is undeniably a huge advantage over playing in turn, and creates a much more action-packed game, because players will shoot for Fantasyland every time. But beware! Swings abound!
Don’t be surprised when OFCP shows up in a poker room near you. And when it does, be ready to put your name on the list by learning the game today.