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Open-Faced Chinese Poker: Heads-up vs. Four-Handed

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Apr 17, 2013


Matt LessingerAs an avid game player, I love when a new game comes out. With open-faced Chinese poker (OFCP) being the new kid on the poker block, I’ve tried my hardest to get plenty of playing experience as quickly as possible. There is a certain pride (and, of course, serious profit) in figuring out winning strategies before others do. It’s also just as profitable to find the flaws in other players’ strategies and to exploit them as much as possible.

I’d say the biggest flaw in certain opponents is when they try to play OFCP too much like standard Chinese poker (SCP). They are obviously two extremely different games. If you fail to adjust your game to account for foul hands, position, or bonuses, you will probably take a financial beating. And, of course, OFCP has drastically different hand values than SCP, which need to be learned as quickly as possible.

Recently I’ve noticed something else that certain players are not adjusting for: number of opponents. Again, this goes back to players treating OFCP like a form of Chinese poker, when in reality it is entirely its own game. In SCP, your number of opponents barely changes your strategy. Whether you are playing heads-up or four-handed, you will typically set your hand the same way, with minor exceptions.

In OFCP the game is extremely different heads-up and four-handed, yet I’d say many players don’t treat it as such. I’ll provide an example here to illustrate one reason why they are so different, and how your strategy should adjust as a result. For this example I will assume that in heads-up play it is considered a push if both players foul, which appears to be a more common practice than having the player in first position paying six units (the cost of fouling) plus any bonuses to the button.

An OFCP Example

Let’s say you have an opponent who I’ll call “Crazy Gambler.” Among his first five cards he gets a pair of queens and three low offsuit cards. He decides to put the queens up front, (in his three-card hand), hoping to finish with a legal 13-card hand and qualify for “Fantasyland.” Even considering the substantial rewards he stands to win, the play is not worth the risk. By far his most likely result is that he will foul his hand and have to pay everyone six units plus any bonuses. In the long run, Crazy Gambler is an OFCP opponent we all would love to have.

From his perspective, the gamble is pretty much the same whether he is playing heads-up or four handed. In most cases his risks and rewards are both tripled when he goes from one to three opponents, so proportionally it is a consistent play. The only exception is if he is in late position playing four-handed and one of his early-position opponents fouls. In that case he will collect six units from that player even if he fouls his own hand, so his risk/reward ratio is much better. But other than that specific scenario, he is playing a high risk/high reward strategy heads-up that simply becomes a very high risk/very high reward strategy four-handed.

Now put yourself in the position of being his opponent. If you’re playing heads-up, and you see Crazy Gambler immediately put queens up top, your strategy is simple: just play not to foul. If that is your only goal, it is fairly easy to accomplish. (Hint: Start by putting your crappiest cards in the front and work backwards). You are a money favorite just based on his chances of fouling, so there is no reason to risk a double foul. If you have an obvious bonus situation, such as four suited cards among your first five, then you should certainly play for the flush. But you should bail out early if your flush isn’t coming and your opponent doesn’t seem to be making strong progress towards a legal hand.

What if you’re playing four-handed? Now you can’t just make a garbage legal hand. You have two other opponents to worry about, and if they can put together anything halfway decent, you’re leaving yourself open to getting scooped by both of them. Even if you collect six units from Crazy Gambler for fouling his hand, getting scooped by your other two opponents and having to pay them six units each would leave you at a net loss of six units for the round, or worse if they have any bonuses.

You clearly have to take some chances. But the extent to which you should gamble depends primarily on your position relative to Crazy Gambler. If he is in front of you, he will have to pay you off should you both foul, so there’s no reason to play particularly conservative unless it looks as if your other opponents might foul as well.

On the other hand, if you are first to act, you don’t want to take a high risk of fouling your hand since it is so likely that Crazy Gambler will foul behind you, and you’ll only get paid by him if your hand remains legal. As we discussed, you can’t just play not to foul, but you should take only very calculated risks. In short, you need to follow a more conservative strategy, which is generally the case when you are out of position in any form of poker, and that holds just as true for OFCP.

I gave this example in the context of mistakes, so here is the most common mistake I see: in the heads-up scenario, too many players continue to focus on making the best hand possible (at the risk of fouling) without taking into account their opponent’s hand. In any situation where your lone opponent seems to be at high risk for fouling, you should immediately switch from trying to make a strong hand to simply making a legal hand.

After all, even if your hand is strong, its comparative strength is only going to matter if he sets a legal hand, and in that case there’s a good chance he will beat you anyway! Yes, you can hope to get bonuses which he’ll have to pay off even if he fouls, but really the only bonus consistently worth trying for is a full house, since that implies you have two pair or trips in the back and your risk for fouling is extremely low.

Trying for a straight or flush is not only worth fewer points than a full house, it also leaves you more and more vulnerable with each passing card that doesn’t complete your draw. Yet it seems that players try for them much more often than the risk/reward ratio would justify. That’s especially true in the case of a heads-up opponent who is in strong danger of fouling, and that’s really the main point I’m trying to drive home.

So if you find yourself in that situation, think twice before you play for that bonus hand. Just as in hold’em, there are plenty of times where the weak made hand is better than the strong draw. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at