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A Closer Look at Chinese Poker

A Game Where Even Phil Hellmuth Can't Dodge Bullets

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Phil HellmuthOne night at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, just before the start of the European Poker Tour grand final in March 2007, Phil Hellmuth entered the hotel lobby and ran into his friends Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey. Unbeknownst to him, one of his worst fears in poker would soon be realized.

A few hours later, Hellmuth sat across from Ivey and had lost more than a half a million dollars playing poker, Chinese-style. The hit shook Hellmuth like no other, not only because he told himself that he never wanted to lose more than $500,000 in one day, but because it happened playing a form of poker that largely depends on the luck of the draw rather than the skill of the player.

That sure puts some fire under his famous quote that “If luck weren't involved, I guess I'd win every one."

Yes, Chinese poker can be brutal. Just ask any of the professional poker players who have walked away stuck while waiting for the real games to begin. Real games meaning the ones where skilled players can usually transcend the lucky players who run so well that it seems as though they paid off the poker gods with their souls.

Hellmuth shared this loss to the world via his blog. He wrote: “…the next thing you know, I was an over $500,000 loser. Understand, mind you, that my biggest loss ever in one session was $135,000 (about $105,000 of which was mine). I was freaked out and shocked. At 10 a.m. we quit, and I was losing $536,000. The very reason I avoid the big game at Bellagio, in fact my stated reason, is this, ‘I never want to have to lose $500,000 in one day.’”

Chinese poker has resurfaced, gaining popularity in both home games and on the professional circuit. Perhaps the driving force behind the resurgence is blogs like Hellmuth’s and other  pros telling stories of their Chinese poker wins and losses, convincing fans and followers to try it out. Forums are now flooded with Chinese poker topics. The allure of the game could lie in a combination of factors, and this growing trend among the type of competitors who pride themselves in beating the skill-based game of poker begs the question: Why play Chinese?

Steve Zolotow, with his Fu Manchu and thin wire-rimmed glasses, shows unwavering discipline at the poker table but also shares a passion for Chinese poker. The professional gambler remembers when the poker community was introduced to the game.

“In New York, people used to play at a place called Lum’s Chinese restaurant,” Zolotow, who owns a WSOP bracelet in Chinese poker,  said. “David Grey used to play in that game and introduced it to poker players. We would play it waiting for a game, and people liked it because there was no commitment to a long game, and it is so easy to teach people.”

Here is how the game works. Typically, the game is played with four players but can be played threehanded or heads up. Each player is dealt 13 cards from a standard 52-card deck. Players must arrange their cards into three poker hands: the front (three cards), the middle (five cards), and the back (five cards). Straights and flushes do not count for the front. TheSteve Zolotow back five cards must be the strongest hand of the three, the middle five must be second strongest, and the front three must be the weakest. Once arranged, the cards are then placed face down on the table until all players have set their hands. Players turn the cards face up, and the money is awarded in terms of “units.”

Units are the stakes at which the game is being played and can be set at any amount. Each player compares corresponding hands. Players win one point per each winning hand from each opponent. There are many different forms of scoring, and additional points are often awarded for winning all three hands against your opponents, which is called getting “scooped.”

Another aspect of the game is royalties, which are automatic rewards for making certain types of hands, such as a straight flushes.

“Royalties add a huge luck-factor to the game. The person who gets the royalties will win for that session. I like playing with royalties because it gives the game more excitement,” said Zolotow.

These are what contribute to a lot of the huge swings. Players can win big or lose it all in this game, and since success largely depends on the cards that you are dealt, it is often looked upon as a game for die-hard gamblers.

So what about those players who sit down in a Chinese poker game thinking that it is just the luck of the draw? Or the ego-maniacs who believe that because they succeed in other variations of poker, that they must be talented at Chinese? Are they right, or do they not have a fighting chance?

World Series of Poker bracelet winner and frequent Chinese poker player Tom Schneider put it this way: “The great thing about Chinese poker is that it seems like an easy game, and until you play it, you never know how many mistakes you can really make.”

Schneider and two-time WSOP bracelet winner and friend Pat Poels run in the same circles in Arizona games and have played Chinese poker together for years. Poels has seen very good poker players get busted up playing Chinese poker.

“There is a tendency to think you are very good. There is no shortage of pros out on the tour who are playing the game, but there is a big difference between players who play well and those who don’t,” Poels said. “Pros who are good at other games often automatically think that they are good at Chinese, but it actually takes a lot of skill and practice.”

Both say that the key is to set up hands correctly to maximize profits and avoiding costly mistakes.

“Say I’m playing with a guy who makes three six-point mistakes every hour, or even every 90 minutes. That’s 18 points he’s giving me every 90 minutes, and that a lot of ammunition that I can use to combat the luck,” said Hellmuth.

Despite Hellmuth’s losses, he also attests his incredible reading abilities in helping him determine the strength of his opponent’s hands. This affects where he places strength in his own hand in order to win two out of the three.

According to Zolotow, it could also be profitable to play with someone who easily goes on tilt, because a losing Chinese poker session preceding a cash game even begins could result in even bigger wins in that cash game.

“I’ve seen it many times, and probably done it myself a few times before,” he said. “I adjusted to the fact that you must forget about Chinese poker during the real game or just quit playing.”

Chinese on the Tournament Circuit

Chinese poker made a few appearances on the tournament circuit. In 1995, Zolotow won a WSOP bracelet in a $5,000 buy-in Chinese poker event. He defeated Doyle Brunson heads up for the more than $112,000 first-place prize. Zolotow followed that with a win at the Hall of Fame Poker in another $5,000 buy-in Chinese poker event for just over $65,000. Despite winning these titles, Zolotow says that it is not really a good tournament game because blinds structures don’t allow for royalties, which is part of the excitement. He believes that is why Chinese poker tournaments have died and why the WSOP stopped running the event after 1996.

In an attempt to revive Chinese poker tournaments, and in response to the recent popular demand for the game, Planet Hollywood and Michael Mizrachi hosted a $5,000 buy-in event last summer at the same time the WSOP was in town. Despite a short seven-day notice and time-slot competition from the Ante Up for Africa charity event, the tournament attracted 31 players. Jesse McGinty won the tournament and took home $69,000. (Click here to view a video from the tournament). The casino also has a special Chinese poker table and is willing to host a game whenever there is enough interest.

So, whether it is the amount of luck involved, the gambling aspect, or the simplicity of the rules, the fact is that a growing number of poker players are developing a love affair with Chinese poker.

“All I know is that I play the game, I believe, almost perfectly, and because of that, I like to play. Also it’s entertaining, and it’s really fun,” said Hellmuth.

In one of Hellmuth’s most recent blogs that he posted in December 2007, during the Five-Diamond World Poker Classic, there was a heading that said, “Elimination, $420,000 Chinese poker loss, and more.” He was playing for $4,000 a unit, with royalties. Hellmuth did win back a considerable amount in another Chinese poker session, and since he was also backed 50 percent by Doyle Brunson, his poker loss for the night was a “more manageable” $130,000.

Despite his incredible reported losses and several day-long sessions playing Chinese poker this year, Hellmuth says he is about even from running bad at high stakes, running well at lower stakes, and winning more points than his opponents.

When asked what the allure of Chinese poker is for him, he said, “I play for the love of the game.”