Poker Pros Love Chinese Poker Side Games

Chinese Poker has been gaining quite a bit of traction in the past few years and Todd Brunson drew some media attention when he called the Open-face variation of the game “a cancer” in the poker world. The implication being that there is harm being perpetrated on poker by the game’s mere existence, with the potential of delivering a lethal blow.


From this seat at the table the arrival of Chinese Poker reminds me of the exchange between Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with Lorre assuming the role of “Chinese Poker” and Bogart playing “Hold’Em.”

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Poker Pros Love Chinese Poker Side Games


Lorre: You despise me, don’t you.

Bogart: If I gave you any thought, I probably would.


Brunson points out the obvious in disparaging Open-face Chinese Poker (OFC): there is no betting and no bluffing and it is not even poker. Exactly, so what is the fuss? Brunson objects to the game even being dealt in poker rooms since Gin Rummy is not offered, nor is backgammon. Fair enough, but enough players want to play OFC, especially for high stakes, that card rooms are going to deal it. Who are some of the gamblers enjoying hands of Chinese Poker and what attracts them to the game?


For Phil Hellmuth, “Chinese killed Texas Hold’em for me.” He found himself playing OFC in such long sessions and for such high stakes that he compared its addictive qualities to that of crack cocaine. He considers some huge losses he took in learning the game to be nothing more than tuition.


Brandon Cantu, winner of two World Series of Poker bracelets, is credited with being the Johnny Appleseed of Chinese Poker among American pro players. For him the game provides an antidote for the ills that plague poker, chief among them being slow game play, being out of the action entirely on so many hands and being a lousy spectator experience if you can not see the hole cards.


Cantu encountered the game in the iconic century-old Aviation Club de France in Paris before it was raided and forced into judicial liquidation earlier this year. Cantu had spent several days hopping into Chinese poker games in between hands of Hold’em before running into New Yorker Shaun Deeb and teaching him the game.


Cantu fattened his wallet at Deeb’s expense in long-running early games but those hard lessons created a new convert. Deeb now plays Chinese poker almost exclusively and for stakes as high as he can find. In 2014, he captured top honors at the an open-face Chinese poker tournament at the Poker Stars CaribbeanAdventure in the Bahamas.


The cadre of top poker pros who could be found engaging in side games of OFC grew to about 12 to 15 including, Daniel Negreanu, Robert Mizrachi and Barry Greenstein. All seem to agree that the biggest attraction of the game is its freshness.


At this point in the evolution of Texas Hold’em all the top players, and many of far lesser caliber, know all the optimal strategies and game play at any particular table can quickly become a mechanical exercise in executing standard plays. Not only does the optimal strategy of open-face Chines Poker remain unsolved but the players themselves admit to bafflement at seeing opponents they respect playing hands differently than they would set the hands.


At the same time OFC is easy to learn and offers enough luck and volatility that newcomers will not shy away from tables with name players. They will win enough to keep coming back but the pros can still recognize patterns and read the deck well enough to find the game profitable in the proverbial long run.


For now OFC has pushed its way past being a novelty to earn a place in the upper echelon of card games. It may not be poker but there are big enough stakes to draw gambling’s biggest players to the game. It seems inevitable that a computer program will come out that will outperform humans and everyone will be setting their hands and chasing points the same way. Until that happens, however, you are likely to keep on hearing plenty of buzz around open-face Chinese poker.