The bottom hand must be a higher rank than the middle five-card hand and the three-card hand must be the lowest rank. After the hands are set, players announce if they have been dealt any royalties, strong hands that include a straight flush, four of a kind, a full house or better in the middle hand and a three of a kind on top. Straights and flushes do not count on the three-card hand – trips are the best hand on top.
If any player can form three straights, three flushes, six pairs or a Dragon (a 13-card straight) these are “naturals” and automatic winners. Points are awarded accordingly. Once cards have been set and royalties announced, players are given the opportunity to surrender and not play the hand. A surrender costs the player more than losing two of the three hands but not as much as getting scooped, or losing all three hands. Some versions of Chinese Poker do not permit any surrendering and all cards must be played to showdown.
Once the cards are revealed, winning hands are determined and points awarded according to the payable. Chinese Poker games are played for points, much like gin rummy. A royal flush on the middle hand is the highest scorer with 50 points – that can only happen with a royal flush down below as well. Unlike poker, it is possible to finish second best in a hand of Chinese Poker and still win some money.
There are many variants to Chinese Poker, usually regarding scoring. Other twists include a lowball hand in the middle and dealing two 13-card hands that are matched against an opponent’s two hands.
The variation that has caught fire in side games at casino card rooms is a recent innovation and known as Open-face Chinese Poker. It is said to have originated in Finland and was not seen in the United States until 2012. In Open-face, the cards are dealt face-up beginning with a deal of five to each player. From there the hands are built one card at a time. Once a card is set in a hand it can not be moved.
The trick comes in building hands that conform to scoring rules – if the bottom hand turns out not be the strongest and the top three-card hand is not the weakest the player “fouls” and the stakes are forfeited. In a favorite variation known as Fantasyland, the three-card hand is awarded an extra bonus if it is Queens or Better.
Game play is quickened by a deal variation called “Pineapple.” Instead of building hands one card a time, players are dealt four sets of three cards for a total of 17. Four are discarded en route to the final formation of the hands.
The appeal of Open-face Chinese Poker comes in the steady stream of decision making required as the hands are built. Players can see an opponent’s hand and, like blackjack, can make calculations on the cards left in the deck. The lure of big royalty payouts in Fantasyland separates player styles by levels of aggressiveness.
For now, there is no consensus of an optimal strategy to set cards in Open-face Chinese Poker. The poker community is still feeling its way around the Chinese Poker table and that makes for fun game play and big swings at showdown.