Chinese Poker – Rules, Strategy & Tips

Chinese Poker, the quick poker game for in between, has long been a popular variation of poker. This article provides a list of many strategy tips and tricks for Chinese Poker.

Rules of Chinese Poker

First, let’s begin by briefly explaining the rules of regular Chinese Poker:

Chinese Poker can be played with up to four players. Each player is dealt 13 cards. No re-draws are possible. With these cards each player must set three hands:

  • Front hand or “front”: 3 cards
  • Middle hand or “middle”: 5 cards (must be better than the front hand)
  • Back hand or “back”: 5 cards (must be better than the middle hand)

Since the front hand consists of only three cards, the possible combinations are reduced to three of a kind, a pair and high card. The hands are then placed face down in order in front of the player.

Scoring in Chinese Poker

Once each player has set his hands, the scores for each player are determined. To do that the individual hands (front/middle/back) for each player are compared with those of the opponents, each hand against each other - front hand against front hand, middle hand against middle hand and back hand against back hand. The regular Texas Hold'em showdown hand values are used for comparison. If you are better in one hand than your opponent, you get one point, if you are worse, your opponent gets one point. If both hands are equally strong, nobody gets a point.

For example: If you beat your opponent in the front hand and the middle hand but lose in the back hand, you get two points and your opponent gets 1 point (2-1). If there is a tie in a hand, no points are awarded for that hand. If there are one or more tied hands, the combinations 2-0, 1-0, 1-1 are also possible.

Scoring systems

There are many different scoring systems in Chinese Poker and you can even come up with your own system. But all scoring systems have one thing in common: you exchange points with each other, which means that the sum of all points is always zero. How much money a point is worth can be discussed with each player individually.

The following scoring systems are the most commonly found ones:

1-6-rule in Chinese Poker

The most common scoring system is the 1-6-rule, where a player gets 3 extra points for a 3-0, called a “scoop”. Thus a 3-0 will give you 6 points, your opponent loses 6 points. With a 2-1 you get 1 point; the opponent loses 1 point. This scoring system is the best one as it rewards trying to scoop your opponents and usually spices up the game.

2-4-rule in Chinese Poker

Another common scoring system is the 2-4-rule. With this system a 3-0 score is worth 4 points while the opponent loses 4 points. With a 2-1 you get 2 points; your opponent loses 2 points.

Surrender rule

Chinese Poker's standard playing style does not allow the player to fold his cards. However, if you play with the Surrender rule, it is possible for a player surrender. He always surrenders against all players and if your playing with the 6-1-rule, a surrender costs you 3 points against each opponent.

Royalties

You can also add royalties to your Chinese Poker game. Those are points that are awarded automatically if you set particularly strong hands. For the purpose of the following tips and tricks I assume you don’t play with royalties.

 More about Chinese Poker Royalties

Chinese Poker Strategy, Tips and Tricks

For all the following tips I assume the following scoring rules:

  • 6-1-rule: A simple victory against a player (you beat him in two hands, are defeated in the other) earns +1 point, a scoop (victory in three hands) earns +6 points.
  • Surrender: It is possible for a player to give up his hand and each opponent automatically gets +3 points; the player loses 3 points per opponent.
  • No Royalties: Royalties and Naturals are not taken into account.

First rule of Chinese Poker – Don’t get scooped!

When you’re playing Chinese Poker with the 6-1-rule, the loss of all three hands costs six times as much as the loss of only two hands in one game. Some hand types are very susceptible to a scoop: a straight with two or fewer pairs, three pairs or four small pairs are the most susceptible candidates for a scoop. If it is not possible for you to set at least a pair of eights or better in the front hand or a flush in the back hand, it is often correct to give up the hand.

If at least one of your three hands is strong, the risk of being scooped is very low: a high pair in the front hand, trips in the middle hand, or an ace-high flush in the back hand are good indicators that a scoop is unlikely.

Surrender liberally

Playing with the 6-1-rule surrendering costs 3 points and is therefore three times as expensive as a simple loss, but only half as expensive as a scoop. Simple math shows surrendering is worthwhile if you think you will be scooped in at least 40% of the cases. Accordingly, it pays off in the long run to be somewhat liberal when surrendering. I explore the topic when to surrender in much more detail further below.

How to set specific hand types in Chinese Poker

There are several hand types which occur very frequently when playing Chinese Poker and many of them have one and only one optimal solution. In this section I’ll provide tips and tricks how to play certain hand types.

5 Pair

A common hand in Chinese Poker is a 5 pair hand without any straight or flush opportunity. The optimal setting for this hand is:

  • Front hand: Highest pair with the highest kicker
  • Middle hand: 3rd and 4th highest pair
  • Back hand: 2nd and 5th highest pair

A 5 pair hand is never strong in Chinese Poker and its strength is mostly determined by the strength of the front hand. But this hand is almost always playable if the highest pair is somewhat decent.

5 Pair example

A A K K J T 8 8 6 5 5 2 2

Front: A A J 

Middle:  8 8 5 5 T

Back: K K 2 2 6

4 Pair

Even more common than 5 pair is a 4 pair hand in Chinese Poker. 4 Pair without straight or flush options is significantly worse than 5 Pair. Optimal solution:

  • Front hand: 2nd highest pair
  • Middle hand: Highest pair
  • Back hand: The two lower pairs

The strength of 4 pair hands is determined by the strength of the 2nd highest pair. You only have a realistic chance to win the front hand as one pair in the middle and two (low) pair in the back are almost always too weak to win a hand. Thus a 4 pair hand is only as good as the 2nd highest pair.

4 Pair example

A Q Q J 9 8 8 7 5 5 4 3 3

Front: A 8 8

Middle: Q Q J 9 7

Back: 5 5 3 3 4

3 Pair

Even worse and much rarer in Chinese Poker is a 3 pair hand with no straight or flush possibilities. Those hands are usually worthless unless all three pairs happen to be decent. The optimal solution:

  • Font hand: 3rd highest pair
  • Middle hand: 2nd highest pair
  • Back hand: Highest pair

3 Pair example

K Q J T T 8 7 7 6 5 3 3 2

Front: 3 3 K

Middle: 7 7 Q J 8

Back: T T 6 5 2

Full House in the back

The quality of a full house in the backhand is decided only by the strength of the trips. The pair to go with it doesn’t matter. Accordingly, you should always assign the lowest available pair to it.
A small full house (fives full or smaller) in the backhand is rarely worth more than a good flush. If you can set a flush in the backhand by breaking up a small full house, it is often worth doing so and placing the pairs and trips in the other hands.

Two Pairs for Front and Middle Hand

A constellation that occurs rather frequently is the following: You have a flush, straight or a full house in the backhand and only two pairs left for the other two hands. This raises the question of whether the two pairs should go into the middle hand as a whole, or whether they should be split between the front and middle hand.

In most cases, it is correct to split the pairs. The better the lower of the two pairs is, the better it is to set it into the front hand. The reason for this is that high pairs in the front hand are very valuable, but two pairs in the middle hand are only of average quality.

Those are some good indicators that it’s better to split two pairs between front and middle than to set two pair for the middle hand:

  • You cannot put a good high card in the front hand.
  • The lower pair is rather high (eights or better).
  • The pair in the front hand is protected by some blockers. A pair in the front hand gains a lot of value if you hold many higher cards yourself. For example, holding a single Ace yourself, reduces the probability that one of your opponents has a pair of Aces (and can possibly build it into the front hand) by 50%.

Two Pairs in Front and Middle – Example 1

Take a look at those two variants of how to set a hand with two pairs for front and middle hand:

Option A(A 7 3) --- (Q Q 8 8 2) --- (K J 9 4 3)

Option B: (A 8 8) --- (Q Q 7 3 2) --- (K J 9 4 3)

The question is: Should you play two pair in the middle and a weak ace high in the front (option A) or split the two pairs and play a pair of eights in the front (Option B)?

Statistically option B wins more often than option A and should be the default option.

The situation is different in this (only slightly modified) example:

Two Pairs in Front and Middle – Example 2

Option A(A K 3) --- (Q Q 8 8 2) --- (K J 9 4 3)

Option B: (A 8 8) --- (Q Q K 3 2) --- (K J 9 4 3)

In comparison to the previous example, the king kicker to the ace greatly improves the front hand. A-K-3 is much better than A-7-3 and thus option A is preferable in this example.

Average distribution of Chinese Poker hands

For the following part of my Chinese Poker strategy guide I’ll dig a bit deeper. I used a computer to simulate thousands of Chinese Poker games against itself to derive statistical hand distributions. This helps to answer questions like: “How good is a low pair in the front hand?” or “How often will I win with a low straight in the back hand?”

An analysis of 100,000 Chinese Poker games played by a computer using optimal strategies shows the following distribution of hand ranks for the individual hands:

Table: Average distribution of Chinese Poker hands

Rank Front Middle Back
Straight Flush 0% 0,00% 0.99%
Quads 0% 0.01% 2.62%
Full House 0% 0.59% 34.16%
Flush 0% 7.35% 32.46%
Straße 0% 18.22% 17.64%
Trips 0.46% 10.04% 0.29%
Two-Pair 0.00% 26.67% 9.61%
Pair 47.08% 33.00% 2.23%
High Card 52.46% 4.12% 0,00%
This distribution initially shows some points that are probably obvious to an avid Chinese Poker player:

  • The front hand will contain a pair at least half the time. Interestingly enough, more than 90% of all 13 card distributions allow for a pair in the front hand. But forcing the pair in the front hand often weakens the other hands too much. Thus, if you set your hand optimally, you’ll see a pair in the front roughly half the time.
  • In more than 60% of all cases, the middle hand consists of two pairs or just a pair. Meaning: The quality of the two pairs (or the one pair) is an important factor for this hand.
  • Full houses and flushes each make up roughly one third of all possible back hand combinations. When evaluating this hand, the quality of the flush or full house plays a significant role. For example an Ace-King-high flush is much better than a Ten-high flush.

Detailed front hand evaluation

Only three different ranks (trips, pair, high card) are possible in the front hand. The following table shows how those are distributed in detail:

Table: Average distribution of Chinese Poker front hands

Percentile Hand
95% A-A-x
90% K-K-x
85% Q-Q-x
80% J-J-x
75% T-T-x
70% 8-8-x
65% 7-7-x
60% 5-5-x
55% 3-3-x
50% A-K-Q
45% A-K-8
40% A-Q-x
35% A-J-x
30% A-T-x
25% A-6-x
20% K-Q-x
15% K-8-x
10% Q-J-x
5% J-T-x
0% 4-3-2
This table shows how often you can expect to win with each hand. A pair of queens in the front hand for example will win on average at least 85% of the time, a hand like A-K-Q-high will win at least 50% of the time against an opponent with random cards who sets his hands optimally.

As you can see, pairs are quite evenly distributed, but high card hands consist almost only of A-high or K-high combinations. When evaluating A-high hands the kickers play a vital role. A-K-Q wins 25% more often on average than A-6-3.

Detailed middle hand evaluation

For the middle hand all ranks are possible in Chinese Poker. The following table shows how they are distributed in detail:

Table: Average distribution of Chinese Poker middle hands

Percentile Hand
95% Flush
90% K-high Straight
85% T-high Straight
80% 7-high Straight
75% 5-high Straight
70% 8-8-8-x-x
65% 3-3-3-x-x
60% K-K-6-6-x
55% Q-Q-5-5-x
50% J-J-2-2-x
45% 9-9-7-7-x
40% 6-6-5-5-x
35% A-A-x-x-x
30% K-K-x-x-x
25% Q-Q-x-x-x
20% J-J-x-x-x
15% 8-8-x-x-x
10% 6-6-x-x-x
5% 3-3-x-x-x
0% High Card
If you manage to set trips in the middle hand you can expect to win at least two thirds of the time on average. For two pair and one pair combinations the quality of the top (or single) pair is of paramount importance. Kickers or the lower pair (when holding two pair) are irrelevant though.

Detailed back hand evaluation

The following table shows how the back hand ranks are distributed in detail if you set your hand optimally:

Table: Average distribution of Chinese Poker back hands

Percentile Hand
95% Aces-Full
90% Queens-Full
85% Tens-Full
80% Nines-Full
75% Sevens-Full
70% Fives-Full
65% Treys-Full
60% A-K-high Flush
55% A-Q-high Flush
50% A-J-high Flush
45% K-Q-high Flush
40% K-T-high Flush
35% Q-high Flush
30% 8-high Flush
25% Q-high Straight
20% T-high Straight
15% 6-high Straight
10% J-J-9-9-x
5% 8-8-2-2-x
0% One Pair
The most striking aspect of this distribution is that the quality of the flushes is very important. A Q-high flush wins about 25% less often than an A-K-high flush. Generally, the low flushes are not worth very much. If breaking up a small flush allows room for significantly stronger hands in the middle and front, this should usually be done.

Small full houses are also possible candidates not to be built if breaking them up strengthens front and middle hand. However, the improvements for the other hands must be very strong to justify breaking up a boat. Even the lowest full house wins about 60% in the back hand and is a pretty safe bank.

Putting it all together: Evaluating Chinese Poker hands

Putting all tables together allows you to evaluate Chinese Poker hands. This table basically shows how often each hand wins on average against an opponent who sets his hands game theoretically optimal.

Table: Detailed average distribution of Chinese Poker hands

Percentile Front Middle Back
95% A-A-x Flush Aces-Full
90% K-K-x K-high Straight Queens-Full
85% Q-Q-x T-high Straight Tens-Full
80% J-J-x 7-high Straight Nines-Full
75% T-T-x 5-high Straight Sevens-Full
70% 8-8-x 8-8-8-x-x Fives-Full
65% 7-7-x 3-3-3-x-x Treys-Full
60% 5-5-x K-K-6-6-x A-K-high Flush
55% 3-3-x Q-Q-5-5-x A-Q-high Flush
50% A-K-Q J-J-2-2-x A-J-high Flush
45% A-K-8 9-9-7-7-x K-Q-high Flush
40% A-Q-x 6-6-5-5-x K-T-high Flush
35% A-J-x A-A-x-x-x Q-high Flush
30% A-T-x K-K-x-x-x 8-high Flush
25% A-6-x Q-Q-x-x-x Q-high Straight
20% K-Q-x J-J-x-x-x T-high Straight
15% K-8-x 8-8-x-x-x 6-high Straight
10% Q-J-x 6-6-x-x-x J-J-9-9-x
5% J-T-x 3-3-x-x-x 7-7-2-2-x
0% 4-3-2 High Card One Pair

When to surrender in Chinese Poker?

If you play Chinese poker with the 6-1-scoring-rule, it is a minor disaster to be scooped, as this costs 6 points (instead of only 1 point when losing only two hands). Usually Chinese Poker is played with the option to surrender. In that case you automatically lose three points against each opponent, but don't run the risk of being scooped.

Mathematically it's correct to surrender if you think the likelihood of being scooped is at least 40%.

A simulation of 100,000 Chinese Poker games showed that 6.7% of all hands were so bad that a surrender was mathematically superior than playing the hand. Meaning: The optimal surrender frequency is slightly below 7%.

Which hands to surrender?

You should only surrender hands that are in the bottom 7% of all Chinese Poker hands. Those are hands were the combined probability of winning at least one hand (front, middle or back) is below 40%.

The table above provides some simple rules of thumb when to surrender in Chinese Poker:

  • Always surrender if all your hands are in the red area.
  • Never surrender if one of your hands is in the green area.
  • Otherwise add the percentiles for your three hands,
    • If the sum of  your hand percentiles is above 70% don't surrender.
    • If the sum of  your hand percentiles is below 70% surrender.

Which hands to surrender - Examples

Hand A: (K J 3) --- (Q Q 9 8 2) --- (6 5 4 3 2)

All hands are in the red area and their percentiles are 20%, 25% and 15% (sum: 60%). This hand should always be surrendered.

Hand B: (K Q 5) --- (3 3 7 4 2) --- (T 9 8 7 6)

All hands are in the red area and their percentiles are 25%, 5% and 20% (sum: 50%). This hand should always be surrendered.

Hand C: (A 2 2) --- (Q 9 7 4 4) --- (6 6 J 8 3)

Here only two hands are in the red area. The front hand (pair of deuces) is in the 50% percentile. But the middle and back hand are only in the 5% and 0% percentile. The sum of the percentiles is only 55% and this hand should be surrendered.

Hand D: (K Q J) --- (8 8 8 9 2) --- (7 6 5 4 3)

This hand is weak in front and back, but the middle hand (trips) is in the green area. Thus this hand should always be played. Also the percentiles for the hands are 20%, 70% and 15%, adding up 105%, further indicating this hand should be played.

Final tip: Don't miss the optimal solution!

In Chinese poker, most hands are set almost automatically. There are exactly 72,072 possible arrangements for 13 cards over front, middle and back hand, but most hands (over 90%) have only one good solution and usually this solution is rather obvious. Most Chinese Poker strategy tips only help in the few borderline cases where there are several valid building options.

Probably the best tip I have for Chinese Poker players is this: Always take a good look at the 13 cards. The most common mistake is to overlook the best solution. And nothing is more annoying than finding out too late that instead of setting  (high card)---(pair)---(baby flush) you could have set (pair)---(straight)---(straight).

Question, remarks, suggestions, bugs? Please leave a comment below!

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Great blog post! Planning on playing Chinese poker online and so this guide really helped. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

Spartan Poker
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Great information about poker game. Thanks for sharing this information. I really enjoy to read this blog.

tajhizyar
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interesting ! Thanks for information !