Open-Face Pineapple Texas Hold’em: The Right Idea, But…

Alex Weldon : April 14th, 2015


Open-Face Chinese Poker is a fairly new game which has gradually been building a cult following within the poker world over recent years, yet struggling to catch on in any really big way. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: it’s a complicated game to explain, it’s fairly high-skill and low-luck, and it isn’t actually poker, all of which are factors which make it unappealing to casual players. Since casual players form the basis of a sustainable poker ecosystem, it seems likely that Open-Face Chinese will remain a niche game to be played between pros and otherwise hardcore players.

There is one hope for players who’d like to see Open-Face Chinese or something like it played more often, however, and that is if someone comes up with an appropriate “gateway game.” It was with great interest, then, that I read this morning that the students at the UK Student Poker Championships had developed a new game in the Chinese Poker vein, which both simplifies the strategy considerably and leverages the familiar appeal of Texas Hold’em.

What’s a gateway game?

The problem of recruiting new players for a game is a familiar one to hobbyist board gamers like myself. Although the world is seeing a board gaming renaissance, many of the new contemporary adult games being developed are so complicated as to be entirely out of reach of anyone who has not already been playing such games for years.

Since having friends to play with is a requirement for the hobby, a common question on board gaming forums is how to convince friends and family to give games a try, and what games to start them out on. The second part of this question is key, and asked so frequently that the term “gateway game” has appeared in order to describe a game like Ticket to Ride in contrast to, say, 1870.

The term is of course a tongue-in-cheek reference to the conservative notion of “gateway drugs,” i.e. soft drugs like marijuana which, the theory goes, serve as the first, easy step down the road to hardcore addiction. Whether or not one subscribes to that particular theory, you can see how the analogy works. If the goal is to turn one’s friends into board game “junkies,” you need to start them off on something which seems fun and non-threatening.

Likewise, if fans of Open-Face Chinese want to see more people playing, they’ll need to find something more accessible to use to reel them in.

Open-Face Pineapple Texas Hold’em

Reading the rules to this new game, my first thought was that maybe this was the gateway game Open-Face Chinese so desperately needs. Here’s how simple it is: players are dealt nine cards each, face down. Three separate flops are dealt face up, with two additional face-down cards set aside for each – these are the turn and river, to be exposed later. That leaves one card in the deck which is discarded face-up, giving the players a little more information to work with.

Next comes the only decision and point of skill in the game. Looking at their nine cards, each player chooses six cards with which to form three sets of two hole cards, one for each board. The players’ other three cards are then discarded.

Once everyone has locked in their hands, the cards are turned face-up, and then each board is played out, with the turn and river being turned over and the winning hand identified. Each hand won allows the player to collect one “point” (or betting unit) from each other player, while ties score half a point for everyone involved. There are large additional bonuses for winning all three hands in a given round, and for making four-of-a-kind and better hands, called “royalties,” as in other forms of Chinese Poker.

Not really Open-Face

I’ve got one semantic beef to get out of the way before discussing the game’s actual merits and flaws, which is that this really cannot be called an Open-Face Chinese game. It actually much more closely resembles traditional (closed-face) Chinese Poker, which is a much easier and luck-driven game.

Closed-face Chinese poker is, like this game, a game with only one round of action: players partition their cards without any information about their opponents’ actions, and then all the cards are revealed at once. What makes Open-Face Chinese such a deep and difficult game is that the cards are distributed a few at a time and players get to see what hands their opponents are building and change their own plans accordingly. It’s this additional information which makes the game “Open-Face.”

The appeal

That quibble aside, it’s easy to see the game’s appeal: If you know how to play Texas Hold’em – and who doesn’t, these days? – then all it takes to play this game is a 30-second explanation. Moreover, one of the most exciting aspects of poker for the casual player is the tournament all-in race, with the hole cards turned up and a turn and river yet to come. Since the showdown portion of this game resembles three such races happening at once – with four players involved in each! – it’s clear that this game provides the “gamble factor” which is so important for attracting casual players.

Meanwhile, the aspect of Texas Hold’em which recreational players like the least is being card dead and having to fold too many hands in a row. That doesn’t happen here, both because there is no option to fold, and because it’s hard not to be able to make at least one great hand with nine cards and three flops to work with.

The problem

So, there’s a lot to be said for the game, and yet, I don’t think this is the gateway game we’re looking for. The reason is that, having dealt myself a few hands of it to see how it works, I can tell that it won’t end up being a very social game. That social factor is every bit as important as the gamble factor when it comes to designing a game to appeal to casual players.

The problem is that you get your nine cards up front, and then there are nine board cards turned up at the same time. This is a lot of information to process all at once; even if, for each flop, there are only two or three choices of hole cards worth considering (top two pair or an open-ended straight draw, for instance), identifying those choices requires considerable sorting of your cards and studying of the board. While you’re doing that, you’re not going to be looking at or talking to anyone else. It requires a fair bit of concentration too, especially if you’re trying to count your outs, so you will likely be annoyed if anyone else tries to speak to you while you’re doing this.

For each hand, you’re probably looking at about a minute of dealing, since the whole deck gets dealt out. Then there’s at least another minute while most of the players sort out their cards and make their easier decisions. After that, there’s probably going to be another minute of waiting for one player who has a particularly difficult decision to make; maybe they need the same card for a set on one board and for the nut flush draw on another and have to choose which to use it for.

So, all told, you’re looking at probably around three minutes of up-front non-interactive time per hand. After all that, the cards are revealed and the fun begins… but the fun part involves nothing more than turning over six more cards. The races may be exciting, but only for maybe half a minute, after which there’s additional downtime as chips are exchanged and stacked, and the cards are collected for the next deal. If that cleanup takes another 30 seconds, then overall the players are only really paying attention to one another about an eighth of the time. That’s never going to work for players who see poker as a social activity.

Potential for improvement

That doesn’t mean the game should be thrown out, however. I think there is potential here, but it needs adjustment. In particular, the decision-making needs to be broken down into smaller units, between which players can interact and perhaps even get some information about what the others have and react to that – bringing the Open-Face aspect of the game back in some kind of limited way, in other words.

For instance, perhaps the flops could be dealt one at a time and players could likewise get their hole cards in incremental fashion rather than all nine at once. Perhaps there could even be an additional round after the hole cards are exposed, in which each player in turn has a chance to replace one of their three hands using their leftover cards, adding that reactive component which is missing from the game as it stands.

Obviously, these are just vague suggestions and there would be a lot of details to be worked out to make such a game function well, but still, I think that’s the right direction to be looking in. The key is to keep the decision-making bite-size and give players a reason to pay attention to one another in between those decisions. If someone can come up with a game as easy to explain as this one, but with more cause for players to interact with one another, then we might see the Chinese Poker genre take off.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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