When I think of Jason Mercier and Shaun Deeb's fascination with Open-Face Chinese Poker, I think of two children in a science fiction film. They're stumbling down a familiar forest path when they stumble on something alien and shiny.
They don't run. They don't cry. They let their mouths hang open in awe and say to each other, "Awesome! I wonder what we can do with this!"
The Team Pro and his primary Open-Face opponent are two of the biggest driving forces behind the game. Today before the start of Day 2 of the PCA main event, they took part of their morning to sit in front of a large crowd who wanted to hear their secrets. Hosted by Lee Jones, the pair opened up about Open-Face.
Deeb revealed it was pro Brandon Cantu who turned him on to the game in Deauville last year.
"It's the future of poker," Deeb recalls Cantu saying.
Deeb laughed in Cantu's face, but learned the rules, started playing, and discovered the shiny little thing he found in the forest was his new toy.
"I was hooked," Deeb said.
"Everyone thinks they are good at it right away, which makes for a great game," Mercier said.
Here are Mercier and Deeb's preferred rules:
Players must make the strongest possible three poker hands spread out between the three spots in front of them: back, middle, and top. The back must be the best five-card hand. The middle is the second best. The top is a three card hand (with the best being trips).
The game begins with five cards dealt to each player. Like hold'em, the action begins with the first player to the left of the button. Each player sets the first five cards in order, after which, players get one additional card per round, setting a card each time. After all three hands are set, each players' three hands are compared to each individual opponent's three hands.
Scoring: Each winning hand is worth one point. In the event a player wins all three hands against an opponent (aka, a scoop), that player will receive a three-point bonus (a total of six points). In the event a player fouls a hand (has a weaker hand behind a stronger hand), that player will owe six points to each opponent, plus whatever royalties are in play.
Back and Middle Royalties
Full house=6 points
Straight flush=15 points
Royal flush=25 points
If a royalty is achieved in the middle, the points are doubled.
On top, sixes are worth one point, each higher pair or trips is worth an additional point, all the way up to trip aces (worth 22 points).
The full Q&A session will be out on audio and video soon, including an extended discussion of the viability of computer simulations and whether the game will be solved like traditional Chinese Poker. For now, here are some of the highlights.
How do you balance the decision to play it safe and not foul your hand vs. going for the big points of royalties?
Jason Mercier: Obviously there are going to be times in the hand where your middle hand is better back or your top hand is better than your middle. There is a balance between not fouling and also trying to make something. It really depends on what everyone else has set and whether or not you think you can beat them or if you just have a really terrible hand and you're trying to escape a scoop. You could end up having a pair of fours in the back with a live card and an ace in the middle and you catch an ace, and you're not sure whether to put it up top or in the middle, and then can be at risk of fouling if you put it in the middle.
Who are the action players and who plays it safe?
Shaun Deeb: It's kind of funny. Open-Face is very similar to poker in that location matters a lot in playing style. You play against the Russians, and they are way more aggressive. You play against the Americans, they are a lot more passive. You play against the Scandis, they just do some ridiculous things that make no sense, but sometimes it works out for them. I'm very aggressive. I'm sure everyone and Jason would agree, I'm one of the most aggressive players who plays Open-Face. I don't mind fouling, because if you're going to get scooped anyway...you might as well give yourself an opportunity to win some points on the hand. I just go for really big royalties a lot of the time. If you don't get there, you don't get there. But as long as your hand is live, you've got a chance to get there.
Mercier: Shaun gets there a lot, though.
Deeb: Yeah, run-good is kind of important in this game.
What is the ideal number of players for Open-Face Chinese
Deeb: I prefer heads-up just because I think it's more psychological. Three-handed is really math-based. It's so much fun to play two-handed. The PCA tournament being four-handed, it was a logistics issue and we had to do that. Four-handed plays a lot bigger, because if you foul, you're paying out three people, and every time you get a royalty, you get rewarded three times as much.
Mercier: I would say that three-handed is probably the best way to play. It's the fastest. There's not as much counting cards really at the end. Heads-up, I would recommend not playing Shaun. If you are playing heads-up though, there are a few different forms that make it a lot more fun, like you can get two hands against one and get two cards and put them in either hand. But four-handed is fun, as well.
Is there yet an accepted basic strategy?
Mercier: I'm not sure it will get to the point that Open-Face has a standard set strategy because everyone thinks they are doing what's right. I think people are going to keep playing the way they want to play.
Deeb: I agree with Jason that I don't think Open-Face will ever have a "right" answer. Yes, there may be a more profitable set. You may be playing an opponent that is so aggressive...where it's actually more profitable to take the passive line and just play to not foul, because he's going to do something later on in the hand that is such a bad gamble that you're going to want to not be in foul trouble yourself.
What are the most important things when setting your first five cards?
Deeb: The most important thing is the live-ness of your cards. Anyone who has played any form of stud, you see five hearts in front of you when you're playing three-handed, and you have two hearts in your hand, it's very, very difficult to make that flush. Pay attention to what's out there. Also, look for straights. So many people want to set for flush draws, but if you have 5-6-7, that's actually a very convertible hand. You can make two pair. You can make trips. Or you can end up making a straight. So, be aware of what's live, and keep track of your outs at all times.
What is your favorite variation?
Mercier: My favorite variation is playing heads-up with two (hands) against one with Fantasy Land. For those who don't know, Fantasy Land is when you get two queens or better up top, then very next hand, you get all 13 cards face-down and set it like a normal Chinese hand. So, it's a huge bonus. Instead of just seven points for queens, you have to factor in how much equity you get in the very next hand. So, my favorite variation is where the button gets two hands, out-of-position gets one hand.
What are your tips for beginning players
Mercier: The first thing you have to learn is that the hand values go down...a lot of times people don't understand that king-high is going to be a very good hand up top. The hand values definitely go down. Obviously, understanding the variance. You could win or lose easily two hundred points. Definitely start small. And my third piece of advice: don't play Shaun Deeb.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging