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The Rise of Poker in China

In this article I discuss the differences between poker in mainland China and elsewhere in the world. For those already familiar with these differences I first discuss playing online poker (western-style) from the mainland. Here you can play games such as No Limit Hold’em (NLHE), Pot Limit Omaha (PLO) and 7 card stud for real money. These can be played as multi table tournament (MTT), sit and go (SNG), or cash game style. Each is available in heads up, six max, and full ring formats.

Here in China our options for real money poker are extremely limited. There are no Chinese owned or operated poker sites, so instead we need to play at international sites. The ones we’ve listed on this page are available in English and Chinese language, and accept Renminbi (RMB) currency. They also accept Chinese debit cards and bank transfer deposits. Our top choices are listed below.

All the above sites are located outside of mainland China. They operate on international poker networks. For example DafaPoker is on the world’s largest skin-based poker network iPoker. Bodog88 is on the Bodog network and shares players with Bodog Canada and Bovada from the United States.

Because all the poker sites suggested on this page are networked, you can play real money poker against players from all over the world. Your Yuan account balance will be changed to the site’s operating currency each time you sit at a table. It will however be exchanged right back when you leave the table at the same exchange rate. Therefore, there are no currency exchange fees involved.

Be Prepared for Occasional Blocks

In my article on CYN bookies I discuss the legality of online gambling in China. There I mention that our police are not concerned with “players” using betting sites that are legal in foreign countries from inside their own home. They are only concerned with bookies, affiliates, and gambling website owners. The sites we’ve recommended above are legal under international law and have no presence in Chinese mainland. As a result our police have no jurisdiction over them. The only thing they do to stop use of foreign websites is occasionally blocking access to them.

The good news with online poker is that when sites are blocked it is usually only their website, not the software which you download. This means blocks are rarely ever an issue. If the software of a poker site you are using becomes blocked, just search Baidu for a reliable VPN. Here you can select any VPN other than the United States (poker is not legal in the USA) to access the site and cash out your balance. You can then choose another poker site that is not blocked.

Editors note: Bodog88 is only available to players in Asia, America and Canada. If you ever encounter connection issues from China you will need to use an Asian VPN. However, in several years playing there I’ve never once had a problem, so it’s highly unlikely to be an issue for the foreseeable future.

History of Poker in Mainland China

No Limit Holdem (NLHE) and Pot Limit Omaha (PLO) have only just started to become an interest of Chinese Mainlanders. The World Poker Tour (WPT) was instrumental in starting a poker boom that made these games popular in the United States and Europe when they started airing televised tournaments in 2002. In mainland China our own poker started to gain popularity as a sport around the same time, but it was vastly different. The reason why is because our card games are not the same. The most popular form of poker played in Mainland China is Tuo La Ji (拖拉机) which means tractor.

Here we have a national sports federation that governs leisure sports under the China State Sports Administration. It is called CLSAC which is an acronym for China Leisure Sports Administrative Center. In 2002, CLSAC created rules for Tractor Poker (which is Tuo La Ji under a name foreigners can better remember). This was to unify local playing styles allowing for better management, and more even playing fields for competitions.

In 2007, CLSAC granted a 5-year license to World Poker Tour (WPT Enterprises, Inc) to air its National Tractor Poker Tournament series on television. This helped create a Chinese Poker Boom. Again it differed from the one in the west as the game was much different. Tuo La Ji (Tractor Poker) is a team game that uses two decks of cards with jokers. Points are accrued for each “trick” won by teams, and trump suits help mix up the game.

In Fuzhou in Fujian province there are also a large number of skilled seven card stud players. On Full Tilt Poker, all the stud games are mostly made up of players located in China, all the way from low stakes right up to the highest stakes available. While we can’t accurately discuss the origins of 7 card studs popularity in Fujian, we do know the game is popular there and that some of the game’s best players reside there.

Tuo La Ji Not Ideal for Online Play

This is the same issue that other markets faced. Prior to poker boom in the west, poker was not a common home game. Take the example of the United States where team games such as spades and pitch were played at far more kitchen tables than Hold’em or Omaha were. However, these like Tuo La Ji Poker, are team games where the ease of collusion (cheating together) makes them less ideal for internet play. Hold’em and Omaha are much better suited for real money play online. There is also much more money to be made mastering those games than there is in mastering Tuo La Ji in China or Spades in the United States. This because Hold’em and Omaha are universal games that are popular worldwide.

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Poker in Macau

In my article on Chinese Yuan casinos I discuss Macau in great depth. This borders the largest mainland province Guangdong. However, beginning in 1557, it spent 442 years as a Portuguese administration before becoming a special administrative region of China in December 1999. Casino gambling has been legal in Macau for hundreds of years and thanks to mainland visitors it is now the largest casino market in the world. In 2012 Macau had 28,082,292 tourist arrivals of which 16,902,499 (60.2%) were from Mainland China.

Hold’em Poker was first introduced to Macau in August 2007 when Galaxy Starworld Casino added electronic tables. 3 months later the Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) held its first Macau tournament. After the Macau government published the official rules for Hold’em Poker in January 2008, many casinos opened poker rooms. The first were Grand Lisboa in February 2008, Grand Waldo in May 2008 and Wynn in November 2008.

For over 5-years the biggest promoter of poker in Macau has been the world’s largest poker site Mainland residents can use their website; it is only because it is blocked in some provinces that I waited until now to mention them.

PokerStars sponsor many high stakes tournaments at Macau casinos. Players can win seats online for the live events. This has been a very popular with poker players from Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Australia and even Europeans. Those winning seats often visit Macau for the first time for this reason. Macau also gets many visits from Hong Kong where poker has long been popular and is a low-cost one-hour boat-ferry ride away. Residents have been crying out for live poker games ever since the HK Poker House was raided and shutdown by police in 2012.

Legal Hold’em in Mainland China

Due to the success of No Limit Hold’em (NLHE) in Macau, the World Poker Tour decided to try something unique. Having spent 5-years as the primary promoter of the Tractor Poker Tour it sought approval to change the game from Tuo La Ji and to Hold’em for a main event.

CLSAC approved, and the mainland’s first high-stakes NHLE poker tournament was held in December 2012 at the MGM Grand Sanya located in Hainan province. It was won by Zheng Hua Lei who took home the 1,195,000 RMB first place prize.

In 2014 the Beijing Millions was the first APPT event to be held in China attracting large numbers to the Star Poker club for a 10 day long festival, reinforcing the idea that China could be the best hope of seeing another poker boom.

The Future of Hold’em in Mainland China

The fact our government is okay with poker tournaments behind held here is a good sign. As televised hold’em poker continues to air on our television networks in Chinese language this will only increase the game’s popularity. This will keep growing in popularity as residents realize international poker websites now support our language, currency and debit cards for deposits.

It only takes having eyes to see that our country is becoming more and more friendly to gambling. We have football, basketball and baseball betting with Chinese Sports Lottery. We also have many scheduled number draws, rapid draw games, instant scratch cards and in some provinces virtual lottery tournaments.

Casinos in mainland China are likely not too far away. When these come, it is my strong prediction that poker will become even more popular in Asia. I make this prediction for the reason this has become true in more than 2 dozen countries already. For now it is possible to play poker online using the websites mentioned at the top of this page. Good luck at the tables.