Card Games in Asia – Trying to Play by the Rules

31 October 2007

The weekend of Oct. 13, 2007 saw the opening round in the World Poker Tour’s (WPT) Traktor Poker (‘Tuo La Ji’) tournament in China. Held in Lanzhou, the capital city of the northwestern province of Gansu, it marked the first of 15 rounds to be hosted in cities across China over the next four months. A tournament final in Beijing is scheduled for early April 2008.

As well as these offline tournaments, an online tournament is being run concurrently. Online players will also be able to qualify for the Beijing final. After a flurry of press releases about deals in Asia from various I-gaming operators and software providers earlier in 2007, this tournament represents one of the first tangible results of those announcements.

With European-based operators turning more of their attention toward Asian markets, there has been a noticeable increase in interest in the region’s card and tile games. Of the exhibitors at the recent EIG Expo (EIG) in Barcelona, for example, there were several companies keen to demonstrate their new online versions of the likes of mahjong and Chinese poker.

But one of the difficulties faced by games developers is the huge variation in rules by which many of these games are played. These variations in the games’ rules are found not only between different countries but also between different regions within the same country. As a result, organising nationwide tournaments (online or offline) can be as problematic as organising international ones.

In relation to mahjong, Kingstone Kim of the World Mahjong Federation (WMF) gave a very detailed review of the regional differences in rules across Asia in his EIG presentation. For example: in China there are 81 different Mahjong hands, in Hong Kong just 31; in Taiwan players use 144 tiles, in Korea just 104. Through the WMF, Kim’s unenviable task lies not in developing a version of online mahjong that blends all these differences (which is relatively straightforward) but rather in persuading the federations and players across Asia to adopt the WMF version of the game.

By launching with the game of Traktor in mainland China, WPT has managed to avoid many of the issues surrounding regional variations in rules because, about five years ago, the China Leisure Sports Administrative Centre issued a standardised set of Traktor rules for use in all competitions.

Similarly, in Europe and America, the success of online poker has mainly been built around the promotion of a single version of the game across all markets (i.e. Texas Hold’em). If I-gaming operators are to have comparable success with card and tile-based games in Asia, then the adoption of a single, standardized version of a specific game across the region is obviously desirable.

Before developing a game, however, it is important to be aware that many games in Asia are very much part of the cultural and social fabric of a country (or region), in a way that is simply not the case for poker in European countries. By opting for one set of rules over another, I-gaming firms risk alienating players in certain markets because along with the rules comes the game’s heritage and tradition that you simply cannot afford to ignore.

Lorien is a research analyst with Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, and currently resides on the Isle of Man. Prior to this, he spent three years at a leading United Kingdom gambling firm, providing regulatory and market research for its various international e-gaming ventures.