Internet & Tech

High stakes

How a peasant card game created a tech billionaire

Fight the landlord w

Fancy a bet: Zhang Wei, gaming boss

Seizing land from the rich and giving it to poorer peasants helped the Communist Party win much of its early mandate. In the early 1950s, doudizhu, which means ‘fight the landlords’ in Chinese, became a bloody political campaign. Land reform policies called for dizhu (landlords) to be singled out. Their property was confiscated and then redistributed among the have-nots.

The problem? The social complexity of rural China made the classification of the landlords into something of an arbitrary exercise. Land was taken from people only moderately better off than their neighbours. Local rivalries and community feuds weighed in heavily too. As many as 2 million “landlords” were executed during doudizhu campaigns in the five years up to 1952, according to Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation.

China has become a lot more peaceable since and the ideological divide has blurred too, such that doudizhu has become one the most popular card games in the country.

Doudizhu is a game played in a sequence of hands by three players with a full deck of cards and both jokers. After the cards are dealt, there is an auction to determine which player will be the “landlord” and play alone against the other two “peasants”. If the landlord gets rid of all his cards first, both peasants have to pay up a preset bet amount. But if either of the peasants wins, the landlord must pay them both. So the key strategy is for both peasants to cooperate in fighting the landlord.

The rules sound complicated but the logic is easy to grasp after a few games.

The language of the game also hints at its more violent roots. The highest-ranking card combination is a “Rocket” (two jokers at the same time) and then a “Bomb” (four cards of the same rank). Each time a “Rocket” or “Bomb” is played, the present bet is doubled.

The outcome of the game is usually decided late on, another reason for its popularity.

Doudizhu originated in the rural counties of Hubei province but began to be played more widely a decade ago when the Taiwanese firm IGS used street-level game stations to connect players across China, including Hong Kong.

Its popularity has grown more quickly since China’s internet boom and Tencent chairman Ma Huateng noted at a conference recently that more than 20 million mobile phone users play it every day in the company’s doudizhu online game room.

Such is doudizhu’s draw that Boyaa Interactive, a web and mobile phone game developer, has just become the most sought-after IPO in Hong Kong this year, with its retail tranche oversubscribed 831 times. On the first day of trading last week Boyaa’s shares climbed nearly 14%, giving the nine-year-old firm a market cap of HK$4.5 billion ($578 million).

Boyaa derives its income from users downloading its apps and then buying virtual currency for online games of cards. More than 15% of its Rmb518 million ($85 million) revenues last year came from players on Facebook.

Boyaa’s chairman Zhang Wei is a keen doudizhou player himself. The 37-year-old once worked as a software engineer for Xiaomi’s Lei Jun. Founder magazine reports that Zhang got Lei’s attention by hacking into his email account and as a way of saying sorry sent him a business proposal. Now, thanks to the Boyaa IPO, Zhang’s net worth is HK$1.5 billion.

During its roadshow Boyaa marketed itself as a developer of the doudizhu game online. But Boyaa is a relative latecomer to a highly fragmented market. It only launched doudizhu applications in 2010, ranking third in China in App Store downloads. The game is now available in three languages: simplified and traditional Chinese, and Thai. Boyaa says the business is going grow when other nationalities become more familiar with it.

The critics aren’t entirely convinced. Boyaa may have courted investors by playing up its “fight the landlord” roots, says the Hong Kong Economic Times, but it actually earns its bread and butter from poker, with 90% of sales revenue coming from games of Texas hold’em (a version of poker that started gaining popularity outside the Lone Star state when The Dunes casino in Las Vegas organised a tournament for high rollers in 1969).

So, if anything, the Boyaa listing highlights the growing popularity of online poker in China. Nonetheless, patriotic newspaper columnist have been debating whether doudizhu could challenge online poker’s global appeal.

The Beijing Times thinks not. Luck often outweighs skill in doudizhu, it says, but poker is a “thinking man’s game” that requires psychological strength. It’s also a more social game, especially when it’s played at a casino rather than online.

“Texas hold’em is the table equivalent of golf. You lose many networking opportunities if you don’t know how to play,” the West China Metropolis Daily quoted David Chiu, a Chinese American poker champion, as saying in an interview last week. (Chu was in China promoting his new book King of Poker.)

The newspaper even said that the romance between pop singer Wang Feng and movie star Zhang Zhiyi’s (see WiC216) started to blossom when Wang helped Zhang’s parents out at a poker table in Macau.

“If you are good at doudizhu you have fun online; if you are good at poker you climb the social ladder,” one netizen wrote on weibo, adding that the main reason why Wang is dating Zhang is because “he plays good poker”.

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