Gou Ji


I would like to thank Tony Hellman for his collaboration on this page, especially for answering many questions about the details, with the help of a regular player Chen Shu Hui, her daughter Wu Jun Jun as translator and Wu Xiao Xiang on the history of the game. Thanks also to Mai Jian Hua for sending me a description of the game, and to Dorothy Wilkinson and Wei Ming Zhi for translating it from Chinese.


This six-player climbing game is played in Qingdao, a prosperous coastal city port in Shandong province, China. The game was developed after the Cultural Revolution, and this is reflected in the technical terms used. For example the right to start the play in a new game is called Shang Ban (上班 literally "going to work"), which was a kind of honour when job opportunities were limited. The winners are described as driving the head car, second car, third car and so on (车 "Che" or 科 "Ke" literally means a vehicle), since cars were a prestigious and rapid means of transport and drivers were envied at that time; anyone in such a position would not want to give up their job. Then there are terms with political connections such as "Jie Fang" (解放 liberation) and "Ge Ming" (革命 revolution). Some of the game terminology has in turn influenced the local dialect of Qingdao. In the description below, English terminology is used where possible for easier comprehension, and the Chinese terms are given in a glossary.

In Mai Juan Hua's description it is emphasised that the players should play honestly. Infringements of the rules are immediately punished by making the player "Da La" ( 大落 the loser of that deal). Moreover, at the time when Gou Ji was most in vogue, any kind of untrustworthiness would swiftly destroy your reputation in society.

Players and Equipment

six players

Gou Ji is played with four standard French suited 54-card packs - 216 cards in all. Each pack has a red (or coloured) joker and a black joker, which will be referred to below simply as "Red" and "Black". The rank of the cards from high to low is Red-Black-2-A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3. Suit is irrelevant except in the process for determining who starts the first game.

There are six players, who divide themselves into two teams of three, each player sitting between two opponents. In the diagram, A, C and E form a team who play against B, D and F. As in most Chinese games, the direction of play is counter-clockwise throughout. The opponents sitting directly opposite each other are known as Dui Men (对门). So A is D's Dui Men, F is C's Dui Men and so on.


The aim is to play all your cards. The first player to get rid of all his or her cards is the main winner, but the game continues to find the second winner, third winner and so on, until only one player is left with cards. This player is the big loser, and the second to last to run out of cards is the second loser.

The Deal

Before the deal, the cards must be shuffled throughly. This is normally done by the main and second winners of the previous game; for the first game of a session anyone can shuffle.

The cards are dealt in the usual Chinese way. The shuffled pack is stacked face down, and the players take turns in anticlockwise order to draw a card from the top until all the cards are gone and everyone has a hand of 36 cards. Since there are a lot of cards, the stack is usually spread across the table rather than squared up, so that it is easier to draw from it without making it topple. Players should look at and sort their cards as they draw them.

There is a fairly elaborate method for deciding who takes the first card in the deal, and who starts the game. There are three cases: the first game of a session; a fresh game, which occurs when one team wins the top three places or one of the participants in the game is changed or after a revolution; and an ordinary game, which is the usual case during a session when the same players carry on playing from one game to the next.

For the first game, one of the players, chosen at random, is designated the the Kai Pai (开牌) person. This player draws a card from the shuffled deck, and counts around the table anticlockwise, starting with himself, up to the value of the card. Ace as counts one, 2-10 face value, jack 11, queen 12, king 13. The last player counted will take the first card of the deal. For example if player A draws a 9, player C will start the deal. Before the deal, the drawn card is returned to the middle of the pack. If the drawn card is a joker, it is immediately returned to the middle of the pack and the next player to the right becomes the Kai Pai person and draws a new card to decide who starts the deal. During the deal, a player who acquires two threes of the same suit - for example heart3-heart3 - can show them, and the first player to do this has the right to start the play. If no one declares a pair of threes, then the player who took the first card in the deal also begins the play.

The deal in a fresh game is conducted in the same way as for the first game, and the Kai Pai person, the player who draws the card that determines who starts, is the player to the right of the Kai Pai person in the previous game.

In an ordinary game, the big loser of the previous game has the right to take the first card in the deal, or to nominate any other player to take the first card. Irrespective of who takes the first card, the big loser plays first. The Dui Men of the big loser is conventionally designated the Kai Pai player for this deal. He has no role, but the player to his right will be the next Kai Pai player in the event of a fresh game.

After the deal, any player has no jokers and no twos among his or her 36 cards can declare a revolution. All the cards are thrown in and shuffled and there is a new deal (a fresh game). If the team mates of the player who wants to declare a revoloution have good hands, they can try to persuade him or her not to demand a revolution but to play the cards as dealt.


After the deal in an ordinary game, the losers of the previous game have to pay tribute to the winners. The big loser must give his highest ranked two cards face down to the main winner, and the main winner gives back two unwanted cards face down in exchange. In the same way, the second loser gives his highest card to the second winner and receives one unwanted card in exchange.

When a player has to pay tribute to a member of his own team, they can agree between themselves that the tribute should not be levied.

When the big loser and second loser are partners, they can agree after the deal to swap roles. The new big loser will then give two cards tribute and begin the play.

When one team takes the first three places, in the following game each member of the losing team gives one card tribute to the player opposite and receives one unwanted card in exchange.

A loser who has the good fortune to be dealt all four red jokers can refuse to pay tribute. This is known as liberation.

The Play

The first player plays a single card or a set of any number of equal cards face up on the table. The next player to the right can either beat this by playing an equal number of cards of higher rank, or can pass. The following player has the same options, and this continues anticlockwise around the table for as many circuits as necessary until all players but one have passed. A player who has passed cannot play again until the cards have been cleared - the only exception is when his Dui Men starts a Gou Ji - see below. All the played cards are set aside face down and the player who played the last (and highest) cards begins again by playing any single card or legal set of cards.

The only combinations that can legally be played are sets of cards of equal rank, such as 5-5, 9-9-9 or 4-4-4-4-4-4. Jokers and twos are wild, and can accompany any set. The rank of a combination is determined by the rank of the natural cards in it, and a combination can only beaten by a combination with higher natural cards. Twos simply take on the rank of the natural cards they accompany, so for example 6-6-2-2 is treated exactly the same as 6-6-6-6 and neither can beat the other, but jokers are treated differently. A combination containing one or more black jokers can only be beaten by a higher combination containing at least that number of red jokers, and a combination containing a red joker cannot be beaten at all.

Note that although combinations containing jokers are powerful and difficult to beat, they can only be played on a combination that has lower natural cards. For example the unbeatable combination 7-7-Red can be played on a set of three sixes, fives or lower, but cannot be played on a combination of 7's of higher. 7-7-Red does not beat 7-7-7 or 7-7-2. Nor can 7-7-Red be played on 6-Black-Black: at least two red jokers are needed to beat the two black jokers.

Sets of wild cards only obey similar principles to the lower sets.

  • Any set of wild cards beats any equal sized set of natural cards or natural cards with twos. For example 2-2-2 beats K-2-2.
  • Any set natural cards with one or more black jokers is beaten by a set of wild cards with at least that number of red jokers. For example 2-2-Red beats A-A-Black and 2-Red-Red beats A-Black-Black but 2-2-Red does not beat A-Black-Black.
  • A set of twos can only be beaten by an equal sized set of jokers.
  • A set consisting of twos and black jokers can only be beaten by an equal sized set of jokers including at least as many red jokers as there were black jokers in the first set.
  • A set of black jokers can only be beaten by an equal sized set of red jokers.

Note that during the play a single card can only be beaten by a higher single card, and a set only by a higher set of the same number of cards. If the previous play was 7-7 and you have a set of three queens, you can only play two of them to beat the sevens. If you want to keep your Q-Q-Q intact you will have to pass (or play some other pair) and wait for a later opportunity. When all players but one have passed, it is traditionally the job of the Dui Men of the person who played the last and highest card of set to clear away the cards, ready for the person who played last to start again by playing any new card or set.

It is illegal to take back cards that have been played. A player who accidentally tries to beat a previous play with a set containing too many or too few cards must correct the play if possible by adding cards (jokers if necessary) or taking the excess cards away to make the play legal. Only if this is impossible are the incorrect cards taken back: they player must then pass and it is the next player's turn.

The order of play is anticlockwise, but there are a few exceptions to this.

Gou Ji

This is a duel between two players sitting opposite each other. When anyone plays a sufficiently high combination, the normal rotation of play is interrupted, and instead there is a duel between that player and his Dui Men, which continues until one of them passes and clears the cards. The winner of the duel then starts again with any play and normal anticlockwise play resumes.

"Sufficiently high" means any of the following:

  • five or more 10's
  • four or more jacks
  • three or more queens
  • two or more kings
  • two or more aces
  • any single wild card or set of wild cards
  • any set including a joker

Wild cards can of course be included in a set of aces, kings, queens, jacks or tens. For example the previous player plays 10-10-10 and you beat it with Q-2-2, starting a Gou Ji. Your Dui Men beats this with K-K-2 and you play A-A-Black, If your Dui Men clears the cards now it is your turn to restart with any card or set.

Note that a combination that includes a red joker does not start a Gou Ji because it is unbeatable - your Dui Men must just clear the cards. If you start a Gou Ji with a combination including a black joker, your Dui Men can only beat it with a higher combination including a red joker, which is unbeatable. Twos on the other hand take on the value of the cards they accompany, so 10-10-10-10-2 counts just as five tens, and can be beaten by five jacks, five queens, etc., so the Gou Ji can continue for several plays.

Shao Pai

When a player starts a Gou Ji, any player on the opposing team whose hand consists of just two combinations - one that beats the play that started the Gou Ji plus any one other card or valid set - can declare "Shao Pai" (捎牌) and play in place of the Dui Men of the player who started the Gou Ji. If you declare Shao Pai, you must first beat the set on the table, and wait to see whether anyone can beat your set. If they can, then your Shao Pai has failed and their play will automatically start a new Gou Ji with their Dui Men. If no one beats you, you play your second combination as your last cards and become a winner.

Example: Player A plays 6-6, player B beats it with K-K, starting a Gou Ji with E, but player A, whose remaining cards are A-A-8-8-8 declares a Shao Pai and plays his A-A. If no one beats this, A plays his final 8-8-8 and becomes a winner. But it may be that some player, for example F, beats the A-A with for example 2-2. This sets off a new Gou Ji between F and C, and C might in turn beat the 2-2 with some higher pair such as Black-Black. A is left holding his 8-8-8.

A Shao Pai is also possible if in addition to the combination that beats the one that started the Gou Ji and the one you use to go out, you have a number of other combinations each of which contains a joker. In this case you beat the set on the table, then play your combinations with jokers, and finally your last combination, which can be any legal set. If none of your plays is beaten by any player, you are a winner. If one of them is beaten, you take back your remaining cards and the normal sequence of play resumes. In the example above, A could also declare a Shao Pai holding A-A-Q-10-10-8-8-8-Red-Black. He could beat B's K-K with his A-A and then play 8-8-8-Black, 10-10-Red and finally his queen.

If a player declares a Shao Pai and then turns out to have insufficient jokers to accompany all his remaining sets (except the one used to beat the Gou Ji set and the final set), then his play is invalid and he automatically becomes the big loser.

Rang Pai

If after you play the next two players pass and then your Dui Men beats your play, you may request your left-hand team mate to pass this time ("Xian Rang Rang" - 先让让). If he agrees to pass and your left-hand opponent also passes, then you can continue to play against your Dui Men, and the other players cannot come in until the cards are cleared. Example. A holds 4, 7, 7, A, Red and plays the 4. B and C pass, having no small single cards they need to get rid of, and D plays an 8. Now A, fearing that his partner E might shut him out by playing an ace or two, might say "Xian Rang Rang", asking E to pass. If E passes as requested and F passes or plays something lower than an ace, A plays his ace, and will go on to win unless D responds with a red joker.

Running out of Cards and the Endgame

As players run out of cards, they drop out of the play. When a player plays his last cards, the game continues as usual and other players may still beat these cards. If everyone else passes, then after the cards are cleared, the turn to play passes to the next player to the right of the person who played last who is still in the game. This is called "catching the wind". In practice, the player hoping to catch the wind asks the other players for permission to play, and if they agree (equivalent to passing), the cards are cleared and the player catches the wind and plays any card or set. But anyone who is able and willing can refuse permission and beat the last cards played by the player who went out, and play then continues in rotation as usual. Catching the wind applies both in normal play, and in a Gou Ji or Shao Pai - for example if a player runs out of cards during a Gou Ji then either his Dui Men beats these final cards and plays again after the cards are cleared, or clears the cards and lets the player to the right of the winner play a new card or set.

A player whose Dui Men has already won and has no cards cannot initiate a Gou Ji. If this player plays a sufficiently high comnbination such as a pair of kings, nothing special happens. The play just continues anticlockwise as usual.

If you still have cards and your Dui Men has 10 cards or fewer, you may ask him how many cards he has left and he must answer truthfully. A player who has 10 or fewer cards and whose Dui Men has already run out of cards can be asked by any opponent how many cards he holds and must answer truthfully.

A player who has only a few cards left may at his turn place all his remaining cards face up on the table in front of him. His team mates may then advise him in what order his cards or combinations should be played. A player who has exposed his hand in this way must leave his cards exposed for all to see until they are all played or the current game ends.

A player with 10 or fewer cards may show his cards privately to his team mates. This is independent of the rule about asking how many cards an opponent has, and different from laying your cards face up. In this case you can show your partners your cards without the opponents seeing them, but your partners cannot advise you in what order to play your cards.

When two players have run out of cards the endgame begins. The four remaining players no longer take turns. Instead, whenever two or more players of a team are due to play consecutively, the players can agree to play in any sequence - for example the players who can get rid of low cards will play before the ones with higher sets of the same type to play.

When there are four players left with opponents sitting alternately - for example if only A, B, C and D remain - partners can discuss what order to play in, but all four players must have a turn before anyone plays again. For example if A plays first, the other team can agree whether B or D should play next. Let's suppose they agree on D. C must have the next turn, followed by B. Now that all four players have had a turn, A and C can choose which plays next, then B and D have a choice, and this again fixes the following two turns.

With four or fewer players it is still possible to have a Gou Ji between a player and his Dui Men if both still have cards. In this case there is no possibility to change the turn order, unless someone is in a position to Shao Pai.


A cumulative score is kept for each team. The main winner's team scores plus 4 points, the second winner's team plus two points, and there is no score for the third and fourth winners. The last two players lose points for their teams: the big loser scores minus 4 and the second loser scores minus 2. So for example a team which takes 1st, 4th and 5th place scores plus 2 overall and the other team minus 2. If one team takes 1st, 3rd and 6th place, the scores cancel and neither team scores. A team that takes 1st, 2nd and 4th places scores 6 points and the other team loses 6. However, if the first three winning places are all taken by the same team, the score is doubled: the winning team scores 12 points instead of 6 and the losers lose 12.

The scores of the two teams are always equal and opposite, and the final result shows the amount of money the losers must pay to the winners, if the game is played for money.

It is also possible to record only the points scored by the winning team - for example if a team takes 1st, 2nd and 6th place they are awarded 2 points and the other team gets nothing. The overall result is effectively the same. At the end of the session both teams will have positive scores and the losers pay the winners according to the difference.


When deciding the deal in the first game or a fresh game, some groups place the drawn card face up in the middle of the pack. The player who takes this card during the deal starts the play, and there is no showing of two threes.


There are many technical terms associated with this game. To make the above description easier to follow, we substituted English terms where possible. Here is a fuller glossary of the Chinese vocabulary of the game.

The Jokers are called Hu (虎) (tigers). Red Jokers are Da Hu (大虎) (big tigers) and black ones are Xiao Hu (小虎) (little tigers). Sometimes they are called Da Hua (大花) and Xiao Hua (小花) (big and little flowers).
The twos are called Xiao Liang (小两) (little deuce), Liang (两) (deuce), Xiao 2 (小2) (little 2) or Qian (钱) (money).
Aces and pictures
Some of the names are suggested by the shapes of the English letters on the cards. The aces are called Mao Zi (帽子) (hat), the kings Lao Kai (老凯) (old victor), the queens Pi Qiu (皮球) (ball) or Pi Dan (皮蛋) (egg) and the jacks Gou Zi (钩子) (hook)
Dian Shu (点数)
The rank or numerical value of a card, irrespective of its suit.
Lian Bang
The three players of a team are called a Lian Bang (联邦) (federation) or Bang (邦) (state).
Dui Men (对门)
The opponent sitting directly opposite a player is that player's Dui Men.
Xi Pai (洗牌)
To shuffle the cards.
Zhua Pai (抓牌)
To take a card during the deal. Shou Zhua Pai (首抓牌) is to begin the deal by taking the first card.
Kai Pai (开牌)
The process of deciding who will take the first card in the deal. This is done in different ways during the session: Shou Ci Kai Pai (首次开牌) (also called Ben Pai (锛牌)) for the first game, Chong Xin Kai Pai (重新开牌) for a fresh game, and Chang Gui Kai Pai (常规开牌) for an ordinary game, where the process is known as Shang Pai (上牌) (previously played card). When the big loser chooses another player to Zhua Pai this is known as Yan Pai (延牌) (postpone card).
Ge Ming (革命)
Revolution: in which a player without twos and jokers demands a new deal.
Jin Gong (进贡)
Paying tribute: the losers give their best cards to the winners. This is also known as Song Li (送礼) (giving presents). Huan gong (还贡) are the cards returned by those who received the tribute.
Jie Fang (解放)
Liberation: a player who is deal all four red jokers does not pay tribute.
Shang Ban (上班)
Go to work: the right to lead the first cards of the game.
Fa Pai (发牌)
To lead - to play a card or valid combination to the empty table.
Tao Pai (套牌), Yi Tao Pai (一套牌)
A set of cards of the same Dian Shu, played together as a valid combination.
Gua Pai (挂牌), Tie Pai (贴牌)
To catch or stick on a card. To add a wild card (two or joker) to a valid combination.
Dan You (单悠)
To play a single card. Also known as Dan Xiu (单修).
Shun Pai (顺牌), Ya Pai (压牌)
To beat a card or combination with a higher card or combination.
Guo Pai (过牌)
To pass instead of playing a card or combination. Also known as Guo Le (过了).
Ke (科), Che (车), La (落) )(
The main winner, the player who gets rid of all his cards first, is said to Qiang Ke (抢科) (grab the vehicle), Kai Che (开车) (drive the vehicle) or Zou Ke (走科) (go out): he has the Tou Ke (头车) (first vehicle). The second player is called the Er Ke (二科) or Er Che (二车) (second driver). The last players holding cards lose (shu le - 输了). The big loser is La (落) (lagging, trailing behind) or Da La (大落) or Da La Che (大落车) (vehicle lagging a long way behind) and the second to last player is the Er La (二落) (second lagging behind).
Chuan San Hu (串三户)
Three families in a row. If three members of the same team take the first three places, the defeated team are called Chuan San Hu or Zhua San Hu (抓三户) (three families seized).
Huo Pai (活牌)
Live card - a card or set of cards that is not beaten, either by your Dui Men in a Gou Ji Pai or by anyone in normal play. A play that is beaten is Bu Huo (不活) (not alive).
Qiang (墙)
Wall. If your left hand opponent has cards, this player is your Qiang. If your left hand opponent has gone out, and you have a partner playing immediately before you, this is Mei You Qiang (没有墙) (no wall). You can feel at ease and play more boldly because your partner can protect you and feed you cards that are easy to play on. Helping your partner in this and similar situations is called Song Ke (送科) (giving a present).
Zheng Ke (争科), Bao La (保落)
The focus of Shang Bang Chan (上半场) - the opening of the game, when there are still at least five or six players in is Zheng Ke - fighting for vehicles. Players try to go out as soon as possible. After two players are out, the Xia Ban Chang (下半场) (endgame) begins. Now the focus is Bao La or Zhua La (抓落) - a more defensive style in which the aim is to conserve strength to avoid being a loser.
Ji Pai (级牌), Gou Ji Pai (够级牌)
Joker, 2, A, K, Q, J, 10 are Ji Pai (ranking cards) and when played in sufficent quantity they constitute a Gou Ji Pai (sufficiently high play) which causes a duel with the player opposite - see rules above.
Shao Pai (捎牌)
Take cards along - see rules above. If your Shao Pai attempt is beaten by another player before you have played all your cards this is Mie Le (灭了) (destruction).
Rang Pai (让牌), Xiang Rang Rang (先让让)
See rules above
Kou Pai (扣牌)
The Dui Men of a player whose cards are not beaten clears the played cards away and puts them aside face down, confirming that the last player may begin again with a new play (Fa Pai). Turning the played cards face down is also known as Ha Pai (合牌) (closing the cards). A variety of expressions is used by the player clearing the cards to confirm that the Dui Men may play again: PASS (the English word!), Fan Le (翻了) (turn them over), Ha Si (合死) (closed and dead), Pa Si (爬死) (crawl away and die), Pa Guo Lai (爬过来) (creep off).
Mei You Tou (没有头)
Having no head. This is the situation where your Dui Men has already gone out, so you are unable to start a duel - if you play Gou Ji Pai the play just continues anticlockwise.
Bao Pai (报牌)
Declare how many cards you have, when holding 10 or fewer and asked by a partner or your Dui Men (or any player if you are Mei You Tou). The question is "hai you ji hu?" (还有几壶?) (how many cards do you have?). The remaining 10 cards are called Man Hu (满壶) (a full pot) or Zheng zai hu shang (正在壶上) (still in the pot). More than 10 cards are Wen bu zhao (问不着) (don't ask).
Tiao Pai (挑牌), Liu Pai(留牌)
When a player holding cards only a few cards decides to expose them and let his team mates decide how they should be played, this is called Tiao Pai (select cards) or Liu Pai (reserve cards).
Jie Feng (接风)
After a player goes out, if no one beats that player's Di Pai the next player to the right has a free play, known as Jie Feng (catching the wind) or Kao Feng (靠风) (relying on the wind). So after a player goes out, the player to the right will say "Shen qing jie feng" (申请接风) (I apply to catch the wind) and if the others agree will then play. This is called Liu Feng (留风) (reserving the wind).
Di Pai (底牌)
Final cards. The last cards in a player's hand, with which the player goes out. If the final cards are Gou Ji Pai (a sufficently high set), this is called Gou Si Ji (够死级) (suffient death rank), and only the player's Dui Men or a player with Shao Pai can play on it - otherwise the next player in turn catches the wind.
Luan Zan (乱攒)
Storing up trouble. This is the situation when only four players remain and they can agree to change their order of play. It is also called Luan Chan (乱缠) (getting into a tangle) or Si Hu Luan Zan (四户乱攒) (four families stir up trouble).
Luo Di Sheng Gen (落地生根)
Be born, take root. The rule that a card that has been played cannot be taken back.