Tien Gow

(Heaven Nine)

This article was originally based on Western sources, but then was corrected by Anthony Kam [antkam@mit.edu]. Some of the rules given here might be regional variations, since Mr. Kam is from Hong Kong.

"Tien Gow" means "Heaven Nine" and takes its name from "sky" or "Heaven" being the top Civil piece and nine being the top Military piece.

Players and Equipment

Tien Gow is a four player game using one set of Chinese dominoes. The goal of the game is to win points by taking tricks, much like a Western card game. It is a gambling game, like most Chinese games. The players start with some money and money changes hand according to the scoring rules. The game is not played in points in the sense of Bridges or Hearts, but more like points in the sense of Rubber Bridge where points are trades for money (for example, $1 per 10 points).

The Deal

One player is picked by dice to be the banker for a hand. The banker puts a small puck or other marker on the table in front of him.

The banker stacks up a woodpile and deals each player a hand of eight tiles. The banker also leads the first trick of the hand. After that, the winner of each trick leads the next trick. The winner of the last trick in one game becomes the next banker and leads the first trick of the next game.

The Play

In his turn, a player can lead:

  1. one tile (singleton)
  2. a pair of tiles (bo or pair)
  3. a set of 3 tiles (triplet)
  4. a set of 4 tiles (quartet)

Each of the other players in turn then plays the same number of tiles, and this constitutes one trick. Any tiles can be played, but if a player's tile(s) do not beat the current high tile, pair, triplet or quartet, then they must be played face down as discards. This introduces a guessing element into the game, as you cannot count the tiles perfectly. If a player's tile(s) can beat the current high tile, pair, triplet or quartet, they may be played face up and become the new current high tile, pair, triplet or quartet. After all four players have played, the player who played the high tile, pair, triplet or quartet, takes the trick.

Rank and Suit of the Tiles

Tiles in a set of Chinese dominoes are divided into two suits (Civil and Military). See below for the classification and ranking (top to bottom)

Civil Suit

There are two copies of each civilian tiles, and the two identical tiles are considered equal ranked. Note that all of the doubles are civilian. The civil suit is ranked from highest to lowest by this table.

    Tiletile name
    [6-6]Heaven
    [1-1]Earth
    [4-4]Man
    [3-1]Goose
    [5-5]Plum Flower
    [3-3]Double Three
    [2-2]Board
    [6-5]Hatchet
    [6-4]Partition
    [6-1]Long leg Seven
    [5-1]Big Head Six

Military Suit

There is only one tile of each, but they make pairs based on the same totals. In order by single tiles they are:

    [6-3], [5-4]Gow - Nines (the two tiles are ranked equally)
    [6-2], [5-3]Bart - Eights (the two tiles are ranked equally)
    [5-2], [4-3]Chut - Sevens (the two tiles are ranked equally)
    [4-2]Lok - Six, or Big Six
    [4-1], [3-2]Ng - Fives (the two tiles are ranked equally)
    [2-1]Sam - Three, or Little Three

There is also a special pair called the Gee Joon, made up of the [2-1] and [4-2] tiles.

Single Tile Tricks

A tile beats another tile if

  1. They are of the same suit, Civil or Military, and
  2. The first tile is higher in that suit's (Civil or Military) ranking.

In the case of a tie, the tile played earliest wins.

Thus if your tile is equal to the current high tile in a trick, it must be discarded face down. Similarly, if your tile is of a different suit than the tile led, it must be discarded face down.

Two Tile Tricks

Pairs is ranked as shown in the following table, following the same scheme as Pai Gow and other games. Pairs are considered suited -- a pair can be double-Civil, double-Military, or mixed (a Civil and a Military tile).

As with single tile tricks, a pair beats another pair:

  1. If they are of the same suit combination (both Civil, both Military or mixed), and
  2. The tiles in the first pair beat those in the second.

For example, a Civil pair of Heavens, ([6-6] and [6-6]) beats a pair of Earth ([1-1] and [1-1]), but not a Military pair of sevens ([5-2] and [4-3]), nor a mixed pair of Goose-five if that is what was lead. A mixed pair of Man-seven ([4-4] and [5-2]) beats Goose-five, but neither is beaten by) the Civil Plum-pair ([5-5] and [5-5]).

When discarding, you do not have to follow suit and indeed you do not have to discard another pair -- you can discard any two tiles you like.

Double CivilDouble MilitaryMixed
PairNamePairNamePairs
4-2 & 2-1Supreme

6-6 & 6-6Heaven6-3 & 5-4 Jaap Gow - mixed nines6-6 & 6-36-6 & 5-4
1-1 & 1-1Earth6-2 & 5-3 Jaap Bart - mixed eights1-1 & 5-31-1 & 6-2
4-4 & 4-4 Man5-2 & 4-3 Jaap Chut - mixed sevens4-4 & 4-34-4 & 5-2
3-1 & 3-1 Goose4-1 & 3-2 Jaap Ng - mixed fives3-1 & 4-13-1 & 3-2
5-5 & 5-5 Flower

3-3 & 3-3 Long
2-2 & 2-2 Board
6-5 & 6-5 Hatchet
6-4 & 6-4 Partition
6-1 & 6-1 Long Leg Seven
5-1 & 5-1 Big Head Six

Special Pair

There is a special pair, the Gee Joon or "Supreme" ([4-2] and [2-1]). This pair is not considered double-Military, even tho both of its tiels belong to that suit. Nothing beats it, and it can beat nothing. Thus, if led, it will always win since nothing beats it, but if played against another other pair led, it must always be discarded since it beats nothing.

Triplet and Quartet Sets

Besides leading a single tile or a pair, a set of three or four can be led. A set is a combination of Military and Civil tiles made up of:

  1. Heavens and Nines
  2. Earths and Eights
  3. Man and Sevens
  4. Goose and Fives

For example, two Heavens and a Nine constitute a set of three, while two pairs of Earths and two Eights constitute a set of four. No other two pair combinations aside from sets of four, as defined above, can be led.

The rules for when a triplet or quartet beats another triplet or quartet is the same as those for pairs; a triplet or quartet beats triplet or quartet if:

  1. The tiles have the same suits, and
  2. Each tile in the first triplet or quartet beats its corresponding tile in the second triplet or quartet.

Since any quartet consists of two civilians and two Militaries, suit matching is not an issue.

For example, a triplet set of two Heavens and a Nine ([6-6], [6-6] and [6-3] or [5-4]) can beat a set of two Earths and an Eight ([1-1], [1-1] and [6-2] or [5-3]), but not a set of two Eights and an Earth because of mismatched suits. Indeed, pairs can be considered as sets of two tiles, except for the supreme pair, which is in a class by itself.

Again, in any discard situation, you never have to follow suit and can discard anything you like.

Scoring

Scoring is best done with chips like many Chinese games. The winner of the last trick of a hand is the new banker and considered winner of this hand, although the only real objective is to make money. All other players pay the banker or are paid by the banker.

End of Hand Payments

As the hand is played, tricks are collected and stacked in columns of four tiles high. Thus winning a triplet would generate twelve tiles which the winner of the trick stacks as three columns in a private woodpile in front of him. Every non-winner now counts the number of columns in front of him and compare it to a par value of four. If he's below par, he pays the winner of the hand the difference. If he's above par, the winner pays him the difference. Thus if you only win a triplet trick and it is not the last trick of the hand, then you are a loser with three columns, and you would pay the banker 4 - 3 = 1 point, which is worth a $1 at the end of the game in our examples.

As a special case any non-winner with no columns (no tricks) pays five points instead of four points.

"Banker Double" Rule

The banker's payments to or from the other players are doubled.

For example, if the current banker wins only one column, he pays 3 x 2 = 6 points to the winner (new banker).

A local variation in Hong Kong is that when the banker wins, the payments are also multiplied by his number of consecutive wins. So if the new banker wins a second time, he is paid 4 points per trick below par by the other players (tricks x banker double x double for second win). If he then goes on to win a third time, he would triple all transactions (6 points per trick), and on his fourth win they would be quadrupled, and so forth. The banker can stack the appropriate number of chips on top of the puck to indicate how many consecutive wins he has.

Payments for Tricks

These payments are made during the hand. They are in addition to the usual end of hand payments we just discussed. Notice that the "banker double" rule also applies here.

Any trick won by playing the Gee Joon ("supreme pair") immediately collects two points from each other player as soon as the pair is played. Remember that the Gee Joon must be led to win, since the supreme pair beats nothing. Because of the "banker double" rule, the Gee Joon would collect four points from the current banker, and if the Gee Joon was played by the current banker, it would collect four points from all others.

A player who wins a quartet trick immediately collects four points from each other player. Again, "banker double" rule applies so he would either collect or pay out a multiple of four points.

Special Rules

The "Early Death" Rule

The "early death" rule changes the game play and is very important in terms of strategy. All other rules affect payment only and in that sense would influence players who might want to take greater or lesser risks, but do not directly influence game play.

If seven tiles have been played by each player so that the last trick is a singleton tile trick, then any player who has not won any trick during the first seven tiles immediately forfeit the last trick also. That players final tile is immediately discarded face down regardless of what it is. And that unlucky player, having no tricks, will pay five points to whoever wins.

Last Trick Bonuses

The end of hand payments (but not pay-per-trick payments) are doubled for everyone, if the last trick is won by:

  1. Any quartet
  2. The Gee Joon ("supreme pair")
  3. The singleton Little Three (the smallest Military tile)

Note that in cases (a) and (b) there are (undoubled) pay-per-trick payments in addition to doubled end of hand payments.

This rule is in addition to the "banker double" rule, so the banker would have all end of hand payments quadrupled.

Complete Game Bonus

If any player wins all eight tiles (this could be because of a clever use of the "early death" rule or by real brute force!), the end of hand payments are also doubled. If his last trick happens to be a bonus situation as listed above, both doubling applies and the end of hand payments would be quadrupled (or eight times for banker!)

This exception is not used in all gaming groups, but it effects strategy. The rule is that the banker does not get the complete game bonus if the first trick he led is "unbeatable seen from his own eyes"; This is not as simple as it sounds.

Consider what it means to be unbeatable:

  1. A singleton Heaven
  2. A Heaven-nine pair
  3. The Gee Joon
are all unbeatable when they are lead.

A hand with an Earth-pair and a Heaven, or a singleton eight with both nines, would also be considered "unbeatable in his own eyes" because by just looking at these eight tiles he can deduce that it is unbeatable. Note, however, that an Earth pair while he does not have a Heaven, would be considered "beatable in his own eyes" and therefore would not invoke this exception even if in fact the two Heavens are split among two players and so this pair is actually unbeatable in that hand's tile distribution.

"Big Six Captures Little Three" Bonus

This is getting into the arcane, but it is here for completeness. This rule adds even more risk to saving the Little Three for your last trick in the hope of getting the special last trick double game bonus.

If the last trick is a single tile trick, and is led with the Little Three (the smallest Military tile, also the smaller half of the supreme pair), and it is eventually won by a second player (who is now the new banker) with the Big Six (the bigger half of the supreme pair), then you calculate all end of hand payments as usual (no doubling except for banker) but any payment that the other two players not involved with the Little Three and Big Six have to make to the player of the Big Six are made by the player of the Little Three instead. Thus the player of the Little Three would incur a heavy loss benefiting the other two players, while the player of the Big Six would not gain anything extra.

One Red Dot Group

This is also very arcane and is not used in all gaming groups. If a player is dealt a hand with exactly one red dot (all other pips are white), then he immediately wins by declaring this hand. His winnings are calculated as if he had won all the tricks. This gives him a complete game bonus, but no special last trick bonus since no tricks are played. Note that it is not possible for more than one player to have just one red dot. There are only 13 tiles without red pips, so only one player can have as many as seven of these.

Strategy

The winner of the last trick almost always wins the most money and so the objective of most hands is to win the last trick. Because of the early death rule, in order to achieve this it is also necessary to win at least one of the first seven tricks.

Because of the "banker double" rule, some bankers may want to play it safe and cash all his sure-win tricks when he has the first lead. That greatly reduces his chance of winning but limits his loss.

Notice that if the final trick is not a singleton tile, the "early death" rule cannot apply. This means that all players are in contention for the last trick and are eligible to win. Sometimes friendships of convenience might appear as two or three players gang up to create early-deaths.

Do not think early-deaths are rare! With good players, Mr. Kam estimates that every third game will have one or more "early death" hands.

Comments

If you still have trouble remembering the suits and rankings, you can play an equivalent game with Western playing cards -- use all black cards (as the Civil Suit) except Jacks and Deuces, and these red cards (as the Military Suit): two Aces, two Kings, two Queens, two Tens and one each of Jack and Deuce. Then the ranking would be natural (Ace high, King, Queen, Jack and so forth with the Deuce low) in each color and all pairing and combining-into-set rules are preserved if you just play pairs/sets of the same index and suit-matching becomes color-matching.

The red Jack is the [4-2] and the red Deuce is the [2-1] and together they form the supreme pair.

There is a Chinese webpage from Hunan, China which describes the rules of Goo Pai. The game is played with the same tiles and lookis something like Tien Gow, but the rules for Goo Pai are very different. The rankings are similar to PaiGow and the play goes around the table as in a trick taking game.

However a double 6-6 can beat a Gee Joon combo in this game. But in Tien Gow, the double 6-6 cannot win because of mismatched suits. Goo Pai disregards the suit, so when a single tile is played, it ranks against other single tiles in one ranking order. If a pair is played, it ranks against other pairs in another ranking order, regardless of the suit. The rules do not even mention triplet and quaduplet combo play. The scoring is also very simplistic, just pay by the number of stacks won.