Luk Fu (六虎)

The following description is based an article by Anthony Smith and Günther Senst, revised on the basis of information from Dylan W.H.S and 'The Suffocated'.

The Name

C T Dobree (1955) spelled the name Luk Fu and used the characters for "Six Tigers", whereas J W Young (1866) said he could not learn the characters for what he spelled Lioek Foe. "Liuk" can certainly mean Six and, as the players' objective in the game is to use at least 6 of their own cards to win tricks or multitricks, Dobree's interpretation of his "Luk" is very probable. But we are sceptical of his Tigers, because Young also uses the word "Foe" for a unit of scoring in the rummy-like game Phien Kim ("ph" as in English "shepherd") - various combinations scored various multiples of "Foe" - but his informants could not tell him how to write "Foe". Since "Liuk" means "Six" and the objective is to take 6 cards-worth of multitricks, we imagine that "Fu" should be translated as "points", like the Mandarin word "Hu" in K Himly (1901) and L M Iakovlev (1946). But we shall see "tigers" in the terminology of the game, and this looks like a pun. Dylan W.H.S. confirms that the word for the number of trick-winning cards in this game is pronounced the same as the word for "tiger" in the Hakka dialect.

We have pleasure in thanking Mrs Chan-Edmead, Miss Tsoi and Mr Pang of Gloucester, a cathedral city lying about 175 km. west of London, for their information on the rules of this game. In January 1993 Mrs Chan-Edmead of the Gloucestershire Chinese Community Group introduced Anthony Smith to an English-speaking user of these cards, Kim Tsoi, an undergraduate student at Westminster University whose family live in Gloucester. Miss Tsoi played cards with her grandmother and explained to him the rules of a three-player trick-taking game called Liuk Fu. In November 1993 he met, through the Open University (a British correspondence college for which he is a tutor), another English-speaking Luk Fu player from Gloucester, Tim Pang.

The Players

Luk Fu is a game for three active players, though as in some European games a fourth player may deal. Such a dealer takes part in the payments even though taking no part in the play. Both tricks in the ordinary sense and multitricks, where each player contributes the same number, greater than one, of cards can be played. Let us use "trick" to cover both possibilities, in the sense that a 3-card multitrick is worth 3 "tricks".

The Cards

When there is no fourth player only 36 cards of the 38 are used, and these are not quite the 36 reported in W H Wilkinson (1895) to be used in the unnamed three-hander which he knew. If a fourth is present 37 cards are used and the dealer retains one card. Under no circumstance is the 38th card used, and the informants knew of no use for it. Packs are so easily obtainable that it is not even used to replace a damaged or lost card. A European equivalent of this state of affairs may be the Tarocco Bolognese pack which is sold with Jokers, although we know of no game for this pack using the Jokers.

The 36 cards used are arranged in the illustration ranking l (low) - 9 (high) from left to right. The suits are:

"Sup" (拾) or "Tens" (ranking high)
1 sup 2 sup 3 sup 4 sup 5 sup 6 sup 7 sup 8 sup 9 sup

"Gong" (貫) or "Myriads"
1 gong 2 gong 3 gong 4 gong 5 gong 6 gong 7 gong 8 gong 9 gong

"Sok" (索) or "Knots"
1 sok 2 sok 3 sok 4 sok 5 sok 6 sok 7 sok 8 sok 9 sok

"Tyen" (綫) or "Coins" (ranking low)
1 tyen 2 tyen 3 tyen 4 tyen 5 tyen 6 tyen 7 tyen 8 tyen 9 tyen

The extra card ranks as an Extra Ace, but is not attached to any suit.

The five aces:
1 sup 1 gong 1 sok 1 tyen extra ace

'The Suffocated' points out that the character 綫, meaning 'thread', on the coins cards probably originated as a misreading of 錢, which stands for 文錢, the coin with the smallest face value.

It will be observed that the cards used as Ace of Tens and as Ace of Coins are not so inscribed. The characters on the card used as Ace of Tens say "Hundred Sons" (Bak Chi - 百子) while those on the card functioning as Ace of Coins are too stylised to be read unambiguously. Miss Tsoi's grandmother called it "Mao Ta" but Mr Pang's mother called it "Ma Tyen". Young (1886) called it "Mo Kwoeng", Prince of Mao, and The Suffocated renders it as Mau Gung (毛公). The Extra Ace was called "Li Tyen" by Miss Tsoi's grandmother but "Yo Tyen" by Mr Pang's mother. Young (1886) has "Joen Tshiën" (雲錢). Although it bears the character for "Coins" it is not accounted a member of the Coins suit. Dylan W.H.S calls the extra ace Leeten (麗綫) and the spare card Leefa (麗花), but according to Hill Li these should be 梨綫 and 梨花 respectively. According to The Suffocated the spare card is Luk Fa (鹿花 "Stagflower").

The Deal

The first dealer is chosen by lot. Subsequently deal rotates anticlockwise, except that when the Master (Tiu Ga - 頭家) wins then the same dealer will deal again, sitting out again if there are four players.

The dealer can allow a consistent loser to cut the cards.

The dealer may deal the cards singly or in packets of two or more.

If only three are playing the dealer deals to himself first and then anticlockwise until everyone has 12 cards. The dealer will be Master (or Forehand, the person who plays the first card).

If four play then the deal is still anticlockwise, but starts with the player opposite the dealer, who will be Master. The dealer gives himself a single card at any stage , but usually first or last.

The Decision to Play

When the deal is completed the Master either makes a lawful lead or passes. If he passed then the next player anticlockwise either passes or says "Play". If he also passes then the third player has the same choice. If all three pass the cards are redealt by the next dealer. If anyone said "Play" then the Master leads. According to Dylan W.H.S the word used for play is Tsoh (做).

Any player who said "Play" is Vulnerable, and if he does not win will have to pay the other loser's losses as well as his own. Notice that the Master does not have to say "Play" when he wishes to play, and can never be Vulnerable.

The Objective

The objective is to win "tricks" with at least six cards. The amount won depends on how many "tricks" the victor takes. The player who first takes six can stop the game and claim immediate victory, but if he plays on, hoping for further "tricks", but another player takes the other six then that other player is the sole victor. If no one takes 6 "tricks" then the hand is drawn and there are no payments. Mr Pang said deal does not rotate in a drawn hand when the Master had not passed; Miss Tsoi said deal rotates in all drawn hands; Dylan W.H.S. says that in a drawn hand (Da Fo - 打和) there are no payments and the same dealer deals again, irrespective of whether the Master passed and who chose to Play.


In Miss Tsoi's tariff of payments a unit stake and a value for extra "tricks" must both be agreed. She suggested 10p for both. The winner would then get 10p for six "tricks" and 10p for each further "trick", giving a maximum of 70p for twelve "tricks". This is collected from each opponent - or twice from a Vulnerable opponent.

Mr Pang's tariff involved a single unit, for which he also suggested 10p, and winners with 6, 7, 8 or 9 were paid 10, 20, 30 or 40p just as in Miss Tsoi's system, but winners with 10 or 11 were paid double, thus getting £1 or £1.20 and a winner with 12 was paid triple, for £2.10.

If a fourth player had been sitting out he turns up his single card at the end of the play. If its rank matches that of one or more of the victor's winning cards then he collects at 10p per match from each loser (or twice from a Vulnerable loser).

If the dealer's card is the Extra Ace it matches any other Aces among the victor's winners, and similarly if the victor has the Extra Ace among his winners then it matches any Ace which the dealer holds.

Variant: Miss Tsoi said that it can be agreed beforehand that the winner also gets an extra 10p for each card with a red overprint among his winners. These cards are the Nines and the Old Aces and also the Eight of Tens.

Old Cards

The four Nines, the Aces of Tens and Coins and (if it is in play) the Extra Ace are called Old Cards (Lao Sui Pai - 老歲牌). The Nines are initially the highest cards in the suits and any card which is known to become, during the course of the play, the highest in its suit has become Old. If a consecutive sequence in the same suit, headed by an Old card, is held by some player then the whole sequence are Old Cards. The point about being known to be highest is that there can be doubt - discards are made unseen and in the 4-player version one card is out of play. The dealer may look at his card at once but is not obliged to reveal it until play is over. If it is a Nine or Eight, or sometimes even a Seven, he leaves it concealed so that the active players do not know what card has become highest in that suit.

The Aces of Tens and Coins are lowest in their suits and the Extra Ace is not in a suit at all. These cards cannot beat any single card played in front of them, but if any of them is led as a single card it wins the trick.

Leading to a Trick or Multitrick

The Master leads first and the winner of each trick or multitrick leads to the next.

The player on lead may play

  1. a single card
  2. a set of three cards of equal rank
  3. a set of four cards of equal rank
  4. a sequence of three or more consecutive cards of the same suit.

The Extra Ace does not count as an Ace when making sets of three or four Aces, nor can it enter a sequence. It can however be used to make a set of Five Aces and the lucky owner can claim an immediate victory before the first card is led, irrespective of who has the lead. Miss Tsoi called this "Ng Fu" ie "5 Fu" and valued it at six "tricks"; Mr Pang valued it at 8 "tricks" and called it "Ng Fu Ha San" (五虎下山), "Five Tigers Emerge From the Mountain" in both the Hakka and Cantonese dialects, which we believe to be a play on the two meanings of "Fu". A player who holds other winners in addition to Five Aces cannot claim further "tricks": the payment for Five Tigers is a fixed amount.

There are two constraints upon beginning tricks with single cards:

Firstly an Old Card can be led on its own only in three circumstances:

  1. any player whose turn it is to lead may lay down any one or more Old Cards, regardless of their suits, if this brings immediate victory or gains further tricks over and above those needed for victory. Play then ends,
  2. a Vulnerable player may play one or more Old Cards whenever he has the lead,
  3. naturally, a player holding nothing but Old Cards playable only as single cards may lead one.

Secondly, a player who is starting a trick with a single card but may not lawfully play an Old Card must use a card from the highest suit in which he holds a (non-Old) card.

For example, suppose I am not Vulnerable.

  1. If I have the lead and need one "trick" for victory and hold an Old Card in Coins and only non-Old cards in higher suits, then I may play the Old Card.
  2. If I have the same holding but one "trick" will not suffice, then if I play a single card it must be from my highest suit.
  3. If on the other hand I hold only an Old Card in Tens and only non-Old cards in other suits then if I play a single card then it must be from my next highest suit unless a single "trick" will bring me victory

The only constraint upon the lead to multitricks is that if the Master passed he is constrained never to lead a set of four or a sequence of four or more.

Following to a Trick or Multitrick

Play follows anticlockwise. Each player must head the trick or multitrick if possible, or else discard the appropriate number of cards face down.

A single card can be beaten only by a higher card in the same suit. A discard can be of any suit.

A set of three or four cards of the same rank can be beaten only by a set of the same number of cards of a higher rank. Exceptionally, if a set of three or four Aces is led to a multitrick then they can be beaten only by the same number of Nines.

A sequence can be beaten either by a higher sequence of the same length in the same suit or by any sequence of the same length in a higher suit.

If a player who passed plays a set of 4 or a sequence of 4 or more he can expect to be challenged as to why he passed. If he held too good a hand to justify passing, the Pass will be considered unfair. If a player who said "Play" after such an unfair Pass loses then he will "not have to pay his share" of the losses. Presumably the other loser pays on behalf of both losers.

Completed Tricks and Multitricks

When all three active players have played, the trick or multitrick is complete, and counts for as many "tricks" as the number of cards each person contributed. The winner of the trick or multitrick places his winning card or cards face-up in front of himself and the other cards are pushed aside. The losing cards remain face-up or face-down as they were played but may be buried when later tricks or multitricks are pushed aside. It is considered impolite to excavate in the pile for another sight of a card which is face-up but buried.

Variations and other Luk Fu pages

The version on the Hak Ga Pai page by Dylan W.H.S. has several small differences from the above description.

  • The winner of each hand deals next. With four players, the deal still begins with the dealer, and it is the player opposite the dealer who receives a single card.
  • The dealer offers the cards to his left-hand opponent to cut. The player who cuts may look at the card which will become the bottom card of the deck, but this provides no extra information since he will receive this card as the last card of the deal.
  • The constraint upon a Master who has passed not to lead a set of four or a sequence of four or more does not apply. These cards may be led if held.
  • If it is your lead and the only cards you have in the highest suit you hold are Old cards, then these can and must be led before leading any single card from a lower suit.
  • During the play, any player may ask another 'Giu - Um Giu?' (夠 - 唔夠) meaning 'do you have enough top cards to win?' If the player has, the play ends and the winner is paid for those cards (and not for any extra cards he might have won with had the cards been played out).
  • There is no special immunity for the dealer if he chooses to play (Tsoh) and does win. He pays the other loser's loss as well as his own.

The Rules of Luk Fu published by The Suffocated and Wong Siu Fat differ from the main description above as follows:

  • As in the Dylan W.H.S. version it is the player opposite the dealer who is the "dreamer" (Mung Ga - 夢家) and receives just one card. The dealer is always the Master (Tiu Ga - 頭家), whether there are three or four players. The same dealer deals again only when he Tsoh and wins or draws the game; in all other cases, including when everyone passes, the turn to deal passes to the right.
  • In a multiple trick, a player can discard even if he could have beaten the highest play, provided that after discarding he is left with no combination that could have beaten the highest play. In other words, the combination that he could have played must be broken by the discard.
  • The restriction on leading single cards are somewhat different. If a player who is not Vulnerable leads a single card, it must be from the highest suit that he holds, and he must lead a non-old card of that suit if possible. A Vulnerable player may lead any old card, but must not lead a single non-old card if he holds any card of a higher suit.
  • There is no actual ban on the Master leading four or more cards if he passed, but if he does this, he runs the risk of being censored for passing when he should have played.
  • It is normal practice (and not impolite) to examine cards that were played face up to previous tricks, and this may be necessary to resolve a dispute about which cards or combinations are known to be unbeatable.
  • The payments double rather than increasing by one unit for each additional trick. So the payment is 1 for 6 tricks, 2 for 7 tricks, 4 for 8 tricks, 8 for 9 tricks, 16 for ten tricks and 32 for eleven tricks. For a player who wins all twelve tricks there is an extra double: the player wins 128 rather than 64. The dreamer also doubles the amount won for each extra winning card that he can match.

Here is a blog about Luk Fu (in Chinese) by The Suffocated.

References Cited

C T Dobree (1955): Gambling Games of Malaya, 1955

M Dummett (1980): The Game of Tarot, 1980

K Himly (1901): Part VII of Die Abteilung der Spiele im Spiegel der Mandschu-Sprache, pp1-23 of T'oung Pao, 1901, 2nd series, vol. II

L M Iakovlev (1946): Igra v Karty u Kitaitsev, pp24-26 of Zapiski Kharbinskogo Obshchestva Estestvoispytatelei i Etnagrofov, 1946, vol 1

W H Wilkinson (1895): Chinese Origin of Playing Cards, The American Anthropologist, 1895

J W Young (1886): Bijdrage tot de kennis der Chineesche hazard- en kaartspelen, pp269-302, Tijdschrift voor indische taal-, land- en volkenkunde, XXXI, 1886

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