Friday, April 14, 2006

Tichu Part 1: The Rules

Almost every day over lunch my friends and I play Tichu. This simple card game has become something of a phenomenon for me. It's my favorite four player card game and it's the only game that I currently have rated as a 10 over at the Geek. That doesn't necessarily mean it's my favorite game (that honor shifts with the winds) but it's certainly the game that I'm most willing to play if there are exactly four players and a Tichu deck present.

The other day I received some email from someone who had some Tichu strategy questions and that got me thinking that perhaps I should write an article on Tichu strategy. Now I realize that there are already several very good articles on the web on strategy but I figured that one more wouldn't hurt and perhaps this will spark more interest in this fantastic game. Also, I don't claim to be a world-class Tichu player. If you think I've got anything wrong or overlooked anything, please feel free to leave a comment.

But before I dive too deeply into strategy, I thought perhaps I should provide a summary of the rules just in case anyone isn't familiar with this excellent game. So if you are already familiar with the rules then perhaps you won't want to read this article too closely. There are a few basic strategy tips at the end of this but for the most part I'm saving the real strategy discussions for the next article.

This summary originally appeared on the HFoG forums. It is not intended to replace the official game rules (although it is pretty complete); merely to supplement and clarify them. This summary only applies to the basic four player partnership game. Tichu with any other number of players isn't Tichu; it's a different game that just happens to use the same rules.


Tichu is a partnership trick-taking game. Partners sit opposite each other, as in Bridge. The game is played over several hands. The winner of the hand is the first player to "go out" or play all his/her cards. At the end of the hand points are tallied. The first team to 1000 points wins the game.

The Cards

A near-standard deck of 52 playing cards ranked 2 through Ace in four suits: jade, sword, pagoda and star. Ace is always high.

Also included are four special cards: The Mah Jong, the Phoenix, the Dragon and the Dog. They bring the total cards in the deck to 56.

(Yes, it is possible to fabricate your own Tichu deck from a standard bridge deck by marking 4 jokers or 4 other cards from a matching deck. That's something to consider if you're just interested in trying it out to see if you'll like it. Of course, any game that's worth playing is worth paying for so if you like it, please support the designer by buying a copy.)

The Deal

The rules state that cards aren't dealt in Tichu; they're taken. In practice I find this awkward and when we play we always deal. 8 cards are dealt to each player. Each player then decides whether or not to call "Large Tichu" (see below), and then the remaining cards are dealt so that each player has a hand of 14 cards.

The Push

Each player selects one card to push to each of the other three players (for a total of three cards). In this way, each player is exchanging one card with every other player. Obviously, you may not look at any of the cards pushed to you before you choose which cards to push back.

The Trick

Whoever has the Mah Jong leads but she does NOT need to lead with the Mah Jong.

Unlike most trick taking games, a player may lead one card or a combination of cards. Also unusual is that the next player must either better the lead or pass. You may not "duck" or play an inferior combination to the one that is currently winning the trick.

A trick continues until three players in succession pass. Then whoever played last wins the trick and the lead for the next trick. He takes all the cards played during that trick and places them in front of him (unless the trick was won with the Dragon in which case the cards are placed in front of one of his opponents.)

You may pass on your turn and then play if your turn comes up again on the same trick.

In Tichu play officially progresses to the right instead of the left but as most westerners are used to play progressing clockwise, we usually bow to convention and play to the left.

Legal combinations are very similar to Poker hands. They are:

  • a singleton
  • a pair
  • a triple a.k.a. three of a kind
  • a full house
  • a straight a.k.a. run (minimum length of five - Ace is ALWAYS high)
  • a group of pairs of neighboring values a.k.a. a run of pairs (example: 4,4,5,5,6,6 or J,J,Q,Q)

Once a combination has been lead then it may only be followed by the exact same combination (but of a higher rank). For example, you can't play three of a kind on a pair, you must follow a pair with another pair (or you may pass of course). Another example: you can't play a six card run on a five card run.

In all cases, the rank of a combination is the rank of its highest card EXCEPT for a full house where (as in Poker) the rank is the rank of the triple. (For example: 2,2,2,A,A ranks 2; not A.)

The Special Cards

Mah Jong (0 points): Also called the bird, the sparrow or the 1. Whoever has this card at the start of the hand leads the first trick. The Mah Jong is rank 1 and can be used as a singleton or as part of a run (next to a 2). Whoever plays the Mah Jong gets to request a card by rank (e.g. "I want to see an Ace"). You may not wish for a special card; only a card of standard rank 2-A. The requested card must be played as soon as it legally can be played (even if it means playing a bomb - see below). Play continues as normal but the request remains in force until fulfilled or the hand ends, even over multiple tricks. It is legal to request a card that you know no one has (because they've all been played).

Phoenix (-25 points): When played as a singleton, it always ranks 1/2 point above the last card played (except for the Dragon which it cannot beat). If lead then it ranks 1 1/2. If played as a set, it's a joker that can be ranked two through Ace. Like all special cards, it cannot be used in a bomb.

Dragon (25 points): May only be played as a singleton. It ranks one higher than an Ace and thus always takes a trick (unless bombed). If the Dragon wins a trick then the winner must give the entire trick to one of his opponents. (Generally you either bomb it or give it to the player who you think is least likely to go out.)

Dog (0 points): May only be lead and then only as a singleton. It yields the lead to your partner. If your partner is out then the lead passes to the next player in succession. If that player is also out then the lead passes back to you. It may not be bombed.


Bombs are special. They are either four of a kind or a straight flush (of five or more cards). Bombs may only be made up of the standard cards 2 through A. The four special cards may never be used as part of a bomb.

Bombs may be played AT ANY TIME (so long as they aren't outranked by a bomb already played on the current trick) and they ALWAYS WIN the trick. You do not play bombs in turn. You may play a legal combination and then turn right around and bomb it. You may even bomb your own bomb.

Bombs with more cards ALWAYS beat bombs with fewer cards. Bombs may be lead (in which case the other players would need to bomb or pass and they would NOT be required to bomb in turn).

Note that bombs are the only combination in the entire game where suits matter.

Winning the Hand

Whoever is the first to play all her cards wins the hand. There is no immediate point reward for winning the hand but read on.

The other players then continue to play.

If the winning player's partner goes out second then that's called a double win and the winning team immediately scores 200 points and the hand is over. In this case cards are not scored.

Otherwise, play continues until only one player has cards remaining in his hand. He then gives those cards to the other team and he gives the tricks he took to the player that won the hand.


Unless there was a double win (see above) players score all their cards at the end of the hand. The Dragon is worth 25. The Phoenix is worth -25. Fives are worth 5. Tens and Kings are worth 10. So there are 100 points total in each hand.

Play continues until one or more teams reach 1000 points.

Small Tichu and Large Tichu

Before playing her first card a player may call "Small Tichu". (Note that other players may have already played. In fact, because she may have passed in the previous trick, this might not even be the first trick!) If you call Small Tichu then you are betting 100 points that you will go out first. If you are right, you'll get 100 points in addition to whatever score you get for that hand. If you are wrong then you'll lose 100 points.

Before seeing her ninth card a player may call "Large Tichu" which is the same thing only the gamble is worth 200 points (plus or minus) instead of 100.

More than one player may call Tichu. Two partners may even call Tichu (potentially canceling each other out).

Basic Strategy

Controlling the lead is everything in this game. If you have a seven card run then you can get rid of half of your hand in one play but you'll probably never get to play it if you never get the lead. So it is vitally important that you conserve your high ranking singletons and pairs to make sure that you can get the lead when you need it.

Don't make the mistake of playing your huge multi-card combination too soon. That's bad for two reasons: first, it makes you a target since you're obviously close to going out; second, it probably leaves you with a bunch of easily bettered singletons that you have no way of unloading.

Be careful not to get stuck with the dog if you have no way to control the lead. If you think that there is a chance that you will not be able to get the lead back then you had better play the dog now while you have the opportunity. Otherwise, you'll be left with a card in your hand that can only be played if you somehow get the lead back, which almost guarantees that you will go out last.

If your partner calls "Tichu" then you MUST sacrifice everything to make sure that your partner goes out first. Even if it means misplaying the best hand you've ever seen. That 100 point gamble is worth too much to risk loosing it. Likewise, if your opponent has called "Tichu" then you had better find a way to sabotage it.

Don't forget that ultimately the game is about taking points, not tricks. Going out is good. Taking seventy points is better.


At 3:37 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger zorg said...

A question: when you say that a bomb can be played at any time, does that mean really any time or just over any trick? Can I play a bomb on an opponents turn or must I wait for my turn to play it?

Excellent posts, by the way. :)

At 8:14 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Good Question.

A bomb is played out of turn or it can be lead, just like a regular combination (in which case anyone else could then bomb it out of turn). You can play a bomb at the end of a trick to take away someone's lead and win the trick but once the trick is over and the lead has been decided, you have to wait for the lead before you can bomb again. So for instance, if I have the Mah Jong, giving me the first lead, you can't bomb before I've made my first play. Or if I use the Dog to transfer the lead to my partner, you can't bomb before my partner has had the chance to lead.

One other comment here relating to bombs that often confuses people: If someone calls for a three with the Mah Jong and I have a bomb of threes, I will be forced to play that bomb WHEN IT'S MY TURN (assuming I can't legally play just one three anymore). Even though I could play the bomb out of turn, I am not required to fulfill the request until it's my turn to play.

At 2:12 AM, April 19, 2006, Blogger zorg said...

Thanks for the answer. It seems that I'll have to get back to playing Tichu... :-)

At 11:33 PM, June 14, 2006, Anonymous Dave Blizzard said...

Say I play the '1' in a straight and call for a 7, does the next player that has a 4568 and the Pheonix have to play the straight using the pheonix as a 7?
Dave Blizzard.

At 2:55 AM, June 15, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

No. If you ask for a 7 then only one of the four 7 cards fulfills the wish. The Pheonix can never be used to directly fulfil a wish. However, if you had called for a 6 and played a 5 card straight then another player might very well be required to play 4 5 6 Pheonix 8.
Good question.

At 2:59 AM, June 15, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

By the way, perhaps I should make it clear that when you play the Mah Jong, you are not strictly required to ask for a card. It's optional. But with our group we've adopted the house rule that we ALWAYS call for a card. That makes straights just a little more dangerous because it's much easier to accidentally call cards out of your partner's hand. Normally if you play a straight, you're probably safer not calling for a card.

At 12:15 PM, August 14, 2011, Anonymous William said...

My rule of thumb is that I lead a straight with the mah-jong, then if I'm calling Tichu I don't make a wish as I don't want to force my partner to play over me (my opponents, I figure, will play over me anyway if they can).

I pretty much always make a wish otherwise.


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