Tichu Part 2: Strategy
This is part 2 of my two-part article on Tichu. My earlier article explained the rules of the game and just barely hinted at strategy. In this article I plan to focus on strategy and the nuances of the game.
Let me start by saying that while I have played hundreds of Tichu games, I don't consider myself to be the ultimate authority on the game. I'm quite certain that there are others who are better players than I am and with any luck, someone out there will read this article and have some ideas on how to improve upon what I've written here. Please feel free to post comments!
Some of these ideas were borrowed from others (Aaron Fuegi has a particularly excellent set of Tichu resources which can be found at http://scv.bu.edu/~aarondf/Games/Tichu/) and some of them are just observations that have come from my experience. If you are already a Tichu player then hopefully you'll find something here that helps your game. If you haven't played Tichu before then perhaps this will spark an interest.
(It's called Tichu for a reason.)
To win at Tichu you need to accumulate 1000 points faster than the opposing team. That should be obvious but the question is: how best to get there? Where will your points come from? Consider that there are 100 points distributed among the 56 cards that make up a Tichu deck. The Dragon is worth 25 points and the Phoenix is worth -25 points. That means that if you play a regular hand where no one calls Tichu and no one scores a double win, the most you can hope for is 125 points. It's much more likely that you will score between 20 and 80 points on a normal hand. It should be obvious that calling (and making) Tichu is a much more efficient way to score points.
Since a Small Tichu is worth 100 points and (the much rarer) Large Tichu is worth 200 points, your primary goal should always be setting up either yourself or your partner for a Tichu call and then making it (or the inverse: spoiling your opponent's Tichu call).
Of secondary importance is setting up (or preventing) the double win.
Scoring points for tricks, while important, is far less consequential and should take a back seat to the other two.
With experienced players, you should expect that someone will call Small Tichu roughly two out of three hands.
Since calling and making Tichu is so important (and also since the winner of the hand scores the points taken by the loser) everything comes down to controlling the lead. If you can control the lead then you can go out first and if you can go out first, then you stand a good chance to score the most points.
In short: It's all about calling Tichu at the right time and controlling the lead.
When Should I Call Small Tichu?
Calling Tichu requires a reasonable certainty that you will be able to play all of your cards first. Because the consequences of a failed Tichu call are so disastrous, many novice players are understandably timid when it comes to calling Tichu. But consider that it's better to make two out of three Tichu calls than to have never made any at all. If you think that you have a better than even chance of going out first then you should make the call.
After you've exchanged cards, take stock of your hand. This is where you need to develop a strategy for how you will play your cards. If you have the Mah Jong, then you'll get the first lead. Do you think you can keep the lead? If you think you'll lose the lead at some point then you need to ask yourself how likely will it be that you'll be able to get it back. You'll probably have some low singletons in your hand. Can you unload those early and still retain the lead? I'll discuss card play later but the basic idea here is that you need a strategy for going out and if you think that your strategy has a good chance of success then you should plan on calling Tichu.
So let's say you've decided to call Tichu. Now the question is when should you call it? Calling Tichu before the pass (called "the push" in the official rules but I like this term better) will have two effects: first, it will guarantee that your opponents pass you garbage (there's a two out of three chance you'll get passed the Dog if you call Tichu before the pass, assuming you don't already have it) and it will signal to your partner that you need support. You can count on getting a decent card from him. If he's got the Phoenix, there's a good chance that you'll be getting it.
Most of the time you would rather wait until after the pass. And as long as you're waiting until after the pass, you almost always should delay calling Tichu as long as you can. Wait until you are compelled to play your first card. That usually gives you time to see a few other cards hit the table. Sometimes you can even put it off until a few tricks have gone by, draining your opponents' hands of strength and giving you a chance to get some feel for who might have a strong hand.
Waiting also has another advantage. It gives someone else time to call Tichu first. Remember that you lose nothing by having someone else call Tichu. You can still call Tichu yourself no matter who else has called it. If your opponent calls Tichu then you can reevaluate your risk. Are you SURE you can go out first? Then you should call Tichu yourself, go out, get the 100 points and set your opponents back 100 on top of that! But if you're not absolutely sure you can go out, then don't call Tichu; just try to play spoiler by going out first yourself. You've risked nothing and you've still gained 100 points on your opponents by setting them.
When Should I Call Large Tichu?
Large Tichu is obviously much more of a risk. You are only allowed to call Large Tichu before seeing your ninth card. That means you've only seen just over half of your hand. And you haven't passed cards yet so you can be very sure that your opponents will give you horrible cards. Before you take that 200 point plunge you need to make sure you're on reasonably solid ground.
Again it all comes down to controlling the lead. If four of those eight cards are strong enough to ensure that you can either keep the lead or take it from your opponent then you should consider it.
As a general rule, if you can be sure of getting four leads then you stand a better than average chance of going out first. So if I see four or more lead getters in those first eight cards then I call Large Tichu.
So what's a lead getter? A bomb is a lead getter, Aces are generally lead getters (particularly if you know where the Dragon and Phoenix are), and any of the four specials are lead getters. The Dragon and the Phoenix are obvious lead getters but the Mah Jong is also a lead getter because it guarantees you the first lead and the Dog is a lead getter because you can pass it to your partner; so long as he wins at least one trick, he can transfer the lead to you.
Remember that a bomb is only good for ONE lead (and even that's not a guarantee). Many novice players see a bomb in those first eight cards and think that this is their hand! That’s a mistake unless you've got some other good cards to back it up.
Also consider the current score. If you're enjoying a comfortable lead, then Large Tichu probably isn't worth the risk.
Many would consider calling Large Tichu as a desperation move if they're far behind in the score. I'm not very fond of that. I've seen too many games where it looked like one team was sure to win and then the cards stopped favoring them and allowed the other team to catch up. Never assume the game is over until someone has 1000 points.
Large Tichu is very rare indeed. I'd estimate that someone will call it once in every two or three games (if that often). Notice I said GAMES, not HANDS.
What Cards Should I Pass?
Here again, remember that Tichu is all about controlling the lead. You want to give cards to your opponents that will either force them to give up a lead or prevent them from taking a lead; and you want to give a card to your partner that will help him take the lead or keep it. But most importantly, you want to improve your own chances of controlling the lead.
I usually sort my cards by rank (suits don't matter except for bombs so Tichu players generally don't sort their hands by suits like Bridge players do) and then I start to think about my strategy. Which cards match up well with one another? Do I have a run? Do I have pairs? Are there cards that obviously don't fit? Low singletons are especially problematic because they're hard to get rid of unless you have a lead and they are easy to play over.
Anything that doesn't fit in my strategy is a candidate for passing. From among those cards that don't fit well, I'll usually choose two lower cards and one higher one. The lower cards will go to my opponents and the higher card will go to my partner.
If I don't think that I have much chance of going out first then I will consider giving my partner the best card I can give without completely ruining my hand. Sometimes I'm even willing to ruin my hand. If it's very bad then losing one good card surely won't make it much worse. If my partner gets an Ace, the Dragon, the Phoenix or perhaps even a King then he should assume that my hand isn't very strong.
Psychology plays a role here. If I know that my opponent likes to pass away twos and threes then I will often keep a two or a three in my hand in the hopes of getting passed a second one.
The worst thing that can happen on the pass is that you'll pass one of your opponents the fourth card in a bomb or the fifth card in a flush bomb. It happens more than you might think. So in order to minimize the chances most Tichu players use a very simple passing convention: pass odd cards to the left, even to the right. If your partner follows the same convention, you have little chance of accidentally working together to create a bomb. If both cards are even or both cards are odd, then pass the lowest odd card left or the lowest even card right.
If you can afford it, consider splitting a low pair. If you pass the same card both left and right, then you run very little chance of passing into a bomb since the only threat is that you'll create a flush bomb.
Unless your opponent has called Tichu, you probably shouldn't pass him the Dog. Remember, the Dog is a lead getter. If you pass the Dog to your opponent, you've just about guaranteed that his partner will get a lead he didn't earn. It's usually better to keep the Dog for yourself and use it as transportation to give an extra lead to your partner. Or if you have a strong hand and are thinking of calling Tichu, pass it to your partner as insurance. That way if you lose the lead your partner can get it back for you.
And finally, ALWAYS remember what cards you passed and what cards were passed to you. (Especially if you have the Mah Jong!) It's the first clue you have as to the state of the other hands around the table. If any of the cards I was passed match a card I already have, I always put the new card in front of its older mate. That way if I need to play one of those cards, I'll be sure to play the one I was passed so I don't give away the fact that I have another card just like it still in my hand.
The four most powerful cards in the deck are the four special cards. In order of descending value they are: the Phoenix, the Dragon, the Mah Jong, and the Dog.
The Phoenix is the single most powerful card in the deck. Novice players will often undervalue it due to it's -25 point value. The point value (while something to consider) is secondary since in Tichu it's all about controlling the lead and the Phoenix is the most powerful lead getter in the deck (outside of a bomb). In fact, its high value is precisely why it costs 25 points: it's a balancing mechanism.
The thing that makes the Phoenix so powerful is its versatility. You should almost always hold onto it as long as you can because so long as you hold on to the Phoenix (particularly if the Dragon has been played) your opponents will be reluctant to play their Aces. As a singleton, the Phoenix can be formidable (so long as you always wait to play it on the highest card left in play) but where the Phoenix really shines is as a joker. Having the Phoenix in your hand means that you can turn any single into a pair, a pair into a triple, a triple into a full house or fill gaps in a run. It gives you the flexibility to play your hand differently depending on the situation. It almost always guarantees that you're going to get one more lead. That makes it worth more than the 25 points it costs to take it.
Because the Phoenix is so powerful, consider passing it to your partner if you think that his hand is likely to be better than yours. Just having both of you know where it is can be a huge advantage and the Phoenix is always a welcome addition to any hand.
The Dragon is powerful because so long as it remains in your hand, none of your opponents' Aces are any good. Its weakness lies in the fact that it can't be used in conjunction with other cards and therefore if your opponent plays nothing but combinations your Dragon does you no good.
Any trick taken with the Dragon gets you the lead but (at least temporarily) gives up any points taken during that trick. While that's a concern, don't sweat it too much. Just give the trick to the player who you think is most likely to go out last, then if you or your partner goes out first you stand a good chance of getting those points right back.
This is another card that's worth passing to your partner if you think his hand is stronger than yours.
Should You Bomb the Dragon?
Most of the time that's a bad idea. If you were winning the trick then playing your bomb is giving away an extra lead. If your partner was winning the trick then playing your bomb steals a lead from him. If your opponent was winning the trick then playing your bomb gets you the lead but the points were going to your team anyway and you could just as easily have waited until your opponent's next play to play your bomb. Of course there are exceptions, such as when you think your opponent is about to go out, in which case of course you should play your bomb.
The Mah Jong
The Mah Jong is powerful for two reasons: first, it gives you the initial lead, and second, it allows you to call for a card. That second ability should not be underrated.
Quite often I'll call for the card that I just passed to the player who will play after me. That's a good idea for several reasons: it will spoil any bomb that I might have just given him, it ensures that I don't pull a crucial card out of my partner's hand by mistake, and (since usually I've just called for a low card) it gives my partner a chance to unload a low singleton, improving his hand.
Don't forget that the Mah Jong can be part of a run. If you can unload a run of low cards on that first lead then by all means do so. But if you do, consider carefully which card you call for. Calling for a card and then leading a run means that it's far less likely that your opponent will be forced to play that card on this trick, since it will also need to be in a run. If you've played a five card run and called for a card that just happens to be in your partner's six card run, you've just ruined his hand. In that case, you might want to consider calling for a very low card, perhaps a deuce, just to be safe.
One other ploy, particularly if you know that either you or your partner has the Dragon, is to call for an Ace in the hopes of forcing your opponent to give up strength early. I've seen this used successfully on occasion but it's risky and I've seen it backfire many times as well. I really don’t recommend it.
You should rarely consider passing the Mah Jong. While it guarantees a lead, your partner may not have expected it and he may not know what card to call out with it. Of course a good player will always remember what he's passed so getting passed a Mah Jong shouldn't really be a problem but the risk usually outweighs the potential benefit.
Much maligned, the Dog is the bastard card of Tichu. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE DOG! In the hand of the player who has called Tichu, the Dog can be disaster because it forces him to give up the lead but in the hand of his partner it's an insurance policy second to none because it's a guaranteed, unbombable lead transfer.
If you were dealt the Dog then you should consider how best to use it to get the lead to your partner when he needs it most. Remember that the Dog must be lead so make sure you retain at least one lead getter in your hand and play the Dog as soon as it makes sense, otherwise you may be stuck with it. There's nothing worse than being left with a Dog that you can't play.
As I stated earlier, you should almost never pass the dog to your opponent and you should almost always pass the dog to your partner if you are considering calling Tichu. If you don't think you'll be calling Tichu then you should just hold on to the Dog yourself and use it as soon as it makes sense.
One other thing, remember that the Dog is worth no points so it doesn't matter whose tricks it ends up in. I've seen novice players play the Dog and then wonder who keeps the card after that. It doesn't matter.
Playing the Hand
Here again, it's all about controlling the lead. You want to unload problem cards early and you want to hold on to your lead getters as long as you can.
If you have the lead, lead low and lead into your strengths whenever possible. Look at your cards and try to come up with a strategy for going out. Lead cards that you think you otherwise will never get a chance to play and given a choice, lead cards that will guarantee you can take the lead. For instance, if you have a low singleton, a pair of threes and a pair of Kings, you might want to consider leading the threes in the hopes that your Kings will earn you back the next lead. Then you can play your low singleton. Leading the singleton first would almost certainly be giving away the lead to the first other player with an Ace, after first allowing everyone to unload low singletons along the way. If your plan fails then one of your Kings may earn you a lead later, allowing you to unload the singleton into your remaining King.
Aces should almost always be used as singletons. A pair of Aces is only good for one lead if played as a pair but it's probably good for two leads if played as singletons. And there's nothing more frustrating than a bomb of Aces. Unless of course you have several Kings. In that case you're the happiest of players. (Well, OK, not really. I'll happily take any hand with four Aces. But what I mean is that it's frustrating because you'll almost never want to actually play it as a bomb.)
Card counting isn't as vital in Tichu as it is in Bridge but it's still an excellent skill to cultivate. The player who can keep track of which cards have been played and who has played them has a huge advantage because he has a better idea which cards are the current lead getters. At the very least you must always keep track of the four specials and the four Aces. Anything beyond that is a bonus but it isn't quite as vital.
As a general rule, I like to try and save my big combinations for late in the hand. This serves two purposes: first, it hides the fact that I'm close to going out, thus minimizing the chances of my opponent playing a bomb, and second, it lets me get rid of problem cards such as low singletons early, when my partner still has a chance of helping me out. Of course, playing your only King and leaving yourself with a 2-6 run is almost never a good idea so use good judgment here.
Also, make sure you work with your partner. If your partner is winning the trick, you generally don't want to play over him. That's a waste of a lead and it's probably hurting your partner. Of course if you've called Tichu or if you have the Dog and this is your last chance to get rid of it then go for it.
If you know that you can go out first, you should consider if there's anything you can do to help your partner's chances of going out second. A double win is worth a lot of points. Don't be so aggressive about this that you find yourself putting the hand in jeopardy.
Once again: It's all about calling Tichu at the right time and controlling the lead.
Tichu is an excellent game. For me it hits the sweet spot between strategy and luck, complexity and elegance. It's an extremely balanced game that's a little more difficult than your run of the mill card game but it's not nearly so difficult as a game like Bridge. I hope you have many long hours of enjoyment from this gem of a game. I know I have.
Hopefully you've found this to be an interesting discussion. If you've found something useful in here or if you have anything to add, please leave me a comment. Should I post more articles like this one? Let me know!