Tien Gow

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Tien Gow or Tin Kau (Chinese :天九; pinyin :tiān jiǔ; Jyutping :tin1 gau2; lit. 'Heaven and Nine') is the name of Chinese gambling games played with either a pair of dice or a set of 32 Chinese dominoes. In these games, Heaven is the top rank of the civil suit, while Nine is the top rank of the military suit. The civil suit was originally called the Chinese (華) suit while the military suit was called the barbarian (夷) suit (see Wen and wu and Hua–Yi distinction) but this was changed during the Qing dynasty to avoid offending the ruling Manchus. [1] The highly idiosyncratic and culture-specific suit-system of these games are likely the conceptual origin of suits, an idea which would later be used for playing cards. Play is counter-clockwise.


The ranks from highest to lowest are:

Dice game

Chinese dice Snake eyes with Chinese dice.jpg
Chinese dice

Throwing Heaven and Nine (掷天九), or Kwat-P'ai (骨牌) [lower-alpha 1] as reported by Ng Kwai-shang in 1886, [2] is a game of chance where players try to beat each other with a higher combination from a pair of Chinese dice with red 1 and 4 pips. [3] Of the 21 possible combinations, 11 are ranked in a "civil" suit and 10 are ranked in a "military" suit. After the wager is set, the banker throws the dice into a bowl which sets the suit. The banker automatically wins if he throws the highest rank (Heaven or Nine) but loses if he throws the lowest rank (Red Mallet Six or Final Three). For any other combination, the other players try to beat him by throwing a higher rank of the same suit. If they throw the wrong suit, then they get to throw again until they "follow suit". Those that throw lower than the banker will have to pay him. According to R.C. Bell, [lower-alpha 2] if there is a tie, no money is exchanged. [4] The opponents keep throwing until one manages to beat the banker and gets paid by him. The player to the right of the banker becomes the next banker and starts the following round after new stakes are set.

Domino games

A set of Chinese dominoes ChineseDominoes.jpg
A set of Chinese dominoes

In the domino games, there are two copies of each Civil tile. They have been available in playing card format since the beginning of the 17th century.

Turning Heaven and Nine

Turning Heaven and Nine (扭天九) is a simple two player trick-taking game of chance. The 32 dominoes are stacked in eight piles of four tiles each. The first player takes a domino from the top of a pile while the second player takes the one below it. The second player must draw a higher tile of the same suit or lose it to the first player. If she manages to do so, she will take both tiles and lead the next trick. Game continues until all tiles are exhausted. Players count the red pips in their captured tiles with the loser having to pay the difference to the winner.

Playing Heaven and Nine

Playing Heaven and Nine (打天九) is a multi-trick game for 4 players. [5] All tiles are distributed by the banker so each player gets eight. The banker leads the first trick with a single, double, triple, or quadruple trick and the others must play out with an equal number of tiles. Players that are unable to beat the trick discard their tiles face down (this is characteristic of some trumpless trick-taking games like Madiao and Ganjifa). The winner leads the next trick. The player who takes the last trick or multi-trick becomes the next banker. Players who have not won any of the first seven tricks automatically lose the last trick regardless of the strength of their final tile.

In double tricks, there are two additional suits, mixed and supreme:

As the supreme suit consists of a single pair, it is unbeatable if led but considered a discard if not led.

In triple and quadruple tricks these are the only valid combinations: Heavens and Nines; Earths and Eights; Men and Sevens; Harmonies and Fives

Triple tricks have a rule that a triplet consisting of two civil and one military tiles can only be beaten by a triplet consisting of the same suit compositions. Likewise, a triplet consisting of two military and one civil tiles can only be beaten by the same.

There are complex rules to the game play and scoring. There is an accumulating multiplier to the winning and loss as the game proceeds. There are bonuses for winning the last trick with certain methods and for different types of slams. It can be adapted to be played with a standard 52-card deck.

The earliest surviving rules were written by Pan Zhiheng around 1610. [1] In this version (鬥天九), triple and quadruple tricks were not allowed and Heavens can beat Nines and the Supreme pair. There were also versions for two or three players in which some of the tiles remain undistributed. His rules are more similar to the ones used in northern China during the early 20th century than the Cantonese rules that are dominant in the present. They are also very similar to another game simply called dominoes (骨牌) played in many parts of China.

Bagchen is a Tibetan variation played with a double set of dominoes. [6]


In his article Chinese Origin Of Playing Cards published in 1895, Sir William Henry Wilkinson pointed out that the game of Tien Gow was invented long before Song dynasty, but was standardized in 1120: [7]

[Quote from page 66. Note this publication predated the modern pinyin transliteration system]
It is perfectly clear, indeed, that all that was done or asked for in 1120 was an imperial decision as to which of several forms or interpretations of the game now known as T'ien-kiu ("Heavens and Nines") was to be considered orthodox. The game and the cards must have been in existence long before. The passage from the Cheng-tzâ-t'ung [《正字通》] runs thus (s.v. p'ai [牌]):

Also ya p'ai now the instruments of the game. A common legend states that in the second year of the Hsüan-ho [宣和二年], in the Sung dynasty [i.q. 1120 AD], a certain official memorialized the throne, praying that the ya p'ai (ivory cards [牙牌]) be fixed as a pack of 32, comprising 127 pips [sic, it should be 227, but Chinese printers are careless], in order to accord with the expanse of the stars and constellations. The combination 'heaven' [6/6, 6/6] consisted of two pieces, containing 24 pips, figures of the 24 solar periods; 'earth' [1/1, 1/1] also composed two pieces, but contained 4 pips, the 4 points of the compass - east, west, south, and north; 'man' [4/4, 4/4] two pieces, containing 16 pips, the virtues of humanity, benevolence, propriety, and wisdom, four-fold; 'harmony' [2/3, 1/3] two pieces of 8 pips, figuring the breath of harmony, which pervades the eight divisions of the year. The other combinations had each their names. There were four players having eight cards apiece for their hand, and the cards won or lost according as the number of the pips was less or in more the winner being rewarded with counters. In-the time of Kao-tsung [高宗 1127-1163] pattern packs were issued by imperial edict. They were known throughout the empire as Ku p'ai, 'bone p'ai;' [骨牌] but it does not follow that this class of games, po-sai [博塞], Ko-wu [格五], and the rest originated in the reign of Hsüan-ho.

Ming author Xie Zhaozhe (1567–1624) also records the legend of dominoes having been presented to Emperor Huizong but in the year 1112. The Ming sources may be early by half a century as Li Qingzhao (1084 – c. 1155) made no mention of dominoes in her compendium of games. The oldest confirmed written mention of dominoes in China comes from the Former Events in Wulin (i.e. the capital Hangzhou) as recorded by Zhou Mi (1232–1298), who listed dominoes as items sold by peddlers during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong (r. 1162–1189). [8]

Relation to Pai Gow

The partition game of Pai Gow borrows most of its tile ranking from the pairings in Playing Heaven and Nine. [9] However, the suits have been merged into a single sequence:

Below these are unlisted pairs that use modular arithmetic like in Tau Gnau or Baccarat. [10]


  1. This is a transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation for Chinese dominoes.
  2. No other source states it but Ng implies it.

Related Research Articles

Chinese dominoes

Chinese dominoes are used in several tile-based games, namely, tien gow, pai gow, tiu u and kap tai shap. In Cantonese they are called gwat pai (骨牌), which literally means "bone tiles"; it is also the name of a northern Chinese game, where the rules are quite different from the southern Chinese version of Tien Gow.

Dominoes Chinese game played with rectangular tiles

Dominoes is a family of tile-based games played with gaming pieces, commonly known as dominoes. Each domino is a rectangular tile with a line dividing its face into two square ends. Each end is marked with a number of spots or is blank. The backs of the tiles in a set are indistinguishable, either blank or having some common design. The gaming pieces make up a domino set, sometimes called a deck or pack. The traditional European domino set consists of 28 tiles, also known as pieces, bones, men, cards or just dominoes, featuring all combinations of spot counts between zero and six. A domino set is a generic gaming device, similar to playing cards or dice, in that a variety of games can be played with a set.

Stripped deck

A stripped deck or short deck (US), short pack or shortened pack (UK), is a set of playing cards reduced in size from a full pack or deck by the removal of a certain card or cards. The removed cards are usually the pip cards, but can also be court cards or Tarot cards. Many card games use stripped decks, and stripped decks for popular games are commercially available.

Pai gow

Pai gow is a Chinese gambling game, played with a set of 32 Chinese dominoes. It is played in major casinos in China ; the United States ; Canada ; Australia; and, New Zealand.

Trick-taking game

A trick-taking game is a card or tile-based game in which play of a hand centers on a series of finite rounds or units of play, called tricks, which are each evaluated to determine a winner or taker of that trick. The object of such games then may be closely tied to the number of tricks taken, as in plain-trick games such as Whist, Contract bridge, Spades, Napoleon, Euchre, Rowboat, Clubs and Spoil Five, or to the value of the cards contained in taken tricks, as in point-trick games such as Pinochle, the Tarot family, Mariage, Rook, All Fours, Manille, Briscola, and most evasion games like Hearts. The domino game Texas 42 is an example of a trick-taking game that is not a card game. Trick-and-draw games are trick-taking games in which the players can fill up their hands after each trick. In most variants, players are free to play any card into a trick in the first phase of the game, but must follow suit as soon as the stock is depleted. Trick-avoidance games like Reversis or Polignac are those in which the aim is to avoid taking some or all tricks.

Pips are small but easily countable items, such as the dots on dominoes and dice, or the symbols on a playing card that denote its suit and value.

Playing card suit Categories into which the cards of a deck are divided

In playing cards, a suit is one of the categories into which the cards of a deck are divided. Most often, each card bears one of several pips (symbols) showing to which suit it belongs; the suit may alternatively or additionally be indicated by the color printed on the card. The rank for each card is determined by the number of pips on it, except on face cards. Ranking indicates which cards within a suit are better, higher or more valuable than others, whereas there is no order between the suits unless defined in the rules of a specific card game. In a single deck, there is exactly one card of any given rank in any given suit. A deck may include special cards that belong to no suit, often called jokers.

42 (dominoes)

42, also known as Texas 42, is a trick-taking game played with a standard set of double six dominoes. 42 is often referred to as the "national game of Texas". Tournaments are held in many towns, and the State Championship tournament is held annually in Hallettsville, Texas on the first Saturday of March each year. In 2011 it was designated the official State Domino Game of Texas.


Muggins, sometimes also called All Fives, is a domino game played with any of the commonly available sets. Although suitable for up to four players, Muggins is described by John McLeod as "a good, quick two player game."

Twenty-eight (card game)

Twenty-eight is an Indian trick-taking card game for four players, in which the Jack and the nine are the highest cards in every suit, followed by ace and ten. A similar game known as "29" is played in north India, both games thought to be descended from the game 304.


Khanhoo or Kanhu is a non-partnership Chinese card game of the draw-and-discard structure. It was first recorded during the late Ming dynasty as a multi-trick taking game, a type of game that may be as old as T'ienkiu, revised in its rules and published in an authorized edition by Emperor Kao Tsung in 1130 AD for the information of his subjects. Meaning "watch the pot", it is very possibly the ancestor of all rummy games.


Madiao, also ma diao, ma tiu or ma tiao, is a late imperial Chinese trick-taking gambling card game, also known as the game of paper tiger. The deck used was recorded by Lu Rong in the 15th century and the rules later by Pan Zhiheng and Feng Menglong during the early 17th century. Korean poet Jang Hon (1759-1828) wrote that the game dates back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). It continued to be popular during the Qing dynasty until around the mid-19th century. The game was also known in Japan from at least 1791. It is played with 40 cards and four players.

Chinese playing cards

Playing cards were most likely invented in China during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). They were certainly in existence by the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Chinese use the word pái (牌), meaning "plaque", to refer to both playing cards and tiles. Many early sources are ambiguous, and do not specifically refer to paper pái (cards) or bone pái (tiles). In terms of game play, however, there is no difference; both serve to hide one face from the other players with identical backs. Card games are examples of imperfect information games as opposed to Chess or Go.

Kiu kiu or qiu qiu is a game of dominoes popular in Indonesia related to pai gow. It may also be referred to as '99 domino poker'.


Dobbm or Tappen is a card game played in the Stubaital valley in Austria which, like Brixental Bauerntarock, Bavarian Tarock and Württemberg Tarock, is not a true Tarock game, but is one of a family of games derived from Tapp Tarock by adapting its rules to a regular, shortened pack of 36 cards. The ranking and point value of the cards in Dobbm is identical with those of the other variants mentioned. In Dobbm as well, one player always plays as a soloist against all the others. It most strongly resembles the Brixental variant: Dobbm is also played by four players, each player is dealt eight cards, four cards go to the talon and Hearts are the permanent trump suit. The fundamental difference between games of the Tapp family and true tarot games is in the use of shortened German or French packs instead of true Tarot playing cards.


Sedmice ("Seven") is a card game of the Sedma family played in the states of the former Yugoslavia. Like other games of this family, tricks are won by matching the led card in rank. In addition, the Sevens are wild, hence the name. In Croatia, the game is called Šuster.


Trischettn or Treschetten is an historical card game from the South Tyrol for two players. The game is clearly an Austrian variant of Tresette, the major differences being that it is played with a 32-card, German-suited pack rather than a 40-card Italian pack, resulting in a different card ranking, the Tens and Nines becoming the highest rankers in each suit. It also features points for declaring certain combinations such as four Nines. The game is played for 31 points. It used to be one of the three most common card games in South Tyrol, along with Stichwatten and Labbieten, but is threatened with extinction today.


Voormsi or Vorms is a Greenlandic trick-taking card game of the Brusbart family designed for four players. The game is "reputed to be ancient", possibly dating to the Whaling Period before 1721.

Glossary of domino terms List of definitions of terms and jargon used in dominoes

The following is a glossary of terms used in dominoes. Besides the terms listed here, there are numerous regional or local slang terms. Terms in this glossary should not be game-specific, i.e. specific to one particular version of dominoes, but apply to a wide range of domino games. For glossaries that relate primarily to one game or family of similar games, see the relevant article.


  1. 1 2 Lo, Andrew (2003). "Pan Zhiheng's 'Xu Yezi Pu' - Part 2". The Playing-Card . 31 (6): 281–284.
  2. Ng, Kwai-shang (1886). A Book on Chinese Games of Chance. Hong Kong: Kwong Cheong Printers. pp. 80–84.
  3. Culin, Stewart (1895). Chinese games with dice and dominoes. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Publishing Office. pp.  494–495.
  4. Bell, Robert Charles (1979). Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations - Volume 1 (Revised ed.). New York: Dover. pp. 146–148.
  5. Celko, Joe and John McLeod. Tien Gow at pagat.com. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  6. McLeod, John. Bagchen at pagat.com. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  7. Lo, Andrew (2000). 'The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards'. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London , Vol 63-3 p. 401.
  8. Celko, Joe. Pai Gow at pagat.com. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  9. Celko, Joe. Tau Gnau at pagat.com. Retrieved 6 April 2016.