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A Chinese Domino Game: Tien Gow (天九 Heaven Nine)

The Tiles
Recognizing the tiles
Quick Reference card and instruction (cheat sheet)
Resources and References

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Tien Gow (天九), which literally means Heaven Nine in Cantonese, is a challenging game for four players using thirty-two Chinese domino tiles. Since each hand only starts with eight tiles and up to four tiles can be played in a trick, each round of the game can be very short. The game can be very fast-paced provided the players don't ponder each move for too long. The Game Cabinet web site has very complete and detailed rules on the game. I will not duplicate the effort here but instead I'll write more about other aspects of the game.

Please don't confuse Tien Gow with Pai Gow (牌九) found in most Casinos in Las Vegas or the game Goo Pai (Mandarin for 骨牌) in northern and central China or Che Deng (斜釘), which plays like western Domino game. Even though all these games use the same set of tiles, they are totally different games with different rules. It is analogous to a deck of western playing cards. You can play Poker or Bridge with the same deck but the ranking of the suits are different in the two games. This webpage is dedicated to the game of Tien Gow only.

The basic play of Tien Gow is pretty simple. The banker (莊家) leads the first trick. The other players (閑家) in counter-clockwise order try to win the trick by playing a higher ranking set of tiles of the same suit, or forfeit the trick (墊牌) by discarding the same number of tiles face-down. Tile of the wrong suit loses regardless how high its rank. Subsequent tricks are led by the winner of the previous trick. (It is like playing No Trump in Bridge without a partner.) The winner of the last trick wins the game and becomes the banker for the next game (過莊). Some players prefer to alternate the direction of the game, i.e. deasil in one game and widdershins in the next. Such rule should be agreed upon before the first game starts.

Some tile combos are winners when they lead the trick, but are losers when they follow the wrong suit. A hand with high ranking tiles does not guarantee a winner if you don't play it right. Players who have not won any trick (輸到一戙(棟)都冇) are not allowed to play the last trick unless it is a multi-tile trick. In other words, the winner must have won at least 8 tiles out of 32 by the end of the game. Since only the winner of the last trick collects the points (or money), the whole idea of the game is about taking or releasing control at the right time, plus saving the strength to take over again and win at the last trick (留結). With skill, sometimes you can shut out some or all opponents and win a game with a low ranking piece. You collect a bonus or double your winning if you manage to shut out all three opponents (七支 or 八支). Counting which tiles have already been played is important, because some lower ranking tiles may win a game if other players are out of your suit. Since forfeited tiles (墊牌) are played face-down, the counting can never be 100% accurate. And you have to guess what other players keep in their hands. A little psychology and luck may help here.

What makes the game interesting is the complex scoring rules. (See the Game Cabinet website, it is quite complete.) You can double or quadruple the winning by playing certain tiles at the last trick. That adds a lot of excitement and unpredictability to the game. The wager for all players is multiplied by the number of times the banker won consecutively most recently. Pressure builds up as wager increases by the multiplier. When you are the banker, all your winning and loss is doubled on top of the multiplier. One wrong move can turn a big win into a big loss. Sometimes, it is wise to sacrifice a game if you got a chance when you cannot take the heat no more. No rule forbids you to forfeit a winning piece to let someone else win the game. Simply play the piece face-down and the heavy burden of bankership will be off your shoulders instantly. But make sure you've won enough tricks before forfeiting a game, otherwise your loss can be substantial due to the multiplying factor. That calls for a lot of strategy, and delicate timing to maximize the gains and minimize the losses. It is very hard to master this game and hence makes it very challenging.

The Tiles

tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile
tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile tile

tile tile tile tile

tile tile tile tile

tile tile

The traditional tiles for the game of Tien Gow were made of ox bones, hence the tile set is also known as "Gwat Pai" in Northern China (bone tiles or 骨牌, Goo Pai in Mandarin). In ancient times, some tiles were made of Ivory and hence also known as "Ngaa Pai" (Ivory tiles or 牙牌, Ya Pai in Mandarin). The tiles used nowadays are made of some kind of hard plastic. The tiles are usually shiny black. The pips are carved into the tiles. Similar to traditional Chinese dices, the 1 and 4 pips are painted red. The other pips are painted white with the exception of the 6 on the 6-6 tile, which is half red and half white.

The tiles used in the Tien Gow (天九) game is a little thicker than those used in the Pai Gow (牌九) game at Casinos. You can purchase the tile set at some Chinese bookstores if you live close to a Chinese community. They are easily found in large metropolitan conurbations such as New York City, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Most people including store owners are not aware of the two types of tiles. From my experience, the thicker Tien Gow tiles are much harder to find than the thinner Pai Gow tiles. Tien Gow is also available in paper card form, but they are not easy to find. There is also a more common paper card game called Sup Mmm Wu (十五胡), which consists of 84 cards, 4 of each 21 possible domino patterns. One can make 2 sets of the Tien Gow dominoes cards out of a deck of Sup Mmm Wu.

In March 2004, I found that the 99 Ranch Markets in California were selling the Tien Gow dominoes at $9.99 per set. It is very likely that the other branches outside California such as those in Atlanta and Las Vegas would carry the same product too. If you don't live near one of the 39 markets across the US, then the Internet can be an alternative. I have seen the tile set available via mail order at amazon.comskybluepink.com and domino32.com (#2404). These tiles from Domino32 (#2185) have different color and size from the traditional tiles, but the set should be compatible with the Chinese dominoes.

Helpful hints on recognizing the tiles and their ranking

The game of Tien Gow some what reflects Confucius philosophy that society has its rightful order. The tiles are classified into 3 groups which modeled after an emperor's court with civilian and military councilors to serve the emperor (the supreme.)

Twenty two out of the thirty two tiles are in the civilian suit. These tiles are NOT ranked according to the number of dots on the tile. A little understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy on the order of things in nature will help you pick up the tile ranking much faster. For example, Heaven and Earth comes before Man. An animal (goose) is more important than a plant (plum flowers.) Inanimate objects have their orders too, e.g. clothing on the body ranks higher than a foot-stool on the floor. For the other rankings, just use your imagination.

In fact, in the game of Tien Gow, the lower ranking tiles are mostly discarded during the game. Being vague about their actual rankings does not make too much difference in the outcome of the game. So you can start the game once you recognize the top ranks. And you will learn the other tiles as you master the game. When in doubt, just bring out my Quick Reference Card. :-) (See below)

When my friends and I learned Tien Gow, we had a hard time remembering the tiles at first. After a while, we developed a technique to help the new comers to recognize the tiles in a glance. (Special thanks to Mr. Siu for translating the following technique into Chinese.)

Step 1

Realize that each tile is basically made up of the faces of two dices with unique pips patterns between 1 and 6. Just like on a traditional Chinese dice, the one and four are red. The six on the Tien (6-6) is special with mixed color, that makes it stand out as the top tile.

Step 2

Recite the ranking sequences below like a poem (口訣). For people who don't know Chinese, they have to develop similar technique or mnemonic in their own language.
Civil Ranks (文子):
Heaven, Earth, Man, Goose, Flower, Dress, Bench Seat, Hatchet, Partition, Long Legs seven, Ling Lum six.
(口訣: 天地人鵝梅花長衫板凳斧頭紅頭十高腳七伶淋六)

Military ranks (武子):
These tiles are just numerical order according to the total points on the tile, i.e. 9's, 8's, 7's, 6, 5's, 3 etc. Tips: instead of counting all the pips on the tile, read the upper and lower part of the tile as if a throw of two dices and then add up the numbers quickly. It is faster to read a 5 and 4 off the tile to get the sum of 9 than to count all 9 pips.

Combination ranks:
Heaven Nine, Earth Eight, Man Seven, Goose Five.  
(口訣: 天九,地八,人七,鵝五)

Step 3

With the above in mind, graphically associate the dot patterns and colors with their names using some imagination as suggested below.

Civilian Suit (文子)

Twenty two civilian tiles are in pairs. The number of dots on these tiles plays no role in determining their ranks. If you refrain yourself from counting the dots and pay more attention to the graphic patterns and colors, you would be less confused.

tile tile
(天) Tien (Heaven) (6-6) -
The highest sky, with the highest possible points on the tile. The high end of two extremes.
tile tile
(地) Dai (Earth) (1-1) -
The lowest ground, with the lowest possible points on the tile. The low end of two extremes.
tile tile
(人) Yun (Person) (4-4) -
With flesh and blood, a totally bloody red tile.

tile tile
(鵝) Gnor (Goose) (1-3) -
With a red head (1) and a long neck (3).
tile tile
(梅花) Mui Fa (Plum Blossoms) (5-5) -
With two flowers in petals like patterns (5).
tile tile
(長三) Cheung Sam (long 3s) (3-3) -
Pair of 3s placed lengthwise. Cheung Sam (long 3s) is also a homonym of the Chinese term for long dress (長衫). Imagine the dots pattern as a Kimono.
tile tile
(板凳) Ban Dun (Bench Seat) (2-2) -
The stool, imagine the tile itself as a board, the dots represent the four legs of a footstool.
tile tile
(斧頭) Fu Tau (Hatchet, machete) (5-6) -
Imagine the 6 as the blade and the 5 as the handle, looks like the traditional Chinese broad knife for splitting wood logs.
tile tile
(紅頭十) Hung Tau Sup (Red head 10) (4-6) -
Ten with a red head (4) and long legs (6). Some players call these tiles Partitions (Ping Fung 屏封). The dot pattern does look like a partition panel.
tile tile
(高腳七) Go Guerk Chut (long legs 7) (1-6) -
Seven with the long legs (6) and a red head (1).
tile tile
(伶淋六) Ling Lum Luk (six) (1-5) -
I don't know the meaning of its nickname, hence didn't come up with an association for this one. Just remember the 1-5 tiles rank lower than the similar 1-6 tiles above and you won't forget them easily.

Gee June (至尊) and Military Suit (武子)

The ten tiles in the Military suit have no matching pair. Each has its unique pattern. Unlike the Civilian tiles, the ranking within the suit is determined by the total number of dots on the tiles.

(大頭六) Die Tau Luk (big head six) (4-2) -
Imagine the big red head (4) with two tiny feet (2).
(么雞三) Yiu Gai Sam (Tiny Chicken three) (1-2) -
Imagine the triangular dot pattern as the beak of a chicken. There is only one 3 point tile in the whole set. It is not difficult to recognize. If a player win a game (結) with this tile, the winning is doubled. However, if he is captured (defeated) by the (4-2) tile, his loss is quadrupled. (么雙擒四)

(至尊) Gee June (Supreme Pair) (4-2) (1-2) -
Though the above two tiles belongs to the Military suit individually, the pair is treated as a suit of its own when played as a combo. The pair is a sure winner when leading a trick, but it is a loser when following a lead. When this pair leads, no other pairs can match its suit because it is one-of-a-kind. When this pair follows a lead, it is the wrong suit and hence always a loser. The player collects a bonus from the other players immediately when leading this pair (賀至尊). When the Supreme Pair is played to win the last trick (尊結), all winning doubles.

Once you can recognize all 13 patterns above (11 civilian + 2 special military tiles), anything else are the remaining military tiles by elimination. Simply add up their dots on the upper and lower half of the tile.

tile tile
Nines -
(4-5) (3-6)
tile tile
Eights -
(3-5) (2-6)
tile tile
Sevens -
(3-4) (2-5)

Six - See the supreme pair above
tile tile
Fives -
(1-4) (2-3)

Three - See the supreme pair above

This technique had been tested by several beginner players. It works quite well, because you can associate the look of the tiles with how they get their names. The meaning of their names then gives a hint on their relative ranking according to "the order in nature." And you only need to memorize 13 patterns out of the 32 tiles, the rest can be determined by adding up the dots.

Quick Reference Card

I have prepared a PDF document that depicts the tiles graphically. You may find a printed copy handy when learning the game. Print at least four copies for other beginner players too. If you have downloaded the free Acrobat Reader software plug-in from Adobe, you can open the Quick Reference Card by double clicking HERE (or use a gray-scale version HERE, which may print better on black and white printers.)

How to use the Tien Gow Quick Reference Card

This Quick Reference Card illustrates a full set of Chinese Domino tiles. The tiles are arranged in combination and ranking order according to the rules in the game of Tien Gow. This document may or may not reflect the ranking order in the Pai Gow game. Nevertheless, the picture may help you identify the tiles in either game.

On this Quick Reference Card, the rows show the two different suits, namely Civilian (文 top 2 rows) and Military (武 bottom 2 rows); the four left columns show the mixed suit combinations. The Chinese characters are the names of the tiles. The numerals are the total number of dots on each of the tiles which are relevant for military tiles, but irrelevant for civilian tiles.

The top two rows display the tiles in the Civilian suit (文子) in decreasing ranks from left to right. The tiles on the left are at higher rank than the ones on the right.

The bottom two rows display the tiles in the Military suit (武子). The tiles on the left are at higher rank than the ones on the right with the exception of the (4-2) piece, which should have been placed between the 7s and the 5s. It is put out of place to show its special significance when played with the (1-2) piece as the supreme pair. Though look different, the two tiles of the bottom two rows in each column are of same rank. The tile with same rank loses to the tile played first (食夾棍).

Any 2, 3, or 4 tiles on the same column can be played in a trick as one of the six types of combo. Note that the four leftmost columns indicate that Heaven can only combine with nines, Earth with eights, Man with sevens, Goose with fives. For example,

tile tile tile tile is a quartet combo (四天九 shown); When a player plays a quartet combo, other players pay him a bonus immediately. (more info below.)

tile tile tile is a triplet combo (三文地八 shown; 2 civil, 1 military);

tile tile tile is a different type of triplet combo (三武鵝五 shown; 1 civil, 2 military);

tile tile is a mixed pair combo (人七 shown; 1 civil, 1 military);

tile tile is a civilian pair combo (雙斧頭 shown);

tile tile is a military pair combo (雜八 shown) etc.

To win a combo trick, you have to play a combo with the same composition of Civilian and Military suit but at higher rank. For example, if someone led with a

tile tile tile
combo (2 Civil + 1 Military), you can only win with a valid combo of the same composition, namely
tile tile tile
tile tile tile
in this example. The combo
tile tile tile
loses despite the higher ranking individual tiles. Because this combo comprises of 1 Civil and 2 Military tiles, it is considered a wrong suit played against the led tiles. Likewise, the tiles
tile tile tile
do not make a valid combo despite the high ranking individual tiles. When a four tile combo is played, the player immediately collects a bonus (四大賀).

The two arrows near the middle of the reference card point out that there are 22 civilian tiles and 10 military tiles.

The two boxes at the lower right corners are just some statistical figures regarding the count of pips (lower and upper halves of the tile) in the tile set. These numbers may be useful in developing strategies in other games. For example the left side box shows that there are 12 "one" pips but only 9 "two" pips in the tile set. If your game, such as Che Deng (斜釘), involves connecting the dominoes by the pips, these statistics may be helpful to determine which tile has a rarer connection end.

In the right side box, the list shows the number of tiles with a specific total number of dots. For example, 0+1 3 means there is zero Civilian tile and one Military tile with 3 dots in the whole tile set. And 4+1 6's means there are 4 Civilian tiles and 1 Military tiles with 6 dots. These statistics are not useful in the game of Tien Gow, but may be useful in other games such as Pai Gow or Diu Yu (釣魚).


The game of Tien Gow uses a zero-sum scoring system (designed for gambling.) It is more convenient to keep scores using chips in a non-gambling setting. In a gambling setting, each chip can be substituted with a unit of wager. Usually, the unit of wager is not changed from round to round. Because the winning and loss in each round can be quite unpredictable, most people stick with a fixed wager throughout. At the end of each round, the winner of the round settles the scores with each of the other three players individually. At the end of the game, the chips are cashed in based on the unit of wager agreed upon at the beginning of the game.

The banker's multiplier

The banker, i.e. the winner of last round or the player who led the first trick in the round, is subjected to a multiplier when settling the score. If he is the banker for the first time, the multiplier is ×2. If he is the banker for the second time, the multiplier is ×3. Each consecutive win of the banker adds one to the multiplier. Say, if the banker has won 9 rounds in the row, the multiplier becomes ×10. If he wins again, he collects 10 times the regular winning from each player. If he loses, he pays 10 times the amount to the winner of the round. Once the bankership is passed to a new winner, the multiplier starts at ×2 again. Some people use the faces of the dice to keep track of the multiplier during the game.

Basic scores

For each player, the par is winning 4 stacks (戙) of 4 tiles each. At the end of each round, the player who won the last trick is the winner. The winner collects one chip for each stack of tiles under par from each player. For example, if you have won no stack in the round, you are 4 under par, you lose 4 chips plus 1 penalty chip (5 chips total) to the winner. If you have won 1 stack, you are 3 under par, you lose 3 chips to the winner. If you have won 3 stacks, you are 1 under par, you lose 1 chip to the winner. If you have won 6 stacks, you are 2 over par, you collect 2 chips from the winner of the round (入二). The multiplier applies whenever the settlement involves the banker. For example, at the end of the round with a ×4 multiplier, the banker wins the last trick with the following stack distributions:
Banker A: 2 stacks, the winner of the round by winning the last trick
Player B: 5 stacks, collects 4 chips (1×4) from Player A
Player C: 1 stack, pays 12 chips (3×4) to Player A
Player D: 0 stack, pays 20 chips ((4+1)×4) to Player A

Notice that Player A collects a sum of 32 chips from player C & D but only pays 4 chips to player B; a net winning of 28 chips. Player B is not considered the winner despite he won more stacks than Player A did. He only collects 4 chips, a fraction of the winning of Player A. Assuming the game continues with a ×5 multiplier and Banker A lost this round with the following stack distributions:
Banker A: 2 stacks, pays 10 chips (2×5) to Player B
Player B: 2 stacks, the winner of the round by winning the last trick
Player C: 4 stack, pays 0 chip (0×1) to Player B
Player D: 0 stack, pays 5 chips ((4+1)×1) to Player B

Player B was not a banker when he won the round, he settled the score with player C & D with no multiplier. He settled the score with Banker A with a ×5 multiplier. Notice that Player B won 15 chips this round, and he becomes the Banker for the next round with a ×2 multiplier.

Bonus multipliers

When a player won 7 stacks in the round, all three other players are shut-out. With no trick won, none of the three players is allowed to play the last trick. The last trick is automatically won by the winner regardless of the tiles in each players' hand. However, if the last tile can still win without using the shut-out rule, all 8 stacks are considered won. By winning all eight-stacks (八支), the winning is quadrupled. Since all three players has no stack, each loses 20 chips (4+1)×4 as the basis. On the other hand, if the last tile is a losing piece, it still won by the shut-out rule. This kind of shut-out is called seven-stacks (七支), the winning is doubled. Since all three players has no stack, each lose 10 chips (4+1)×2 as the basis. The banker's multiplier applies on top of the 20 or 10 chips.

Assuming the above game continues with a ×2 multiplier and Player D won 8 stacks in this round.

Player A: 0 stack, pays 20 chips ((4+1)×4) to Player D
Banker B: 0 stack, pays 40 chips ((4+1)×4)×2 to Player D
Player C: 0 stack, pays 20 chips ((4+1)×4) to Player D
Player D: 8 stacks, quadrupled the winning

Player D won 80 chips in total. If Banker B won 8 stacks in this round, he would have collected a winning of 120 chips because all three losers doubled their loss to 40 chips. The winning can be substantial if the banker's multiplier is large.

If the round is won by the Supreme pair (包尊), the winning is doubled in addition to the banker's multiplier.

If the round is won by a quartet combo (四大包), the winning is quadrupled in addition to the banker's multiplier.

If the round is won (么結) by the (1-2) tile (么雞三), the winning is doubled in addition to the banker's multiplier. However, if the (1-2) tile is defeated by the (4-2) tile (擒 captured), the player who attempted the (么結) is penalized to pay for 4 times everyone's loss in addition to the usual banker's multiplier. So it is quite a penalty for a failed attempt to win with the (1-2) tile, therefore some people would only double the payout to make the penalty less harsh. Or each player pay his own loss instead of the failed attempt to pay everybody's loss. It is really up to you to set the rule regarding this special game ending. The (1-2) tile is the lowest ranked military tile. It can be easily defeated if any military tile still remains in anyone's hand, hence it deserves a ×2 bonus when it manages to win against the odds. Only the (4-2) tile qualifies for the ×4 bonus multiplier when it captures the (1-2) tile. The same (么雙擒四) rule can optionally apply to the lowest ranked civilian tile (1-5). The (1-5) tile can be defeated by any civilian tile, but captured only by the (1-6) tile. This option usually goes with whether the (1-5) pair is treated as an alternate civilian supreme pair (文尊) . The players must agree on whether to use such rule before the game starts.

Bonus scores

When a player leads with the supreme pair in the middle of the game, all other players each pays him 2 chips (賀至尊) immediately. When a player successfully plays a quartet combo, the other players each pays him 4 chips (四大賀) immediately. Note that the bonus is collected regardless whether the quartet combo wins or not. It is an appearance bonus. If in the extremely unlikely situation where each player holds a quartet combo and each were played successfully in the same round (i.e. not forfeited), each player can collect the bonus in turns. In all cases, the multiplier applies to the banker as usual. No bonus when the combo is played as the winning last trick because the winning is going to be doubled and quadrupled already in such case and the extra bonus is unfair to the losers. A pair of (1-5) tiles can be optionally treated as the civilian supreme pair. The civilian supreme does not fit well with the original Confucius design of the game because it would mean the empire has two supreme rulers. Yet some players like bigger gamble in the game. This option should be agreed upon by the players before the game starts.

Other valuable Tien Gow resources on the web

Unlike the abundant references to Pai Gow and Mahjong, the references to the game of Tien Gow are very limited. I would appreciate it if anyone can send me pointers to any webpage or printed material about this-soon-to-be-forgotten game.


  • Chinese Domino (an iOS App) by Lingkun Cheng.
    This is a Tien Gow game running on iPhone, iPod touch. There is a separate HD version for iPad. It costs US$0.99 on the App Store.
  • Tien Gow Game, Win95 App or as Java Applet by Siu-Ki Wong.
    The Applet is playable on Java enabled web browsers.
    Note: This game uses a slightly different rule than Celko's. e.g. the ranking of the (4-2) is different. The 6 loses to a 5 as if it is ranked the same as the (1-2) tile, the other half of the supreme pair! You are not allowed to break up a combo when leading. Also the program won't let you forfeit a winning tile.
  • Tien Gow for Palm OS by Alan Chan.
  • Tien Gow in Chinese by Edward Siu.
    a DOS computer game of Tien Gow (right click the mouse and Save Link As ...)
    This ancient monochrome PC program lets you play the game of Tien Gow on DOS. Without color, it is difficult to recognize the tiles. Fortunately, the game arranges the pieces in proper ranking for you. It runs fine on DOS, but doesn't seem to work in Command Windows on NT. You may need to reboot your PC in DOS mode to play this game. Use the keys at the bottom row of the keyboard to play the game. First use the corresponding key to select (toggle) the tiles and then hit play (Z) or forfeit (X). Hit the spacebar to dismiss the score sheet. Use control-C to quit the game. The computer plays quite well, it is not easy to beat the computer. Score keeping seems to be done in an authentic way too. Enjoy!


latest update:
  • 天九入門 is a 9-part blog (in Chinese) that did an in-depth research on this game.  The author did a great job distilling multiple references including those mentioned above, century old books, and game rules currently used by players in Hong Kong etc. into a very complete series of articles. He did point out that there are multiple differences between what I have written here and what is currently practiced. Since his research was very thorough and extensive, I would say his findings are the most authoritative on the web today.

Disclaimer: I am a beginner in this game. Please send me corrections and feedback at cplai@yahoo.com. Many thanks in advance.
Originally posted on Apr 28, 2000 on Geocities and other sites.
revised in Feb, 2012
added pictures in May, 2013

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