Tien Gow (Heaven Nine)

Rule rendition by Joe Celko (71062.1056@CompuServe.COM).

This article was originally based on Western sources, but then was corrected by Anthony Kam (antkam@mit.edu). Some of the rules given here might be regional variations, since Mr. Kam is from Hong Kong.

"Tien Gow" means "Sky Nine" and takes its name from "Sky" or "Heaven" being the top civilian piece and nine being the top military piece.

Players and Equipment

Tien Gow is a four player game using one set of Chinese dominoes. The goal of the game is to win points by taking tricks, much like a Western card game.

It is a (zero-sum) gambling game. The players start with some money and money changes hand according to the scoring rules. The game is not played in points in the sense of Bridges or Hearts, but more like points in the sense of Rubber Bridge where points are trades for money (for example, $1 per 10 points).

The Deal and Bidding

Throw dice to choose a banker for the first hand. The banker puts a small puck or other marker on the table in front of him. Mah Jong uses a device showing the points of the compass and it could certainly be used in Tien Gow, but any marker will do.

The banker stacks up a woodpile and deals each player a hand of eight tiles. The banker also leads the first trick of the hand. The winner of each trick leads the following trick. The winner of the last trick in a game becomes the first banker in the next game.

A player leads a set of tiles as follows:

  1. one tile (singleton)
  2. a pair of tiles (bo or pair)
  3. a set of 3 tiles (triplet)
  4. a set of 4 tiles (quartet)

Each player in turn then plays a set composed of the same number of tiles. When all players have played, this constitutes one trick. A player may play any tiles but if that set does not beat the current high set then they must be played face down as discards. This introduces a guessing element into the game, as you cannot count the tiles perfectly. If a player's set is better than the current high set those tiles may be played face up and become the new high set. After all four players have played, the player who played the high set takes the trick.

Rank and Suit of the Tiles

Tiles in a set of Chinese dominoes are divided into two suits (civilian and military). See below for the classification and ranking (top to bottom).


There are two tiles of each type and the two identical tiles are considered to be of equal rank.

5-5Plum Flower
3-3Double Three
6-1Long leg Seven
5-1Big Head Six


There's only one tile of each type, though similar tiles (such as the Gow or nines) are considered to be of equal rank.

6-3, 5-4Gow - Nines
6-2, 5-3Bart - Eights
5-2, 4-3Chut - Sevens
4-2Lok - Six, or Big Six
4-1, 3-2Ng - Fives
2-1Sam - Three, or Little Three

Single Tile Tricks

A tile beats another tile if:

  1. They are of the same suit, civil or military.
  2. The first tile is higher in that suit's (civil or military) ranking.
  3. In the case of a tie, the eldest tile played wins (ie the tile that was played first).

Your tile must be discarded face down if it is equal to the current high tile or of a different suit than the current high tile.

Two Tile Tricks

Pairs are ranked according to the table below. The scheme is similar to the one used in Pai Gow and other games. However, pairs are considered to be of a particular suit. A pair can be double-civil, double-military, or mixed (a civil and a military tile).

As with single tile tricks, a pair beats another pair when:

  1. They are of the same suit (both civilian, both military or mixed).
  2. The tiles in the first pair beat those in the second. For example, a civil pair of Heavens (6-6 and 6-6) beats a pair of Earth (1-1 and 1-1) but not a military pair of sevens (5-2 and 4-3) nor a mixed pair of Goose-five. A mixed pair of Man-seven (4-4 and 5-2) beats Goose-five but neither beats (or is beaten by) the civilian Plum-pair (5-5 and 5-5).

You do not have to follow suit when discarding. Indeed, the tiles do not have to form a proper pair. You can discard any two tiles you like.

4-2 & 2-1Supreme
6-6 & 6-6Heaven
1-1 & 1-1Earth
4-4 & 4-4 Man
3-1 & 3-1 Goose
5-5 & 5-5 Flower
3-3 & 3-3 Long
2-2 & 2-2 Board
6-5 & 6-5 Hatchet
6-4 & 6-4 Partition
6-1 & 6-1 Long Leg Seven
5-1 & 5-1 Big Head Six
6-3 & 5-4 Jaap Gow - mixed nines
6-2 & 5-3 Jaap Bart - mixed eights
5-2 & 4-3 Jaap Chut - mixed sevens
4-1 & 3-2 Jaap Ng - mixed fives
6-6 & 6-36-6 & 5-4 Heaven and mixed nines
1-1 & 5-31-1 & 6-2 Earth and mixed eights
4-4 & 4-34-4 & 5-2 Man and mixed sevens
3-1 & 4-13-1 & 3-2 Goose and mixed fives

Special Pair

The supreme (4-2 and 2-1) is a special pair. This pair is not considered double-military. Nothing beats it, and it can beat nothing. Thus, it will always win when led since nothing beats it. But it must always be discarded when it is played against another other pair since it beats nothing.

Triplet and Quartet Sets

Besides leading a single tile or a pair, a set of three or four tiles may be led. A set is any combination of:

  1. Heavens and Nines
  2. Earths and Eights
  3. Man and Sevens
  4. Goose and Fives

No other combinations may be played.

For example, two Heavens and a Nine constitute a set of three while two pairs of Earths and two Eights constitute a set of four.

The rules for ranking triplets and quartets are similar to the rules for pairs. One set beats another if:

  1. The tiles have the same suits.
  2. Each tile in the first triplet or quartet beats its corresponding tile in the second triplet or quartet.
  3. Suit matching is not an issue since any quartet consists of two civilians and two militaries.

For example, a triplet set of two Heavens and a Nine (6-6, 6-6 and 6-3 or 5-4) can beat a set of two Earths and an Eight (1-1, 1-1 and 6-2 or 5-3) but not a set of two Eights and an Earth because of mismatched suits. Notice that pairs can be considered as sets of two tiles, except for the supreme pair which is in a class by itself.

Again, in any discard situation, you never have to follow suit and can discard anything you like.


Scoring is best done with chips like many Chinese games. The winner of the last trick of a hand is the new banker and considered winner of this hand, although the only real objective is to make money. All other players pay the banker or are paid by the banker.

End of Hand Payments

Tricks are collected and stacked in columns of four tiles high as the hand is played. Winning a triplet would generate twelve tiles which the winner of the trick stacks as three columns in a private woodpile in front of himself.

At the end of the hand, every non-winner now counts the number of columns in front of themselves and compares the total to a par value of four. They pay the winner of the hand the difference if they are below par. If they're above par, the winner pays them the difference. If you only win a triplet trick and it is not the last trick of the hand then you are a loser with three columns. You would pay the banker 4 - 3 = 1 point, which is worth a $1 at the end of the game in our examples.

As a special case any non-winner with no columns (no tricks) pays five points instead of four point.

Banker Double Rule

If the current banker wins only one column, he pays double (3 x 2 = 6 points) to the new banker. If the banker wins a second hand then everyone pays him double. A local variation in Hong Kong is that a two time banker would triple all transactions, a three time banker would quadruple all transactions, and so forth. You might want to use a doubling cube from a Backgammon game for the banker's puck to make this easier to remember.

Payments per Trick

These payments are made during the hand. They are in addition to the usual end of hand payments we just discussed. Notice that the Banker Double rule also applies here.

Any trick won by playing the Gee Joon ("Supreme Pair") immediately collects two points from each other player as soon as the pair is played. Remember that the Gee Joon must be led to win since the supreme pair beats nothing unless it is led. Because of the Banker Double rule, the Gee Joon collects four points from the current banker when led by another player and collects four points from all other players when led by the current banker.

A player who wins a quartet trick immediately collects four points from each other player.The Banker Double rule applies.

Special Rules

Early Death

The Early Death rule changes the game play and is very important in terms of strategy. All of the other special rules affect payment only and in that sense would influence players who might want to take greater or lesser risks, but do not directly influence game play.

If seven tiles have been played by each player so that the last trick is a singleton tile trick then any player who has not won any tricks during the first seven tiles immediately forfeits the last trick, also. Such a player must immediately discard their final tile face down regardless of what it is. And that unlucky player, having no tricks, will pay five points to whoever wins.

Last Trick Bonuses

The end of hand payments (but not pay-per-trick payments) are doubled for everyone if the last trick is won by:

  1. Any quartet
  2. The Gee Joon ("supreme pair")
  3. The singleton Little Three (the smallest military tile)

Note that in cases (1) and (2) there are undoubled pay-per-trick payments in addition to doubled end of hand payments.

This rule is in addition to the Banker Double rule so the banker would have all end of hand payments quadrupled.

Complete Game Bonus

If any player wins all eight tiles (this could be because of a clever use of the Early Death rule or by real brute force!), the end of hand payments are also doubled. If his last trick happens to be a bonus situation as listed above, both doubling applies and the end of hand payments would be quadrupled (or eight times for banker!)

The following exception is not used in all gaming groups but it affects strategy. The exception is that the banker does not get the complete game bonus if the first trick he led is "unbeatable seen from his own eyes." This is not as simple as it sounds.

Consider what it means to be unbeatable:

  1. A singleton Heaven
  2. A Heaven-nine pair
  3. The Gee Joon

are all unbeatable when they are lead.

A hand with an Earth-pair and a Heaven, or a singleton eight with both nines, would also be considered "unbeatable in his own eyes" because by just looking at these eight tiles he can deduce that it is unbeatable. Note, however, that an Earth pair while he does not have a Heaven, would be considered "beatable in his own eyes" and therefore would not invoke this exception even if in fact the two Heavens are split among two players and so this pair is actually unbeatable in that hand's tile distribution.

Big Six Captures Little Three Bonus

This is getting into the arcane, but it is here for completeness. This rule adds even more risk to saving the Little Three for your last trick in the hope of getting the special last trick double game bonus.

If the last trick is a single tile trick and is led with the Little Three (the smallest military tile, also the smaller half of the supreme pair) and it is eventually won by a second player (who is now the new banker) with the Big Six (the bigger half of the supreme pair), then you calculate all end of hand payments as usual (no doubling except for banker) but any payment that the other two players not involved with the Little Three and Big Six have to make to the player of the Big Six are made by the player of the Little Three, instead. Thus the player of the Little Three would incur a heavy loss benefiting the other two players, while the player of the Big Six would not gain anything extra.

One Red Dot

This is also very arcane and is not used in all gaming groups. If a player is dealt a hand with exactly one red dot (all other pips are white), then he immediately wins by declaring this hand. His winnings are calculated as if he had won all the tricks. This gives him a complete game bonus, but no special last trick bonus since no tricks are played. It is not clear what happens if two or more players declare one-red-dot.


The winner of the last trick almost always wins the most money so the objective of most hands is to win the last trick.

Because of the Banker Double rule, some bankers may want to play it safe and cash all his sure-win tricks when he has the first lead. That greatly reduces his chance of winning but limits his loss.

Notice that if the final trick is not a singleton tile, the Early Death rule cannot apply. This means that all players are in contention for the last trick and are eligible to win. Sometimes friendships of convenience might appear as two or three players gang up to create early-deaths.

Do not think early-deaths are rare! With good players, Mr. Kam estimates that every third game will have one or more Early Death hands. It is easier than you would think, since it requires three pair tricks in a round, with at least one player not winning any trick.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell