2011年1月28日星期五

Rules of Luk Fu, a Hakka card game

By The Suffocated and Wong Siu Fat
(see also the Chinese version)

Introduction
Luk Fu[1] (六虎 or "Six Tigers") is a trick-taking card game that is played predominantly by today's Hakka Chinese. It resembles the ancient game Ma Tiu more closely than Mahjong does, and is the only contemporary Chinese card game that retains all four suits of Ma Tiu as well as some features of another ancient game Khanhoo[2]. Yet Luk Fu has also some western touches. Some cards of a Luk Fu deck feature the spade, heart and diamond symbols that are seen in French and English playing cards, and the game has a calling phase that is reminiscent of (albeit much simpler than) the bidding phase in contract bridge.

Although there are mentions of Luk Fu in some 19th century literature, Luk Fu had only oral rules until recently. At the time of writing, Smith and Senst (1996) is the only printed article that describes Luk Fu in detail. On the internet, Sung (1996) and McLeod (2000) are the only detailed accounts. Even a game like Mahjong, that had written rules early in its history, has evolved into some twenty variants today. If Luk Fu has also fragmented into a large number of variants, it should be no surprise to anyone.

The second author of this article is a Luk Fu player. Some of his relatives are veteran players and they have acquaintances with some other people who play Luk Fu at raked home games. The first author is an amateur researcher in Chinese card and dominoe games. While he disapproves most forms of gambling (not to say the illegal ones), he views the rules for gambling as representative. This article is the result of documenting and sorting out these rules. There are differences between the rules described here and those written in the above-mentioned articles. The interested readers may make a comparison. While we think the rules we study here are valuable references, we have no intention to promote any set of rules as the unique standard.

Each game of Luk Fu has either three or four players. We will first explain the rules for a four-player game and state the modifications needed for a three-player game at the end of the article.

The deck
A complete set of Luk Fu has 38 cards (see the figure below), of which 36 are divided into four suits, Sip (拾 "Ten"), Gon (貫 "Myriads"), Sok (索 "Strings") and Chen (綫 "Coins"), which are inherited from Ma Tiu (where the suit "Myriads" is called 萬, though). Each suit has nine cards; they are numbered from 1 to 9, except that 1 Sip is called Bak Chi (百子, which literally means "Hundred Sons", but the name was actually derived from 百萬 "A Hundred Myriad" in Ma Tiu) and 1 Chen is called Mau Gung (毛公 "Mr Mau", a professional gambler in the Warring States Period). The chinese character 綫 (which literally means threads) for the suit Chen is actually a typo. It should read 錢. The typo, however, is so widespread that it is present in virtually all modern Luk Fu packs.

The two extra cards of the deck are Luk Fa (鹿花 "Stagflower") and Yuen Chen (雲綫, which probably means "Yunnan coin"), where the former was also called Lei Fa (梨花) in Qing Dynasty. Most Hakka people nowadays do not recognize the characters 鹿 and 雲 printed on the two cards. They mistake both characters as 麗 ("Beautiful") and read the names of the two cards as respectively Li Fa and Li Chen (we will adopt these mistaken but popular names in the sequel).

A complete deck of Luk Fu. From left to right ──
1st row: 1 Sip to 9 Sip,
2nd row: 1 Gon to 9 Gon,
3rd row: 1 Sok to 9 Sok,
4th row: 1 Chen to 9 Chen.
The rightmost two extra cards are Li Fa (left) and Li Chen (right).
Only 37 cards are used in the game of Luk Fu. The extra card Li Fa is always removed. According to C.T. Dobree (1955), one can play other games with a deck of Luk Fu. Perhaps Li Fa is useful in some of these games.

Basic game play
Each hand of Luk Fu is divided into four phases:
  1. Dealing.
  2. Calling.
  3. Play of the hand.
  4. Scoring.
A Luk Fu hand may draw if (i) no one "calls the hand" in the calling phase (to be explained later), or (ii) no one meets the winning requirements at the end of the hand. In each hand, the four players will take, in anticlockwise order, the following roles (see figure below):
  • the dealer, or Tiu Ga (頭家 "player 1"),
  • Ngi Ga (二家 "player 2"),
  • Mung Ga (夢家 "dreamer") / Chuk Mung (捉夢 "dream catcher") and
  • Sam Ga (三家 "player 3" ) / Mui Ga (尾家 "the last player"),
where the terms 頭, 尾 and 捉 can find their roots in the ancient card game Ma Tiu. The dealer of the first hand is deliberated by the players or chosen at random. In each subsequent hand, if the dealer calls the hand and the hand is drawn or won by him, he will remain the dealer for the next hand. Otherwise (i.e. if the dealer calls the hand but loses, no one calls the hand, or someone else calls the hand), player 2 will succeed to the role of dealer.
The four players

Dealing
The cards are first shuffled and then dealt one at a time to the players in twelve rounds. The order of deal is as follows:
(1st round)dealer → player 2 → dreamer →player 3;
(other 11 rounds)dealer → player 2 →player 3.
After the deal, the dreamer should have received one card and every other player twelve. The dreamer is only a bystander throughout the play. He can literally go dreaming and update his score only at the end of the hand.

The meld consisting of Li Chen and the four lowest-valued cards, i.e. 1 Sip (Bak Chi), 1 Gon, 1 Sok and 1 Chen (Mau Gung), is called Ng Fu Ha San (五虎下山 "Five Tigers Emerge from the Mountain"). Throughout the dealing phase, the holder of this meld has the right to claim immediate victory. Strictly speaking, if he wants to declare victory, he must do so before the dealer enters into the next (i.e. calling) phase. However, in casual games, people usually do not observe this rule strictly and one is often allowed to claim victory if the dealer enters into the next phase too quickly.

The holder of Ng Fu Ha San may opt not to claim victory immediately. He can give up this right in order to seek greater benefits later in this hand. However, during the actual play, Ng Fu Ha San is not a valid combination of cards (although 1 Sip, 1 Gon, 1 Sok and 1 Chen make four of a kind, which is a valid meld; more about this below), and it per se no longer offers its holder the right to claim victory.

Ng Fu Ha San

Calling
Each hand of Luk Fu requires a unique player to express his will to play it. The dealer will first call out Jor (做 "Play") or Ng Jor (唔做 "Not Play"). If he does not want to play, it is then player 2's call and so on. If none of them wants to play this hand, the hand will end immediately. Player 2 will succeed as the dealer and a new hand begins.

If the player who calls the hand is player 2 or player 3, we will call him a "privileged player" hereafter. The priviliged player has the privilege to bypass a certain restriction on leading a card, but this privilige comes at a price: if he loses the hand, he is responsible for the loss of another loser. If the dealer calls the hand, he is not regarded as privileged and he has no additional responsibility. His decision to play only deprives the other players of the oppotunities to become privileged.

Play of the hand
Each hand is comprised of multiple rounds. The dealer ── not the player who called the hand ── plays the opening lead, and the winner of each round leads the next. After a leader plays his meld (which may be one or more cards), the play follows anticlockwise and subsequent players may attack or surrender. To beat a meld, one must play a superior meld of the same type and the same size. To surrender a round, one must discard the same number of cards face-down without any need to form a meld. The winner of each round shall place his winning cards face-up in front of himself. Beaten or surrendered cards remain face-up or face-down and they are heaped at the center of the table. The players can examine any (winning or losing) card that has been played face-up.

The leader of each round can play one of the following three types of melds:

1) Single card. There is a restriction on what single card one can lead. This will be explained in next few sections. If one plays a single card, the next player can beat him only by playing a higher-ranked card from the same suit. Therefore a Sip card cannot beat a Sok card and vice versa. Single cards of the same suit are ranked by their numerical values, i.e. 9 is the highest and 1 is the lowest. The only exceptions are 1 Sip (Bak Chi), 1 Chen (Mau Gung) and Li Chen (the extra card). They beat no single cards but they are also unbeatable. Therefore, when played as a single card, each of them can take a trick only if it is the lead (so that other players are forced to surrender/discard).

2) Gok (各): three of a kind or four of a kind, analogous to a group (a.k.a. set) in rummy. Both
  • triple nines, i.e. {9 Sip, 9 Gon, 9 Sok}, {9 Sip, 9 Gon, 9 Chen}, {9 Sip, 9 Sok, 9 Chen} or {9 Gon, 9 Sok, 9 Chen}, and
  • quad(ruple) nines, i.e. {9 Sip, 9 Gon, 9 Sok, 9 Chen}
are called "Gok 9", and similarly for "Gok 8", "Gok 7", etc. Groups are compared only by numerical values but not suits, and Gok 1 (triple or quad ones) is exceptional ── only Gok 9 beats it and it beats none of the Goks. Again, triplets only compare to triplets and quadlets only compare to quadlets. For instance,
  • triple eights > triple fours, but
  • quad eights does not beat triple fours, because a quadlet does not compare to a triplet; however, one can play any triple eights to beat the triple fours in this case, leaving the remaining 8 in his hand.
3) Suen (順): a run of three or more consecutive cards from the same suit. Unlike single cards, of which comparison is possible only within the same suit, runs are compared first by their suits and then by their numerical values. The suits are ranked in the order of Sip > Gon > Sok > Chen. As we have mentioned before, to beat a run one must play a higher run with the same number of cards. The special status of 1 Sip and 1 Chen ── when they are played as single cards ── do not apply here.

Examples:
  • {9,8,7,6} Gon > {5,4,3,2} Gon > {8,7,6,5} Chen > {4,3,2,1} Chen;
  • {7,6,5,4,3,2,1} Sip > {9,8,7,6,5,4,3} Sok;
  • {9,8,7} Sip and {6,5,4,3} Sok do not compare, because the two runs have different lengths.
A rule in Luk Fu dictates that whenever a player can beat his opponent, he must not hide his true power. He must either beat his opponent, or surrender his cards in a way that his remaining cards no longer contain any meld that can beat his opponent's cards.

To illustrate, suppose the dealer leads triple twos. Player 2 has the following cards in his hand:
6 Sip, 5 Sip, 4 Sip, 4 Gon, 4 Sok, 4 Chen, 8 Chen, 7 Chen and 5 Chen,
and suppose for some reason he has decided against taking triple twos by triple fours. We ask if he can surrender the following cards:
  • 4 Gon, 4 Sok and 5 Chen. Yes, because after discarding two fours, he no longer possesses cards that can beat triple twos.
  • 4 Sok, 7 Chen and 5 Chen. No, because afterwards, he still possesses triple fours that is superior to triple twos.
Luk Fu players often exploit the above-mentioned rule. By playing a single card, the leader can force other players to break their melds apart.

Aged cards
As a hand of Luk Fu proceeds, more and more cards will gain the status of Lau Sui Pai (老歲牌 "aged cards", a.k.a. 老人牌). At the beginning of a hand, seven cards are considered aged: 9 Sip, 9 Gon, 9 Sok, 9 Chen, 1 Sip, 1 Chen and Li Chen. Note that only eight cards in a deck of Luk Fu have red imprints. Among them, 8 Sip is the only one that is not aged right at the beginning.

The eight cards with red imprints; the leftmost seven are already aged at the beginning.
In the play of the hand, whenever a single card becomes "practically unbeatable", it is also considered as aged. For example, suppose a player has 9 Chen and 7 Chen in his hand, and someone has played 8 Chen face-up earlier. As no opponent now possesses any single card that can defeat 7 Chen, the 7 Chen card becomes aged.

Note that, to judge whether a card is practically unbeatable, one does not only reason by using those cards that have been played face-up. If, in the above example, 8 Chen was played face-down, but the player can assert through a logical argument that someone must have played it out earlier, then 7 Chen is still considered as aged.

Privileged player and restriction on the lead
As leads, single cards can be classified, in descending order of priorities, into nine categories:
  • non-aged Sip,
  • aged Sip,
  • non-aged Gon,
  • aged Gon,
  • non-aged Sok,
  • aged Sok,
  • non-aged Chen,
  • aged Chen,
  • Li Chen.
When the leader has a higher-priority card in his hand, he is not allowed to lead a single card of lower priority. (As a result, if it is not surrendered, Li Chen can only be played when it is the only card left in the leader's hand.) For instances, if he has a Gon in his hand, he cannot lead a single Sok or a single Chen; if he has a non-aged Chen in his hand, he cannot lead an aged Chen. Single cards of the same category are not prioritized in the lead. For example, if the dealer has 1 Sip, 4 Sip and 5 Sip in the Sip suit when the hand begins, and he wants to play a single card as the opening lead, he is free to play 4 Sip or 5 Sip.

When one plays a group or a run, whether the constituent cards are aged is irrelevant. For instance, suppose in the first round the dealer has 9, 8, 7 and 4 Soks at hand and 5 Sok is held by another player. Then 9, 8, 7 Soks are aged, but 4 Sok is not. If the dealer wants to lead a single card, he can play neither of 9, 8 and 7 Soks because the non-aged 4 Sok is still in his hand. However, he can lead the {9,8,7} Sok run.

The above restriction applies to the lead only. Subsequent attacks or surrenders are not bound by this restriction.

The privileged player is allowed to bypass part of the restriction by leading an aged card before exhausting higher-priority single cards in his hand. For example, suppose player 2 is the privileged player and he is dealt
9 Sip, 7 Sip, 4 Sip, 1 Sip, 8 Gon, 4 Gon, 8 Sok, 7 Sok, 6 Sok, 4 Sok, 3 Chen, 1 Chen.
The dealer leads by playing 5 Sip, player 2 beats him using 7 Sip and player 3 surrenders. Now player 2 leads. Suppose in subsequent rounds, his opponents are so stupid that they only keep surrendering. We ask if player 2 can keep leading the following melds in the following orders:
  1. 9 Sip → 4 Sip → 1 Chen → 1 Sip → 8 Gon ... . Yes, because as a privileged player, he is allowed to advance the leading of the two aged cards 9 Sip and 1 Chen before other single cards.
  2. 4 Sip → 8 Gon → ... . No, 8 Gon cannot be played because aged cards 9 Sip and 1 Sip have not been played yet. The privilege only allows player 2 to advance the play of aged single cards, not to defer playing them.
  3. {8,7,6} Sok → 4 Sip → 1 Sip → 9 Sip ... . Yes, this does not violate the restriction in the first place.

Winning requirements
Since one may play, in many Chinese card games, one or more cards in each round, the meaning of a "trick" is somewhat different from its usual meanings in western card games. When a Luk Fu player wins a round of the game by playing some n cards, he is said to have won n tricks, or in Chinese, n Fu's (湖 "Lakes" or 虎 "Tigers")[3]. For example, a player who wins this round by playing quad fives is considered to have taken four tricks.

In Hong Kong, when a Hakka player wants to declares victory, he usually calls out Sid Fu (食糊[4] "Eat Purée"), like he does in a Mahjong game. A Luk Fu player can declare victory only at the beginning of each round, and only if he meets the following requirements:
  1. he is the leader, and
  2. the number of tricks he has won so far plus the number of aged cards in his hand is at least six.
When a player declares victory, every aged cards in his hand is also counted as a won trick. Therefore the phrase Luk Fu also means 六湖, or "Six Tricks". Which one of "Six Tigers" or "Six Tricks" is the true name of the game, however, is unknown.

Example. Player A has taken 1 trick previously and he has 2 Sip, 6 Gon, 9 Chen, 8 Chen and triple sevens left in his hand. Player B leads triple fives, player C surrenders and player A wins 3 more tricks by playing triple sevens . Now player A becomes the leader. As he has already taken 4 tricks in total and has 2 aged cards (9 Chen and 8 Chen) in his hand, he can declare victory now, with 6 tricks won.

After acquiring enough tricks, a player may opt not to declare victory and continue playing the hand, so as to win more tricks. However, next time, before he declares victory, he still has to become a leader, and the other players may win the hand before he can do that.

If all cards have been played and no one gets enough tricks, the game is drawn.

Scoring
If a player wins by producing Ng Fu Ha San before the actual play of the hand, he gets 8 tricks and the losers only need to pay him the appropriate amounts of points. However, if the winner actually played the hand, and the numerical value of the dreamer's card (Li Chen = 1) matches the numerical value of any of the winner's trick-taking cards (i.e. the cards that the winner won tricks with, or the aged cards left in his hand), the losers also need to pay the dreamer certain amounts of points. In this case, the dreamer is always granted 5 tricks and every match of numerical values is counted as an additional trick.

The number of tricks, like the number of Faans (翻) in mahjong, is an exponent in scoring. If the winner has won n tricks, every loser has to pay him 2n-6 points, i.e. 1 point for 6 tricks, 2 points for 7 tricks, 4 points for 8 tricks, and so on. But 12 tricks give an extra double, i.e. they amount to 2×212-6 = 128 points instead. In some places, the number of tricks is subtracted first by 5 instead of 6 in the exponent (i.e. 2n-5 instead of 2n-6 is used in the above calculations).

The income of the dreamer is computed in the same way, except that the n in the exponent is the number of tricks won by the dreamer instead of the winner.

If the privileged player loses the hand, he is responsible for the loss of another loser. Example:
Player 2 is privileged. The dreamer is dealt 1 Sok. In a certain round, player 3 wins his first three tricks by playing triple eights. By having these three tricks and also 9 Chen, 1 Sip and Li Chen in his hand, player 3 declares victory.
In this example, the dealer and player 2 lose, player 3 has won 6 tricks (3 tricks on the table plus 3 aged cards in his hand) and the dreamer has won 7 tricks (the winner's 1 Sip and Li Chen have the same numerical value as the dreamer's 1 Sok). Should player 2 have won the game, each loser will pay him 1 point and the dreamer 2 points. But now that player 2 is privileged and he loses the hand, player 1 is saved, player 2 loses 6 points, player 3 wins 2 points and the dreamer wins 4 points.

Three-player game
The rules for a three-player game are essentially identical to those for a four-player game, except that there is no dreamer and the extra card Li Chen is also removed (so that only the 36 cards from the four suits are used). As a result, the rules for Ng Fu Ha San do not apply here.

Controversies
Luk Fu players may disagree on how to play the game. In particular, there are two common controversies. The first one arises from the evasion of calling the hand when one receives a strong hand. Luk Fu players often despise people who behave this way, or even forbid the others from evading the call. Yet the definition of a "strong hand" is not written in black and white.

For example, some players may think that, when some non-overlapping groups, runs and aged cards can be spotted in six or more of the dealer's cards, even if the hand contains something like
1 Sip, 1 Chen, Li Chen, {5,4,3} Chen run
and some low-ranked single cards, he should not evade the call. If he evades the call but wins, the privileged loser may refuse to pay him and the other loser may condemn him as well. However, if he has broken the {5,4,3} Chen run apart during the course of play, some players may think that his victory is acceptable. So, there is no rigourous or clear criterion to judge when evasion is allowed and when it is not. For evasions by players 2 or 3, the judgment line is even looser and fuzzier, but we will not further our discussion here.

Another common controversy is about the definition of aged cards. For example, according to the rules we describe here, whenever one can assert through a logical argument that a certain single card is unbeatable, the card should be regarded as aged. In practice, however, the logical reasoning may be sophisticated at times. Hence those players who do not understand the argument will question the card's status. The reader should avoid making complicated arguments if he/she only wants to play a casual game for fun.

Acknowledgment
The first author wishes to thank Mr John McLeod of pagat.com for his very helpful discussions.

References
  1. Dylan W.H. Sung (1996), Hak Ga Luk Fu Pai, reocities.com.
  2. John McLeod (2000), Rules of Card Games: Luk Fu (六虎), pagat.com.
  3. Anthony Smith and Günther Senst (1996), Liuk Fu, Cháng Pái and Other East Asian Trick-Taking Games, The Playing-Card, XXIV/4, pp.111-119.
  4. C.T. Dobree (1955), Gambling Games of Malaya, Caxton Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Related webpages

Notes
[1] When transcribing Chinese terms, one often-met problem is to decide on an appropriate romanisation scheme. Unfortunately, most of such schemes are unintelligible to non-Chinese readers. In this article, except for a few terms that have widely accepted transcriptions (e.g. 麻雀 → Mahjong), we will adopt the Hong Kong Government Cantonese Romanisation, because most words it transcribes into can be read like ordinary English. Note, however, that we will transcribe the Hakka pronunciations of those Luk Fu jargon terms, not the cantonese ones.

[2] Ma Tiu (馬弔, a.k.a. Ma Diao or Madiao), Khanhoo (看虎 or "Watching Tigers") and Che Cheung (扯章 or "Pulling Tricks") were the three most popular card games in Ming Dynasty. They are all trick-taking games that are played with the same set of cards. The Khanhoo here is not the one that Sir W.H. Wilkinson introduced into Europe in early 1890's. The two Khanhoo's have some common melds, but Wilkinson's Khanhoo is a draw-and-discard game.

[3] Obviously, one does not win a tiger or a lake, and the meanings of these terms shall not be taken literally. These terms actually originate from the names of ancient Chinese games, which usually contain one of the three rhyming characters 虎 ("Tiger"), 和 ("Harmony") and 湖 ("Lake").

[4] The jargon terms 和 and 湖 are also used in declaring victory. In a Chinese card or dominoe game, when a player wins a hand, he may call out 和了 ("和-ed") or 湖了 ("湖-ed"). The former, however, is confusing because it also means "the hand is drawn". This is perhaps the reason why, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the uses of 湖 had become widespread. Nonetheless, in late 19th century, fewer and fewer people knew the correct character for the jargon term 湖. Most people in mainland China started to write 胡 (a collective name for the foreign races in the west/north to China) instead. The people of Hong Kong, in contrast, took 糊 ("Purée") as the jargon term and call winning a hand "Eat Purée" (食糊) to make things interesting. In a Mahjong match, when the hand of a player is just one tile short of winning, the player is even said to 叫糊 ("Order a Purée").

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