Big Two (Macau Alpha Excerpt)

May 19, 2009

The rules of The Last Days of Old Macau are partially derived from the Chinese playing card game Big Two (cho dai di). This game has a variety of names, some of which are more vulgar than others – in Mandarin, it’s known as da lao er, “Big Penis” – and while, like Poker, it has never been a table game in major Macanese casinos, Big Two remains wildly popular in the back alleys of Macau and Hong Kong. Although Lee Yih published a commercial variant of Big Two as Gang of Four (Dargaud, 1990; Days of Wonder, 2002), all you need to play the game – as it’s commonly played in Asia – is a standard deck of 52 playing cards, jokers removed.

There are many variants of Big Two found among Chinese-speaking communities in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere, so the rules presented here should be thought of as a fairly conservative distillation of the core rules, without additions are likely to have begun as “house rules.” If you sit down to play Big Two with folks who learned the game first-hand, as I originally did, there may be significant differences, especially in the manner in which certain hands may be played. You’re on your own there!

When getting a group together to play The Last Days of Old Macau, I recommend that you start by playing several hands of Big Two over some tea or Chinese beer (Tsingtao – itself hailing from a former German colony – is easy enough to find). Once you’re comfortable enough with Big Two that you can play the game semi-effectively while discussing character concepts for The Last Days of Old Macau, you should be ready to go.

DEALING

Big Two is best played with four players, dealing 13 cards to each one.

If you are playing with a fewer players, deal 13 cards to each player and set aside the rest. If you are playing with more than four players, deal out the deck evenly among the players, discarding whatever cards remain. For example, if you are playing with five players, deal each player 10 cards and discard the remaining two. Always remember to re-shuffle the discarded cards back into the deck before dealing the next hand. Playing with more than five players is not recommended, as the game changes dramatically.

PLAYING

The player with the 3 of Diamonds, the lowest ranked card in the game, plays first. The first play must include the 3 of Diamonds but can also include other cards as well, as long as a valid combination is played.

Play proceeds counter-clockwise to the next player, who must play a valid combination of higher value than the previous play. Additionally, each subsequent player must play the same number of cards as the first player. For example, if the first player played a straight – 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – the next player can play any valid five-card combination with a higher value than that straight. In my experience, players generally place their plays in the center of the table, stacked on top of one another.

VALID COMBINATIONS

1 Card: Single Card
2 Cards: Pair
3 Cards: Three of a Kind
4 Cards: There are no valid four-card combinations in this version of Big Two.
5 Cards: Straight, Flush, Full House, Four of a Kind (+ Any Card), Straight Flush.

RANKING COMBINATIONS

The five card combinations are listed in order of rank, with a Full House beating a Straight, etc.

The numerical ranking of single cards in Big Two is, as its name suggests: 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3.

Combinations of the same type are ranked by the highest numerically ranked card or set. For example, a Flush 2, 10, 6, 4, 3 beats a Flush K, Q, J, 9, 8. The only exception is when comparing Full House and Four of a Kind combinations, in which case the three or four card sets are the only cards that are used for comparison. Consequently, a Full House 6, 6, 6, 3, 3 beats a full house 4, 4, 4, A, A.

In situations where combinations would seem to have the same value, they are ranked by the suit of the highest numerical card, using the following order: Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds. For example, a 3 of Clubs beats a 3 of Diamonds; a pair of 2s (Spades, Diamonds) beats a pair of 2s (Hearts, Clubs); and a Flush 9, 7, 5, 4, 3 of Hearts beats a Flush 9, 8, 6, 5, 4 of Clubs.

The highest possible five-card combination in the game is a Straight Flush 2, A, K, Q, J of Spades.

PASSING

If a player has no valid combination of higher value (and containing the same number of cards) or simply wishes not to play this turn, that player passes. This can be done either by saying “Pass” or tapping on the table. I generally tap twice, using my first two index fingers, to make sure no mistake is made in deciphering my intentions, but do as thou wilt.

EMINENCE

If you play a valid combination that leads all the other players to pass, you have gained eminence and can play any valid combination you like, even one with lower value or containing a different number of cards than your previous play.

Gaining eminence is critical to controlling the way the game unfolds. Frequently, a player dealt a superb hand will lose to a player with a poor or even abysmal hand, simply due to the latter player’s ability to manage the game effectively. While playing five-card combinations helps players shed cards quickly, if the majority of plays contain one, two, and three-card combinations, those five card combinations may never make it to the table.

WINNING

The first player to get rid of all their cards wins.

If you like, the remaining players can continue playing to determine their final ranking, but that is not generally necessary unless you are gambling.

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