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Tichu Strategy, Part II: Using the Mah-Jong

Not too long ago, I was playing a hand where the opponent after me had called Grand Tichu. I passed him a 3, then played the Mah-Jong and wished it out of his hand. Why was this a bad move?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the pass; that’s standard according to the usual passing convention. Wishing for what you passed is standard as well; the reasoning is that the card you passed might have improved your opponent’s hand by making a pair (or worse, a straight) and you avoid possible disaster by making him play it as a single; additionally, since you know that he has that card in his hand, you avoid the risk of forcing your partner to play it.

All of that is true..but there’s one more factor at work here. Your opponent called Grand Tichu!

Different people have different rules about when they feel a Grand Tichu call is justified, but it’s generally safe to assume – particularly after the pass – that his hand contains as least one ace. In this case, he’s likely to play the low card you passed, then end up winning the trick with the ace (and that is, in fact, what happened).

On the other hand, suppose you wish for the ace! It was going to get played anyway, but this time he doesn’t get a chance to play the low card, and again you don’t have to worry about hitting your partner (since it’s very unlikely that your opponent would have called Grand Tichu without an ace in his hand, and his partner will be passing his best card as well). There’s also the possibility that he has all of the aces and will do something dumb like playing an ace bomb…which is exactly what happened the last time this situation occurred, when I did wish for an ace!

Now, suppose we’re in the more usual situation where nobody has called Tichu or Grand Tichu before the Mah-Jong is played. In this case, you usually do want to wish for what you passed, with a couple of exceptions. If this isn’t the first hand and your opponent already played what you passed him, you may want to refrain from making a wish to avoid the possibility of hitting your partner. More importantly, if you’ve called Tichu and then used the Mah-Jong in a straight, you should never make a wish. Why? It’s likely that you’re not the only person to have a straight, and your opponents will be playing over yours if they can anyway, but by making a wish you can force a straight out of your partner’s hand…and it really sucks to force your partner to screw up your Tichu call! If nobody has called Tichu (or better yet, if your opponent has) you can make the wish, but recognize that you do risk messing up your partner’s hand. Of course, the nice thing is when you suspect your opponent has a long straight, and you force him to play a smaller straight, leaving him with a bunch of singles…very useful!

The Mah-Jong can be a bit of a pain if you get stuck with it – the only way to get rid of it is to lead it, as either a single or part of a straight – but it played correctly, it can really mess up your opponent’s plans. Tichu!

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Tichu Strategy, Part I: Using the Dog

You could say I’m a fan of Tichu; after all, I have it listed as one of the best medium strategy games, I have over 50 face to face plays recorded on boardgamegeek, and I’ve played way to many games against the computer on my ipod. As with many games, however (and this is my biggest complaint when playing with the computer), it’s a lot more fun when everyone plays well! While there are certainly different styles of play (indeed, teams often work well with one more aggressive player and a second supporting player), I’d like to offer my thoughts on the best Tichu strategy. In this article, I’ll talk about using the Dog, from the perspectives of both a new player (what does it mean when I get it?) and the experienced player (what’s the optimum time to play it?).

Let’s start with the very basic, something that should be drilled into every new player’s head before he’s allowed to pick up the cards: you don’t take the lead away from your partner! Now, don’t take that too far: throwing out low singles and pairs is usually a good thing, and of course if you’ve called Tichu, you going out first trumps all other considerations. ┬áBut let’s take a look at a scenario I’ve seen way too many times:

Player A has called Tichu and is well on the way to emptying his hand. He plays a pair of jacks, first opponent passes…partner B plays a pair of aces to win the trick, then passes back the lead with the dog. A proceeds to play all but one of his cards, loses the lead and is never able to get it back, and loses 100 points.

What’s wrong with that scenario? First off, it was a total waste of the dog! If I’m trying to go out, the purpose of you having the dog is so that you can give the lead back to me if I lose it. In the scenario above, if B had stayed out of it and A had won the trick, then after he lost the lead later B could have won a trick and given it back so he could go out. Instead, B not only wasted the dog, he also wasted the pair of aces that he could have used to regain control of the trick, effectively flushing three of his most useful cards down the toilet.

Of course, generally both partners want to get rid of all of their cards – a successful 1-2 is a great thing. But in order to make that 1-2 successful, you need to be getting rid of your low cards, while using your high cards to take the lead away from your opponents, not wasting them stealing the lead from your partner!

Passing convention for the dog is pretty simple: if your partner passes you the dog, that means he has a good hand and is thinking about calling Tichu. If he does, it’s your job to support him. Of course, passing the dog to your partner can also mess up what could otherwise be a good Tichu hand (something I’ve been guilty of more than once) so you don’t want to do it unless you really are planning to call Tichu. If one of your opponents calls Tichu or Grand Tichu before the pass, of course, you want to hand it off to him so he’s forced to give up the lead.

Now for the big question: what’s the best time to play the dog? Many players (and the computer players in the ipod app) believe that you should play the dog as soon as possible when your partner has called Tichu; I disagree. Here’s my reasoning: as the game gets on, your hand generally gets weaker. You’re playing your high cards to take the lead so that you can get rid of your low cards. A smart opponent knows this; if he’s holding a bomb, rather than bomb me early on he’ll often wait (and hope I don’t have a long straight) until my hand is mostly empty, then take control and start playing only hands that require more cards than I have, shutting me out. By waiting while I attempt to run the board, you give me the security of being able to get down to my last card, pair, or baby set, knowing that if I get cut off at the end you can hand the lead back to me. On the other hand, if you use the dog early, I have to be more careful about preserving my high cards until I can get rid of my low cards, which gives our opponents a better chance of sneaking in and going out.

Of course, this depends partially on the strength of your hand: if your hand is sufficiently weak that you’re unlikely to be able to get the lead back, you might as well go ahead and play the dog now so you can help your partner; however, if you have a fairly strong hand (and especially if you have a bomb) I do believe it’s better to hold the dog for later.

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