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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