Tam Cúc Deck
The tam cúc deck has thirty-two cards consisting of seven suits in red (đỏ) or black (đen). Table 1 lists the suits, from highest-ranked to lowest, and the number of cards for each suit and color. Within the same suit, a red card outranks a black card. For example, a black tốt card is outranked by a red tốt card, which is outranked by a black mã card. The red tướng card is the highest-ranked card in the deck; a black tốt card is the lowest.
|Suit||Color = Red||Color = Black|
The game can be played with two to four players. For a game with three players, the deck must be reduced either to thirty cards by removing a red tốt card and a black tốt card, or to twenty-seven cards by removing the two tốt cards, the two tướng cards, and a red sĩ card. At the beginning of each round, the deck is shuffled and the cards dealt to the players, one card at a time, in counter-clockwise rotation.
Tam cúc is a trick-taking game, where the lead player (cái) may call for a single card (một), a pair of cards (đôi), or a meld of three cards (ba). A valid pair consists of two cards in the same suit and color. The ranking of pairs is the same as the ranking of individual cards shown in Table 1 above.
Table 2 below lists the valid three-card melds, from highest-ranked to lowest.
|tướng-sĩ-tượng đỏ||1 red tướng + 1 red sĩ + 1 red tượng|
|tướng-sĩ-tượng đen||1 black tướng + 1 black sĩ + 1 black tượng|
|xe-pháo-mã đỏ||1 red xe + 1 red pháo + 1 red mã|
|xe-pháo-mã đen||1 black xe + 1 black pháo + 1 black mã|
After all players have placed their card(s) for a trick face down in front of them, the cái’s bid is revealed first. Then, starting with the player on the cái’s right, the other players either reveal their card(s) to challenge the cái’s or put their card(s) into the discard pile (chui or “to go under”). The player with the highest-ranked card or meld wins the trick and takes the lead.
Scoring the Round
In the plain-trick version of tam cúc, the winner of the round is the player with the most tricks won or most prevailing cards. If several rounds are played (for example, to give every player a chance to start off a round as the cái), the score is tallied across all rounds.
If the last winning trick in a round is a pair of tốt (a move called kết đôi) or a xe-pháo-mã (a move called kết ba), the player is awarded bonus points for making the most out of lower-ranking cards.
Designating a Cái
There are several common practices in designating the first cái for the first round: The oldest among the players; the most experienced in playing the game; the player with the highest-ranked card drawn from the deck.
For subsequent rounds, the lead could be passed to the winner of the previous round or, conversely, the player with the lowest score. Or it could simply go to the player sitting to the right of the round’s first cái.