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Zheng Shangyou


Zhēng Shàngyóu is a Chinese card game whose name can be roughly translated as Struggling Upstream. For some Chinese people this name is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution - it said to be a literary quotation referring to the perseverence of a fish swimming against the current in the early spring. Will Tomlinson has pointed out that this is the topic of the "Trilogy of a Fish" by the poet Shi Zhi (Guo Lusheng), born 1948. The game exists in several variations, and has various alternative names. According to Zhang Shutai, the most interesting version is the partnership game for six players, also known as Sān jiā xĭ (三家喜 - family of three) or Huŏjiàn (火箭 - rocket). For simplicity, however, the first version described here is the individual game. This is a skilful and light-hearted card game for four or more players, probably best with 5 or 6.

In the form set out here Zheng Shangyou was brought to the UK by John McLeod, who learned it during a visit to China by some British Go players in 1979 from our interpreter Zhang Chuansheng. In Britain we gave it the name Pits, which is easier for us to pronounce, and refers to the predicament of the losing players, who find themselves in a pit from which it is hard to escape.

It is closely related to several other games - the Japanese Dai Hin Min (or Dai Fugo), Vietnamese Tien Len, Chinese Big Two and the Western derivative President. I have classified this group as climbing games.

Equipment and Objective

Zheng Shangyou uses a 54-card pack consisting of the standard 52 cards as for bridge or poker, with the addition of two distinguishable jokers, referred to here as Red and Black. The object of each hand is to be the first to play out all one's cards and thereby gain 2 points, or second and gain 1, towards a rubber-winning total of (usually) 11.

The Deal

The initial dealer is chosen at random. The cards are dealt to the players singly, anticlockwise, starting with the dealer. Depending on the number of players, some may have more cards than others - this does not matter.

The Chinese method of dealing is as follows. The dealer shuffles the cards, places the cards face down in the centre of the table and helps herself to the top one, followed by the player to her right, and so on. The players take single cards in counter-clockwise rotation until the pack is exhausted. Western players may prefer to have the dealer distribute all the cards as in most Western card games - this will not affect the rest of the game.

The Play

The dealer begins by leading any playable combination.

The opportunity to play proceeds anti-clockwise, and at each turn a player chooses to pass or to play. A player who has passed is not debarred from playing if the chance comes round again. After the lead, all plays must:

Play continues until all but one of the players pass in turn, whereupon all the played cards are gathered up and put aside. Whoever played last (and therefore highest) starts again by leading any playable combination.

By this means, the players will eventually run out of cards. The first player to do so wins the hand, the second comes second, and so on. The hand is played to the bitter end, until only one player has cards left, for reasons explained below.

If the player due to lead has no cards, the turn to lead passes to the right.

Playable combinations

There are four types of playable combination, as follows:

(i) Single card
The rank from low to high is 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A, 2, black joker, red joker. Suit is irrelevant.
(ii) Set of 2 or more cards of the same rank
These rank in the same way as single cards, suit being irrelevant. Twos or jokers can be used as wild cards to stand for any lower card. A set containing wild cards is beaten by an equal ranked 'pure' set.
(iii) Single sequence of three or more cards of consecutive rank
The rank from low to high is 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A. Twos cannot be used in single sequences - neither as wild cards, nor as natural cards in their own right. Jokers can be used as wild cards to stand for any card from three to ace. Any single suited sequence is better than any mixed suited sequence of the same length.
When comparing two mixed suited sequences, the one containing higher ranking cards is better. Between equal ranking mixed suited sequences a 'pure' sequence beats an 'impure' sequence containing one or more jokers.
In the same way a higher single suited sequence beats a lower one, and if the ranks are equal a 'pure' sequence beats an 'impure' one.
(iv) Multiple sequence
This consists of equal numbers of cards (two or more) of each of three or more consecutive ranks (such as 9-9-10-10-J-J). The cards rank as for single sequences with 3 low and Ace high. Suit is irrelevant. Jokers can be used as wild cards to stand for any other card. Twos can also be used as wild cards, with the limitation that you cannot use twos to stand for all the cards of a particular rank - at least one card of each rank must be natural or a joker. A multiple sequence can only be beaten by a better multiple sequence containing the same number of ranks and the same number of cards of each rank. A multiple sequence containing higher ranks is better than a lower one, and if the ranks are equal, a 'natural' multiple sequence beats one with wild cards.

Examples of sets

Examples of single sequences

Examples of multiple sequences


If there are only four players, the player who was third is also second to last, so that player both deals next and has to give up a card.

If there are six players, the player who comes fourth gets no score and suffers no penalty.

Second and subsequent deals

Immediately the cards have been shuffled and distributed, the players who came last and next-to-last must each throw their highest-ranking card face-up on the table. If they have several equal highest cards they can choose which to throw. The player who came first takes whichever of these she prefers and adds it to her hand, leaving the other for the runner-up. These top two players then each discard face-up an unwanted card of their choice; the next-to-last player of the previous hand chooses one of these and adds it to her hand, leaving the other unwanted card to the lower pit-dweller who must add it to her hand. Play then begins as before, with the dealer making the first lead.

Partnership Game

With 4 or 6 players it is usual to play as two teams. The six player partnership game is said to be the most interesting version of Zheng Shangyou, and the following description of it is based on information from Zhang Shutai. In Beijing this six player game is also called San jia xi (三家喜) which means something like "happy family of three". In Chengdu, in Sijuan province it is called Huojian (火箭) which means rocket.

There are two teams of three, each player sitting between two opponents. Before the cards are shuffled prior to the first deal a card is drawn from the pack and then replaced. Whoever draws this card in the first deal will start the first hand.

The rules of play are as usual, and the order in which the players run out of cards determines the scores for the teams. If the players who finish first and second are on opposite teams, the scores are as follows:

So for example if a team takes 2nd, 3rd and 5th place, they score 4 (2 for coming second and 2 for not coming last) and their opponents score 3 (for their first place).

If the first and second places are taken by members of the same team, the scoring is different, and depends on the position of the third member of that team:

In the second and subsequent hands the fifth and sixth players from the previous hand must give up their highest cards to the first and second players (the first player has first choice), and these players give any unwanted card in exchange (fifth player has first choice). In fact if you are first or second and your partner is fifth, you might well choose to return a good card to help your partner.

In the second and subsequent hands the play is started by the player who finished fifth in the previous hand.

The object of the game is to reach a score of 50 points or more, and the first team to do so are the winners. If both teams reach 50 on the same deal the team with the higher score wins. If it is a tie another hand is played.

Four players with partnerships

Four people can also play a partnership game, with partners sitting opposite. The rules of play and scoring are exactly as in the individual game, but partners combine their scores. If you are first or second, and your partner is third, you may choose to throw away a high card - maybe a wild card - to help your partner, who gets first choice of the discards.


Some allow twos as valid natural cards in sequences, so for example K-A-2 would be a valid single suited sequence, beating Q-K-A.

Hints on play

The appeal of the game, particularly for pit-dwellers, is to discover how skilful play and some luck with the cards dealt can enable one to 'struggle upstream' and end up on top. One should try to keep plans flexible, and be ready to re-assess the hand according to the play of others.

The most urgent priority is to get rid of your low cards. The only way you can ever play an isolated 3 is by leading it, so if you are fortunate enough to have the lead, take advantage of it to get rid of such a card. The same applies to low combinations, such as 3-4-5-6. If your hand contained 3-3-4-5-6, you might lead the 3-4-5-6 in the hope that no one else had a sequence of 4, and then follow up with your 3.

Do not lead high cards, unless you can see a safe way to get rid of all your cards by doing so. High cards are best used for gaining the lead. Use the lead to get rid of low cards. With 4-4-7-2-2 as your last five cards, lead the 4-4, take back the lead with the 2-2, and then play the 7. Do not lead 4-4-2-2 as a set of four fours; if someone has four sixes, you will probably left holding your 7 after everyone else has finished.

If you have a group of cards like 3-4-5-5-6-7 it will often be best to play this as two sequences: 3-4-5 and 5-6-7, especially if one of them is single suited. If you had the lead you might lead the five card sequence 3-4-5-6-7 if you were fairly sure no one could beat it (or if you were desperate), and if no one else plays a 5 card sequence you could then go out by leading the 5. It will almost never be right to play the two fives as a pair. That would leave you with four low cards (3, 4, 6, 7) which can only be played singly.

It is unwise to store up a rock-crushing 9-card sequence while repeatedly passing, if one has no 'entry' to the lead with a probable winner (e.g. Joker or Q-K-A sequence). Consider splitting it into shorter sequences - for example you might take the lead with the upper four cards and then play the lower five.

Try to avoid being trapped with too few cards to follow a lead late in the hand (or conversely exploit this problem in someone else's hand!). Don't be surprised if derisive fingers are pointed when you're left with 3s at the end!

Some attention to what cards are out, particularly wild cards, will obviously help to ensure the success of one's winning strategy.

Tabletop games: Rules and Strategy