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Vietnam, as they say, is a gambler’s paradise despite having strict gambling laws. Foreigners love the enthusiasm of locals when it comes to betting. It has become a local’s way of life to bet on almost anything that they can think of. Greyhound racing? They do bet on it. Cockfight betting is also one of the more common forms of gambling in the nation. Gambling is something that expats can do whilst visiting Vietnam in addition to the other beautiful sights that the place has to offer.
Living in Vietnam will teach expats and tourists that living a simple and carefree life is good for the soul. One of the pastimes of locals include playing card games and the one considered as Vietnam’s national card game is Tien Len or Tiến Lên, which translates to Go Forward – much like every local’s attitude at life.
What is Tien Len
Tien Len, or more commonly known as Viet Cong, VC or Thirteen by the Westerners, is a climbing game with a goal of discarding all cards immediately by defeating the combinations played by the opponents. The game involves four players and the use of a regular 52-card deck with no wild cards and jokers. Whilst the game is playable with only two or three players, having more than four players would require the use of an additional 52-card deck shuffled together.
Ideally, dealers deal the cards clockwise but players can do it counter-clockwise if they agree upon it in advance.
Ranking the Cards
The ranking of the cards is as follows:
Two (highest), Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three (lowest)
Aside from the card rank, players must also follow the order of suits with the Heart as the highest, followed by Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades as the lowest.
In the game, the Two of Hearts serve as the highest ranking card whilst the Three of Spades as the lowest. Do note that card rank is more superior to the suit, which means a Nine of Spades will beat Seven of Hearts.
Dealing the Cards
At the start of the game, players can decide who will become the first dealer. Subsequent games will automatically be the loser in each of the game. The dealer will give out 13 cards to each player. In case of fewer than four players, each player will still get 13 cards and the undealt cards will already leave the table and become unused. Players can also agree to give out 17 cards to each player, in case of only three players. Some games with only two players should only deal out 13 cards for each player so as not to spoil the hand.
In cases of more than four players, they can agree on using 13 cards each from the two decks or equally deal as many cards as possible to all the players.
How to Play Tien Len
At the start of the game, the player who has the Three of Spades will begin the play. If no player holds the Three of Spades, the one with the lowest card starts the game. They can choose to play the lowest card on its own or as part of a combination. For succeeding games, the winner of the last game automatically plays first and have the freedom to start with any combination they please.
When the first player is done with their turn, the next player must beat the previously played card using a higher combination or card. If they do not have any valid card to beat, they can choose to pass. There are instances that players will intentionally pass as part of their strategy. Players need to discard their cards face up at the middle of the table. The play continues around the table until someone deals a card or combination that no other player can beat. If this occurs, the previously played cards are removed from the table and the unbeaten player can choose to start the play again with any valid card or combination.
Once a player passes, they are automatically locked out of the play. The lockout is removed when a player makes an unbeaten move and restarts the play. For instance, in a game with three players, the player to the right plays a single five and the next player holds an Ace and decides to pass. The player to the left plays using a single nine, and the player to the right plays a Queen, which the passing player can beat with an Ace. However, since the player is locked out, he cannot beat the Queen. He may only validly play with the Ace if the third player passes and the player to the right plays a King.
The valid plays in Tien Len include:
- Single card with the Three of Spades as the lowest and the Two of Hearts as the highest
- Pairs – Two cards of the same rank such as Five of Spades and Five of Clubs
- Triple – Three cards of the same rank such as Queen of Hearts, Queen of Diamonds, and Queen of Spades
- Four of a Kind – Four cards of the same rank such as Ace of Spades, Ace of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds, and Ace of Clubs
- Sequence – Combination of three or more cards with consecutive ranks. Suits can mix and a sequence cannot turn the corner between two and three. This means is a sequence of Ace-Two-Three is invalid.
- Double Sequence – A combination of three or more pairs with consecutive ranks such as 4-4-5-5-6-6 or 10-10-Jack-Jack-Queen-Queen-King-King
Note that a higher combination can only beat cards of the same combination or same number of cards. If an opponent plays a single card, other players can only beat it with a high single card and not with a pair or triple.
Deciding which of the combination wins, look at the highest suit in the combination. A Six of Hearts and Six of Clubs is higher than Six of Diamonds and Six of Spades because the heart beats the diamond. The same rule applies to sequences. For example, Eight of Spades, Nine of Hearts, and Ten of Diamonds beats Eight of Hearts, Nine of Spades, and Ten of Clubs since the highest card number ten is used in comparison.
Special Rules in Playing Tien Len
The game has exceptions to the rule stating that a combination can beat a combination of the same type. This includes:
- A single two, since it is the highest card, can be beaten by a four of a kind. The four of a kind can only be beaten by a higher four of a kind.
- A sequence with three pairs can also beat a single two and a sequence of three pairs can only be beaten by a higher sequence of three pairs.
- A sequence of four pairs can beat a pair of two and this sequence can be beaten by a higher sequence of four pairs.
- A sequence of five pairs can beat a combination of three twos and the sequence can be beaten by a higher sequence of five pairs.
These special combinations are called bombs or two bombs. Players who previously passed can play these combinations.
Winning the Tien Len
The goal of the game is to discard all the cards in their hands. As the players run out of cards, they are automatically out of the game. The play ends when there is only one player with cards left in hand. This player is the loser and must pay each of the other players a stake. Whilst some may say that Tien Len is often played for leisure, it is also a hot spot for gambling and sometimes can have pretty high stakes. Serious players often pay $2,000 to each opponent that in a session, one player might easily win as much as $50,000 or more.