This page is based on information from Justin Davidson.
Big Three (Da San) is played in Shaanxi province. It uses a 52-card pack without jokers and takes its name from the fact that the threes are the highest cards. It is also known as Dig a Hole (Wa Keng) – – the idea being that the bidder digs up the four undealt cards in the hope of finding buried treasure. There are usually three players, and in each hand one player plays against the other two, trying to be the first to play out all his cards in valid combinations.
Big Three is normally played by three people, each ultimately playing for themselves, though in each hand two players will be allied against the third. Play is counter-clockwise.
The cards rank from high to low: 3, 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4. The suits have no significance.
At the start of a session of play the cards are shuffled and each player player draws one card from the face down pack and shows it. Whoever drew the highest number card (aces counting as 1 and pictures as zero) will be the “dealer” for the first hand, but as in most Chinese games the cards are not really dealt, but taken from the deck by the players.
The “dealer” shuffles the cards, gives them to the player to his left to cut, and stacks them face down in the middle of the playing surface. The dealer then draws the top card from the deck, looking at it but not showing it to the other players. The player to his right does the same, then the third player, then the dealer and so on counter-clockwise around the table until each player has 16 cards. The last four cards are left face down on the table until after the auction. It saves time if you look at your cards and sort them as you pick them up.
Subsequently the winner of each hand (the player who first ran out of cards) “deals” the next hand, shuffling and taking the first card.
After the deal, there is then an auction to determine which player will play alone against the other two. The possible bids are 1, 2 and 3. The bidding is begun by the player holding the four of hearts, or the player holding lowest heart if the four of hearts is among the cards face down in the middle. This first player must bid at least 1. The bidding continues counter-clockwise, each player passing or bidding higher than the previous bidder, until two consecutive players pass or someone bids 3, which ends the auction since it is the highest possible bid. The final and highest bidder now picks up the four face-down cards from the middle, for a total of 20 cards. Although the bidder has a larger hand than the opponents, these extra cards may enable more combinations to be formed, which can helps the bidder to get rid of cards faster than the other players.
Irrespective of who won the bidding, the player who spoke first in the auction (having had the lowest heart at that time) also plays first. The possible plays are:
- any single card,
- any pair of equal cards,
- any triplet (three equal cards),
- any quad (all four cards of a rank),
- a run of three or more consecutive cards (such as 9-10-J or 5-6-7-8-9),
- a run of three or more consecutive pairs (such as 6-6-7-7-8-8-9-9),
- a run of three or more consecutive triplets,
- a run of three or more consecutive quads.
Aces, twos and threes cannot be used in runs (neither in single runs nor in runs of pairs, triplets or quads).
After the first player has played, each subsequent player in anticlockwise order must either pass (play no card) or beat the previous play by playing a higher combination of the same number of cards and same type. For example if the previous play was 6-7-8-9 you can play 7-8-9-10 or 10-J-Q-K to beat it. You cannot play 8-9-10-J-Q (too many cards), nor 6-7-8-9 (not high enough), nor J-J-J-J (wrong type of combination). This continues around the table for as many circuits as necessary. It is possible to play after passing, but if two consecutive players pass, the played cards are turned face down and put aside, and the person who played highest starts again by playing a new combination of any type.
Example: For example, player A (the bidder) leads a pair: 5-5, player B to his right, having no small pair, passes, and the other opponent (C) plays 9-9. The bidder beats this with K-K and now B beats this with 2-2. (B could have played the 2-2 directly on the 5-5, but this would have deprived his partner C of the chance to get rid of a small pair (9-9).) C and A both pass, so the played cards are set aside and it is B‘s turn. B plays a run 5-6-7 and C beats it with a high run J-Q-K. Since aces, twos and threes cannot be used in runs, this run is unbeatable, and A and B have to pass. Again the played cards are set aside and C can now play any legal card combination. For example C might now lead a single 4, to get rid of it.
The play continues until someone runs out of cards.
If the bidder runs out of cards first he has won, and each opponent pays him the amount of the bid: 1, 2 or 3 units. If one of the other two players runs out first, the bidder has lost and must pay the amount of the bid to each opponent.
Note that since the opponents of the bidder stand to win or lose equally, they form a temporary partnership. When playing against the bidder it is just as profitable to help your partner to run out of cards first as to win yourself. Because of this the partners will usually not beat each other’s cards, and the weaker partner will play to help the stronger partner.
There is a four-player version of Big Three. Each player takes 13 cards and there is no kitty. The highest bidder calls any specific card from 4 to 10 that is not in their hand – for example 8 of clubs – and the holder of that card becomes their partner, but this is not revealed until the card is played.
The play is the same as in the three-player game, except that now three consecutive passes are needed in order for the cards top be set aside and the player of the last and highest card combination to be able to restart with a new type of combination.
When someone runs out of cards, that player’s team wins. Each member of the losing team pays the bid amount, and each member of the winning team receives the bid amount.