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Playing the Mooncake Festival’s centuries-old dice game

Let’s take a quick pop quiz on statistics and probabilities. Given six dice, what is the probability of getting a 1-2-3-4-5-6 combination in one try? In the context of the Chinese, that particular six-dice combination is what is referred as Yitiao Long (pronounced "ee tiaw long"), or “a train” in the Chinese Mooncake/Mid-Autumn Festival Dice Game of Pua Tiong Chiu.

Long before we had game consoles, iPhones and iPads, pua tiong chiu—which literally means gambling the mid-autumn—was one of the most fun and entertaining games we played as kids during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Aside from the six, similar-looking dice, there are only two other required elements of the game: a good-sized porcelain bowl and exciting prizes.

The mechanics are easy to explain and the game can accommodate virtually an unlimited number of players. Each player gets one chance per round to throw the six dice into the bowl; prizes are determined by the resulting combination before the next player gets his/her turn. The bowl and dice  get passed around until all the prizes, and most importantly, the Zhuàng Yuán (chuang yen), the ultimate prize, are won.

The only other rule to follow is that a turn and its result are deemed invalid if one or more die gets thrown out of the bowl. With the simple mechanics out of the way, determining the winning combinations and its corresponding “level” of prize gets a little complicated.

Hierarchy of prizes

A six-dice combination with only one 4-face is called an Yi xiù (ee siu, Mandarin) or “a showing”; this is the minimum result that one must achieve in order to claim a prize. I remember that as kids, most of the things we got when we roll an it xiù (the term in Hookien) were either unsharpened pencils, wafer sticks or fancy candies.

The next level of winning combination is rolling two 4-faces (Er ju in Mandarin, Di ju in Hookien) followed by a combination of four pieces (Si jin) of any number except the 4. Next on the prize hierarchy is rolling a combination with three 4-faced dice called a San Hong (“three reds”), while two sets of triples except 4s (i.e. 1-1-1 or 6-6-6) corresponds to the same level of prize as the Yitiao Long.

Now, this is where things and the prizes get interesting. A roll with four 4-dots is a Si zi and already qualifies as Zhuàng Yuán; any other roll/turn would have to beat that winning combination in order to top the current “champion” and get the ultimate prize. It is also worth taking note of the two other numbers in the Si zi combination: for example, a 4-4-4-4-5-6 throw would beat a 4-4-4-4-2-5 combination.

Combinations higher than a Si zi are Wu zi (five pieces of 2-3-5-6 - 6th highest; five pieces of 1 dot - 5th highest; five pieces of 4 dots - 4th highest) and Liow zi (six pieces of 2-3-5-6 - 3rd highest; six pieces of 1’s - 2nd highest; and six pieces of 4’s - highest).

The Zhuàng Yuán (or Chiong Wan in Hookien) actually varies depending on the budget and number of people involved; in one year, the ultimate prize in our household game was a portable stereo component. At bigger institutions, cars, trips abroad and large amount of cash are known to be given away.

As with any dice game, there are some superstitions and rituals that every player believes in: blowing the dice before throwing, one or two-handed throws, or yelling "Chiong Wan!" are just some of the good-luck moves I have seen through the years. One thing certain: this once-in-a-year game is a ton of fun to play with friends and family.

So for this coming 2015 Mid-Autumn Festival on September 27 (the 15th day of the eight month in the Lunar Calendar), it will not just be the mooncakes in different flavors that will be grabbing the limelight but also the centuries-long dice game of pua tiong chiu as well. And in case you didn’t get the probability of getting a 1-2-3-4-5-6 combination in one throw, it’s one in 46,656. — BM, GMA News