The game of Mao

When I was in High School, we nerds used to play a game called Mao (rhymes with Cow). My question is: where did it come from? Has anyone else (far from Louisville) ever played it?

The game played like Uno, with a couple decks of ordinary cards. Many cards made you do things (like you’d say “Have a nice day” when you played a 7, or skip a person’s turn when you played an ace.)

The catch was, you could never tell anyone else the rules of the game, and you couldn’t watch without playing. So new players would have to figure out the rules as they went along, and whenever they messed up a rule, they had to draw a card. So the first time you play, you end up with a hand of 50 or 60 cards. There was usually a “Delay of game” penalty, where if you sit there and don’t know what to do for 5 seconds or so, you have to draw a card.

The more sensitive left in the middle of their first game, and never played again. It was kind of a hazing thing. You got good by memorizing well, thinking quick under pressure, and not giving up when you lost your first couple of games horribly.

I’ve never heard any mention of this game in Hoyle or anything similar. So is it just a Louisville high school thing, or is it more widespread?


I’ve seen this game played in western NY. They call it Mao Mao here (I assume that’s how it’s spelled anyway). The idea that you can’t tell anyone the rules until they start playing apparently isn’t as fixed here; I’ve had people willing to tell me how to play before I did so.

That’s why Western Yonkers are weak! :slight_smile:


The way we played it, Mao didn’t have many specific rules. The basics of play were set-- what order to go in, when to play a card, etc-- but everything else was made up as you went along. This was really just a way to have fun at someone else’s expense, while pretending to teach that person the rules.

Bill: “Sorry Steve, you shouldn’t have put down your seven. Now you have to play the rest of the game standing on the table, balancing on one foot.”
Steve: “No way! Ed played a seven just five minutes ago.”
Bill: “It’s different because, um, yours was the second prime number played after the one-eyed Jack. Now get up there.”
Ed: “Yeah, and for arguing with a rule, you have to sing I’m A Little Teapot all the way through. And make sure you hit the high notes.”

It was a bit like Asshole (a.k.a. President), without the drinking. Or like Calvinball with cards.

Wow. Now I feel like we Louisvillans had it easy. Where did you play it?


P.S. What’s “Asshole”?

I swear that games sounds like the card game Kirk was creating in one episode of Star Trek!

I learned Mao in Pennsylvania. I was then involved in creating the game “Banshee Invaders” which was mostly the same as Mao, only with different (and often more obnoxious rules). (The main reason for the name change was to keep people from saying "Oh, Mao, I’ve played this before and it’s really annoying). There were several rules that I was told were “mandatory” and then one could add other rules as one liked. Don’t ask me what the mandatory rules were, it has been too many years. Someone I played Banshee Invaders with recognized the similarities to Mao and quit cooperating. He also complained because we didn’t have a container of chocolate chip cookie dough for people to eat with they did things wrong.

quadell, Asshole is a card game that involves drinking. Or maybe a drinking game with cards, it’s hard to tell.

Before playing, the players draw one card each, to determine the initial seating order. The player with the highest card is the President, and sits at the head of the table. To his (or her) right is the holder of the next-highest card, called the Vice President. You continue seating people around the table, giving out assorted other titles, 'til you get to the lowest holder, who is termed the Asshole, and sits to the President’s left.

Everyone must possess a container of alcohol (usually beer). Players must drink for breaking a rule, such as touching anyone’s cards but their own. Also, a player may order any lower-ranked player to drink. This usually means that the Asshole spends a lot of time drinking. (Though while shuffling and dealing, the Asshole is temporarily considered one step above the President.)

Eventually, everyone gets really drunk and either falls asleep or gets into fights. Oh, and somewhere in there, a card game happens.

Actually, this also sounds a lot like the game “Dragon Poker” in Robert Asprin’s (sp?) Myth Adventures series.

The hero, Skeet, gets suckered into a game, and you hear things like . . .

“Full house”
“Yes, but you’re facing east this round, so the value of all spades are reversed.”
“Certainly, but you failed to take into account that we are currently in the waning phase of the moon and Aahz is wearing a blue shirt . . .”

And so on and so on.

Mao is and can be played as a valid game. The purpose of the game is for the players to figure out the rules of the game through trial and error.

As I learned it in NJ two years ago (I have no idea of its origin), the dealer is supposed to enter the game with a pre-determined set of rules (no fair making them up on the fly or changing them in mid course without a way to clue the players).

The dealer deals out however many cards they want to each player (usu. 7). The dealer takes no cards. The dealer says, “The rules of Mao are simple: The dealer is always right; there is no talking except when required; and there is no playing out of turn or delay of game.”

Now, as an example set of rules, the dealer has in their mind that these cards have the following effects:

King: say “All hail King Mao!”
Queen: say “All hail Queen Mao!”
Eight: say “Happy Birthday!”
Seven: skip a player
Four: reverse play
Two: say “Too hot, baby!”
Ace: say “Bite the bullet!”

The dealer holds the rest of the deck and plays the first card from the top of the deck. Then the player on the left goes, playing from their hand, and so on around the table. The first one to lay down all their cards, wins. (The dealer is not a player, but an arbiter.) Those who break a rule, get a penalty card from the dealer from the dealer’s deck.

Using the set of rules above, an example game with a dealer and three players may look like the following. Remember, the players don’t know the rules.

It’s a fun game.

For advanced players only:

  1. Increase the number of specialty cards a lot.

  2. Have the dealer deal herself a hand, but with twice as many cards. So, if the other players have 7 cards, the dealer has 14 cards. This means that if the players don’t go out in about 14 rounds of play, the dealer is going out first. This is nasty in that the dealer really wants to screw over the players so she wins.

  3. Make one of the cards a rule changer! I usually make Aces = say, “Chairman Mao, be evil!” This means that I, as dealer, get to change the rules of one of the cards. So, I may change the king from “All Hail King Mao!” into “Mao must die!”. This means that if someone says the old slogan, they get two penalty cards, "Talking [they said the wrong thing.] Failure to say, “Mao must die!” [the new slogan].



Moriah, yeah, that sounds about right. Except you left out the part about Player #3 getting fed up and storming off. :slight_smile:

I’ve played with some bizarre variants. Sometimes the chalenge is to realize you say “Luke, I am your father” only when you play a heart on a higher card, or that you say “Creamy filling” only when playing an even spade. Or the card played after an odd spade. Others require changing places with other players, etc.

One thing all versions had in common, was that if you said “Mao” during a mao game ever, you had some horrendous penalty like drawing 10 cards or losing immediately.

So we have an awareness of the game in KY, NY, NJ, Pennsylvania, and where ever AuraSeer is from. Any other locations?

Your Quadell

Sure. There’s Midwesterners who are aware of Mao. I learned it a few years ago from some fellow students at the University of Kansas. I don’t know where they learned it from, but it’s out here. Sure was funny to watch one guy freak out every time he was given cards for breaking a rule he didn’t know, especially for “failure to name correct Beatles band member”. That game’s a good barometer for whether or not you take things too seriously.

Etwas was ist wunderbar ist ein’ Kuh mit Pferdehaar.
Und haette sie kein Pferdehaar, dann ist sie nicht wunderbar.

Quadell, did you go to GSP? (That’s the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program, to the uninitiated.) I went in '93 and worked there in '96, and both times the game was popular. I think that’s how it spread into the realm of Kentucky nerd-dom.

From what I can tell, each year at GSP and at each campus (there are two) they have a pretty standard set of rules. I’d say anyone in KY playing Mao could trace their rules back to a certain year and campus at GSP.

Doctor J (“Failure to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance”)

FTR, quadell, I’m from Long Island, NY.

FTR, quadell, I’m from Long Island, NY.

phouka, the difference between Mao and Dragon Poker is that for Mao, you make up a different set of rules every time you play. Dragon Poker has a rulebook that is always constant. Not all the conditional modifiers come into play in every game-- that’s why they’re called conditional-- but they’re always there, and your opponent can’t make up new ones just to have fun with you.

OK, here’s the version of Asshole I have always played. All of the above rules are correct, but to subliment that are the following rules of the actual cardgame, complete with usual drinking moments (all rules, except actual cardplay, are ultimately optional, but most major drinking rules are fairly standard)

Players sit in increasing order clockwise (VP sits to presidents left, on down) Asshole is thus to the Presidents right. Asshole always deals cards in reverse (counterclockwise) order so President gets least amount of cards. After the deal a “swapping” round occurs, where the asshole must give the president his 2 highest cards (dueces are specials, and thus highest, followed by aces, Kings, and on down) and the Prez gives the asshole any 2 cards. They can be the lowest, though the prez may give any cards he feels appropriate. Vice President and Vice Asshole exchange 1 card in a similar fashion. (big multi-deck games may alter this as appropriate. For instance, the Prez and asshole swap 3, the vice pres and vice asshole swap 2, and the secretary of state and junior paeon swap one. These sorts of things only take place with lots (10+) players)

Now for actual cardplay: The card order is as follows: Aces through threes singles, followed by aces through threes doubles, followed by triples, etc. etc. (games with more than 6 players are multi-deck afairs, meaning many multiples are possible). The president begins play by laying down a card or multiple cards. The multiple cards must match (i.e. 2 fives). The next player in line must lay down cards ranked higher than those played (i.e. if the president lays down a 4, next player can only play 5 and up, if the pres lays down double 6s, the next play must be double 7s and up). If they lay down cards of the exact same rank, (for instance, follow double 4s with another double 4s) the next person in line is skipped. 2s are special cards, anyone who plays a 2 “clears” the deck and starts a new play. The Asshole is always in charge of actually removing the cards. If an ace is played, the next possible play is double 3s (or if 2 aces, triple threes, you get the idea). If a player does not have a valid play (there is a 10 showing, and she/he has no face cards or doubles) then they are skipped and the next person can play. If the entire table is skipped, the table is cleared, and whoever made the last play starts again. First player to go out (play all of their cards) is next president, last to go out is next asshole, with appropriate ranks for order of exit.

Now, here are the standard drinking rules: (note, drink means a single sip, finish the drink means knock off the whole pint and refill it)

  1. During the deal, no one may touch their cards except the Asshole. After completion of deal, no one may touch their cards until the president does. Penalty for non-compliance is usually that the offender becomes the next Asshole regardless of game outcome, but may be as simple as taking a drink.

  2. Anytime someone can not play a card on their turn must drink. This can be because they have no valid cards to play, choose not to (there is no rule that says you have to play a card) or is skipped by a repeat.

  3. Anyone who touches the pile must drink. Only the asshole is allowed to touch the pile, and only when a clear has occured. If the Asshole fails to clear before someone announces “Clear” then the asshole must drink.

  4. Anytime four of a kind is showing in consecutive order, for any reason, a “social” is declared. Everyone shouts “social” and finishes their drink.

  5. This rule is almost always standard, but I’ve played where its not. No one can go out on a “2”. Anyone who does automatically becomes the next Asshole (even if they were supposed to be pres).

Optional Drinking Rules: Many of these rules are played with, but must be invoked. Some are universals, others can be made by the president. Ultimately, the president can make any rule they feel like that does not alter cardplay. No one else can make rules, but anyone can force anyone of a lower rank to do anything they wish. A good president will keep this under control, however. This is a list of the most common optional rules:

  1. Thumbs. President may announce “Thumbs” From that point forward, until the president loses his seat, anytime he places his thumb on the table, everyone else must do likewise. Last to comply must finish their drink.

  2. Anyone except the president who commands anyone else to drink must share the drink with them. Thus, you may make the asshole drink, but you must drink too. Another variant on this is is that the lower ranked player gets to decide when to stop drinking. This rule applies to reminders as well as commands (saying “hey, you were skipped and didn’t take a sip” means you share the drink too)

  3. Know your rank. Before sitting down, each player must announce specificly the new rank they have acquired after a hand, starting with the new president. If you forget, congrats, your the new Asshole. This gets complex in big games, where you need to remember if the secretary of agriculture outranks the secretary of commerce.

  4. If there is a new asshole, he must finish the drinks of anyone he bypassed to get to asshole. Thus, if the Vice Asshole drops down he only needs finish his own. If the president drops to asshole (not unheard of) he must finish the entire table. Not a rule for the light hearted.

  5. Card specific rules: Nothing like “everyone must finish when a 4 is played” but can say things like: Must crow like a rooster when you play a 6. All queens must be played with the feet. Etc. Etc. Failure to comply results in a drink. These can get pretty wacky, the more complex the better, but remember, no one stays president for ever…

  6. Anything else the president thinks of.

One last note. Wizards of the Coasts marketed this game about 3 years ago (sans alcohol) under the name “The Great Dalmuti” Same exact rules. What sucks is now they get to make a profit off a game college students have been playing for decades.

I played Mao at many of the various “nerdcamps” (RSI, Chem Olympiad) I attended during high school and I was led to believe that this was the major source of distribution of this game. Other friends of mine played it at CTY and Governor’s school. The basic set of rules was basically the same from one variant to another. Within a few days of playing Mao, everyone had figured out all the pre-existing rules, so the first two people to get rid of all their cards got to make a new rule. You were told at the beginning that, like Crazy Eights, you must match suit or number. There was no extraneous talking allowed unless one called a “point of order”. If a “point of order” was called, everyone put their cards down and people could ask questions such as whose turn it was or which direction play was moving, but no questions about the rules were permitted at any time. Several of rules involved more than one card, but no rule could involve more than the 3 cards most recently played. Several of the rules involved saying things or doing things, and some involved giving out or taking cards. It was a fun game, but very frustrating while learning. The simple one-card rules could be figured out rather rapidly, but the ones involving three cards took some time. I remember a good many of the rules to this day, but a number of them are specific to the version that I learned. Since my discovery of the power of beer, I have abandoned Mao in favor of Asshole as it is much less complicated and generally more social.


Doctor J, that’s uncanny. Yes, I learned Mao at GSP.

And we used P of O’s also.

Your Quadell