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[P]
The Proper Way of Playing the Sheepshead

By Control Group in Culture
Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 07:18:21 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

It consistently amazes me how many differences there can be between one part of a country and another. Dialect is the obvious distinguishing factor, but there are countless others. For example, as a southeastern Wisconsinite, I can't comprehend how worked up many areas get about high school football. I also can't picture not having easy access to frozen custard. But most disturbing of all to me is how rare it is to find someone who has heard of Sheepshead.

If you know the game already, you can probably skip this whole article, since there likely won't be anything in it that's new to you. If you don't, though, allow me to introduce you to what is hands-down my favorite card game. I'll explain the deck, the mechanics and rules of play, and how to score the game. I won't get to tips and tactics, since this is just meant to be a foundation, but if interests seem piqued, I might get to tactics in another article.


I. OVERVIEW

The question, of course, is: "what makes Sheepshead different/better than any other card game?" Ignoring the purely subjective, the answer is that Sheepshead is the most skill-centric card game I have yet to encounter (by "card game," in this context, I'm referring only to games played with some portion of a standard 52-card deck). It rewards a good memory, attention to detail, and rapid analysis of possible outcomes. At a table of skilled players, each card played is both a tactic and a statement. Sometimes the information carried by a card is more important than what the card actually achieves, and sometimes what the card achieves has little to do with the points it takes or gives. It is a game in which there is almost always a right play and a wrong play; few choices are indifferent.

The next question is: "what kind of people play Sheepshead?" Almost anyone can play, of course, but the ones who (in my experience) take to the game most quickly are those with a logical, pragmatic, and/or analytical bent of mind. Virtually all the reasonably serious coders I know consider Sheepshead their favorite card game, for example. For many people, the game takes on an almost religious significance: the two arguments I want to insert myself into least are first, an argument between a husband and a wife, and second, an argument between the picker and the partner after they've just lost a 60-60 tie. The people who have the most trouble with the game are those who come into it focussed primarily on the social aspect, and only secondarily on the game. This is not to say that Sheepshead isn't a social event--it certainly is. I've been to any number of quite successful Sheepshead parties. Still, the game does require attention and thought; particularly for the novice player. Few things are more frustrating to a serious player than someone who plays poorly, and doesn't seem to care.

All that being said, bear in mind that the ultimate arbiter of why the game is good, or what parts of it are best is the individual playing it. Whether you're a programmer, a police officer, a teacher or an author, the game is certainly worth learning and trying.

II. THE DECK

New players generally have the most trouble with the makeup of the deck itself. Given a standard 52-card deck, start by discarding all the cards two through six. 32 cards are left, split among four suits: clubs, spades, hearts, and "trump". The trump suit comprises the four queens, the four jacks, and all the remaining diamonds. This concept is so critical it bears repeating: trump is a suit. Hence, the queen of clubs is not a club, it is a trump. Ditto the other queens and jacks; they're all trump, not whatever suit is on the card. All other cards (7, 8, 9, K, 10, A) of clubs, spades, and hearts, are collectively known as "fail", which simply means they're not trump.

Next comes the ranking of cards. In trump, queens beat jacks beat ace through seven (generally referred to as "the diamonds"). Queens are ranked by suit (in this case, the suit printed on the card) high to low: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. Ditto the jacks. So QC beats QD beats JS beats JH. Beneath the clubs are the diamonds, ranked high to low as follows: ace, ten, king, nine, eight, seven. Here, note that ace is high and the ten beats the king. Fail within a suit is ranked as the diamonds: A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7. Fail, however, are not ranked by suit; an ace of clubs is equivalent to an ace of hearts. And, as is implied by the word trump, any trump beats any fail.

Finally, each card has a point value. These, though, aren't anywhere near as convoluted as the ranking. Queens are worth 3 points each, jacks 2, aces 11, tens 10, kings 4, and everything else 0. (That's 120 points total, before you bother trying to add it up).

III. GAME MECHANICS

Basics first. If you've ever played a trick-taking card game before (Euchre, Hearts, or Spades, as examples), this will seem familiar. If you haven't, here's how it works: play proceeds clockwise around the table, starting to the left of the dealer. That person may "lead" with any card in his hand (with one exception I'll address later). Each subsequent player lays down one card in turn, following suit if possible. This means, if a spade is led, everyone else must play a spade if he has one. If not, any card may be played. Here, again, it is absolutely critical to remember that trump is a suit, and if led, must be followed as any other suit. By the same token, a jack of spades may not be played on a spade lead unless the player has no spades. After everyone has played, whoever played the highest card on the table takes the "trick", which simply means all the cards played this round. That person then has the lead for the next trick, and so forth until all cards have been played.

Determining the highest card on the table is trivial if trump was played: the highest trump takes the trick. If only fail have been played, however, note that only the led suit has rank. If a seven of spades is led, someone playing the ace of hearts will not take the trick. Only a higher spade or a trump can take that trick.

Sheepshead is ideally played with five people, though three- and four-player variants exist. For now, assume five players. Each receives six cards, with the two remaining cards dealt face down in the middle of the table, forming the "blind". The dealer is subject to a few mechanical rules: he must offer a cut, may not ever deal a single card to a player, and neither the first nor last card in the deck may go to the blind. Normally, I deal three to each player, two to the blind, then three to each player--this is by no means the "correct" way to deal, but it's simple to remember, difficult to get wrong, and meets all the requirements. The dealer must deal clockwise 'round the table. After each hand, the player to the left of that hand's dealer gets the deal.

During a typical hand, the five players are divided into two teams of two players and three, respectively. This is determined by who "picks" the blind after the deal. The option to pick is offered first to the player on the dealer's left, who evaluates the strength of her hand, and decides: the stronger the hand, the more likely she is to pick. If she passes, the blind will be offered to each person around the table in turn, coming finally to the dealer. There are various ways of dealing with the hand if no one picks, but assume for the time being someone picks up the blind.

That player now does two things: "bury", and call a partner. After examining her eight cards (including the blind), she must bury two cards (these may be the same two cards she picked up). Those two cards will later count towards her team's point total, but are out of play for the duration of the hand. She may also, at her option, call a partner. The gimmick is that no one except the partner gets to know who the partner is--including the picker!

To achieve this feat of misdirection, the picker calls a partner by announcing a fail suit. Whoever has the ace of that suit becomes the partner for the hand. The hitch? The picker must have a card of that suit in her hand (cards in her bury don't count). The second hitch is when that suit is first led, the partner must play the ace, even if he's got other cards of that suit. Similarly, the picker must play the card of that suit she kept. And, by "must," I mean must: the picker and the partner may not play those cards until the suit is led (or on the last trick, of course). This means that, even if the partner knows the picker will take the trick, he may not put the called ace on the trick.

Obviously, situations arise such that this system isn't applicable, and there are rules to cover them. First, if the picker has all three fail aces, she may call a 10. She is required to keep the ace of the called suit in her hand, and play it on the called suit trick, though the 10 will act as the high card in the suit. If she has all three aces and all three 10s, she may call a king. Of course, one would then wonder why she picked (having no trump). Slightly more complex is if the picker doesn't have all three fail aces, but does have the ace of every fail suit she has (counting all eight cards: hand and blind). In this case, the picker selects one card (it can be anything), places it face down on the table, calls a suit "unknown" (saying, for example, "spades unknown"), and play proceeds as normal. The facedown card must be played as though it were a six of the called suit. That is, it has no power, and counts as the called suit. It does retain its point value.

Both these rules are designed to ensure two things: first, that the picker always has a fail of the called suit. Second, that the partner always has the highest fail in the called suit. The intent is to give the non-picking team at least one trick they have a good chance of taking.

One final gameplay rule: if no one picks the blind, one of three things can happen, depending on what rules you choose to play with. First, the hand can be declared a misdeal, and just re-dealt. Second, the hand can be declared a misdeal, and the next hand played for twice the normal stakes (see the next section). Third, the hand can be played out as a "leaster", wherein the goal is take as few points as possible. In this case, it's every player for himself. The dealer picks a trick, and whoever takes that trick also gets the cards in the blind added to his score. The lowest point total at the end of the hand wins, but only players who have taken at least one trick can win. If two players tie for lowest score, the hand is a wash ("two tie, all tie" is the operative phrase).

IV. SCORING

A single hand only takes a few minutes among reasonably experienced players. If you're planning on setting aside an evening for Sheepshead, you need a way to keep track of who's winning overall--this is particularly important if the loser(s) will owe the winner(s) money.

Sheepshead is scored as a zero-sum game: if one player gains a point, another player must lose one (this makes intuitive sense in terms of money changing hands). Hence, the easiest way to double-check your scoring is to make sure that every line of scores adds up to zero. Most basically, the four non-picking players each have one point at stake, and the picker has two. This both makes the math work out, and addresses the fact that the picker is the player with the most control over the hand. So, if the picking team wins, the picker gets two points and the partner one, while each opposing player loses one point. And vice-versa if the picking team loses.

This base rate is modified depending on the extent of the victory. As mentioned earlier there are 120 total points in a hand of Sheepshead, so the picker needs 61 points to win (ties go to the non-picking team). If a team doesn't win, however, they still want to make a reasonable showing: if they get fewer than 30 points (31 for the picker), stakes for the hand are doubled. For no discernible reason, this breakpoint is known as "Schneider", or, occasionally, "schnitz". If they can't manage Schneider, they must still arrange to take at least one trick, even if it contains no points: if a team gets no-tricked, the stakes for the hand are tripled.

So, a player loses one point for a loss, two points for a severe loss, and three points for a massive drubbing (for the picker, it's two, four, and six, of course).

There are two other little details about scoring. First, if the picker doesn't personally take a trick, then the picking team doesn't get to count the bury towards its total (but still needs 61 to win). If the picker doesn't take a trick and the picking team loses (which is normal, if the picker can't arrange to take a single trick), then only the picker loses points. The partner neither gains nor loses points for the hand, though the picker does get to count any points the partner took towards the team total (so could still get Schneider).

V. TWO VARIANTS

Though the game is far and away best with five players, if you find yourself falling short of that number one evening, don't despair! You can still play Sheepshead. Here's how.

Four players
There are three ways of playing four-handed, and each has its own problems. The first, "cutthroat", is fairly straightforward. Seven cards go to each player, four cards go to the blind. Play is the same, but the picker doesn't get a partner (which is fair, since she got a blind bigger than half her hand). Each non-picker has one point at stake, the picker has three. Schneider and no-tricking change these numbers as they do in five handed. The difficulty is that the four card blind makes picking much more a roll of the dice, and the lack of the partner dynamic detracts from the tactical interplay of the hand.

The second method is to discard the black sevens. Each player receives seven cards, the blind gets two, and the picker calls an ace. This is perhaps the closest simulation of five handed possible, but suffers three disadvantages. First, the picker will never call clubs or spades if she can avoid it: with one fewer card of that suit out, the called suit is much more likely to be trumped by the opposing team. Second, though I only have qualitative evidence, it seems that the picking team wins a disproportionate number of times under this approach. Third, the picker has no more at stake on the hand than anyone else: she will win or lose one point, just like her partner and her opponents. This also means that there's no incentive to pick, which tends to lead to more leasters. Schneider and no trickers affect scoring as in five handed.

The third and final method is to deal eight cards to each player, and do away with the blind. A pair of cards, either the black sevens or the black jacks, are partners every time. There are no rules regarding when any of those cards may or must be played (aside, of course, from the normal suit-following rule), so there is no guaranteed way to flush out the partners. If one player has both cards, the hand will either be a leaster, or that player goes alone, depending on the group with whom you play (normally, if black jacks are the partners, having both means you're going alone; if black sevens, it's a leaster). Either way, the player with both cards has a slight advantage insofar as she's the only person who knows she's alone or it's a leaster. In many ways, this is the best of the three variants. The only difficulty is that, given no blind and therefore no pick, it is the most unlike five handed. Still, as a personal preference, it's the way I prefer to play if only four people are around.

Three players
In three handed, ten cards are dealt to each player, and two to the blind. Obviously, the picker doesn't call a partner. Three handed can be an interesting game, since fail takes on a power it simply doesn't have in four and five handed. In a three handed game, a fail ace is likely to take a trick (with six fail to go around, odds are good that each player will have at least one); in four and five handed, fairly few fail aces take tricks. As with five handed, the picker has two points at stake, and the non-pickers one each. Schneider and no trickers affect the scoring as they do in five handed.

VI. WHERE TO LOOK FOR MORE; FINAL THOUGHTS

I've presented here the basic rules which will allow you to play the game. Tactics, techniques, and tips will be presented in the next installment, but if you're looking for more information and you want it now, you can try sheepshead.org as a decent resource. Can't find players, but want to see/play the game? Yahoo!'s (registration required) games section includes various flavors of Sheepshead. Play ranges from brilliant to atrocious, but it's all interesting to watch. If you've suddenly decided you love the game, and need to spend money on it, you can always visit the Sheepshead Store, where they'll be more than happy to relieve you of money in exchange for nifty Sheepshead knicknacks.

Even beyond the three- and four-player versions mentioned above, various people play under various different rulesets, with changes ranging from major (jack of diamonds is the partner, not a fail ace) to minor ("no face, no ace, no ten, no trump:" if you're dealt only fail sevens, eights, and nines, you get a pity point from everyone) to silly (taking a trick with the seven of diamonds is worth 42 points). What I've presented here, though, should be enough to be going on with. Learn it, play it, and evangelize it!

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Poll
Your familiarity with Sheepshead:
o Never heard of it 75%
o Sounds vaguely familiar 10%
o I've seen it played 3%
o Know it, but don't play it 1%
o Pretty good at it 6%
o Professional player 2%

Votes: 83
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Yahoo
o sheepshead .org
o Yahoo!
o Sheepshead Store
o Also by Control Group


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The Proper Way of Playing the Sheepshead | 77 comments (64 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
In the time of national crisis (1.90 / 10) (#10)
by United Fools on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 06:44:22 PM EST

How can you emphasize the regional differences in America? Don't you know we are the United States? You should stress the common values of Americans instead of some game specific to a small area. That's not good for the national health.
We are united, we are fools, and we are America!
Bah! (none / 0) (#58)
by kshea on Sun Jul 13, 2003 at 01:29:20 AM EST

You're just pissy because you're probably from Illinois. Damn FIB! ;-)

[ Parent ]
This makes me wonder... (3.80 / 21) (#11)
by Kasreyn on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 07:51:28 PM EST

if people are interested (as they seem to be) in an article about a card game with traditional cards, if they would be interested in something else...

It might revolt some who have an interest in maintaining a visible distance from stereotypical "geek" games and pursuits, but I have been considering writing an article on the rules and basic strategies of Magic: the Gathering. My credentials are my 9 years experience playing the game. =P

Would anyone be interested in seeing such an article? If you don't have time to reply, vote by rating this comment. If the moderation averages above 3, I'll consider it to be favored.


-Kasreyn


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Not really [NT] (1.00 / 1) (#12)
by Urthpaw on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 08:43:55 PM EST



[ Parent ]
I would really enjoy that. (nt) (1.00 / 1) (#14)
by gilrain on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 11:15:41 PM EST



[ Parent ]
Magic (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by RoubeLivro on Thu Jul 10, 2003 at 12:48:45 AM EST

I really love that game, but now I feel too old to play it.

I like the fun of making an unusual deck. I like the fun of opening a new pack of cards.

[ Parent ]

MtG isnt fun anymore.... (none / 0) (#20)
by Gornauth on Thu Jul 10, 2003 at 07:15:47 AM EST

...except when playing complete newbies who are about 15 years younger than oneself.

I only play with two rules: Min. 40 card deck and dont whine.

Didnt build my Plaque Rat deck (Plague Rats, Dark Ritual, Swamp) for nothing.

Too much nerfing, too many rule changes, too many cards and too many rules in general.


[ Parent ]

I don't wanna give you a 1... (5.00 / 2) (#25)
by 31: on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 12:25:55 AM EST

but add this to the average of your score like it was :)  I have a feeling that those who like the game know about it, and the rest of us a solid buildup of dislike.   (and i even played d&d... eep)

-Patrick
[ Parent ]
MtG was a fantastic game (4.66 / 3) (#33)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 11:06:49 AM EST

Right up until WotC destroyed it by releasing eighty bajillion cards a year. It was incredibly fun back in the day when a Wooly Mammoth was cool (Trample? WTF? You mean even if I block it, I take damage?!?), a Craw Wurm was cool, Serra Angels were Tha Bomb Drop (4/4? Flying? Doesn't tap to attack? You're joking, right?), and the Leviathan almost made me fall out of my chair (10/10 TRAMPLE?!?!?).

These days, every card has flanking or phasing or rage or flying or landwalk or first strike or banding or taps to do twelve damage and you draw three cards. It's just gotten stupid. I maintain what they should have done is just released one expansion a year, at GenCon...it would have been so much cooler.

I hate them for ruining a game I had so much fun with. In fact, I'm getting myself angry just thinking about it.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

I was thinking about writing on low limit poker... (none / 0) (#37)
by gte910h on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 01:10:27 PM EST

But I wonder if anyone would be interested in hearing about it. --Michael

[ Parent ]
Poker strategy would be good. (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by ethereal on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 01:24:40 PM EST

I'd write about Mao, except a) I can't remember many of the rules, and b) not telling you the rules is pretty much the point of the game :)

--

Stand up for your right to not believe: Americans United for Separation of Church and State
[ Parent ]

I thought you didn't like the latest sets? (none / 0) (#38)
by ethereal on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 01:21:01 PM EST

Would you still be qualified to comment on them? Morph strategy, for example.

--

Stand up for your right to not believe: Americans United for Separation of Church and State
[ Parent ]

Only if... (none / 0) (#59)
by Elkor on Sun Jul 13, 2003 at 02:45:52 PM EST

You write about strategies used for Common Decks. That way Generic Joe can go to a card shop, spend a couple of decks and have an enjoyable time.

Not only is it easier to explain, but I think people who have never played Magic before would be more interested/inclined to read/play if it were attainable by a broad base.

Regards,
Elkor


"I won't tell you how to love God if you don't tell me how to love myself."
-Margo Eve
[ Parent ]
Geek (none / 0) (#64)
by Krazor on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 03:30:56 PM EST

It might revolt some who have an interest in maintaining a visible distance from stereotypical "geek" games and pursuits

Ok, I know Kuro5hin isn't Slashdot, but we here are still pretty geeky in the scheme of things, right? If people feel repulsed from geek pursuits, why come to a "technology and culture" sight?

[ Parent ]
Sheepshead Bay (none / 0) (#13)
by CaptainSuperBoy on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 10:16:45 PM EST

Is a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Just thought you should know.

--
jimmysquid.com - I take pictures.
cardgame? (4.33 / 3) (#15)
by Suppafly on Wed Jul 09, 2003 at 11:43:43 PM EST

Oh good its a card game.. I thought this was going to be a follow up to that article on how to cook goathead that was on here a while back..
---
Playstation Sucks.
just the opposite (none / 0) (#66)
by Moebius on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 08:51:53 PM EST

Oh darn, it's a card game. I was hoping it would be a witty follow up to that article about cooking the goat's head...

[ Parent ]
Tarot (5.00 / 6) (#19)
by bob6 on Thu Jul 10, 2003 at 04:58:04 AM EST

By reading the rules, I found that sheepshead's a poor man's version of the 5 player variant of French Tarot. It bears a lot of similarities with sheepshead:
  • Trump is a separate suit, though trump has 21 cards whereas traditional suits only have 14
  • The dealer makes a blind, but 3 cards instead of 2
  • The challenger calls a partner by the means of the highest card of a suit (King)
  • It's a zero-sum game, counting's a bit complicated
However there are some noteworthy differences:
  • Number of cards (78 vs. 32), the game's a little longer
  • The challenger (the one who takes) is designated after bidding, bid determines a multiplicator for points
  • The challenger has no obligation with regard to the called suit, he may bury whatever he wants (exept for trumps and kings)
  • By playing the called suit, the owner of the King may play anything else, by doing so she may extend the suspense
  • Additional rules: there's a fool card, extra points for winning the last trick with the lowest trump card...
Thanks for the rules, I'll try it this week end. Btw you could add some strategy tricks for beginners and veteran card players.

Cheers.
Any links? (none / 0) (#31)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 11:01:25 AM EST

I've got a couple Tarot decks lying around, and would love to have something to do with them aside from fortune-telling. Any chance you could point me somewhere I could get a good explanation of the game? (Yes, I could probably google it, but the human search engine is far more effective if you can use it).

Bear in mind, though, that I don't speak or read French...

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Here it is (5.00 / 1) (#50)
by deggial on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 03:30:59 PM EST

http://www.pagat.com/tarot/frtarot.html
Note that the standard game is with 4 ppl. It is the hardest one : you're alone against 3 people. Many deals end up as misdeals... With 3 people it's easier, 1 against 2. Yet I prefer to play with 5 ppl, for the fun.

[ Parent ]
deggial's link seems okay (none / 0) (#60)
by bob6 on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 04:43:29 AM EST

However I'm not sure you can play with divination Tarot decks, iirc there are variants with different card counts; you must get a 78 card one. Maybe Amazon or Ebay send them online though you should be careful to avoid new age crap.

Cheers.
[ Parent ]
Interesting (none / 0) (#23)
by pyramid termite on Thu Jul 10, 2003 at 11:59:31 PM EST

I'd never heard of this game - back when I was a party animal the games of choice were Euchre, Spades, Hearts, or Shit On Your Neighbor.

I'll explain Shit On Your Neighbor quickly - it's just like Crazy Eights except that in addition to the wild eights, twos cause the next player to pick up two cards, fours cause the next player to pick up four cards, Jacks reverse the order of play, 10s cause the next player to be skipped and Jokers cause the next person to have to pick up ALL the deck. (There are many variants.) Hands continue until one player runs out of cards or all players run out of beer - the latter is often more likely.

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
You may know it as Uno (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by pin0cchio on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 10:23:46 AM EST

Where I come from, a card game much like what you called "SOYN" is called "Uno".
lj65
[ Parent ]
Sure (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 10:50:07 AM EST

But playing UNO requires a special deck bought at extra cost, whereas SOYN requires any one of the countless decks of cards that everyone seems to have lying around.

Also, UNO doesn't have any "pick up the whole deck" plays. ;)

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Not only that, but UNO lacks ... (5.00 / 1) (#40)
by pyramid termite on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 01:31:55 PM EST

... the memorable and plaintive cry, "You SHIT on me, damnit!"

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
Umm (4.00 / 2) (#24)
by makaera on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 12:25:36 AM EST

Maybe this isn't the best time, but outside Wisconsin (and several other snow and mosquito infested areas (like Minnesota)) nobody plays sheepshead, since it is possible to leave ones house during the daylight hours, so it is unnecessary to invent games with obscure and complicated rules. As a Michigander, I can assure that the game of Kings and Canadians is Euchre, which is the only game worth playing.

"Of course I'm tricking you", I said. "I'm playing white." -- bojo

Euchre and sheepshead (5.00 / 1) (#26)
by John Thompson on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 07:04:45 AM EST

Back in the summer of 1977 I was hospitalized in Kiev, USSR. My roomates were a couple of Canadians from Alberta travelling on a music exchange program. It was boring, so we decided to teach each other card games to pass the time. They taught me euchre, and I taught them sheeepshead. We had a grand time after that!

[ Parent ]
The problem with Euchre (none / 0) (#30)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 10:58:19 AM EST

Is that, in my experience at least, essentially every card played is an automatic pick. There's no real thought involved, since the correct card is blindingly obvious.

OTOH, I haven't played all that much Euchre, so I could be missing some subtleties. My total cumulative Euchre time is probably less than 24 hours.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

not sure what you mean (5.00 / 2) (#34)
by Hakamadare on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 11:15:24 AM EST

by an "automatic pick" - do you mean that there is never any hesitation about which card to play?  i wouldn't say that's necessarily so - there are occasions in which you have a weak trump that you don't want to risk early in the hand, so you'll let the other team win a trick so that they can't overtrump you later.  do you take a risk and rely on your partner to cover you?  do you take control of the hand early on, or do you let your partner play first and wait for the hand to be given to you later?  do you try to overpower your opponents at the beginning, or do you let them waste their winners early and try to win the later tricks?

also, among people who play a lot of Euchre, i've found that about 50% of the game consists of successfully cheating during bidding.  i know that's a big turnoff for some people, and it's a draw for others.

at any rate, my favorite strategic feature of Euchre is the order of trump (jack, same-color-jack, ace, king, queen, ten, nine), simply because a set of cards that are fairly weak on their own may become significantly stronger if the right trump is selected, and vice versa.

-steve
---
Schopenhauer is not featuring heavily on the "Review Hidden Comments" page at the moment. - Herring
[ Parent ]

That is what I meant (none / 0) (#35)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 11:37:49 AM EST

And, as I said, I could easily be missing out on subtleties that make the card choice less obvious than it always seems to me. I do like the changeable trump aspect of Euchre quite a bit: it adds a layer of play to the game that I appreciate. Still, I find Sheepshead to be a more mentally satisfying game.

But that's just as much personal preference as anything, I should think.

OTOH, the cheating during bidding aspect is something that I don't find enticing as you talk about it. We tend to play pretty loose-lipped games of Sheepshead, but it follows the unspoken rule that you never try to help your cause with table talk. Stuff slips out on occasion, but the group I play with does pretty well on the honor system.

Again, though, that's just me. I can certainly see how it could be an attraction to some, but it seems to me similar to poker, where the game skill doesn't lie in the cards, but in the meta-game, as it were. Which is a legitimate way to design a game, just not one which I'm particularly fond of.

Probably because I'm not very good at it. ;)

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Heh (5.00 / 2) (#56)
by pyramid termite on Sat Jul 12, 2003 at 01:29:57 PM EST

also, among people who play a lot of Euchre, i've found that about 50% of the game consists of successfully cheating during bidding.

"Um ... hmmm ... well ... pass." (looks at partner significantly.)

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
The thought in Euchre ... (none / 0) (#55)
by pyramid termite on Sat Jul 12, 2003 at 01:27:27 PM EST

... is based on when to pass, have the dealer pick up, and when to go alone. That can be a very difficult decision on some hands. Players who have a good feel for this will be sucessful. After the first couple of tricks, things do get automatic. It's not as deep a game as Hearts.

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
indeed (5.00 / 1) (#32)
by Hakamadare on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 11:01:47 AM EST

from reading this article, i get the impression that Sheepshead is sort of what you would get if you took Euchre and decided to make it as complicated as possible, in order to discourage conversation and drunkenness while playing, as well as creating a Bridge-like atmosphere among the players.

i don't tend to be fond of games in which tiny miscalculations can make the difference between defeat and victory, so i don't think this is for me, but i certainly have friends who might enjoy this game.

-steve
---
Schopenhauer is not featuring heavily on the "Review Hidden Comments" page at the moment. - Herring
[ Parent ]

Based on available evidence (none / 0) (#47)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 02:39:35 PM EST

I have to admit that if the intent of Sheepshead was to discourage drunkenness while playing, it has failed miserably.

It may discourage drunkenness while playing among newbies, I suppose....but that's probably made up for by all the experienced folks egging on the newbies' drinking in order to get more money out of them.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

This is too long (2.25 / 4) (#27)
by werty on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 10:17:02 AM EST

I have A.D.D and you are just taking the piss.

*blush* You caught me (3.00 / 1) (#41)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 01:54:24 PM EST

When I saw how long the article was getting, the "jack of diamonds" variant was the first thing to go, and it was entirely based upon personal bias. In my mind, "call an ace" is the superior and proper way to play, so when I decided to ditch game variants, jack of diamonds left the article.

In my own defense, however, it did get mentioned in passing at the end, and I am planning on including it in the followup article. But I admit to deliberately trying to encourage the way I prefer to play, and I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Well, it could be worse (none / 0) (#46)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 02:36:47 PM EST

You could have specified that I already had the ace and eight of hearts in my hand.

Grateful for small mercies, that's me. ;)

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Hit "post" too fast, sorry (5.00 / 3) (#42)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 02:02:02 PM EST

Anywho: in terms of JD, it always seems to me that it gives the picker an unfair edge, since now the partner is guaranteed to have a trump. Given that I essentially only play call an ace, I base this upon the damn near to 50-50 picker win/loss ratio we see in our Sheepshead nights.

OTOH, it could certainly be that people tend to pick up on iffier hands when playing JD, thereby effectively cancelling out the guaranteed trump advantage over the course of an evening. As far as I can tell, it all comes down to how you learned the game. Everyone I know who learned JD defends it unto death, ditto those who learned call an ace. Which is why I teach as many people the game as I can, in a cunning and subtle effort to undermine the JD crowd...*cackle*

Actually, I've been trying to track down who tends to play which, and it does seem to split by region to some extent. What I always find mind-boggling is playing with people from the far northern reaches of WI (by which I mean "upnort," if you're actually from WI), many of whom play the same game, call an ace, but with clubs as trump instead of diamonds.

That just weirds me out. Commies, all of them. ;)

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Fair enough (5.00 / 1) (#51)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 04:48:32 PM EST

They do seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, don't they?

I guess one's point of view depends on which way one looks at the game. Personally, I see the picker as having an inherent advantage, so introducing a trick that the picker cannot take is a Good Thing, to me. It introduces a layer of tactics on the part of the picker (how can I lead this such that the called suit doesn't get led back to me?), and on the the part of the other team (I could take this trick, but I don't have the called suit to lead, -OR- it's worth dropping the big queen on this, because I can lead back the called suit, which I have three of) which, in my mind, don't exist and don't have analogues in a JD game.

Which is a problem that using the KH as partner wouldn't address.

As far as picking the JD up in the blind: the times I've played JD, we've played such that if you either have or pick up the jack, you can "call up" to the next higher (or lower, depending on who's setting the rules) trump. Frankly, without that, JD becomes something I much more actively would dislike playing. I know too many people who are already overcautious about picking, adding the chance that they could be screwed by grabbing the jack would just disincent them to pick even more.

Either way, it is a matter of preference, and you've hit the nail on the head: if 60-70% win:loss for the picker is your goal, then absolutely JD is for you. If you'd prefer to see a more 50-50 split, then I'd argue for Ace. It's one of those things that everyone knows is completely personal and pretty trivial, but is endless fun to bicker about at high volume.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

The natural geek question--AI (none / 0) (#43)
by Fen on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 02:13:31 PM EST

How would a computer help a human? How about a computer by itself? Is there perfect play?
--Self.
That's an excellent question (5.00 / 2) (#45)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 02:33:01 PM EST

And one that I don't have a definitive answer to. I've been working on and off (more off than on) for a couple years now on a Sheepshead simulator, designed to generate statistics on play given rule variations, and designing the AI is (unsurprisingly) the hardest part.

Given the randomness inherent in any card game, I have to think that there isn't perfect play in the Go/Chess sense. In a more limited fashion, I intuitively think that there is perfect play on a per-situation basis, insofar as there is a single card you can play which maximizes your odds of winning based upon the knowledge you have regarding what's been played. This gets somewhat more complex when one factors in the different values of "win," but is still a determinable value. One of the goals of the simulator (assuming I ever finish it...or start it, even, since right now it's entirely in my head and on a few sheets of paper) is to determine what results one gets if every player always plays the best card possible. This, at least, is brute forceable, if need be.

The harder question is how a player decides whether or not to pick up the blind. All the players I know have their own heuristics as to when to pick (for example, I'll always pick on four trump, even if they're the four lowest), but I don't really have a good idea on how to approach the problem algorithmically. Just assigning points to cards and picking based on the hand's point total (potentially modified by where you're sitting at the table) is the easy way out, but then I've only shifted the problem to defining appropriate point assignments.

So, to answer your first question, a computer could easily help a humn during play, selecting the statistically best card at every point. It's less obvious to me how a computer could assist in deciding whether or not to pick...which is arguably more important than the actual play itself.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Precisely (5.00 / 2) (#52)
by Control Group on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 04:53:28 PM EST

The decisionn to pick is so subjective, it's hard to get a handle on how to even begin approaching the problem.

You have the advantage of disregarding the personal analysis if your goal is (like mine) a pure simulator designed to test the results of rule tweaks on the game, but if you're designing something a person or people can play against, you're stuck for it.

The other issue you mention, the composition of fail in the hand, is another difficult question to address. The naive "rank each card" approach is all well and good, but one vs. two vs. three suits in fail drastically changes the value of the associated trump. Toss in the importance of what chair you've got, and it just starts getting complex.

For added fun, should the computer consider its chances of winning a leaster when deciding to pick? How about whether it's a better gamble to pick now, and lose with Schneider, or play for double stakes next hand and potentially get destroyed?

My inability to design any sort of approach to this problem is the main reason my little project has made so little progress.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

perfect is perfect (none / 0) (#54)
by Fen on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 06:30:41 PM EST

Give exact randomness, it is still perfect to pick a coin that has a 1/3 chance to win over one with a 1/4 (even though of course an individual event can differ).
--Self.
[ Parent ]
Skat (5.00 / 1) (#53)
by kallisti on Fri Jul 11, 2003 at 05:34:42 PM EST

Interesting, I played a lot of Sheepshead and I'm from Southern Wisconsin as well. Maybe its a regional thing.

Have you ever tried Skat? It is similar in many ways to Sheepshead except it has about a dozen slight variations on the basic game. You bid on how many points you expect to get and then get to choose what version of the game to play. In aiddition, you can play Null games in which you try to not get any tricks.

My copy of Hoyle's Rules claimed Skat was the "most scientific" card game, I have no idea what that would even mean. It was a favorite of ours for many years, though.

Maybe. (1.50 / 4) (#57)
by Canar on Sat Jul 12, 2003 at 02:42:52 PM EST

But what with mis-spelled URLs and everything, the name "Skat" frightens me.

[ Parent ]
Some words about regionality (5.00 / 1) (#61)
by kashmere on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 08:08:55 AM EST

It struck me when I read the header of this article because here in a small rural spot of the Eastern part of Austria we play a card game called "Schafschädeln" which translates almost one-to-one to "Sheepshead".  Though, there's a difference - the rules are not the same: It's played it with a 20-card deck, only two persons can participate and you win when you got rid of all of your cards by doing a lot of cheating.

Anyway, would be interesting to know if there's a link between these similar names - maybe migration played a part here.

-- Wolfgang

Five Hundred! (none / 0) (#62)
by funwithstuff on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 08:38:56 AM EST

Agreeing with some of the other posters, it sounds overly complicated and hard to score. Kind of amazed that nobody has mentioned 500, a Euchre variant, which was my game of choice during university lunchhours. Quick summary: four players in two pairs, whist-based with bidding, trump suit ordered Joker, Jack, Jack-of-same-colour, Ace, King, Queen, 10 and down. No black fours, no twos or threes at all. Extended decks available for six players.

Much easier than Bridge, which my parents were addicted to, but longer hands than Euchre (10 cards). Give it a go.

Clarifications (5.00 / 2) (#65)
by unDees on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 06:54:48 PM EST

Sounds like a fun game. Now, if I could just find five people who aren't frightened of new things.... But I've got a couple of questions:
  1. How can the picker call a fail ace if all she's got is trump? I guess that's technically "having the ace of every fail suit in her hand," sort of, but I'd like to see it spelled out. If she's got nothing but trump, does the picker still call a suit "unknown"?
  2. If the picking side loses, but the picker doesn't take any points (and therefore, her partner gets a zero for the round), how do you balance the zero-sum game? Does the picker lose three points to counter the opponents' gain of one point each?
  3. You say that the picker's partner has to play his called ace when someone leads the called suit. The justification is that this will usually give the defenders a trick. I'm assuming you're counting on the probability that, even if the picker and partner have only one card each of the called suit, the four remaining cards aren't distributed evenly among the opponents. How likely is it really that the same opponent is both out of the called suit and has a trump?
Thanks in advance for your answers....

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hehe (none / 0) (#67)
by Fuzzwah on Mon Jul 14, 2003 at 11:16:32 PM EST

You either only need 4 other people or a few quick and simple maths lessons.

--
The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris
[ Parent ]

Nah, I like to watch. (n/t) (none / 0) (#69)
by unDees on Tue Jul 15, 2003 at 02:36:00 PM EST



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[ Parent ]
Answers (better late than never) (5.00 / 2) (#68)
by Control Group on Tue Jul 15, 2003 at 09:09:02 AM EST

  1. Yes: if the picker has all trump, she calls an unknown. Basically, any situation where the picker doesn't have all the fail aces but can't call one the normal way, she calls an unknown.
  2. Yes: the picker loses three points, one to each opponent (or two each, or three each, depending on how bad a loss it was).
  3. Herein lies the most fundamental question of tactics in the game: the non-picking team wants to get the called suit led as early as possible, to maximize chances of taking the trick. Conversely, the picker/partner want to lead trump as much as possible, so that when the called suit is led, there aren't any left to take the trick. As far as likelihood goes: if the picker has five trump (a fairly common number), there are nine other trump split amongst the four remaining people. If trump gets led three times, odds become fairly good that the called suit will "walk" (not get trumped). If the called suit gets played early, odds are good that everyone at the table still has trump, including anyone who doesn't happen to have the called suit. I haven't mathematically determined this, nor have I done extensive studies, but my experience is that if the called suit is led in the first three tricks, the non-picking team will take the trick approximately two times out of three.
Happy to be of service.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]
Thanks, and one more (none / 0) (#70)
by unDees on Tue Jul 15, 2003 at 02:45:17 PM EST

Thanks for the answers. Your take on #3 in particular sheds a lot of light on the intricacies of gameplay. I can imagine that a cunning defender will try to figure out which suit the picker is avoiding, so he can dump that suit and hope to hang on to one last trump.

I've got one more question whose answer I couldn't find in the article or on sheepshead.org. When you said:

The second hitch is when that suit is first led, the partner must play the ace, even if he's got other cards of that suit. Similarly, the picker must play the card of that suit she kept....

So picker/partner can't play the called suit until it's led. But they themselves can be the ones to lead it, right (they don't have to wait for the defenders to lead it)? I could imagine that in a few limited endgame cases, it might be desirable for the picker or partner to lead the called suit if, as you say, it will definitely "walk."

Thanks again!

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[ Parent ]

Exactly correct (5.00 / 1) (#71)
by Control Group on Tue Jul 15, 2003 at 03:34:29 PM EST

The rule of thumb is that the picking team shouldn't lead the called suit. As with any rule of thumb, though, there are always exceptions. There are certainly times when it's the correct thing to do. For example, the picker has the lead, and is holding the called suit and a fail eight of a different suit. She knows all the trump is gone (like any good player, she's been counting cards). She isn't certain what the partner's other card is (aside from not being trump, of course). What's the right lead?

In this case, the called suit. She knows her partner has the ace (by definition), and that all trump is gone: her team will take the trick, and may or may not take the last trick. If, however, she leads the other card, the other team is likely to take the trick. If anything other than the called suit is then led back, the picker has lost both tricks. Of course, if the partner takes the trick, he will then lead the ace back, and the picker gets both tricks. However, in this case, she would still have gotten both tricks by leading the ace, because the partner would then have led his other card, which was the high card left in its suit.

So, to summarize, yes, it is occasionally beneficial to lead the called suit. The situation above is the most obvious, but there are certainly others which can happen much earlier in the hand. Bear in mind, however, that if the partner leads the called suit, he is required to lead the ace (the called ace must fall on the first called suit trick).

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Doublers..... (none / 0) (#72)
by Vermifax on Wed Jul 16, 2003 at 12:49:18 AM EST

lets say that everyone passes. So you decide the next hand will be a doubler. What happens if everyone passes again?
- Welcome to the Federation Starship SS Buttcrack.
Just what you'd expect: (none / 0) (#73)
by Control Group on Wed Jul 16, 2003 at 10:23:14 AM EST

It doubles again. Theoretically, this could go on indefinitely. In practice, in my experience, it never goes more than the third hand before someone figures they have a good enough hand to take advantage of the higher stakes.

This is one reason to play leasters, though; I've certainly played with people who only played leasters for this reason.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

Sheepshead -- Schafkopf (none / 0) (#74)
by orsino on Fri Jul 18, 2003 at 05:16:14 AM EST

A game named "Schafkopf" (translates to Sheepshead from German) is the traditional (and probably most popular) card game played in Bavaria (Land [state] in southern Germany; famous for Beer, Oktoberfest, Munich and the original model for Disney's sleeping beauty castle). We used to play it all the time during breaks when I went to school there. I didn't research the origins of Schafkopf but it is deeply rooted in southern German tradition. It seems quite likely to me that the game was brought to the US by Bavarian settlers. The game of "Skat", which is played in the middle and northern part of Germany, is also related, but not as closely.

The Bavarian version of the game is quite similar to what is described above, although not identical. For one thing there is a special deck of cards, called the "Bavarian Leaf" (Bayerisches Blatt), with different motives -- Acorn, Leaf, Heart and Bells instead of Diamond, Spades, Heart and Clubs and "Over" and "Under" instead of Dame and Jack. Also it is virtually always played with 4 players and 8 cards to each player and there are some other rule variations and a whole lot of different gameplay options.

The game (in any variant I guess) requires lots of skill and practice to play really well. I have neither and consequently usually get my butt kicked, it's still great fun though.

Skat... (none / 0) (#77)
by Euphoria 5L on Thu Jul 24, 2003 at 10:08:45 PM EST

But is it as complex as Skat? Some Germans were trying to teach it to me and some friends in a hostel up on the Baltic sea (in the town of Stralsund), but we never caught on. My closest German friends didn't really understand it much either, though.

PS: I like Bayern. Nice place.

[ Parent ]

regional differences indeed! (none / 0) (#75)
by massivefubar on Fri Jul 18, 2003 at 08:39:33 PM EST

I clicked on the article expecting tips on playing and tiring out Sheepshead -- a very aggressive fish found in Gulf Coast waters that puts up a very big fight when you catch it. A lot of people catch and release them because they are bony cooking, but I find them quite tasty. I had never heard the term used for a card game. Interesting.

Wow (none / 0) (#76)
by Control Group on Tue Jul 22, 2003 at 10:29:54 AM EST

Sorry to be misleading, then...yet another use of what I would have thought to be a fairly obscure word.

If I fished, maybe I'd do an article on that sense of the word next.

***
"Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon."
[ Parent ]

The Proper Way of Playing the Sheepshead | 77 comments (64 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
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