Thursday, September 16, 2010

Schafkopf für Dummköpfe

The first few times I saw this card game being played, it seemed very mysterious. None of the people playing it were willing to reveal its secrets to me. There was a certain masonic air about it, clannishness, cliquishness, conspiratoriality (a word that I think I just made up). I guess as long as the game's enthusiasts could find four or five willing and able players, it was only natural that they had no interest in teaching it to a complete beginner. Plus, I think they enjoyed seeing me squirm with jealousy.

It wasn't until my last year at the seminary that I fell in among a group of guys who loved playing the game. They taught me their peculiar version of it. I'm sure there are thousands of variants of the game's rules. Originally played on German playing cards (which have hearts, acorns, leaves, and bells instead of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs, and Obers and Unters instead of Queens and Jacks), the game must undergo some degree of alteration just to be played with French-style cards like we use in the U.S.

So, as I said in my post on "Hand and Foot," please take the following rules of Schafkopf as, first of all, one opinion among many--my own opinion as to what rules represent the best that Schafkopf has to offer American game enthusiasts without needlessly overtaxing their intellects. And secondly, as was also the case in my four-volume treatise on Mah-Jongg, be advised that my rules are an amalgamation of several versions of Schafkopf. So although I have played this game extensively, what I am about to describe is only partly based on the rules my friends and I played by. My apologies in advance to anyone who thinks I messed this up. Please leave constructive comments.

All right, let's start with what the name of the game means. Conventional wisdom holds that the name Schafkopf (sometimes, improperly, Schafskopf) means "sheep's head." It's possible that even native German speakers interpret it that way, since Schaf is indeed German for sheep. But Wiki, among other sources, claims that the name was originally derived from the verb schaffen, "to work," suggesting a meaning like "Work the Head." I think there may be something to this. For Schafkopf really does put one's brain through its paces.

Perhaps this is why it was a favorite game among the most insufferably clever students at my alma mater (among whom I cheerfully number myself). One tended to think of it as a subject fraught with paradoxes, riddles, rituals, and symbols. We didn't teach the game to newcomers; we catechized them. We didn't debate the rules; we engaged in mystagogical casuistry. The gentleman who habitually kept score literally kept it: notebooks full of the minutes of our games that, as far as I know, he may still possess 10 years since. When a member of our circle was observed using a particular gambit time after time, we named it after him. When a particular game had an unexpected outcome, we discussed it long afterward. The sacred mysteries of Schafkopf were only revealed to an outsider upon the consensus of our circle. In a mildly facetious way, we acted somewhat like a gnostic cult. Was this because we were seminarians with too much time on our hands? Maybe. But at the time, I had the sense that the game had always been passed along that way. You could say it made for an interesting study of the transmission of oral tradition.

The first things we told a new proselyte about the game were intentionally paradoxical: (1) This is a game where four players pair off and play as partners... but you may have a different partner for each hand, and you only find out who your partner is as game-play proceeds. (2) It is a game that uses most of a standard deck of playing-cards, yet in a way there are only three suits of six cards each; everything else is wild. (3) It is a game where one is strictly required to "follow suit," yet it is important to remember that all Queens and Jacks regardless of suit are played as diamonds. (4) Though the point value of the cards is important for scoring (a total of 120 points per hand), scores are recorded in the form of pen-strokes that eventually form the sides of a few squares.

Now, while your mind is reeling from these strange concepts, you are given a memory-work assignment. First, memorize this sequence: ♣–♠–♥–♦. That's really important! Why? Because the top four most powerful cards are the Queens, and the next four after them are the Jacks. If you ever want to understand which Queen or Jack on a trick beats the others, you have to know the sequence ♣–♠–♥–♦, in order from strongest to weakest.

Second, learn by heart the following sequence: A-10-K-9-8-7. This is the descending order of strength of all the other cards below the Queens and Jacks. Also, Diamonds beat the other three suits because they are (almost always) trump. Clubs, Hearts, and Spades are just suits. As you play trick after trick, try to remember to follow suit. But at the same time expect to be trumped; for there are only 6 cards in each "off-suit," and with 4 players chances are good that someone will trump your ace.

Take a moment now to let these preliminary ideas sink in for a bit. Good. Now perhaps you're ready for...

1. WHO YOU NEED: Four players. If you only have three players, endeavor to find a fourth by whatever means are necessary. If you have five, six, or even seven players, you will have to take turns "sitting out" a hand--which could make the game last a good deal longer. Once you get to eight players... *head smack* ...start a second game!

2. WHAT YOU NEED: One standard poker deck, minus the Jokers and all numbered cards from 2 to 6. As in most games, players take turns shuffling and dealing. It is also customary for the dealer to offer the player to his right the option of cutting the deck. Also, somebody should have a notepad and pencil for keeping score.

3. WHAT HAPPENS FIRST: The dealer divides the cards between the 4 players. Each player should get exactly 8 cards. Now, before beginning to play, pause a moment to give each player an opportunity to make a bid, starting with the player on the dealer's left and going around the table clockwise. If it's your turn to bid and you don't have at least one black queen in your hand, the wisest bid is "Pass." If you do have a black queen, you may simply start the first trick by laying down any card. A common opening gambit is to lay down the black queen, but this isn't required. Everyone at the table will immediately understand that you have one of the two most powerful cards. At this point, only one person knows who your partner is--namely, the person holding the other black queen. The rest of you may deduce his identity from the cards he throws, but since table talk is bad form, his only way of openly declaring himself is to play his black queen. And that might not happen until the last trick!

This isn't the only way things can go, however. Instead of playing the opening card, a player holding a black queen might also say "Pass" and yield the lead to his partner. If all four players say "Pass," the dealer must shuffle the deck and re-deal. This could happen, for instance, if the holders of the black queen have otherwise weak hands.

A third possibility is that a single player holds both black queens. In such an event, the offensive player can put out a "call" for the ace of any suit besides diamonds--provided he has at least one card of that suit, but not the ace. Whichever player does have that ace will be his partner, but is not to announce himself in any way or play the ace unless: (1) a card of that suit leads the trick, or (2) it is the last trick. Other than that, the hand is played just like in "standard mode."

A fourth possibility is that any player might declare a "solo" hand. There are numerous possible varieties of these, most of them pitting one player on offense against three on defense. Here are several such varieties that I think could inject some spicy variables into the standard "Surprise! You're My Partner" mode of the game. The title of each variant below (in quotes) is what I suggest the offensive player say when he declares his bid.
  • "Solo": Just like a standard hand of Schafkopf, except three players are defending against one.
  • "Heart Solo" or "Club Solo" or "Spade Solo": The offensive player declares a suit other than diamonds to be trump.
  • "Ober": Only the queens are trump. ("Ober" is the equivalent of queens in German card decks.) The jacks rejoin their respective suits below kings and above 9s.
  • "Unter": Only the jacks are trump. ("Unter" is German for jacks.) The queens rejoin their respective suits under kings and above 9s.
  • "Diamond Ober," "Heart Ober," "Club Ober," or "Spade Ober": Both queens and the suit named by the offense are trump; jacks are not.
  • "Diamond Unter," etc.: Both jacks and the suit named are trump; queens are not.
  • "No Trump": All four suits are used with A-10-K-Q-J-9-8-7 in descending order of power.
  • "Blind": This can be combined with any of the above solo modes. Instead of playing one against three, the offensive player plays against two defenders while the fourth player sits out. Though this "silent partner" does nothing, he shares the same risks and the rewards as the solo offense. The fact that he doesn't play the cards dealt him can yield surprises to players skilled in "reading" a hand. (FYI, this variant, with all the standard trump cards, is the only type of "solo" hand my school chums ever allowed.)
  • "Tout": This can also be combined with any of the above solo modes. When the soloist declares "Tout" (French for "all"), he means that he intends to take all eight tricks. If anyone else takes a trick, the offense "goes set" and loses his score for the hand. If, however, he makes good on this bid, his risk is rewarded by a scoring bonus (see below).
4. WHAT HAPPENS IN THE MIDDLE: Each hand consists of eight tricks. The first trick begins when the first non-passing bidder lays down one card. Then each of the other players in turn plays a card, going clockwise around the table, until all four players have thrown a card. And there was evening and there was morning, the first trick. Players must follow suit; that is, if a suit other than trump is led, you must play a card of that suit if you have any (not including Q or J, which are trump); if a trump card (e.g. Q, J, or diamond) is led, you must follow it with trump if you have any. Whoever played the strongest trump card or (if no trump is played) the highest card in the suit that was led, wins this trick and leads the next one. Optional rule: You must try to take every trick you possibly can. So if by following suit or trumping you can beat the cards previously thrown on a trick, you must do so. To borrow a pinochle term, you have to "climb" if you can. After each trick is played, its cards are collected by the player who won it or by his partner. When all eight tricks have been played, we move on to...

5. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END: Each team (offense and defense) counts the point value of the cards in the tricks they won. Points are assigned to the cards as follows: A=11, 10=10, K=4, Q=3, J=2. (More memory work!) The scorekeeper then awards bars (each bar being one side of a square) to each player on both sides, based on the number of points he and his partner(s) captured. For winning a "Schneider," 30+ points (defense) or 31+ (offense), they get one bar. For a score of at least 60 (defense) or 61 (offense) they get two bars. For taking all eight tricks (a "Schwartz"), they get three bars. And for making good on a "Tout" bid, they get four bars (the equivalent of a full square). Zero bars are awarded to players whose team failed to achieve a "Schneider" or who went set on a "Tout" bid, regardless of how many card-counting points they captured.

After scores for the hand are recorded, the next player in line to deal shuffles the cards, etc. Game-play continues until at least one player accumulates at least 12 bars (3 squares), at which time the player with the highest score is declared the winner. In the event of a tie, additional hands may be played until the tie is broken.

Anyone who looks up the official rules for Schafkopf (the German game) or Sheepshead (its American derivative) will probably find that my rules are different from both, but have features in common with each. I think my rules may also be a little simpler than either official version, while also providing a wider variety of "solo modes" than the version I learned in school. My method for recording scores is based on a unique system apparently developed by the secretary of our funny little gnostic cult; the only change I knowingly made to it was to replace the American/Sheepshead rubric wherein "solo mode" doubles your risk and rewards with the European concept of a "Tout" bid and its subsequent bonus. I also aggressively overlooked options for five players, such as dealing 6 cards to each player and leaving a two-card "blind" that the "picker" (bidder) can swap for cards in his hand. All these rules are negotiable and any four (or five) people who play it are free to choose their own scoring system. In Germany winning a "Tout" bid doubles your score; in standard U.S. playing without a partner does so. I had a hard time finding a practical way to integrate a doubling bonus into the scoring methods my school chums taught me. One way or another, adaptation was necessary. If you don't like mine, work out your own! (And of course, post a comment about it!)


rubyfino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rubyfino said...

I love the game. I play ischafkopf on the iphone. Skat is also fun. nice post. thanks
Rick in California