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Sheepshead

Eichel (acorn) Grün (green) Rot (red) Schellen (bells)
Club Spade Heart Diamond

Sheepshead is a card game related to the Skat family of games, originating in Central Europe in the late 1700’s under the German name Schafkopf. Although Schafkopf literally means “sheepshead”, the term is actually derived from Middle High German and referred to playing cards on an overturned barrel (from kopfen, meaning playing cards, and Schaffen, meaning a barrel).

Sheepshead is played by two to five players, where the variant with five players is the most common, by far. The German cards, which are generally used for playing in southern Germany, are listed below in the order of value for the trumps. Poker or French cards (Clubs, Spades, etc.) have direct equivalents with German cards.

How to play

Preparation

Remove the jokers and all sixes, fives, fours, threes, and twos from the pack. Sheepshead is played with all the cards 7-8-9-10-J-Q-K-A, i.e. a total of 32 cards.

Play Variations

There are a number of different play variations for Sheepshead. These include the number of players (from two to five), differences in scoring, differences when no partners are named (leasters/doublers), and differences in the way partners are chosen (Pick Partner/Jack of Diamonds partner).

The article will describe how to play “Five Handed, Leasters, Pick Partner”, but will try to touch on the other variations.

Card Order

Card order in Sheepshead is unique and one of the most difficult things for some beginners to grasp.

There are 14 trump cards, including all the Queens, Jacks, and Diamonds, listed here in order of strength to take tricks:

  • Q♣ – Q♠ – Q♥Q♦
  • J♣ – J♠ – J♥J♦
  • A♦10♦K♦9♦, 8♦, 7♦

Also, there are 6 of each “fail” suit. (18 total)

  • A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♣ (clubs)
  • A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♠ (spades)
  • A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♥ (hearts)

Clubs, Spades, and Hearts take no precedence over other fail suits. Trump always take fail. The lead suit must be followed if possible.

Card Point Values

Point scoring will also take some getting used to. You should make a chart for yourself the first time you play.

  • Queens – 3 points
  • Jacks – 2 points
  • Aces – 11 points
  • Tens – 10 points
  • Kings – 4 points
  • 9,8,7 – 0 points

Note that the strongest cards (Queens and Jacks) are not worth the most points. This gives Sheepshead some of its unique character.

There is a total of 120 points in the deck.

Keeping Score

Be careful not to confuse the points that the cards are worth, and the total point score. Points are given/taken on a zero-sum basis. If you are the picker, your goal is to take 61 points. If picker gets 60, that’s a tie and picker loses.

Here is a chart to make it easier. Look up the picker’s point total in the chart below.

Point Total Picker
(Alone)
Picker
(w/ Partner)
Partner Opponents
All Tricks +12 +6 +3 -3
91 to 120 +8 +4 +2 -2
61 to 90 +4 +2 +1 -1
31 to 60 -4 -2 -1 +1
0 to 30 -8 -4 -2 +2
No Tricks -12 -6 -3 +3
  • Once you reach 31 points, that means you have schneider.
  • There are 120 points in the deck. It’s possible to take a trick that is worth zero points, which why the distinction of “All Tricks” and “No Tricks” is necessary.
  • Every opponent gains or loses the amount listed.

The Deal

Cut the deck. The dealer deals 3 cards at a time to each person, starting with the player to dealer’s left. After dealing everyone 3 cards, 2 cards are put face down in a separate pile (the “blind”). Then deal the rest of the cards, 3 at a time around the table again.

When done, each person should have 6 cards with 2 cards in the blind.

The Blind

The player to the left of the dealer gets first choice to take the blind. If he passes, the option is given to the next player (in clockwise order).

If the blind goes all the way around to the dealer, and the dealer declines to play, a leaster is played. (If you are playing doublers instead of leasters, the points are doubled, the deal moves one to the left, and a new hand is dealt.)

Whoever decides to take the blind is called the “picker”. The picker adds the 2 cards to his hand, then must choose two cards to lay down, or “bury”. The buried cards are automatically added to the picker’s score.

Now, the picker must choose: He can either play alone (picker against 4 opponents) or can choose a partner (picker/partner against 3 opponents).

Variation of play: One variation of play at this point is that, when a player picks up the blind, any player (who is not the pickers partner) who was not given the opportunity to pick up the blind may ‘knock’ or ‘crack’ by knocking the table with their fist. This automatically doubles the point values in the table above for determining the score when the game ends. In addition, you may also allow that, after a player cracks, the picker has the option to ‘recrack’, which redoubles it again, or to 4 times the values at the end of the game.

In another variation, after a crack the partner may ‘crack-around-the-corner’ and double the game, but revealing his or her relation to the picker if the game is being played with the jack of diamonds as partner.

Another variation allows players to double further by ‘blitzing’ as well as cracking. A player may blitz by revealing either the two black queens, the two red queens, or the two black jacks from his or her hand. A blitz can only be initiated after a crack has occurred. A combination of these variations follows.

Example:

  • Player 1: Passes
  • Player 2: Picks
  • Player 3: has two black jacks
  • Player 4: is partner, has two red queens
  • Player 5: has nothing significant to illustration

In this scenario Player 3 blitz’s by showing his jacks. Player 4 responds with a blitz-crack-around-the-corner by revealing her queens and jack of diamonds. Player 1 also decides to ‘recrack’. The score is doubled four times as a result of the four maneuvers. This game will be worth 16 times the original amount. Blitzing can lead to large point escalation and, thus, is not used often.

Getting a Partner

One of the more intriguing aspects of Sheepshead is that you have different teams with each hand. Generally you will not know who your partner is until specific cards are played.

Called ace

If you pick the blind and decide that your hand isn’t good enough to “go it alone”, you must select a called ace suit. Some notes about choosing the called suit:

Basically, when the picker calls a suit, whoever has the Ace of that suit is the partner.

  • Called suit must be a fail suit (clubs, spades or hearts).
  • Picker must have at least one of the fail suit in his/her hand. (Special case: an unknown can be played if a player has no fail suits–i.e. all trump–see below)
  • Picker cannot call a suit for which he has the Ace.
  • If the picker has all 3 fail Aces (it happens occasionally), he can “call a 10” instead of the Ace. The picker is obligated to hold the Ace of that suit in their hand. When the called suit is led, the picker must play the Ace. In addition, the person with the 10 takes the trick if it is not trumped.
  • Unknown. If the picker has no fail suit to use for the called suit, he can pick a card to “act as the called suit”. Example: picker has all trump or the Ace in all their fail suits. Picker can take a low diamond (9♦ lets say) and lay it face down on the table, and call (for example) Spades. That 9♦ stays face down until Spades is lead (or until nothing else can be laid down). That particular 9♦, since it was designated an “unknown”, has no power to take tricks but the points associated with that card still count at the end of the game. No one besides the player who took the ace trick is allowed to look at the unknown card.

Examples of picker hands

{Taking the blind, burying, and selecting partner…)

Hand 1: Q♥, A♦, A♣, 10♣, 7♣, 7♥

  • You probably shouldn’t take the blind. With only 2 trump it’s not really worth it.

Hand 2: J♣, J♦, A♦, 8♦, A♠, A♥

  • Don’t take the blind. You have 4 trump, but they are mostly little. If you have a chronic picking problem you may pick on this.
  • If you pass on the blind, you have a very good chance of ending up partner, since you have 2 of the 3 fail aces.
  • This is a decent partner hand, with the trump and lots of point to “schmear” to your partner.

Hand 3: Q♠, Q♥, J♦, K♦, 10♥, 10♣

  • With 20 points to bury, this wouldn’t be a bad hand to pick on.
  • A rule of thumb: If you can forsee schneider, pick.
  • — In Blind: 8♦, 7♣
  • The blind wasn’t that good, so you definitely want to pick a partner.
  • You could bury both 10s for the sure points, and then you would have to call clubs. The problem with this is that the called Ace has little chance of walking. There would be only 3 more clubs out there
  • It is recommended to bury both 7♣ and 10♣ and calling hearts. This is a tough case, and if you aren’t feeling that lucky maybe burying both 10s (and therefore guaranteeing yourself 20 points) would be the best idea.

Hand 4: Q♣, Q♦, A♦, 10♦, A♥, K♥

  • This is a very good hand to pick on.
  • There are 15 points to bury (A♥ and K♥) and that’s basically half way to schneider (31 points)
  • — In Blind: J♣, 9♦
  • (Special note: If this player had gotten another Queen in the blind, (s)he could surely go alone)
  • Player should keep the two additional trump, then bury the A♥ and K♥
  • Hand is now: Q♣, Q♥, J♣, A♦, 10♦, 9♦ (all trump)
  • Picker now has the option of getting a partner (or not). This is a very good hand and might be a winner if attempted “alone”
  • If the picker wants a partner, he has to call an “unknown” since he has nothing but trump. He can take his 9♦, place it face down on the table, then call it any suit he wants (besides Hearts, since he just buried the Ace of Hearts). Let’s just say “clubs”. Now, that an unknown was called, that 9♦ cannot be used on any trick except the called suit. (Or on the last trick if the called suit was never lead during the game)
  • This hand is good enough that he might get a “Thanks for the ride” from his partner. This usually means that you could have gone it alone.

Hand 5: Q♠, Q♥, J♦, 10♦, 7♦, K♥

  • Five trump, with 2 Queens and 1 Jack. This is definitely a picking hand.
  • — In Blind: Q♣, J♠
  • The big queen and a good Jack — a near perfect hand.
  • Hand is now: Q♣, Q♠, Q♥, J♠, J♦, 10♦
  • With the 3 big queens, buried trump and other very good cards, this hand is a good choice to go alone on.
  • You will get at least 3 tricks, and have a very good chance of taking them all.

Jack of Diamonds

Instead of choosing a partner, some play that the Jack of Diamonds is automatically partner.

In general you can pick on weaker hands when playing J♦ partner because you are always guaranteed that your partner will have at least one trump (the J♦ – there is no such guarantee playing Called Ace). Some suggestions:

  • Bare aces are nearly as good as trump. Unless your hand is really bad and you want to guarantee points, keep bare aces.
  • If you can bury 20 points, you only need one more good trick to make Schneider, the minimum you want. It is a judgement call you have to make, deciding between getting the points (burying them) or keeping the cards to use in play.
  • You can always go it alone, but don’t do it unless you have a really good hand. If you got all 4 queens, of course then you could go alone.
  • If the picker has the J♦ in his hand, there are two possible rules:
    • Picker plays alone (possibly with a poor hand)
    • Picker can select J♥ partner instead

Playing the Cards

Always remember the goal of Sheepshead is to get as many points as possible. You can take 4 out of 6 tricks and still lose point-wise. Always aim first for schneider (31 pts for picker, 30 otherwise).

At this point, there are basically 3 possibilities of play.

  1. Leasters
  2. Playing Alone
  3. With Partner

Leasters

In leasters, you must take at least one trick to win. Each person plays for him/herself. At the end of the hand the person with the lowest score (and at least one trick) wins 1 point from each of the other players (4 total).

What do you do with the blind? Generally the blind is included with the very last trick played. Alternatively, the dealer (before play begins) calls out the number of the trick that will include the blind.

With Partner: Playing the first card

The player to the left of the dealer leads first. Here are some guidelines, but no rule is 100% accurate all the time. Use your judgment. This is the most common hand (picker+partner vs. 3 opponents) that you will play.

If you are the first one to play and are …

  • on the opposing team with the called Ace suit – lead the called ace suit. (i.e. if called suit is spades, lead a spade if you can)
  • on the opposing team without called Ace suit – don’t lead trump. You are in a good position to trump the called suit if one of your partners can lead that suit. Lead some other (non-trump) suit if you can.
  • the partner – lead trump if at all possible. You want to try to bleed trump out of the opposing team’s hands so that the called Ace trick is more likely to walk. At this point, leading trump will demonstrate to people that you are probably the partner.
  • the partner – with no trump. Don’t lead the called suit. Hold that until later in the game. Lead some other suit, preferable a suit that has not been led before and you are not long on (your short suit). You want to give the picker the best chance taking the trick and that will happen if all your opponents have this fail suit and the picker can trump it.
  • the picker – usually lead with trump. The goal is to get everyone to play out their trump so the called suit doesn’t get taken.

Following Suit

  • Players must follow suit if possible. Note that Queens and Jacks are considered trump, and are not a “suit” as such. Example, 7♥ is lead. You have a Q♥ and a 10♥. Since the Queen is not technically a heart (it’s trump) you must play the Ten.
  • A player who cannot follow suit may play any card he wants. (A picker or partner cannot play the called ace or his last card of the called suit (unless it is the last trick)).
  • If you do not lead, and are an opponent with the called suit and the big queen, lay the big queen and take the trick. Then lead the called suit and hopefully the your team can trump it.

Continuing the hand

Whoever takes a trick gets to lead the next one. Play continues in this manner until the last trick is played.

Play is over. Count the cards.

When all tricks have been played, the picker can count his cards and then either receives points or gives up points. See above under “Keeping Score” for a chart.

  • If the picker went alone and took all the tricks, he/she gets 3 points from all 4 opponents.
  • If the picker chose a partner and took all the tricks, pickers gets 3 points from 2 opponents, partner gets 3 points from 1 opponent.
  • If the opponents took at least a trick, but didn’t make schneider, the payout is 2 points.
  • If the opponents made schneider, but didn’t win, the payout is 1 point.
  • If the opponents win and the picker made schneider, each opponent gets 1 point
  • If the opponents win and the picker didn’t make schneider, each opponent gets 2 points
  • If the opponents take all the tricks, each opponent gets 3 points.

Some Sheepshead players have a rule that if the picker doesn’t win, he (and partner) must pay double. (Known as “double on the bump”)

Note that all scoring has a zero sum total. This means that at any point you can add all 5 player scores together and the total should be zero.

Strategy

  • Picker and partner should try to bleed the opponents of their trump before leading out the called Ace suit. This gives the called Ace a much better chance of walking.
  • In a Called-Ace variant, the opponent should lead out the called suit if possible. It is a rare circumstance where the picker/partner should lead out the called suit.
  • Card counting is a very valuable skill to have when playing Sheepshead. Many good sheepshead players can tell you how many points you have without even having to count! If you don’t have a photographic memory, you can start off by keeping track of which Queens and Jacks were played. Just doing that much is better than not counting cards at all. This is a learned skill, so keep practicing. If you are the picker, you should at the very least keep count of the 14 trump cards so you know when your opponents are out of trump.
  • The order of play is a very important consideration. There is a distinct benefit to “being on the end”, and if you are partner with the picker on the end, that should affect the card you play.
    • Scenario: First player is one of the opponents and lead with an 8♣. You are partner and have a 10♣ and K♣. Since you are long (more than one) in clubs, you would expect someone to trump this trick. You are next, with 2 oppenents after you and the picker is on the end. Since the picker is on the end, you generally would throw the 10♣ (10 points) rather than the K♣ (4 points). Assume the picker will be able to trump the trick. In other words, when in doubt, schmear.
  • Leaster strategy: Keep in mind a player has to win at least one trick to qualify for the win. Oftentimes, a player will be so worried about accumulating points that he/she will fail to pick up a single trick.

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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