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Sheepshead

Table of contents
1 Strategy

History

Sheepshead comes originally from Middle Europe in the late 1700's, and went by the German name of "Schafkopf".

Preparation

Take jokers and all cards 6 and below out of the deck. Sheepshead is played with all the cards 7 - Ace. Should be a total of 32 cards.

Play Variations

There are a LOT of play variations for Sheepshead. Everything from 3 to 6 player. Scoring differences, leasters-doublers, Pick Parter-Jack of Diamonds partner.

I will begin by describing how to play "Five Handed, Leasters, Pick Partner", but will try to touch on the other variations during this article.

Card Order

Card order in Sheepshead is very 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 stength 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. I recommend making a chart ("cheat-sheet") 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 it's 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, which lends itself great to playing for nickels (or quarters for you big gamblers out there).

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 Dealer
(Alone)
Dealer
(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 NO points, which why the distinction of "All Tricks" and "No Tricks" is necessary.
  • Every opponent gains or loses the amount listed.

The Deal

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, 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, picker must choose... he can either play alone (picker against 4 opponents) or can choose a partner (picker/partner against 3 opponents).

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 you have no fail suits--ie. 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.
  • 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. 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.

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.
  • RULE: 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
  • I would suggest burying 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♠
  • Woo-Hoo! The big queen and a good Jack. 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 real 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's 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 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.

With Partner: Playing the first card

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

If You Are 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. Do not lead the called suit. Hold that until later in the game. Lead some other suit, preferable a suit that you are long on.
  • 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

  • You MUST play the lead suit if you have it. 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.
  • If you do NOT have the lead suit, you can play anything. (UNLESS you are picker or partner. In that case you cannot play the called ace or your last card of the called suit (unless it's 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.

OPTIONAL RULE: Some Sheepshead players have a rule that if the picker doesn't win, he (and partner) must pay double.

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.
  • 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!
  • 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 a 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!

more to come...


See also: Sheepshead (fish)



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