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Of the games played with a standard deck of 52 playing cards, Hearts ranks near the top in terms of depth of strategy, and the opportunity for skilled players to regularly defeat lucky players. Few hands in Hearts are so good that one finds oneself sitting on a sure thing, and few are so poor that one is inclined to suggest a friendly round of poker instead.
Originally, Hearts was a betting game in which players attempted to win money by avoiding winning tricks containing hearts. All players who managed to take zero hearts split the pot evenly. This version has fallen out of favour, however, and the variant most commonly played today is known as Black Lady. This too has been supplanted in some places by Omnibus Hearts, which is listed here as an accepted variant.
All variants of Hearts have one thing in common: Players seek to avoid winning 'point cards', as the player with the fewest points at game's end is the winner. Thus, a strong Hearts hand is generally one which will enable you to force your opponents to win many tricks.
Black Lady is the version of Hearts principally described in this Guide entry. The principal objective of this most popular version of Hearts, is to avoid winning tricks which contain hearts or the Queen of Spades (the Black Lady). This in itself sets Hearts apart from most games, in which players seek to acquire certain cards or combinations. Hearts is a game of careful avoidance. Thus, most hands tend to have a big loser and no clear big winner.
Hearts can be played by any number of players from three to six, but four is the traditional number, and these rules presume four players.
The only equipment required for Hearts is a standard 52-card deck of playing cards and a pencil and paper for keeping score.
Players randomly determine who will deal first. In each successive hand, deal passes to the left. At the beginning of each hand, the entire deck of 52 is dealt out one card at a time, so that each player has 13 cards in his hand.
The cards in each suit rank: Ace (highest), King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, ... 3, 2 (lowest).
The Passing Phase
Before play begins, each player selects three cards from his hand and passes them to the player on his left. In the second hand of the game, each player passes three cards to the player on his right. In the third hand, each player exchanges three cards with the player opposite him. In the fourth hand, players do not pass, but keep their original 13 cards. With the fifth hand, the rotation starts again by passing to the left. The sixth hand is again a pass to the right, and so on.
Players must not look at the cards they have been passed until they have selected the cards they themselves are passing and placed them face-down in front of their recipients.
Players may not confer with one another during the passing phase or otherwise indicate which cards they would like to receive.
An easy way to remember which way to pass is to bear in mind that in a four-player game, the direction of the pass will always be the same when it is a given player's turn to deal.
The Playing Phase
After all players have passed (or not passed, if it's the fourth dealer's turn), play begins.
A hand of Hearts consists of 13 tricks. The first trick of a hand always begins with the player who holds the 2 of Clubs leading it. From that player, play proceeds clockwise.
Each player must, if he holds any, play a card of the same suit as the first card played to the trick (the lead card). So on the first trick, the 2 of Clubs being led, each player in turn must play a club if at all possible.
If a player holds no cards of the lead suit, he may play any card in his hand, of any suit1.
The player who plays the highest card of the suit led wins the trick. That player then leads to the next trick. For example:
Adam leads to the first trick with the 2 of Clubs. Betsy has clubs in her hand, so she must play one. She selects the Queen of Clubs, and plays it. Charles has no clubs, so he may play any card he likes. He chooses to play the Ace of Diamonds. Denise has clubs, so she plays the 10 of Clubs.
The Ace of Diamonds was the highest card played, but it was not of the suit led. The highest card played of the lead suit was the Queen of Clubs, so Betsy wins the first trick and leads to the next.
Play continues with the winner of each trick leading to the next. The leader may lead with any card he chooses, except that a player may not lead a heart until hearts have been 'broken'. Hearts are broken when a player who does not have a card of a trick's lead suit plays a heart instead. Once hearts have been broken, they may be led as any other card. The hand ends when all 13 tricks have been played and the players' hands are empty.
As players win tricks, they collect all of the cards they win in face-down stacks in front of them. At the end of the hand, each player counts the point cards in his hand. Score one point for each heart, and 13 nasty points for the Queen of Spades. Thus, there are a total of 26 points to be scored in each hand. After the points for a hand have been counted, the next hand begins with the next dealer.
Shooting the Moon
As has been said, Hearts is generally a game of avoidance. The players who generally steer clear of winning hearts and the Queen of Spades generally do well. Generally.
There is one notable exception to this, and it lies at the very heart of the game's strategy: Shooting the Moon2.
If, in the course of a single hand, a player manages to win all 13 hearts and the Queen of Spades, he has Shot the Moon. When this happens, the Shooter scores zero points, and each of his opponents scores a nasty, ghastly 26 points. Thus, a well-timed and well-executed Moonshot can give the Shooter a commanding lead in the space of just one hand.
Shooting the Moon is difficult, because it allows no room for error. If a player claims the Queen of Spades and just 12 hearts, for example, he scores 25 points for the hand. Miserable. But players who wish to excel at Hearts must learn how to execute Moonshots, and must also learn how to foresee a similar attempt by an opponent. You will sometimes have to deliberately score some points to derail a Moonshot. Learning to do this effectively is crucial.
Winning the Game
Play continues from hand to hand until one player's score reaches or exceeds 100 (at the end of a hand). When this happens, the game ends and the player with the lowest score is the winner. If there are two players tied for the lowest score (a rare occurrence), further hands are played until the tie is broken.
Variants and Optional Rules
Hearts has spawned numerous variations and house rules. Some of the more common are listed here.
Shooter Protection (Optional Rule)
This optional rule is recommended, as it ensures that Shooting the Moon will always benefit the player who Shoots. Under this rule, if Shooting the Moon would cause the Shooter to lose by pushing one opponent over 100 while still leaving the Shooter out of first place, the Shooter may choose to reduce his own score by 26 instead of increasing each opponent's score by 26.
In one highly unusual game of Hearts in which this Researcher played, the following improbable scenario actually occurred:
Late in the game, Alicia had a bad hand and her score soared to 113. The game would have been over, except that Daniel and Charles were left tied for lowest score at 52 each. Another hand had to be played to break the tie. In that hand, Alicia Shot the Moon, and was actually able to bring her score below 100 again. The following hand, Alicia Shot the Moon again, bringing her within striking range. I wish I could say that she then went on to win the game and secure her place in Hearts history, but Charles eventually was the victor. Even so, it was a remarkable game to have been a part of. It lasted a whopping 16 hands, twice the average number of hands in a game of Hearts.
99-Sinkhole (Optional Rule)
This optional rule is not recommended. It stipulates that if a player attains a score of exactly 99, his score drops back to zero. It makes the game take far too long and thoroughly disrupts conventional strategy, but it is included here for sake of completeness.
No Blood on First Trick (Optional Rule)
Under this optional rule, players may not play point cards (hearts or the Queen of Spades) on the first trick of any hand. Some players like this rule because it prevents people from simply voiding themselves in clubs and then ditching the Queen of Spades immediately, while other players feel that if a person's card-passing skills are savvy enough to permit this, it should be permitted. It's a matter of taste. Most online Hearts servers have this rule in force. Some people are of the impression that this rule is followed everywhere, but it is not. Decide before the game begins.
Queen of Spades Breaks Hearts (Optional Rule)
This optional rule stipulates that when the Queen of Spades is played, hearts are broken. The Queen of Spades, although a point card, is not a heart. This rule is for the severely colour blind.
Omnibus Hearts (Variant)
Omnibus Hearts is a very popular variant of Hearts which is the same as Black Lady, except that the Jack of Diamonds acquires a point value of minus ten. Thus, the player who wins the trick containing the Jack of Diamonds deducts ten points from his score at the end of the hand (after adding all points for hearts and the Queen of Spades, if applicable).
The addition of this one rule completely transforms the game, because there is now a card that is good to win, and the strategy of the game is shifted significantly. In Omnibus Hearts, it can sometimes be worthwhile to take a trick containing both the Queen of Spades and the Jack of Diamonds to prevent opponents from winning the jack while netting only three points yourself.
The most important thing to note about Omnibus Hearts is that it takes longer to play than Black Lady, because scores can go down as well as up. Some people find Omnibus Hearts more satisfying than Black Lady because of the added complexity, while others disdain a Hearts variant which allows players to improve their scores. Both are excellent games. It's a matter of taste.
Playing with More or Fewer than Four Players
Although Hearts is, as stated above, best played with four players, it is possible to play with as few as three or as many as six. The only necessary changes are in the number of cards used and in the passing. The number of cards in the game must be evenly divisible by the number of players.
To play with three players, simply remove the Two of Diamonds from the deck so that the number of cards is 51. The passing rotation becomes: Left, Right, No Pass.
To play with five players, remove the Two of Diamonds and the Two of Clubs, so that the number of cards is 50. In this case, the Three of Clubs becomes the card led to the first trick. The passing rotation becomes: Left, Right, Two Players to the Left, Two Players to the Right, No Pass.
To play with six players, remove the Two of Diamonds, Two of Clubs, Two of Spades and Three of Diamonds, so that the number of cards is 48. Again, the Three of Clubs becomes the card led to the first trick. The passing rotation becomes: Left, Right, Two Players to the Left, Two Players to the Right, Across, No Pass.
Playing with a non-standard number of players changes the number of cards in your hand and the number of tricks in each hand, so the strategy of the game is affected. Don't assume that patterns you learn when playing with four players will hold when playing with a different number.
An alternative way to play with a non-standard number of players is to deal out the entire deck as normal, leaving the excess cards in the centre of the table as a 'kitty'. The kitty is then won by the player taking the first (or, in some circles, the last) trick of the hand. This method increases the role of luck in the game, however, as a player could wind up winning the Queen of Spades or three hearts by sheer chance. For this reason, many players dislike this approach.