The Two Games
A game of 42 consists of between seven and thirteen hands, but each hand can, and will for the purposes of this series, be treated as an isolated event. The amount of marks a team has may affect how a team plays, but from a purely theoretical standpoint, prior marks have no bearing on the current hand. That said, any hand can be divided into two separate, closely related sub-games: The bidding game and the playing out. The bidding game comes first in the course of play, but as a firm understanding of the play itself is required to master bidding, the later will be covered here.
The following basic maneuvers do not win hands, rather, they are the building blocks upon which strategies are built. Each of these techniques is in one way or another fundamental to the play of Texas 42.
- Pulling: The most basic strategy is the concept of pulling out dominoes that one wants to win or otherwise remove from play. Since players must follow the leading suit in all cases, sometimes there is no option as to what domino is played - in these cases the domino is said to have been pulled. Pulling is typically employed by the player who won the bid, initially to remove trumps from the hands of opposing players and later to win point dominos from those same hands. Pulling in this manner is the cornerstone of basic strategy - as long as one's hand is higher than those of the opposition, the game can be controlled absolutely.
- Walking: Walking a domino is another weapon for the player in control. A domino is said to "walk" if it is lead and cannot be beaten. Obviously, high trumps, and later doubles, always walk. The term is more typically applied, however, to cases where a player succeeds in leading and winning with a lower domino by first removing everything else in its suit.
- Covering: Covering is a defensive strategy employed to prevent a key domino from being pulled. For instance, if the leading player attempts to pull out the 6/4 by leading the 4/4, the opposition player who held the 6/4 could cover for it by throwing the 4/2 in its place. A cornerstone of defensive strategy is retaining otherwise worthless dominoes to cover for point-bearers, allowing for more control over when the points are played.
- Throwing: A general term for playing a domino that will lose, this often more specifically refers to the practice of playing a point domino that will lose in cases where one's partner is certain to win or already has won (with a walking domino), effectively securing the points for the team.
- Handing Off: The practice of playing a very low domino in the hopes of losing takes two forms. In some cases, players attempt to hand off control to their partners by playing into a suit they believe the partner will win. In other cases, control is handed off to opposition players so that one might take a more reactive approach to play or put an opponent with a weak hand into a difficult position. This is almost always the tactic of a leading player whose hand is no longer able to control play, but it also plays a crucial role in the 3-Mark Plunge hand. Since this maneuver often indicates a player doesn't want control for some reason, opponents will often attempt to thwart this by playing even lower or entirely out-of-suit.
- Trumping: Those dominoes in the declared trump suit always win the tricks they are thrown in, but in many cases they are simply pulled out as early as possible by players leading trump. Trumping a trick is a case where a player uses a trump to win a trick where a trump was not lead, and is the most unpredictable factor in 42. It is not always easy to trump because a trump only belongs to one suit and a trick may not be trumped if one has another domino in the leading suit. For this reason, when one has a trump or more, it is often wise to discard dominoes in other leadable suits as early as possible. The fewer suits one can follow in, the more tricks a trump can be used on. Always try to vacate the higher suits first, as there are more dominoes that can lead into them.
'Noes to Know
There are a number of dominoes which are very significant in play, either because they are very strong, very weak, or worth points. All dominoes are useful under the right circumstances, but the few examined below are significant in almost every hand.
- The 5/5: Easily the most important domino in the game. The 5/5 is often the ultimate weapon of a hand it is in, and the greatest threat to a hand that lacks it. It is one of the two highest scoring dominoes in the game, and it is the highest in its suit - one of the only two suits which contains two point bearing dominoes, the other being the 4's. On offense, it is typically played after all trumps have been removed from play to deal a killing blow. By contrast, stopping players may attempt to gain control and play the 5/5 as early as possible, when the winning bidder has the highest chance of still having other 5's and being unable to trump. As long as the 5/5 is still unaccounted for in a game, 5's are the riskiest suit, as leading a lower 5 can easily result in a 16 point swing. Learning to use and manage the 5/5 is integral to the play of 42.
- The 6/4: By far the weaker of the two ten-pointers, the 6/4 must be regarded with care. If one has this domino and no adequate way to protect it from being pulled out by the 6/6 or 4/4 (other 6's or 4's which could be thrown in its place) then passing may be wise. This is also the prime candidate for giving points to a teammate.
- The 5/0, 4/1, and 3/2: Although they do not count as heavily as the ten-pointers, the five point dominoes are frequently those that decide the victory and throw wrenches into solid strategies. All three can be pulled out on two sides, and all are low within their suit, and as such are poor choices for leading. Many successful strategies revolve around pulling out these dominoes.
- The 0/0: The odd double blank is the only domino which leads to the suit of blanks, and as such plays something of an odd role. It cannot be pulled out by any other domino being lead, but it can only win a trick if it is lead. In most cases, it is thrown away or used to pull out the 5/0.
- The 6/5: The member of both the 5 and 6 suits is weak as a 5, since it cannot be lead and it almost always inspires someone to throw the 5/5 against it. As a 6, however, it is a power player, both as a threat to and a cover for the 6/4, and as a combination follow-up to the 6/6 for hands looking to pull out the 6/4.
- The 6/3 - "The Devil": 6/3 is a seemingly harmless 'noe which nonetheless often plays a pivotal role. It is typically considered a weakness in hands, but can sometimes be an effective cover for the 6/4 or 3/2. However, it truly comes in to its own in Nel-O play, where it is more frequently the doom of players than any other factor. It is extremely unwise to bid Nel-O if you have The Devil; It's guile is not to be underestimated.
- The 5/4 - Another key player in the 5 suit is the 5/4, which can cover the 6/4 or 5/0, but is usually considered the weakest domino to on offense. The appearance of this domino in any bidding hand is reason to lower a bid, since it can easily cost one the 5/5, 6/4 or both.
- The 3/1 - "Broken-Tooth": While often forgettable in normal play, 3/1 is one of the most powerful dominoes in Nel-O. Additionally, it can often be walked against unsuspecting opponents after the battle for the 3/2 is over - an event that often removes all higher 3's from play. The domino gets its nickname from the fact that it is particularly susceptible to breaking: An overwhelming percentage of domino sets have a chipped or cracked 3/1. Some hypothesy that this is due to the particular pattern of the 3 and 1 drill holes, others that it is the effect of a curse laid down by an ancient 42 player who lost 13 hands in a row on its account.
The Four Positions
There are, of course, four positions in any hand of Texas 42, but it is important to recognize that one must play differently in each position. The position and role of a player is directly related to who is in control, and to a lesser extent, which players are attempting to make a bid and which are attempting to stop. Briefly:
- The Leader controls the game. If the leading player is able to continuously play walking dominoes, victory is certain. As a leading player, one has the most options available. As such, it is important to weigh the consequences of any given throw. Consider carefully what points are likely to come out, what trumps may be played, and who will likely win the trick and have control next. More than any other position, leading requires a great deal of foresight.
- 1st Opponent sits to the left of the leader and must react to her throw first. Whenever possible, this player should attempt to beat the leader's throw as this will give the 2nd Opponent an opportunity to throw points and deal a blow to the other team. Only throw points in this position under dire circumstances or near the end of the game. Since two players have not thrown, it is hard to tell which team will win the trick.
- The Partner's role is to assist the leaders play by throwing points or trash, or to take control if the leader is attempting to throw it away. The partner's role varies by hand, and while sometimes it is a deciding factor, the partner position is frequently the least significant in the course of a hand.
- The 2nd Opponent either throws points to his partner or plays the big domino that wins the trick, when possible. In either case, the 2nd has the chance to react to all the other players, and is as such in the best position to reverse situations and spring traps. Good strategy on the part of a 2nd is what stops many reasonable bids from being achieved.
A Few Comments on Probability
Distribution of dominoes, while intuitive, is something that inexperienced players often don't give proper consideration. Educated bidding and playing both require a firm understanding of distribution. Remember well the maxim of Sarubbicus the Younger - "That which is not in my hand is in the hands of others." This can be naturally extended to state that out of every three dominoes that are not in a given hand, 2 are in the hands of opponents. As such, do not overly rely on a partner possessing a vital domino. Further, there is a correlation of strong and weak hands among players. Hands which contain only a few suits are typically very strong in regular 42 play, but if one hand has very few suits, it is likely that the other hands have similar strength. As one might expect, if a hand has a haphazard smattering of suits and ranks, it is very likely the other hands are in a similar bind. Always consider a hand in terms of both what it contains and what it lacks.
Communicating effectively with your partner is very important. Although you cannot talk across the table, you can often communicate what you want your partner to do or read what he wants you to do based upon what he throws. Although fooling opponents is certainly part of the game, be careful not to trick your partner in the process of doing so. Playing often with the same people will teach you their styles of play - in time, you should be able to understand what a player is doing by the second trick. The team that successfully throws points to eachother and hands control off will win many more hands than the one that doesn't. Be clear with your partner first, and subtle with your enemy only afterwards.
Hopefully, this article has given some useful advice on how to play out a hand in progress, as well as some ideas for viable strategies. The next installment in the series will focus on the psychology of the bidding game, how high to bid and how to choose a trump.