Madrasso

This page is based on a description by Paolo Valentini, made for the 1997 convention of the International Playing-Card Society, translated and revised by John McLeod.

Introduction

Madrasso, also known as Mandrasso or Magrasso, is perhaps the most popular and widespread card game in Venice and the surrounding region, where it has over the last 50 years practically replaced the older game Scarabocion. In the ranking and values of cards and the presence of a trump suit it is related to Briscola, but because the necessity to follow suit (as in Tressette) Madrasso offers greater scope for sophisticated card play technique.

Players and Cards

There are four players, two against two in fixed partnerships, partners facing each other. A 40 card Italian pack is used - for authenticity it should be the Venetian pattern, also known as Trevigiane, which looks like this:

asso
(ace)
tre
(3)
re
(king)
cavallo
(horse)
fante
(jack)
76542
11 points10 points4 points3 points2 points- - - - - - - - - - - 0 points - - - - - - - - - - -
ori
denari
(coins)
spade
(swords)
bastoni
(batons)
coppe
(cups)
Card illustrations by permission of Modiano

To identify the cards while playing, it may help to notice that on the numeral cards, the swords are mostly curved whereas the batons are all straight. The kings all have crowns, distinguishing them from the jacks. The aces of swords and batons can be confusing at first - one way to tell them apart is to notice that the ace of swords has two chickens on it, while the ace of batons has only one.

The object of the game is to win tricks containing valuable cards, and to win the last trick. The ranking of the cards in tricks corresponds to their scoring value. As in Briscola, the highest ranking card is the Ace (worth 11 points), followed by the Three (10 points), King (Re) (4 points), Horse (Cavallo) (3 points), Jack (Fante) (2 points), and continuing with the 7, 6, 5, 4 and 2 (all worth 0 points). There is a total of 30 points in each suit and 120 points in the pack. The aces and threes are called carichi, the picture cards are called punti and the valueless pip cards are called scartine or lisci.

The Deal

The dealer is chosen at random for the first hand; in subsequent hands the turn to deal passes to the right. The deal is anticlockwise; 10 cards are dealt to each player in the following way. First a packet of three cards is dealt face down to each player, then a packet of 2 cards each. The next card (the 21st) is placed face up in front of the dealer, and it determines the trump suit (called trionfi in Venice). Then another batch of three cards is dealt face down to the other players and two cards face down to the dealer, and finally another two cards are dealt face down to each player. All the players now have 10 cards, all face down except for the dealer's trump card, which is face up. The players pick up their concealed cards, but the dealer's face up card remains on the table until it is played to a trick.

The holder of the 7 of trumps is allowed to subsitute it for the face up card (naturally this is only done if the face up card is higher than a seven). This can only be done during the first trick, immediately before the holder of the trump seven plays to the trick.

The Play

The player to the right of the dealer leads to the first trick. Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if it contains no trumps by the highest card of the suit that was led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.

Suit must be followed - in each trick the other players must play cards of the same suit as the card led to the trick if they can. There is no compulsion to beat the previous cards played to the trick. A player who has no card of the suit led is free to play any card - either a trump or a card of another suit.

The winners of the last trick earn a bonus of 10 points.

In contrast to Briscola and Tressette, no physical signals or conversation of any kind are permitted.

If a player who breaks the rules by failing to follow suit when holding a card of the suit led is said to "fa cassone". The play ceases and the opposing side score 130 points. (See note)

Scoring and winning the game

A game of Madrasso consists of at least 10 deals - the individual deals are called in Venice "battute". At the end of the play of each deal, each team counts up the points in the tricks they have won, and the winners of the last trick add 10. The points won by the two teams always add up to 130, so it is only necessary for one team to write down what they have scored. Normally no running total is kept - one team simply writes their scores for each deal in a column.

If after 10 deals one team has a scored a total of 777 points or more, that team wins. The score of the team that has not been keeping score is calculated by subtracting the scoring team's total from 1300. Since the total points available in 10 deals is 1300 it is impossible for both to have as many as 777. If at the end of 10 deals neither team has reached 777, further deals are played until one team reaches 777 or until someone "si chiama fuori" (declares that they are out).

A declaration of having reached 777 can only be made by a player who has just won a trick. Play immediately ceases and the points won in tricks so far taken by the team are counted. If the team which declared has 777 or more points they win; if they do not, the other team wins. If at the end of a deal it turns out that both teams have more than 777 although no one has declared, the team with the higher total wins.

It is also possible to win by taking all 10 tricks in one deal (this is called cappotto). A team which manages this wins the entire game immediately. It is not sufficient to win all 130 points - even if the other team just win one trick containing four worthless cards, that is enough to prevent the cappotto. It is because of the possibility of cappotto that you are not allowed to declare until 10 hands have been played. Even if after 8 or 9 deals you already have over 777 points, it would be possible for the other side to win by making cappotto on one of the remaining deals.

Tactics

The technique of playing Madrasso is quite complex and somewhat reminiscent of Bridge. It is essential to remember the course of the game and which cards have already been played in order to be able to reconstruct the likely distribution of the remaining cards. Luck plays a relatively small part in this game.

If the carichi and trumps are equally distributed, the strategy centres around trying to win the last trick, with its 10 point bonus. Another strategic focus of every hand is the play of the trumps: it is necessary to judge correctly when it is right to draw trumps, and when it is better to save them for trumping other suits.

In contrast to Bridge, where the players have information from the bidding and the cards visible in the dummy, the Madrasso player's tactics must be based solely on his own cards and the development of the play.

Card Play Technique and Choice of Leads

There are three ways of winning tricks:

  1. by playing high cards or by finessing (the Venetian word for finesse is passera);
  2. by establishing long suits;
  3. by trumping suits in which one is void.

In the examples the following abbreviations are used:

suitsranks
C= coppe (cups)A= asso (ace)
O= ori or denari (coins)3= tre (three)
B= bastoni (batons)R= re (king)
S= spade (swords)C= cavallo (horse)
F= fante (jack)
x= any scartina

Here are some examples of the choice of lead by the first player. In these examples batons (B) are trumps.

1.O:AxxS:RxB:CFxC:xxLead OA, and then Ox.
2.O:xxxS:FB:RFxC:CxxLead SF (a so-called furlana)
3.O:3xS:AFxB:ARxxC:xLead BA, and then BR
4.O:A3xS:3CxB:RxC:CxLead OA, and then O3
5.O:RxS:AxxxB:xxC:FxLead SA, and then Sx
6.O:xxS:CFxB:xxC:3RxLead CR; if it wins follow with SF or SC
7.O:CS:FxB:xxxxC:3CxLead OC
8.O:RxxS:3xB:A3CxC:ARCLead BA, then B3, then BC, watching for partner's scarto di rifiuto (discouraging discard)

Here are some general principles applying to the lead and subsequent play:

  • If an ace is led to the first trick the leader probably has Axxx or Axx. Partner with 3xx should in principle play the 3 as the second round of the suit will probably be trumped. With 3x partner can play low in the hope of winning the second trick with the 3.
  • If the first player begins by drawing trumps and then leads an ace, partner with 3Cx or 3x should never drop the 3 on the ace, but play the low card encouraging partner to continue the suit so that the second round can be won with the 3.
  • Scarto di Chiamata (encouraging discard) - discarding pip cards of a suit in ascending order 2-4-5-6-7 encourages partner to lead the suit discarded.
  • Scarto di Rifiuta (discouraging discard) - discarding beginning with a picture (C or F) or a 7 and continuing downwards 6-5-4-2 warns partner that this is a weak suit.
  • If you don't have a strong hand (few carichi and pictures) and your distribution is 3-3-3-1 or 4-3-2-1, you should lead your singleton, even if it is a picture, making a chicane (void) and preparing to trump the next lead of that suit with a small trump. A singleton lead like this is called "alla furlana".
  • With a strong hand (carichi, pictures and trumps) draw trumps at once, starting with the ace if you have it. Otherwise, holding for example 3Cxx you should start with the cavallo hoping partner has the ace. Partner leads back trumps and you play the 3, hoping for an even trump distribution, in which case your two low trumps will be established. If this works you can continue with a low trump, so that your partner can show a weak suit by means of a scarto di rifiuta (normally throwing a C, F or 7). If you have two or three losers, you continue with your last trump and your partner can either make a scarto di rifiuta in another suit showing that the unplayed suit is strongest, or continue the first scarto di rifiuta, throwing a 6, 5, 4 or 2 to show two strong suits. Now you continue by playing your remaining winning cards, to establish tricks in your partner's hand. Finally you lead partner's indicated strong suit, hoping that partner can win the remaining tricks and make cappotto. If partner indicated only one strong suit you must begin with your highest card of that suit, for example leading the 3 from 3x, so that the suit will not be blocked.
  • With an average hand containing a chicane (void), an ace, and some low trumps, lead the ace followed by a low card of the same suit. This way you lose the lead and hope to trump with one of your small trumps when your void suit is led.
  • From a combination like 3Rx or 3Cx lead the R or C.
  • When playing second or third to a trick holding A3 or at most A3x, play the 3 to indicate to your partner that you also have the ace. From A3xx play the ace, as the second round of the suit will probably be trumped.
  • If a low card of a suit is led and you are third or fourth to play holding AC or Ax, finesse against the 3, playing your picture or small card, unless you are close to 777 and playing the ace gives you enough to declare.
  • If a suit is led of which you hold 3x, second in hand you should play low. If you play third to the trick, you can play the 3, hoping that the second player and not the fourth has the ace.
  • If a suit is led in which you hold 3R, you should always play the R, unless winning with the king would give you enough to declare.

Example deals

In these examples, coins are trumps.

1.O:R
S:Cxx
B:Fxx
C:xxx
O:A3Cx N
W    E
S
O:xx
S:3xS:RFx
B:RB:A3x
C:ARCC:Fx
O:Fxx
S:Ax
B:Cxx
C:3x

West leads the OA and continues with the O3 and OC. On the third trick East discards the CF to show weakness in cups. West now leads the BR to east's BA hoping that east, after cashing the B3, will lead a cup allowing West to finesse against the 3. In fact the finesse does not work, as the C3 is held by South. The aim of this strategy is to make a cappotto if it is possible; however with these E-W cards, even if North has the C3, a trick will eventually be lost to the SA.

2.O:CF
S:Rxxx
B:CF
C:3x
O:A3x N
W    E
S
O:xx
S:3xS:Ax
B:3xB:Axxx
C:ARCC:Fx
O:Rxx
S:CF
B:Rx
C:xxx

West again begins with the A and 3 of trumps. It is clear that cappotto is impossible because South has three trumps to the king. It would be unwise for West to lead from either of his 3x suits (not knowing that partner has the aces), and West hopes to take a finesse in cups later. Therefore West exits by leading his small trump and East makes a discouraging discard of the fante of cups. South wins with the OR and whatever South returns, East-West win all the remaining tricks.

Variations

Dossena, Izzo and Fantini-Santelia report a different penalty for not following suit: that 130 points are subtracted from the offending team's score. This does not correspond to Venetian tradition by which, even in tournaments, 130 points are added to the score of the non-offending side. The Venetian method has the advantage that the total points won by the two sides after 10 deals always add up to 1300.

Many people play Madrasso with the rule that a player who is unable to follow suit is obliged to play a trump if possible. This rule applies even if your partner is winning the trick, and even when the trick has already been trumped by a trump that you are unable to beat. The Italian Wikipedia article on Madrasso gives this rule, and the word 'smontar' for the tactic of playing a suit which your opponents don' have, forcing them to waste their trumps. On the other hand, the rule as given in the main deescription above, that a player who cannot follow suit can play any card, is confirmed by several books including for example Giampaolo Dossena's Giochi di Carte Italiani (Mondadori, 1984). It may be that this is a regional difference: if anyone can tell me more about where each of these versions is played, please let me know.

Software

A free Windows Madrasso computer game is available from Rodomontano software (there is also an Italian version).

You can download a freeware Madrasso program from Thanos Card Games.

With the free Windows program BTM Pro, obtainable from Drazen's homepage, you can play Madrasso and some other Italian games against the computer or against other players over a network.