Lansquenet / Skin / Zecchinetta

Introduction

Lansquenet is an extremely simple gambling game. It is also one of the oldest recorded card games: it is mentioned in the list of games in the 1542 edition of Rabelais' Gargantua. The name is from the German Landsknecht, a medieval mercenary. A variant of it is still played in the USA, where it is known as Skin, a name which must derive from the middle syllable of (Lan)squen(et). Another variant Zecchinetta is played in Sicily and to some extent in other parts of Italy, and by Italian Americans under the name Ziginette.

All these are pure games of chance, the result depending on the turn of a card. The banker has one card and the players have one or more cards, all these cards being of different ranks. The banker turns up further cards from the pack one at a time. Any player whose card is matched loses to the banker. If the banker's card is matched the banker loses to all players whose cards have not yet been matched.

Lansquenet

This description is of the 19th century French version of the game.

Players and cards

There must be at least two players, and in principle there is no upper limit to the number that can play. Traditionally the game uses about six standard 52-card packs shuffled together, but it could equally well be played with a single 52-card pack which was shuffled before each deal. The suits of the cards are irrelevant and there is no particular ranking order - all that is important is that there is an equal number of cards of each rank.

Deal, stakes and play

At the start of the session, the players draw lots to decide who will be the first dealer. The dealer shuffles the cards, the player to dealer's left cuts, and the shuffled pack is stacked face down in front of the dealer. The dealer is also the banker, and this player must put up a stake that he or she is prepared to play for.

Then the other players, in anticlockwise order, starting to the right of the banker, place their stakes, whose total amount cannot be more than the banker's stake. Each player has the following options:

  1. To place a stake equal to the banker's entire stake
  2. To place a stake less than the banker's stake and such that the total of the players' stakes does not exceed the banker's stake.
  3. To pass, placing no stake.

This continues for as many rounds as necessary until either

  1. Someone places an amount equal to the banker's whole stake. In this case all other players withdraw their stakes and the game proceeds.
  2. The total amount staked by the players is equal to the banker's stake.
  3. All players pass, no one wishing to increase their stake.

The dealer turns over the top two cards of the pack. The first card is the bankers' card, placed face up on the table to the dealer's left and the second is the players' card, placed face up on the table to the dealer's right. If these two cards are equal in rank, the dealer immediately wins all the players' stakes.

If the banker's and players' cards are unequal, the banker turns up further cards one at a time until a card is turned that matches one of the first two cards, ignoring suits. If the banker's card is matched the banker wins all the players' stakes. If the players' card is matched the banker must pay each player the amount that that player staked.

Passing the bank

If the banker loses, the bank must be passed to the next player in turn, who decides anew how much to stake on the next game. Normally the bank passes to the right, but if the bank has been "sold" to another player (see below) it passes to the player to the right of the original holder of that bank.

If the banker wins, the banker has the choice whether to keep the bank or pass it on voluntarily. If the banker decides to keep the bank there are two cases:

  • If the banker won by matching the banker's card before the players' card, these winnings must be added to the banker's previous stake to make the new stake.
  • If the banker won because the banker's and players' cards were equal, the banker has the option to add the winnings to the banker's stake, or to withdraw these winnings from the game.

If the banker passes on the bank voluntarily after winning, then any other player may offer to "buy" the bank. The buyer must put up a stake equal to the amount the banker would have had to stake if he or she had kept the bank. If several people want to buy the bank, the player nearest to the dealer's right has priority. If no one wants to buy the bank, it passes to the player to the right of the original holder of that bank, who may choose how large a stake to put up for the next deal.

A player who has bought the bank may choose to pass it on again after one or more wins, "selling" it to a player who is prepared to stake the necessary amount. A bank may be sold up to three times, but the fourth holder cannot sell it again. If this fourth banker chooses to pass it on after winning, it returns to the player to the right or the original holder.

Example. The players in anticlockwise order are A, B, C, D, E, F. The first banker A stakes 100 units. B stakes 50 units. C can now either stake 100, replacing B's bet, or any amount up to 50, or pass. Say B stakes 50. A's card is matched first so A takes A's and B's stakes and keeps the bank, which now contains 200. A stakes 50 again, B stakes 50 and C stakes 100. A's card is matched again so now there are 400 in the bank. A decides to pass on the bank. B, C and D do not want it but E decides to buy it. A keeps the 400 she has won and E puts up a new stake of 400. F bets 100, A 100, B 50, C 100 and D 50. The players' card is matched so E's 400 is paid out to the other players according to their stakes. The bank now returns to B, the player to the right of the original holder A.

Skin

John Scarne describes this American game in Scarne on Cards. This is game is played with a single standard 52-card pack, and is said to be best for about six players. Traditionally, the cards are dealt from a dealing box to make it more difficult to cheat. The first banker is selected by dealing cards from the shuffled deck one at a time around the players until an Ace appears. The turn to be banker passes to the right after each deal. The cards are shuffled (banker has the right to shuffle last), any player may cut, and the cards are placed in the dealing box.

The banker deals the top card to the first player to the right. This player may accept the card if wishing to bet on it, or refuse it, in which case it is offered to the next player to the right and so on anticlockwise around the table until someone accepts it. If everyone rejects it, it is placed face up in the center of the table as a fresh card, and the next card from the box is offered to the players in turn.

When a player has accepted a card, the banker now deals another card from the box, which will be the banker's card, placed face up in front of the banker, provided that it is not equal to the player's card. If it does match the player's card, the two matching cards are discarded, all cards of this rank are now dead, and the procedure is restarted with the next card from the box which is offered to the player to dealer's right as before, and when that card has been accepted the following card becomes the dealer's card provided that it is different.

When a player and the banker have different cards, the player must state the maximum amount he or she wishes to bet on the first card. This can be any amount, but the banker does not have to accept the entire bet. The banker places on the player's an amount of money less than or equal to the player's proposed bet and the player matches this, so that the banker and player have equal bets on the card. A similar procedure is used for all future bets.

The dealer now deals further cards from the top of the pack, one at a time. There are five possibilities:

  1. The new card matches a player's card. The player in question loses, the dealer takes the bets from the card, the player's card is discarded, and cards of that rank are now dead.
  2. The new card matches the dealer's card. The dealer loses all bets, and all players take the bets from their own cards.
  3. The new card is a fresh card, a rank that has not been dealt before. The dealer offers the card to the next player to the right of the last player who accepted a card, and who does not already have a card. This player may accept the card and bet on it in the same way as the first player, or reject it, in which case it is offered in turn to all other players who do not already have cards. If no one accepts it, or if all players already have a card in play, the fresh card is placed in the centre of the table for possible future use.
  4. The new card matches a card in the centre of the table that belongs to no one (no player bet on it when it appeared). The two cards are discarded and cards of that rank are now dead.
  5. The new card is dead, because two cards of the same rank have already appeared. The dead card is discarded and the next card is dealt.

Whenever a player accepts a card, after betting against the dealer the player may also propose side bets against any other players who already have card in play. The new player proposes a bet and the other player accepts all, part or none of it. These side bets are kept off the cards, to avoid mixing them with bets against the banker. It is not possible to propose a side bet on a card without first betting on that card against the banker. When a player's card is matched, the player not only loses to the dealer, but also loses all side bets against players whose cards are still in play.

If there are any cards in the centre of the table, a player who loses is entitled to take any one of these cards, bet on it against the dealer and propose side bets against any other players with cards in play.

If the dealer's card is matched while there are unresolved side bets between players, the dealer continues dealing cards. The dealer may take the next fresh card dealt as a new banker's card, and the players with cards in play may bet against this card but are not obliged to. Alternatively the dealer may continue dealing without a card, to resolve the remaining side bets between the players.

Zecchinetta

Zecchinetta is the Italian equivalent of Lansquenet, which exists in several versions. Some Italian books describe a game very similar to French Lansquenet, with one card for the banker and one for the players. In the more usual version, which is particularly associated with Sicily but also played elsewhere, the players bet that their cards will not be matched before the banker's card. It differs from Skin in that two cards are initially dealt for the players, and that any player may bet on any of the players' cards. For information about this game I would like to thank Paolo Ronzoni and also Massimo Ilardo of oltreilpoker.it.

Since Zecchinetta has a bad reputation as a gambling game, it is illegal to play it in public places in Italy, but it is played privately, sometimes as a gambling game and sometimes as a social game for small stakes. It is also played in the USA, especially by Americans of Italian origin, and there it is called Ziginette. It is traditionally played with an Italian 40-card pack without 10's, 9's or 8's. In Italy, Latin suited cards are sometimes used for this game. The play is anti-clockwise.

To choose the first banker, each player draws a card from the shuffled pack. The player who draws the highest (or by agreement the lowest) card is the banker of the first hand. The banker determines the minimum and maximum amounts that a player can bet on a card.

The banker shuffles the deck, offers it to be cut, and then reveals the top two cards of the stock, saying “Per voi” (for you): these cards are the losing cards for the players. If the banker reveals two cards of the same rank all the cards are reshuffled and there is a new deal, with the same banker.

Now the players can bet on the two cards. When they have placed their bets, the banker reveals a third card and he says “Per me” (for me): this is the bank’s losing card, but if this third card has the same rank as one of the players' cards, the banker immediately wins all the bets. In this case the banker must pass on the bank to the next player to the right (“Il banco vince e passa”) for a new deal.

When the banker's card and the players' two cards are all different, the game can begin. The banker turns up cards from the stock, one at a time.

  1. If the banker turns up a card that matches one of the players' cards, the banker wins all the bets on this card. The card is discarded from the game and cards of this rank become carte male (bad cards). If the players still have cards in play the deal continues. If not the hand ends and the same player keeps the bank.
  2. If the banker turns up a card of a rank that has not been seen before - known as a "carta buona" or "carta franca" - it is put into play as an extra players' card, players can make new bets on it and the deal continues.
  3. If the banker turns up a “carta mala” (bad card) - a card which has already appeared two or more times - the card is discarded and the deal continues.
  4. If the banker turns up a card that matches the bank’s losing card, the banker must pay each player an amount equal to their outstanding bets. The hand ends and the bank passes to the next player to the right.

Since the banker has the advantage of winning when the two player cards are equal, the game should continue until all the players have had a turn to be the banker.

Variations

Often the first banker is chosen by dealing cards around until a player receives an ace.

There several alternative ways of dealing with the case when two or more of the first three cards are equal.

  1. Some play that all such cases the cards are reshuffled and the deal is restarted by the same dealer. In this game the odds are dead even: the banker has no advantage.
  2. Some play that any equal cards among the first three cards are stacked and act as a single player card. The dealer continues until cards of three different ranks have appeared. The third rank will be a single card, which is the banker's losing card. This is known as a "playette". In this version, if a player's card or stack of cards is matched, bets on that card lose to the bank immediately. But if the banker's card is matched, the banker only loses to single players' cards. If the players have stacks of cards, the matching card is placed on the banker's first losing card. The banker only loses to a stack when the banker's card has appeared more times than the cards in the player stack. So the banker loses top a players' two-card stack when the banker's card has been matched twice, and to a three-card stack when all four cards of the banker's losing rank appear, matching the banlker's card three times.

So far as I can tell, in a playette a player who wins on a stack is only paid out even money, and this seems to make it unprofitable ever to bet on a stack. The chance of winning on a two-card stack is only 30% and on a three card stack only 25%, so payouts at 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 respectively would be fairer.