Svoi Kozyri

This page is based mainly on information provided by Alexey Lobashev.

Introduction

The Russian card game Svoi Kozyri ("one's own trumps") is a single attack beating game, the earliest printed descriptions of which date from the 19th century. It has survived to the present day as Vsyak svoi kozyri ("everyone has their own trumps"), though it is rarely played nowadays. This page describes this modern game.

During the game, players play cards from their hand to a face-up play pile in the centre of the table, the object being to get rid of all your cards. A player who cannot or does not wish to play must pick up one or more cards from the top of the play pile. After all but one player has played all their cards, the last player left holding cards is the loser.

Players, cards and trumps

While Svoi Kozyri is playable by two, three or four players, it is best for four. A standard Russian 36 card pack is used, with cards ranking from high to low A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 in each of the four suits.

Each player chooses a different trump suit. Normally the players agree among themselves before the start of the game who will have which suit, and inform the dealer. Cards of a player's own trump suit can be used to trump any card of any other suit.

The deal

Any player can deal the first hand; subsequently the loser of each hand deals the next. The dealer shuffles, the player to dealer's right can cut (though in practice players often omit the cut), and the dealer deals out all the cards to the players, clockwise, one at a time.

Before play begins, the players look at their cards and if they have any sixes, they give them to the player who has that suit as trumps. So at the start of the play, each player has at least one trump, though the players may have unequal numbers of cards (unless each player was dealt just one six originally).

The play

The game is played clockwise. The player to the left of the dealer begins by leading any card face-up in the centre of the table to start the play pile. Subsequent players in turn have two options:

  1. The player can beat the top card of the play pile, by playing a higher card of the same suit or by playing one of their own trumps on a card of a different suit. Having done this, the player must play another card on top of it; this second card can be any card the player chooses. Both the beating card and the second card are placed face-up on top of the play pile.
  2. A player who cannot or does not wish to beat the top card of the play pile must instead pick up some cards from the top of the play pile, as specified below. These cards are added to the player's hand. The turn then passes to the following player, who can either beat the top card of the remaining play pile or pick up further cards.

Note that it is not necessary to "follow suit". If the top card of the play pile is not one of your own trumps, you may always beat it by playing one of your own trumps, even if you have cards of the same suit as the top card in your hand. A card of your own trump suit can only be beaten by playing a higher card of your own trump suit. When you are beating a card, it does not matter whether the card belongs to the trump suit of the person who played it - in your turn it is only your own trumps that have any special power.

A normal play always consists of two cards - one card to beat the top card of the pile, and a second card which can be any card that you want to lead. The pile formed by the played cards should be stacked so that only the top card is visible. Some experienced players play both cards together - the card to beat the previous play with the second card on top of it. In this case the opponents are entitled to look at the first of the two cards if they wish, to see what it is and check that it really does beat the previous play.

If you cannot or do not wish to beat the top card of the pile when it is your turn to do so, you must pick up this card and further cards from the pile as follows:

  • If the top card of the pile is not one of your trumps, you pick up the top three cards from the pile, or the whole pile if it contains three or fewer cards.
  • If the top card of the pile is one of your trumps other than the ace, you pick up the top five cards from the pile, or the whole pile if it contains five or fewer cards;
  • If the top card of the pile is the ace of your trump suit, you must pick up the whole pile.

After a player picks up, it is the following player's turn. If there are still one or more cards in the pile, this player must beat the now exposed top card of the play pile or pick it up, just as though this card had been led. If the whole pile has been taken, the next player simply leads any single card, as at the start of the game.

The player whose turn it is to play is in all cases allowed, before deciding whether to beat the top card of the pile or to pick up, to inspect the card(s) which would have to be picked up and the following card which the next player would have the opportunity to beat.

The endgame

The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards. As the players run out of cards they drop out of the game and the others play on. If a player's last card is used to beat the top card of the pile, and there are still at least two other players in the game, the next player in turn does not have to beat this card, but simply leads any card on top of the pile for the following player to beat or pick up.

A player who holds a lot of cards will sometimes spread them out face up on the table, arranging them by suit, to get a better overview.

The last player left holding cards is the loser. This player shuffles the cards and deals the next hand.

If the last player in the game has just one card, which can be used to beat the previous player's lead, then the game is a draw. The loser of the previous game deals the cards again for the next game. The saying is: "an old fool is worse than two new ones".

Variations

The number of cards which a player must pick up from the pile as an alternative to beating the top card varies in different parts of Russia, as do several other details of the rules.

Besikovich's game

One of the few beating games whose rules have been published in English is a two-player version of Svoi Kozyri brought to Cambridge, England by the mathematician Professor A.S. Besikovitch. The rules were published in the journal Eureka 1953, page 8, and also under the name "Challenge" in Hubert Philips' collection of card games, now widely available as "The Pan Book of Card Games".

The game is extremely similar to the 19th century version of Svoi Kozyri, in which the alternative to beating the top card of the play pile was to take the whole play pile, no matter what card was on top of the pile. The difference is that Besikovich's game is played with all the cards exposed on the table from the start, and to begin with the cards are arranged so that both players have equivalent hands - that is, they each have the same cards in their own trump suit, the same cards in each other's trump suit, and equivalent cards in the other two suits. This is achieved by dealing the pack face up to the two players, leaving the dealer's trump suit and one other suit as it is, and redistributing the cards in the other two suits.

Besikovich's game is therefore a two-player card game of complete information in which the players have symmetrical starting positions. This gives it a unique character, more akin to a board game such as chess than to a normal card game. The game can be made simpler (and shorter) or more complex by adjusting the number of cards in the pack.

The Eureka article mentions (without giving details) versions of Svoi Kozyri for three or four players, but gives the two player game with exposed cards as the principal recommended form of the game. It states that Svoi Kozyri was popular in Belarus, in the countryside but not in the towns. We know of no Russian source for the symmetrical two-player version of Svoi Kozyri, and it seems possible that Professor Besikovitch might have invented it himself.