Back Alley

This page is based on information collected from several contributors.

Introduction

Back Alley, also known as Back Alley Bridge or sometimes as Back Street Bridge originated in the American military, probably during World War II. The practice of varying the number of cards dealt on each hand and of determining the trump suit at random is slightly reminscent of Oh Hell!, but the objective in this game is always to win tricks, not to take the exact number that were bid.

The first version of Back Alley described on this page, which seems to be the more prevalent, may have originated in the 1960's during the Vietnam war. It is a partnership game, normally played with two jokers, known as bloopers, and the game itself is sometimes called Blooper. It has a fairly strong similarity to Spades, in that the bids of the partners are added together.

The second version is played without partners. There are no jokers, and the diamond2 is usually the highest trump. This version corresponds more closely to the original game played in the 1940's.

Partnership Back Alley

Players

There are four players in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite. The game is played clockwise.

Cards

54 - a standard 52 card pack with two distinguishable jokers, big and little. The jokers are known as bloopers or blookers. The cards in each non-trump suit rank from high to low A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2. The big blooper is the highest trump and the little blooper is second highest, so the order of trumps is BB-LB-A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2.

Deal

13 cards each in the first hand, then one card fewer each successive hand down to one card each. Then a second hand with one card dealt to each player and rising again to a final deal of 13 each, so that there are 26 deals in a complete game. Turn to deal passes clockwise. So a complete game consists of 25 deals. After the four hands have been dealt the next card is turned up and its suit is trumps for the hand. If the turn up is a joker (blooper) there are no trumps and the holder (if any) of the other joker must discard it and take the next undealt card in exchange.

Bidding

Starting to dealer's left, each player in turn has just one bid. The possible bids are 'pass', a positive whole number, or 'board'. There is no requirement for each bid to be higher than the previous one.

  • If all pass the cards are thrown in and there is a new deal of the same number of cards by the next dealer.
  • If both members of a team bid a number, those numbers are added and the team's aim is to win at least that many tricks. A pass counts as zero. So if the members of a team bid 1 and 4 they try to win at least 5 tricks between them. If they bid pass and 3 they try to win at least 3 tricks. If both pass they have no minimum target, though any tricks they do win will benefit them slightly. The maximum number bid allowed is one less than the number of cards dealt.
  • A player who bids 'board' commits his or her team to try to win all the tricks. If more than one player bids board, the second board bid is a 'double board', the third is a 'triple board' and the fourth is a 'quadruple board'.

Play

The highest bidder leads to the first trick. If more than one player bid the same number the earliest of those bidders leads. If more than one player bid a board the last of them leads.

Players must follow suit. If unable to follow suit you may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if it contains no trumps, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of a trick leads to the next.

It is illegal to lead a trump unless either

  1. trumps have been 'broken' - i.e. someone has already played a trump to a previous trick, or
  2. you have bid a board (or a double, triple or quadruple board).

If the big blooper is led to a trick, each of the other players must play their highest trump. If the little blooper is led the other players must play their lowest trump (note that the little blooper might still be beaten if someone's only remaining trump was the big blooper). These constraints do not apply when a blooper is played other than as the first card of a trick. Also, a player who has no trumps is free to discard any card when a blooper is led.

Scoring

A team which wins at least as many tricks as they bid scores 5 points per trick bid, plus 1 point for each trick won in excess of the bid. If they win fewer tricks than they bid, they lose 5 points for each trick bid.

A team which bid board scores 10 points per trick if they succeed in winning all the tricks; if they fail they lose the same amount (e.g. 50 points in a five card hand). A team which bid double, triple or quadruple board wins 2, 3 or 4 times as much. (When a team bids board only their highest bid counts; the other partner's bid does not affect the score).

Variations

Boards
Some play that after any player has bid board, the player's partner may increase the team's bid to a double board, which scores 15 points per trick. So if you started with a number and your partner bid board, you could increase it to double board. In this version it is possible for both teams to bid board or double board independently of each other; there is no triple or quadruple board bid. In determining the first lead, I think that double board takes precedence over board, and between two equal bids, the player whose first turn to bid was earlier has precedence.
Boston
This is a bid, in a hand with more than 6 cards dealt, undertaking that the bidding team will win the first 6 tricks. It is worth 100 points for the first 6 tricks plus 1 for each additional trick. If the bidding team loses any of the first 6 tricks, they lose 100 points.
Rainbow
In this popular variation, when exactly four cards are dealt, a hand consisting of one card of each suit is called a rainbow. This can be announced at the player's turn to bid for an extra bonus of 40 points provided that the player wins at least one trick. The rainbow player leads to the first trick. In the event that more than one player bids rainbow, the first rainbow bidder leads to the first trick.
Some also allow rainbow to be announced with 2 cards of each suit in the 8-card deal for 80 points and with 3 cards of each suit in the 12-card deal for 120 points. To score these points the rainbow player has to win at least 2 tricks with an 8-card rainbow and at least 3 with a 12-card rainbow.
If the rainbow player fails to take the required tricks (at least 1 trick with four cards, 2 tricks with 8 cards, 3 tricks with 12 cards), the rainbow points are subtracted from the team's score instead of added. Partner's tricks do not help here - if you announce a rainbow you have to take the required tricks yourself or lose the points. Of course, a player with a rainbow hand is not obliged to announce the rainbow, and should not do so unless there is a good chance of winning the required tricks.
The rainbow announcement also counts as a normal bid of the relevant number of tricks, and the player can increase it by announcing "rainbow+1", "rainbow+2", etc. This is then added to partner's bid as usual. Example: with 8 cards dealt North bids "rainbow+1" (meaning 3 tricks) and South bids 1. This commits the team to win at least 4 tricks. If North wins 2 and South wins 3 they will score +101 points: 80 for the rainbow, 20 for the bid and one for the overtrick. If North wins 2 tricks and South 1 they score +60, winning 80 for the rainbow but losing 20 for the failed bid. If North wins 1 trick and South wins 3 they score -60, losing 80 for the rainbow but winning 20 for the bid.
Some play the rainbow announcement without the trick-taking requirement. Announcing a rainbow with 4 cards at your turn to bid simply gives your team a bonus of 40 points as compensation for telling everyone that you have a card of every suit. The rainbow player also makes a normal bid or pass which is added to partner's bid in the usual way.
Usually a player who has announced a rainbow is required to keep their cards on the table in front of them as they are played, rather than have them gathered up with the tricks, so that everyone can verify that the rainbow player really has the claimed distribution of suits.
Blind bids
Some play that at the halfway point up and down (the 7-card deals with 4 players), the hands are bid "blind" (i.e. without looking at the cards). In this version, if a joker is turned as trump it is "burned" (put at the bottom of the deck) and trump is determined by the next card turned. In the case where both jokers are "burned" and there are no more cards available (i.e. at the 13-card deal with 4 players), there is no trump. The score is the number of tricks bid plus the number of tricks won if the bid is successful. If the tricks won are less than tricks bid, the team loses 2 points per trick bid regardless of how many were won. There are no "board" bids.
Number of players and individual play
3 players can play as individuals, starting at 13 cards each and working down to 1 card and back to 13 as usual. 4 can play as individuals rather than in partnerships. 5 can play as individuals, starting and ending at 10 cards each. I have been told that 6 could play - presumably they form 2 teams of three or 3 teams of two.
Big blooper
Some play that when your partner leads the big blooper, you do not have to waste your highest trump: you are allowed to follow with a low trump. Some say that you must play your lowest trump - which is usually what you would wish to do anyway.
Cards dealt
I have been told that some do not vary the deal, but deal the same number of cards each time - presumably 13.
Some play 25 deals rather than 26, with just one one-card deal in the middle.
Game with high two of spades
This 26-deal game is played with a 52-card deck without jokers. The game begins with a 1-card deal, then increases one at a time to the maximum 13 cards and decreases again to 1 card. There are two 13-card deals in the middle, and in these the deck is cut before dealing to determine trumps. The two of spades is normally the highest trump, above the ace, and counts as belonging to the trump suit. The exception is when the two of spades is cut or turned for trump, in which case there are no trumps.
Trumps cannot be led except in two cases: (a) when the leader is "tight" (holds nothing but trumps) and (b) the leader holds two of spades and chooses to lead it. When the two of spades is led the other players must play their highest trumps to this trick. The player who led the spade two can then continue to lead trumps (but the other players do not have to play high) until he loses a trick. Once the player who led the spade two loses a trick or leads anything other than trump, it is again illegal to lead trumps unless the player on lead is tight.
Players sitting opposite are partners, but the scoring is based on the tricks won by individual players compared to their bids, and the partners' scores are then combined. The score is 10 points per trick bid and made plus one for each overtrick. If the bid fails the loss is 10 points per trick bid. Example: if North bids 4, South bids 2 and they win 3 tricks each, then North scores -40 and South +21 for a total of -19 for the partnership.
Board can be bid only on the 1-card deals: after a player has bid 1, another player can bid "board" for 20, a third player "double board" for 30 and the last player "triple board" for 40.
On a deal of 7 or more cards, if any player has no trumps the hands are thrown in and redealt, unless it was a no-trump deal (two of spades cut or turned for trump).
Reduced Deck
I have seen one report of a version played with a reduced deck of 42 cards, with 4's, 3's and 2's removed. In the first hand 10 cards each are dealt and this is reduced by one for each subsequent hand as usual.
All: game without jokers
One correspondent reports a variation known as "All", played without jokers (in the 13-card deals the cards are cut for trump before dealing). Instead of the "board" bid, there is a bid of "all", allowed only when 5 or fewer cards each are dealt. This is a commitment that the player's team will win every trick and scores 25 points if successful or loses 25 points if not.
Spades trump
Some play with Spades as permanent trumps, instead of turning up a card for trumps on each deal.
Redeal
Some play that when a hand of 6 or more cards are dealt, a player who has no aces, no face cards and no trumps is allowed to demand a new deal by the same dealer.

Individual Back Alley

This version of the game dates from World War II. It is played with a 52 card pack without jokers. The two of diamonds is highest trump, followed by the Ace of the trump suit, so the trumps rank diamond2-A-K-Q-J-10-9- etc.

The game is played by two, three or four players, without partners. If there are fewer than four players there will be undealt cards, even in the 13-card hand.

There are 14 deals in a game. In the first deal, 13 cards are dealt to each player. In each subsequent deal, the number of cards dealt is reduced by one, and the last two deals are of one card each.

Before the 13-card deal with 4 players, the cards are cut to determine the trump suit; in all other deals, the first undealt card is turned up to determine the trump suit. If the diamond2 is cut or turned up, diamonds are trumps.

Each player in turn bids a number of tricks. A bid of no tricks is a pass, and if all players pass, the hand is redealt by the same dealer.

The highest bidder leads to the first trick; if there were several equally high bids the first of these bidders leads. Any card can be led - there are no restrictions on leading trumps. It is compulsory to follow suit whenever you can; note that (unless diamonds are trumps) the diamond2 is not a diamond but is treated as belonging to the trump suit. A player unable to follow suit to a non-trump lead must trump. If a non-trump lead has already been trumped, a subsequent player who is unable to follow suit must beat the highest trump in the trick if possible - if unable to do this he may play any card. A player who is unable to follow suit may play any card.

For the hands with more than one card dealt, if you make at least as many tricks as you bid, you score 3 points for each you bid, plus one extra point for each trick you make in excess of your bid. If you fail to make as many tricks as you bid, you lose 3 points for each trick that you bid, irrespective of how many you made.

If you bid for all the available tricks, this is called board, and you win 6 points per trick bid if successful and lose 6 points per trick bid otherwise. There are no double board bids, but it is possible for more than one player to bid board.

On the one card deals, you only options are to bid board - for which you win 13 points if you win the trick and lose 13 points if you don't - or to pass - in which case you score no points regardless of whether or not you win the trick.

Variations of Individual Back Alley

18 deal game
Some start at a deal of 9 cards each, work down to 1 (twice) and back up to 9 for a total of 18 deals. A player who has one cards of each suit in a 4-card deal can declare this during the bidding for a 5-point bonus. Declaring two cards of each suit in the 8-card deal gives a 10-point bonus. A board bid is worth an extra 10 points if successful, but loses an extra 10 points if it fails. The correspondent who reported this version calls it "Oh Hell", a name which is normally used for a different game in which the aim is to take the exact number of tricks that are bid.
Twos of diamonds and trumps high
Some play that if diamonds are not trumps, the second highest trump is the two of the trump suit, and the trump ace is third highest.
26 deal version
This may have originated in the Korean War. There is no high two - the ace of trumps is highest. After the two one-card deals, further hands are played with the number of cards dealt to each player increasing by one each time, up to the maximum 13. Trumps cannot be led until they have been broken. Players score 5 points each for tricks bid and made, plus 1 point for each overtrick. A player who makes fewer tricks than they bid loses 5 points per undertrick. A player can bid "bort" (presumably a corruption of "board"), an undertaking to win every trick, scoring 10 points per trick if successful, but otherwise losing the full amount of the bid. In the four-card deal a player with a "rainbow" (one card of each suit) can declare it during the bidding for a 40 point bonus. The cards are not shown at this stage: the other players should check that the player really has the claimed rainbow. A false rainbow announcement loses 40 points.
This game is intermediate between the two main versions described on this page. It is an individual game, but the deal sequence, the play (no trump leads until broken), the scoring and the rainbow bid are more typical of the newer partnership game.

Other Back Alley WWW Pages

This archive copy of Sgt Grit's Back Alley Bridge Rules gives another description of the game with bloopers.

A commercial version of Back Alley was advertised at http://www.backalleygames.com but the web site has since disappeared. I have not seen the actual product, but there were some rules on the web page. The game is related to WWII game described above, and there are no partnerships. It is played with a special pack of 56 cards: four suits of 13 plus four identical wild cards. No card is turned for trumps - the only trumps are the four wild cards. If you can't follow suit you must trump with a wild card if you have one, and when a wild card is played subsequent players are released from the obligation to follow suit in that trick and may play any card. If several wilds are played to a trick the first wins. It's illegal to lead a wild card unless you have nothing else in your hand. Before play each player can discard one card and draw one of the undealt cards. Score is 3 points per trick bid plus 1 per overtrick if successful; lose 3 per trick bid if unsuccessful.

Contributors

Most of the information on this page is based on e-mails and news postings from Charles Petro, Howard L Wagner, Rand Collins, Daniel Grimes, Cindy Ingels, Douglas Nitch, David Brandt, Amber Sexton, Becky B, Tim Arview and Vincent Higginbotham.