Oh Hell!

This page was originally based on a contribution from Carter Hoerr, rulekeeper for the OH HELL! Club of America. I have added some common variations.

Introduction

This game, in which players try to predict the exact number of tricks they will win, first appeared in London and New York in the 1930's and has since become popular in many parts of the world. Its original name Oh Hell! evidently offended some people and has been bowdlerised in many books to Oh Pshaw! or Oh Well!, while others have preferred more robust alternatives such as Oh Shit! Some call it Blob or Blackout, perhaps because of the practice of recording a player's bid on the scoresheet and then obliterating it with a black blob if the player failed to take the predicted number of tricks. Traditionally the size of the players' hands increases or decreases by one in each deal, and this has given rise to the names Elevator (l'Ascenseur in France), Up and Down the River (in Australia and New Zealand) and 10 op en neer in the Netherlands. In Britain it is often known as Nomination Whist, a name which also sometimes refers to different games. Other names include Bust (in Australia and New Zealand), Boerenbridge (in the Netherlands), Kachuful (in India) and German Bridge (in Hong Kong).

Players and Cards

From 3 to 7 people can play. The game is best when played with 4 to 6.

A standard 52 card deck is used. The cards in each suit rank (from high to low) A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2.

Sequence of Hands

The game consists of a series of hands. The first hand is played with 7 to 10 cards dealt to each player, depending on the number of players:

  • 3 to 5 players, 10 cards each;
  • 6 players, 8 cards each;
  • 7 players, 7 cards each

(because of the limit of 52 cards available). Each successive hand is played with one card fewer, down to a hand of just one card each, then one card more per hand back up to the starting level.

Example: With 7 players, the hands are: 7 cards, then 6,5,4,3,2,1, then 2,3,4,5,6,7, for a total of 13 hands to the game. A game should take approximately 45 minutes.

Object of the Game

The object is for each player to bid the number of tricks he thinks he can take from each hand, then to take exactly that many; no more and no fewer. Points are awarded only for making the bid exactly, and are deducted for missing the bid, either over or under (see scoring below).

The hook is that at least one player will fail on each hand, because the total number of tricks bid by the players may not equal the number of tricks available on that hand.

Deal

To determine the first dealer, draw cards. The player with the highest card deals first. The turn to deal rotates clockwise with each hand.

The cards are shuffled and cut and the dealer deals the cards singly until everyone has the appropriate number of cards for the hand being played. The next card is turned face up and the suit of this card is the trump suit for the hand. The trump suit beats any of the other three suits played in that hand. The remaining undealt cards are placed in a face down stack with the turned trump on top of it.

Bidding

The bidding in each hand begins with the player to the left of the dealer, then continues clockwise, back around to the dealer, who bids last. Each bid is a number representing the number of tricks that player will try to take. Everyone must bid - it is not possible to pass, but you can bid zero, in which case your object is to take no tricks at all. A bid may be changed only if the next player to the left has not yet bid. Remember the hook: the dealer may not bid the number that would cause the total number of tricks bid to equal the number of tricks available; a hand will always be "over-bid" or "under-bid". Keep in mind when bidding that not all cards in the deck are in play in any hand.

Play

The play begins with the player to the dealer's left, who leads the first card. The lead may be any suit (including trump). Play follows clockwise. Each player must follow the suit led, if he can. If not, he may play any other card in his hand, including trump. The player who has played the highest trump card, or if no trump was played, the highest card of the suit led, wins the trick. That player then leads to the next trick. Continue until all tricks have been played and won.

Scoring

The scorekeeper is designated prior to each game according to house rules. The scorekeeper, needless to say, has a distinct advantage, and should be monitored closely for "inadvertent" errors. The designated scorekeeper notes each bid and resulting scores on a score sheet. There are many different ways to score Oh Hell!

In the simplest version, a player who wins the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the number of tricks bid (10 points for zero tricks, 11 for 1 trick, 12 for two tricks, etc.) Players who take more or fewer tricks than they bid score nothing. This method has the advantage that the scorekeeper, having written down the bids at the start of the play, can simply write a figure "1" in front of those that were successful and delete those that are not. The game with this scoring method is often known as Blackout or Blob, because the scorer obliterates or blacks out unsuccessful bids, so that they become black blobs on the score sheet.

Perhaps the most widespread scoring method is to award 1 point for each trick won plus a bonus of 10 points for players who win exactly the number of tricks they bid. So for example a player who bid 2 would score 12 points for winning exactly 2 tricks, but only 1 for 1 trick and 3 for 3 tricks. This gives a player whose bid fails a slight incentive to win as many tricks as possible.

Some other scoring methods are given in the variations section below. Whatever method is used, the score keeper keeps a cumulative total of each player's score. The final cumulative scores determine the result. If the game is played for money, players pay or receive amounts corresponding to the difference of their scores from the average.

Several people have produced preprinted Oh Hell score sheets and applications, reflecting various scoring methods.

Variations

Sequence of Hands

There are a lot of variations of this. Some people start from 1 card each, go up to the maximum number of cards and then back down to 1. Some just go from the maximum down to 1 and then stop, or vice versa. If there are four people the maximum number of cards dealt may be 13 rather than 10, with three people you can go up to 17. Some people go up to some other maximum, such as 7 cards, irrespective of the number of players.

Dan Strohm describes a version, called Devil's Bridge, in which the hand size increases and then decreases. On the final 1 card hand, the players must each hold their card on their forehead, so each player can see all the other player's cards but not their own.

Bryce Francis reports that in Australia, when playing Bust with 5 players, they add 13 low cards from a second pack to make a 65 card pack, so as to deal 13 cards each on the first hand as with 4 players. When there are six players they add a further 13 low cards, so that the bottom half of the pack is duplicated. If duplicate cards are played to a trick, the second played beats the first.

Determining Trumps

Some sequences include hands in which all cards are dealt (for example 13 cards each to 4 players). There is of course then no card left to determine the trump suit. These hands are played without trumps. Some play the largest deals without trumps even if not all the cards are used.

Instead of turning up a card, some people go through the possible trump suits in a fixed sequence. This sequence may or may not include "no trumps".

In the Indian (Gujurati) game Kachuful, the sequence of trump suits is spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts and the name of the game, which literally means 'raw flower', is also a mnemonic for this sequence: Ka = Kari = Spades, Chu = Chukat = Diamonds, Fu = Falli = Clubs, L = Lal = Hearts

Brad Wilson describes a version called "Oh Shit!" in which Spades are always trumps.

Jean-Pierre Coulon reports a variation in which after the appropriate number of cards have been dealt to the players, the next card is turned face up. If the rank of the turned up card is from 2 to 6, there are no trumps for the deal; if it is 7 or higher, the suit of the turned up card is trumps.

Bidding

Some people play without the hook rule, so the dealer is allowed to bid in such a way that everyone can win. There was a lively discussion in rec.games.playing-cards as to which version is more skilful, with strong advocates of each. Some think that hands where the bids add up are too easy; but others say that forcing the bids not to add up removes a tactical option from the dealer.

Some play with simultaneous bidding. When the players are ready to bid, they put a fist on the table. When everyone's fist is out, the group says "One, Two, Three" while bouncing their fists on the table. On Three, everyone must stick out some number of fingers (possibly zero) to indicate how many tricks they will try to take. Of course, with this method, there's no restriction against the total number of bid tricks being equal to the number of cards dealt. Since players cannot adjust their bids based on the other players' bids, the total tricks bid can be wildly different from the tricks available - for example it is not uncommon for three or four players to bid "one" when only one card was dealt. Several correspondents report that in Australia, most groups use simultaneous bidding rather than bidding in turn.

Play

Some play that the dealer, rather than the player to dealer's left, leads to the first trick.

David Wuori (of Maine, USA) reports a variation in which a player who has no card of the suit led must trump. Only if you have no cards of the suit led and no trumps can you discard from a different non-trump suit. Although this is rule is uncommon in English speaking countries, it is actually the usual way of playing La Podrida (the Spanish equivalent to Oh Hell played in Latin America and in Spain) as well as the equivalent Romanian game of Whist.

Mark Brader suggests a variation in which two jokers are included, to make a 54-card deck. These jokers are a suit of their own containing just two equal cards. If a joker is led it wins the trick unless trumped. If a joker is turned up the other joker is the only trump.

Dick Atkinson reports a version of Blackout for 5 or 6 players, played in Northeast England in the 1970s. Two jokers are added to the pack, and if there are 5 players the four deuces are removed leaving 50 cards. With 5 players the deal is always 10 cards each and with 6 players 9 cards each. The trump suit rotates from deal to deal in the order hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades. The dealer could not make the bid total equal the number of cards dealt. Jokers could not be led (unless the player had no other cards) and could not be played in the first trick. Apart from that, a joker could be played to any trick (even if the player could have followed suit). The first player of a joker could nominate it as either "high", automatically winning the trick or "low", automatically losing. The player of the second joker had no choice: it would be low if the first joker was high and high if the first was low. If a player was forced to lead a joker, the first suited card played determined the suit of the trick.

Scoring

There are many alternative systems.

  • Some players give the usual 10-point bonus for a successful positive bid but award only 5 points for a successful bid of zero. Others award 5 plus the number of cards dealt to each player for a successful zero bid, recognising the fact that zero is more difficult when more cards are dealt.
  • Some score 10 points for each trick bid and won for a successful bid. A successful "zero" bid wins 10 points. A player whose bid is unsuccessful (over or under) loses 10 points times the difference between the number of tricks won and the number of tricks bid.
  • Another system is that you win 5 points if you are right plus 10 for each trick taken, and you lose 5 points if you are wrong plus an extra 5 for each trick difference from your bid.
  • Yet another system: if you make your bid exactly you score 10 points plus the square of the number of tricks you bid (i.e. 10 points for none, 11 for one, 14 for two, 19 for three, 26 for four, etc.); if you fail you lose the square of the difference between the number of tricks you bid and the number of tricks you took.
  • Some play for a single winner, who is the player with the highest score when the whole series of hands has been played. In case of a tie after the last hand, some deal further hand(s) with the maximum number of cards until a clear winner is determined. The winner may not be any of those involved in the original tie - any player can win until the end.

More variations

The Oh Hell Variations page in the Invented Games section of this site has a collection of Oh Hell variations contributed by readers.

A version of Oh Hell! under the Dutch name Boerenbridge was formerly available to play against three computer opponents at Kaartspellen online (www.useme.nl/kaartspellen). In the variation offered there:

    • The whole pack is dealt every time - 13 cards each to four players.
    • Bidding is simultaneous.
    • Score 1 point for each trick won, plus a bonus of 10 is you make your bid exactly.
    • If you bid and make zero you score 20 points.
    • If your score is 80 or more you do not take part in the bidding, but just score 1 for each trick you win.
    • The objective is to score exactly 100; if you go over 100 you bounce back - your excess over 100 is subtracted from 100.

La Podrida is the equivalent Spanish game to Oh Hell!, played with a 52-card pack. There is also a similar game La Pocha, played with the 40-card Spanish deck.

Romanian Whist is a variation of Oh Hell!, played in Romania with a 32-card pack.

David Parlett's 36-card game Ninety-Nine is based on similar principles, but with an extra twist to the bidding.

German Bridge is a version of Oh Hell played in Hong Kong. You gain (10 + (bid)2) if successful and lose (bid - tricks)2 if not.

Nominations or Clag is a British variant which adds some extra deals with special rules.

Other Oh Hell WWW pages

  • David Zechiel's page gives Al Okenuff's rules of Oh Hell, in which the highest bidder chooses trumps; the scores for high bids escalate in such a way that it is worth going set on a low bid if by doing so you can destroy the high bidder's bid as well.
  • Nicholas Cheung's Oh Hell page.
  • Rules of Oh Hell are available on the Card Game Heaven site.
  • Archive copy of Dave Barker's former page of Rules for Oh Hell
  • Archive copy of Brad Wilson's former Oh Shit! page.
  • Jean-François Bustarret's page L'Ascenseur has rules in French.

Software

Malcolm Bain's shareware Oh Hell program for Windows includes a Blackout-style scoring option.

Sean O'Connor's shareware Oh Hell program is available under the name Niggle - you can buy it or download a free trial version.

You can download a freeware Oh Hell! program from Thanos Card Games.

Far Whist is a free program by Vincent Brévart with which you can play Elevator Whist, Oh Hell!, Romanian Whist and many other variations.

From Axel Brink's 10 op en neer page (in Dutch) you can obtain his computer program that plays a variation of Oh Hell in which the number of cards dealt per hand are: 1, 2, ..., 9, 10, 9, ..., 1. There is no hook rule. If a player makes his bid exactly, he gets 10 points plus his bid. If he misses his bid (over or under), he gets 0 points.

Jack Marrows has written a two-player Oh Shit! program with which you can play online against the computer. His version has the unusual feature that the jack of trumps is highest, followed by the other jack of the same colour, as in Euchre or 500.

Alex Quarmby has written a Contract Whist (Oh Hell) app for Android, with which you can play against up to 5 computer opponents.

Javier Garcia has written an Oh Hell! app for iPad, and apps for the similar South American games La Pocha and La Podrida for iPhone.

Online Oh Hell! Games

The version of Oh Hell! offered at Game Duell is in fact equivalent to the proprietary game Wizard, played with a 60-card deck including four owls (wizards) and four moles (jesters).

From the Tams11 lobby you can obtain a Windows Oh Pshaw game (equivalent to Oh Hell) that can be played on line against live opponents.

Blackout can be played by e-Mail on Richard's Play-By-eMail Server.

Oh Hell! can be played online at PlayOK Online Games (formerly known as Kurnik)

Mana Battery publishes online games (including Oh Hell) for the Microsoft Xbox 360, Windows Phone, IOS and Android.

On the Rummy Network you can play Rikiki (a Hungarian version of Oh Hell) online. This is the English edition of the Hungarian UltiNet site.

At Ludopoli (Italian language) a version of Oh Hell is offered under the name Whist (or Bid Whist).

Funnode has an online version of Oh Hell! under its Indian name Kachu Ful.

Oh Hell! Score Sheets and Applications

Here are some iPhone apps for keeping score at Oh Hell: