Basra

Introduction

Basra is a Middle Eastern fishing game, somewhat similar to the Western game Casino. This page is based mainly on four accounts:

  • The first is from Bonnie Smith, who was taught the game by an Egyptian, but says that it is widely played in coffee houses throughout the Middle East;
  • The second was contributed by Alexey Lobashev, based on a description by Mr. Akabat Ibragim Khusim from the town of Sana, Yemen, who had played Basra for several years, also with a teacher from Egypt. Another name for the game is Assaba-al'-Komi. Adults only play it, not children.
  • The third is a description of the version played in the Lebanon, contributed by Toni Matni.
  • Thierry Depaulis has found another short description Lebanese Basra by Fuad I. Khuri, which is reproduced near the end of the page; the book from which this comes also gives the alternative name Ashush.
I would be interested to hear from anyone who can tell me more about Basra or Ashush or Assaba-al'-Komi; corrections or further variations of the rules, details of where the game is played, or any other relevant information would be welcome.

Players and cards

A standard 52 card pack is used. The descriptions I have been given of the Egyptian version are for two or four players. If there are four players, partners sit opposite each other.

Deal and Play

The cards are shuffled and the person to the left of the dealer cuts. The dealer may look at the bottom card of the pack after it has been cut.

The dealer then gives the four cards to each player, beginning with his right hand opponent, going around the table anticlockwise, and ending with himself. The next 4 cards are turned face up in the middle of the table. The area where the face up cards are set out is known as the "floor" - maybe the game was originally played on the floor, though nowadays it is normal to play on a table. If the cards on the floor include any jacks or the seven of diamonds, the dealer buries these cards in the undealt pack and replaces them by dealing new cards to the floor from the top of the undealt cards.

The player to dealer's right plays first and the turn to play passes anticlockwise. Each turn consists of playing one card face up to the floor and possibly capturing some of the cards that are there. Captured cards are placed face down in front of the player who captured them. When there are four players, partners keep the cards they have captured together in a single pile. When all players have played their four cards, the dealer gives them each another batch of four from the undealt cards (but no more cards are dealt to the floor) and play continues. When the whole pack has been dealt and the players have played their last four cards the play ends. The hand is scored and the turn to deal passes to the right.

Capturing and the Basra

If you play a card whose rank matches one of the cards on the floor, you capture that card, and place both the card you played and the captured card face down in front of you. For example a 7 captures a 7, a queen captures a queen, and so on.

If you play a numeral card whose value is equal to the sum of the values of some cards on the floor, then your card captures that group of cards. For example if the floor contains 3, 4, 5 and 8 and you play a 9, you capture the 5 and 4 and place the 5, 4 and 9 in your capture pile.

It is possible to make more than one capture with the same play. For example, if the floor shows a 4, 6, 10 and 3 and you play a 10, you capture the 10 and the 4 and the 6 from the floor along with the 10 that you played.

If you play a card that does not match anything, it stays face up on the floor, and is available for capture in future turns.

Note that there is no obligation to play a card that makes a capture just because you can - if you have a card that does not match, you can add it to the floor if you wish to. However, if you play a card which does make a capture, you must make the capture.

Queens and kings have no numerical value. A queen can capture or be captured by a queen and a king can capture or be captured by a king. The only other way to capture a queen or king is to play a special card (jack or seven of diamonds - see below).

A basra occurs when a player captures all the cards from the floor, leaving it empty. The player scores a 10 point bonus for this, and the capturing card is placed faced up in the player's capture pile, as a way of remembering the bonus when the time comes to score the hand.

Jacks have a special property. If you play a jack when there are cards on the floor, it captures all the cards from the floor, leaving it empty, but this does not count as a basra and scores no bonus. If you play a jack when the floor is empty it does not capture anything, but just remains on the floor.

The seven of diamonds behaves in a similar way to a jack - it captures everything on the floor. If the cards on the floor are all numerals, and their values add up to 10 or less, this counts as a basra, and scores the 10 point bonus. If the floor adds up to more than ten, or includes picture cards, the diamond7 still takes all the cards but it does not count as a basra. If you play the diamond7 to an empty floor it stays there (and can be captured later just like a normal seven).

After the last card has been played, any cards that remain on the floor are taken by the player who last made a capture, but this does not count as a basra.

Scoring

When all 52 cards have been played, the cards in each team's stack are counted. The team that has the majority of the cards (27 or more) scores 30 points. If it is a tie, each team having 26 cards, these 30 points are held in abeyance, and added to the score for the majority of cards on the next hand. So on the next hand, the team which takes more cards will win 60 points (30+30).

In addition one point is scored for each jack and each ace in your pile, two points for the club2 and 3 points for the diamond10, plus 10 points for each basra, as already mentioned. Thus the total points to be scored in each hand are 43 plus 10 for each basra.

Whichever team reaches a score of 101 points first wins the game. It is possible that both teams reach 101 in the same hand. In that case the team with the higher score wins, and in case of a tie, more hands are played until the tie is broken.

It is usual to play the best of five games - the player who wins three games wins the match and the loser pays for the shisa and beverages which have been consumed in great quantities all through play. If after four games, the players have won two each, then by common agreement decisive fifth game is played to 150 points rather than 101.

Customs and Tactics

It is important to remember the cards that have been played. Towards the end you know what cards your opponent is likely to have and what has already been played and you can use this knowledge to collect valuable cards. An important tactic is to clear the floor with a jack when you know that your opponent's next play to the empty floor is likely to give you a basra. In the last deal of the hand, if both players have been concentrating they will each know exactly what four cards the other has and can play accordingly.

Bonnie Smith writes that experts normally play in a constant state of movement - of themselves, of the cards - cards are moving all the time; much like a shell game. There is no overt cheating - it is drama and an attempt to distract the concentration of the opponent.

Variations

In the version reported by Bonnie Smith (which is for two players), the bottom card of the pack is shown to both players after the cut so that each knows what the last card will be.

Muntaha Haddad describes a variant played in Jordan, in which the score for a basra is twice the face value of the card used to make the capture, picture cards counting as 10 for this purpose. For example a basra with a 7 scores 14 points and a basra in which a Queen captures a lone Queen from the table score 20 points. The rest of the rules are the same as in the main description above.

In the version described by Alexey Lobashev, there are the following differences:

  • Although the capturing of all the cards from the floor by a jack does not normally count as a basra, there is one exception. If you play a jack when there is only one card on the floor and this card is also a jack, this counts as a 'double basra', and it is counted as 20 rather than 10. It is not clear whether this rule is used in Egypt, or whether it is a variation from Yemen.
  • When the seven of diamonds is played, it counts as a basra in the following cases:
    1. The total value of the cards on the floor is less than 10 (not if it is equal to 10)
    2. The only card(s) on the floor are tens, queens and kings
    3. The cards on the floor can be divided into two or more groups which score an equal number of points, less than 10. For example capturing A-2-7-8 with the diamond7 would be a basra, because (1+8)=(2+7)=9.
  • The Egyptian game was said to be played to a target of 121 points, though the target in Yemen was 101 points.

Basra in Lebanon

The game is for two or four players. Four play in teams of two against two, partners sitting opposite. A standard international 52 card pack is used. The turn to deal rotates. The dealer deals 6 cards to each player - all at once - and four cards face up to the middle of the table. The rest of the deck is put to one side to be dealt when the first six cards have been played.

The scoring values of the cards are:

  • 3 points for the diamond10
  • 2 points for the club2
  • 1 point for each jack
  • 1 point for each ace
  • 3 points for whichever player (or team) takes the majority of the cards (if they have 26 cards each, no one gets these points).

Thus there are 16 points available altogether unless there is a tie for most cards, in which case there are only 13 points. Note that the majority of cards is worth only 3 (not 30 as in Egypt and Yemen).

The play is begun by the player who received the first cards in the deal (that is the non-dealer if there are two players and the player to dealer's right if there are four). Then the turn to play rotates. The procedure for playing and capturing cards is as described above: a numeral card can capture an equal card or a set of cards that add up to its rank, or both; a jack captures everything on the table; a queen can only capture queens and a king can only capture kings. In this version the diamond7 has no special power.

In the Lebanese game, a Basra occurs only in the following two cases:

  1. A single card is left alone on the table - either because all the other cards were captured, or because the table was cleared (perhaps with a jack), forcing the next player to play a single card. If the following player can match this single card (thereby capturing it), this counts as a Basra and scores 10 points. Capturing a lone card other than a jack by playing a jack does not count as a Basra; capturing a lone jack with another jack counts as an ordinary single Basra, not a double one.
  2. There is a single card alone on the table, the next player plays a card that does not capture it, and the following player is able to clear the table by playing a card equal to the sum of these two cards. For example, the table contains a lone 3. The next player plays a 4 (perhaps having no other card). If the following player can play a 7, capturing the 3 + 4, this is a Basra, worth 10 points.

After the players have played all their cards the dealer deals another six cards each (but no more to the table) and play continues. In the two-player game it takes four deals to exhaust the pack; in the four player game there will only be two deals.

After the last card has been played, any cards that remain on the table are taken by the player who last made a capture. Then each player or team scores the cards taken plus basras. Further hands are played until either player or team reaches 101 or more points. Then the player or team with the higher score wins.

Here is a description of the same Lebanese game found by Thierry Depaulis in Fuad I. Khuri: "Tents and pyramids: games and ideology in Arab culture from backgammon to autocratic rule." Saqi books, London, 1990, Appendix F, p145-6. It seems that the only difference from the version described above is the possibility of playing with 3 people, in which case the deal would have to be 4 cards at a time rather than 6.

Basra (or ashush)

Like many card games, basra can be played with 2, 3 or 4 players. If with 4, 2 players normally team up against the other 2. But in order to increase the element of competition, people often play as individuals, without teams.
In basra, or ashush, cards are distributed to every player in one hump, in sets of 4 or 6 cards at a time. Four other cards are laid face upwards on the floor. The first player, that is the one sitting on the right of the dealer, tries to match the cards on the floor with the cards in his hand: ace matches ace, nine matches nine, king matches king, and so on. The card in the hand 'eats' the card it matches on the floor. If no cards match, the player then has to throw another card on the floor and the next player takes over. The right to deal rotates at every shuffle. A card in the hand could match the sum of the cards on the floor. For example, 9 matches 6 and 3, 2 and 7, 1 and 8, and 5 and 4. The knave (jack), which is called ashush, matches everything; it is an imam that 'eats' everything else on the floor, which is exactly what the term means in colloquial Arabic. In Bahrain, I have heard people referring to the knave as imam.
If a card is laid or left alone on the floor, it becomes vulnerable and could be taken as basra should it match a card in the hand. This could happen by manipulating the jack that eats everything else, thus forcing the next player to throw a lone card on the floor (vulnerablity of isolation).
The basra counts as 10, the ace 1, the knave 1; the 10 of diamonds counts as 3, the 2 of clubs as 2, and the player who gets the most cards wins 3 points. The game is won once a player accumulates the sum of 101 points. Aside from the specific cards mentioned above, other cards carry equivalent values with no distinction made between diamonds or hearts, clubs or spades, kings or queens, sevens or fours. The highest value obviously is placed upon the basra, which is a captured lone card, or a 'hostage'.

Software and Online Games

Basra can be played online at the Jawaker website.

You can play Basra online against a computer opponent at Kongregate.

You can download freeware Basra and Ashush programs from Thanos Card Games.