Twenty-Nine

This page is partly based on information from Kishor Gordhandas, Nirmal Misra, Rana Pratap Singh, Siddhartha Srivastava, Jahed Ahmed, Debojyoti De and Asif Al Hye.

Introduction

This is one of a group of South Asian trick-taking games in which the Jack and the Nine are the highest cards in every suit. It is almost certain that they are descended from the European family of Jass games, which originated in the Netherlands. Probably they were brought to the Indian subcontinent by Dutch traders.

I do not have much information on the geographic distribution of 29, but I have the impression that it is popular across much of the northern part of India, including Bombay and West Bengal, and also in Bangladesh.

The descriptions of this game I have seen disagree with each other in many details. Probably there are many variations: possibly the game is played different ways by players in different parts of India and abroad. I would be very grateful if any experienced 29 players reading this could write to me with more details of these and other variations of this game, and the areas where they are played.

Players and Cards

29 is usually played by four players in fixed partnerships, partners facing each other.

32 cards from a standard 52-card pack are used for play. There are eight cards in each of the usual "French" suits: hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. The cards in every suit rank from high to low: J-9-A-10-K-Q-8-7. The aim of the game is to win tricks containing valuable cards. The values of the cards are:

Jacks3 points each
Nines2 points each
Aces1 point each
Tens1 point each
Other cards (K, Q, 8, 7)       no points

This gives a total of 28 points for cards. In some versions of the game, the last trick is worth an extra card point, for a total of 29: this total explains the name of the game. Most players nowadays do not count the point for the last trick, but the name of the game is still 29, even when playing this version with only 28 points.

Traditionally, the Twos, Threes Fours and Fives discarded from the full 52-card pack are used as trump indicators: each player takes a set of these cards, one of each suit. The Sixes are used to keep score: each partnership uses one red and one black Six for this purpose.

Deal and Bidding

Deal and play are clockwise; the cards are shuffled by the dealer and cut by the player to dealer's right. Four cards are then dealt to each player, one at a time.

Based on these four cards, players bid for the right to choose trumps. Each bid is a number, and the highest bidder undertakes that his or her side will win in tricks at least the number of points bid. The player to dealer's left speaks first, and subsequent players, in clockwise order, may either bid higher or pass. The minimum bid allowed is 15 and the maximum is 28 (assuming that the point for the last trick is not counted). If any player bids, the auction continues for as many rounds as necessary until three players pass in succession. If the first three players pass, the dealer is forced to bid 15, which ends the auction.

The final bidder chooses a trump suit and to indicate the chosen suit, arranges the face down pile of Twos to Fives that are not used in the play so that a card of the chosen suit is at the bottom, but does not show this card to the other players. The dealer then completes the deal, giving four more cards to each player, so that everyone has eight.

The Play

The player to the dealer's left leads to the first trick; players must follow suit if possible, and the winner of each trick leads to the next. Initially the trump suit is unknown to the players other than the bidder. The first player who is unable to follow suit must ask the bidder to declare the trump suit; the bidder then shows the trump indicator card to everyone. If the bidder is the first player unable to follow suit, he must declare what suit is trumps at that point. A player unable to follow suit may play any card; there is no obligation to play a trump, even for the player who required trumps to be declared. Starting from the trick during which the trump suit is declared, each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or by the highest card of the suit led if it contains no trumps.

At any time after the trump has been declared, a player who holds both the King and Queen of trumps in hand can declare them immediately after he or his partner has won a trick. This combination is called 'Royals', or a 'Pair'. Note that a player who originally held the King and Queen of trumps cannot declare them if one or both of them has already been played, and that they can only be declared after the declaring side has won either the trick during which trumps were declared or a later trick. If the Pair is declared by the bidder or his partner, the effect is to reduce by 4 the number of card points they require to fulfill their bid, subject to a minimum of 15; if an opponent of the bidder declares a Pair, it increases the number of points required by the bidding side by 4, subject to a maximum of 28 (assuming there is no point for the last trick).

Scoring

When all eight tricks have been played, each side counts the card points in the tricks it has won, the winners of the last trick adding an extra card point. If the bidding side took at least as many card points as they bid, adjusted for a declaration of a Pair if appropriate, they win one game point; otherwise they lose one game point. The score of the team playing against the bidder does not change.

Each side keeps score using a red Six (known as nali or red chaka) and a black Six (known as kala or black chaka), from the cards not used in the game. These are arranged to display either a number of red pips, representing a positive score, or a number of black pips, for a negative score. At the start of the game no pips are showing. If the bidding side wins, they expose one extra red pip or (if they had black pips showing) cover one black pip; if they lose they expose a black pip or cover a red pip. The game is won by the first team to reach a cumulative score of plus 6 game points, shown by six red pips. It also ends if a team reaches minus 6 game points (six black pips), thereby losing the game.

Variations

Sequence of play

In some regions 29 is played counter-clockwise. In this case it is the player to dealer's right who bids first and leads the first card. Also, some play that the bidding and play are begun by the dealer.

Last trick

It has already been mentioned that some players score an extra point for the last trick, though most do not. With the point for the last trick, the highest bid possible is 29, which explains the name of the game. Those who play without the point for the last trick, so that the highest score is 28, sometimes explain the name 29 of the game by saying that it is the total of the numbers of points required by each team to succeed. For example if the bid is 16 and there are 28 points in play, the opponents need at least 13 points to defeat the bid, and 16+13=29.

Bidding

Some play that the lowest bid allowed is 16. In this case, a Pair (king-queen of trumps) declared by the team that made trumps cannot reduce their requirement below 16.

Some players add a Joker to each player's supply of trump indicator cards. It is then possible for the bidder to select 'No Trumps' instead of a trump suit by placing the Joker at the bottom of the pile. When 'No Trumps' are selected, it is of course impossible to declare a Pair.

Reverse

Imran Kabir of Kolkata describes this variation, which is popular in West Bengal.

By selecting a 2 of any suit as the trump indicator, the bidder selects a No Trump game in which the ranking of the cards is reversed (7 highest, Jack lowest) although the point values remain the same. The reversed ranking applies to the trick in which trumps are asked for and all the tricks after that. Example: the heartJ is led, the second player has no hearts, calls "trump", and the bidder exposes the spade2, reversing the ranking. There are no trumps and the second player has no hearts so cannot win the trick: he plays the clubK. Player 3 plays the heartQ and player 4 the heart8. Player 4 wins the trick (worth 3 points for the heartJ) and from now on sevens are high.

Himanshu Tyagi reports playing a variant including reverse trump bids as well as no trump in a hostel in Delhi, where it was introduced by players from Lucknow. In this version a two indicates a reverse bid with the suit of the two as trumps - for example heart2 indicates reverse with hearts trump. No trump bids are indicated by jokers, or by threes if no jokers are available: red for normal no trumps and black for reverse no trumps.

Seventh card

Some allow a player who wishes to bid but is unwilling to choose a suit on the basis of his or her first four cards, perhaps having one card of each suit, to call for the 'seventh card' to be trumps. In this case, in the second phase of the deal, the bidder's penultimate card is placed under the trump indicator cards and determines the trump suit. The bidder may look at this 'seventh card' but as usual the other players will not know what suit it is until trumps are exposed.

If as the bidder you call for the 'seventh card', then for the purposes of following suit this card is not considered to belong to your hand until the trump suit is declared. If the suit of this card is led by another player before trumps have been declared, you must follow with a card of this suit from your hand if possible. If you are unable to follow suit from your hand, you may either discard from another suit or declare trumps by showing your seventh card, and follow suit with it.

Double and Redouble

Some play that after the bidder has chosen trumps or asked for the 'seventh card', but before the dealer continues the deal, either opponent of the bidder may say 'double' if he or she believes that the bidder's team will fail. The bidder's team will then win two game points rather than one if they succeed and lose two game points if they fail.

Some play that after a double, the bidder or the bidder's partner can reply with a 'redouble', which doubles the score again to four game points, won or lost.

Some give the whole pile of unused cards (2s to 5s of all suits) to the trump maker, who arranges them with a card on the bottom to indicate the trump suit - or the seventh card is placed under them if 'seventh card' was called. A double or redouble is indicated by flipping face up one or two cards respectively from the top of this pile. The identity of the flipped card has no effect on the game - it is just there to remind the players that the game has been doubled.

Auto-double

Haldar Singh, from the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh, reports a varitaion in which the score for the game is increased to two game points whenever the bid is 21 or more. The bidding side exposes or covers two red or black pips rather than just one.

In this version, bids of 20 or less can be doubled by the opponents and redoubled by the bidding team as described above. Bids of 21 or more, which are already worth two game points, can be doubled by the bidder's opponents, raising their value to four points (this is treated as a redouble), but four agme points are the limit: the value cannot cannot be further increased by the bidding team.

Single Hand

Some play that after all the cards have been dealt, but before the lead to the first trick, a player with very strong cards may declare a 'single hand', undertaking to win all eight tricks, playing alone. In this case there are no trumps, the player who announced 'single hand' leads to the first trick, and the partner of the lone player places his or her hand face down and takes no part in the play. The lone player's team wins 3 game points if all eight tricks are won, and loses 3 points otherwise. Some play that 'single hand' cannot be declared with a hand that is certain to win eight tricks - the player must have at least one card that could conceivably lose a trick.

Asking for trumps

Some play that when you are unable to follow suit, you are not obliged to ask for the trump suit to be declared; instead, you can simply discard a card of any suit. Of course this discarded card cannot win the trick (unless a later player to the same trick player asks for the trump suit to be revealed and thereby turns the card you played into a trump), but you might have no need to win the trick if your partner's card is already winning. However, you may choose to ask for the trump suit to be declared, and in this version, when the bidder has declared trumps, the player who asked is obliged to play a trump to that trick if possible. This is the only case in which a player is forced to trump a plain suit lead; otherwise players unable to follow suit may play any card. The bidder may choose to expose his or her own trump if unable to follow suit, and must then play a trump to the trick. Until the trick in which trumps are declared, cards of the trump suit have no special effect: each trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, even if it also contains cards of the suit that is subsequently revealed as trumps. As usual, starting from the trick in which the trump suit is declared, trumps beat cards of other suits.

It can sometimes happen that the trumps are never declared - either because every player has two cards of every suit, or (in the version where asking for a trump declaration is voluntary) if no one chooses to ask. If trumps have not been declared by the end of the play, the deal is annulled, and neither team scores.

Scoring

A session may consist of several games to six points each. Some players use the other spare cards to record how many games each team has won or lost, a red card representing a win and a black card a loss. Some consider a game won to be worth twice as much as a game lost.

Under Half

Mudassar Shahid reports that in the eastern part of India, especially in Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, many play that if the bidder scores less than half of the call this doubles the number of game points they lose.

Lucknow version

Siddhartha Srivastava reports the following variations from Lucknow.

After four cards each have been dealt, a player can declare "Tenny". In this case no further cards are dealt, and the Tenny player's objective is to win all four tricks, playing alone with no trumps. The Tenny player's partner's four-card hand is placed face up on the table and is not used in the play. The Tenny player leads to the first trick. If the Tenny is successful, the player's team wins 4 points; otherwise they lose 4. In this variation, 'single hand' (known as '29') is also played with the bidder's partner's hand exposed throughout. It scores 8 points if successful and loses 8 points if not.

During the bidding, a player can equal the previous bid by saying "ditto". For example, if the first player bids 16 points, the next could say "ditto", which would mean that he is also bidding 16 points. You cannot say "ditto" if the previous bid was "ditto" - the next bidder has to raise the bid. In the example, after "16" - "ditto", the next player would have to bid at least 17 or pass. If no one raises the bid after a "ditto", the player who said "ditto" is the declarer and chooses the trump suit.

"Pair" or "Royals" can only be declared immediately after the holder or partner has won a trick by playing a trump on a non-trump trick.

When scoring, after a team has exhausted all the available pips on one of their sixes (red or black), the game carries on with that team using fives, then fours, threes and twos. This extends the game, allowing a team to score up to 20 (6+5+4+3+2) positive or negative points. The game would end if a team reached that total, but more often it is ended sooner by mutual agreement, with the pips exposed by each team showing the final scores.

Bangladesh version

Asif Al Hye reports the following version played in Bangladesh.

The game is played counter-clockwise and the bidding process, when four cards have been dealt to each player, is as follows.

The player to dealer's right speaks first and may bid at least 16 or pass. If the first player bids it is then the second player's turn (dealer's partner), and he must pass or bid higher than the first player. The bidding continues between just these two players until one of them passes. The player who bids first only has to equal the second player's bid (by saying "ditto") to stay in the bidding. When either of the first two players passes, that player's partner can take over bidding for the team from that point. For example if the first player has a poor hand and passes initially, then his partner, the player to dealer's left speaks next, followed by dealer's partner.

Example. If South deals, the bidding might begin as follows: East: 16, North: 17, East: ditto, North: 18, East: pass, West: ditto, North: 19, West: ditto, North: pass, South: 20, West: pass. West took over from his partner East when East passed and later South took over from North.

If either of the first two players has no points in his first four cards (a hand with only kings, queens, eights and sevens), then the deal is annulled. The cards are thrown in and shuffled and the next player deals. The deal is also annulled if the first three players pass - in this case the dealer is not allowed to bid.

The bidding continues until three players have passed. Even after both players of one team have passed, it is possible for the fourth player to bid over his partner - for example South deals, East: 16, North: pass, South: 17, East: ditto, South: pass, West: 18, East: pass. West has a very good hand and considers that the chances of winning are better if he chooses trumps, so he bids over his partner East.

The final bidder - the last player to bid a number or say ditto to the last bid - becomes the declarer and chooses trumps or calls for the seventh cards. Opponents can double and the bidding team can redouble. The deal is then completed.

If a player calls for the seventh card, and after completion of the deal does not have a point scoring trump card in hand other than the seventh card, the deal is annulled and the next player deals. The deal is also annulled if the opponents of the bidder have no trumps at all or only the 7 of trumps in their combined hands.

The combination of the king and queen of trumps is known as a marriage. This gives an advantage to the bidding team only if the bid was more than 18. A team that bids 16, 17 or 18 cannot reduce their point requirement by declaring a marriage. If the bid was 19 or 20, a marriage declaration would reduce the requirement to 16, and if the bid was 21 and a marriage was declared by the bidding team, they would need at least 17 to win. The score for a marriage can be claimed at any time after the end of the trick in which the trump suit is revealed, povided that the player is still holding both cards. The marriage holder's team does not need to win a trick, but the marriage cannot be claimed if either of the cards has already been played.