Clobyosh / Bela

This page is based on a contribution from Mike Block.

Introduction

The game of Bela - also more widely known as Clobyosh or Clob - is played by an unusual collection of people. Mike Block learnt it as Clobyosh in his childhood, thinking of it then as a peculiarly Jewish game, but was amazed to discover it being played - in the early 1980's - in a pub in Central Scotland (The Quarry Inn in Twechar to be precise). He subsequently found out that Bela (as it is called in that part of the world) is well known in mining communities in Scotland and also in the prisons (there is a unique four-handed variation called 'Barlinnie Rules'!). No one could tell him reliably how it appeared on the scene. An older player thought it had been introduced by a Jewish hairdresser in Kirkintilloch in the late 1930s - as good an explanation as any. The appearance of Belote (closely similar, but with some subtle differences) in France is equally explosive: a Petit Larousse dated 1925 has no mention of Belote; a later edition (1938) describes it as 'un jeu de cartes Etrangère'; and a booklet of rules - La Belotte by G Huitte, published in Paris in 1925 - implies that it was recently introduced. Belote is now the most popular card game in France and has been since before the Second World War: no doubt the French, too, think it peculiarly their own.

Two-handed Bela.

The Pack.

A thirty-two card pack is used, the cards 2-6 being removed. (This is a pretty standard pack for France - or indeed Germany, where Skat is played with thirty-two cards - and is sold as a pack for Piquet/Belote/Manille).

The Aim.

Although Bela is a trick taking game, the winner of a hand is not neccessarily the winner of the most tricks. Each card has a point value, and points are counted for combinations held in the hand before it is played. One particular combination is declared as it is played - the K-Q of the trump suit (called Bela) - and points are also scored for making the last trick. Each player aims to score more points in cards captured during a hand of play and in combinations than his opponent. A complete game takes several hands and is won by the player whose score first reaches or passes a total of 501.

The Values of the Cards.

In general, the Ace is worth 11 points, the Ten is worth 10, with King, Queen, Jack being worth 4, 3, 2 respectively. The other cards are worth nothing - although they may still have their uses in play. In the trump suit, the values change with very important consequences for the judgement of a hand. In trump, the jack - called Yuss - is the highest card, worth 20 points. Next highest card is the normally worthless Nine - called Manel - now worth 14 points. Thereafter the trumps follow the values applied to non-trump cards - A=11, Ten=10, K=4, Q=3, Eight and Seven=0.

Combinations.

Combinations held in hand at the start of play are worth:

  • Run of four in the same suit: 50
  • Run of three in the same suit: 20
Cards rank in their 'natural' order - A-K-Q-J is a 'fifty', but A-Ten-K-Q is not.
(These must be declared and shown during the play of the first trick if they are to count - it is also necessary for the holder to make a trick during the hand of play.)
  • Bela (K-Q of trump): 20
Bela is declared as it is played. On playing the first card of the K-Q in trump a player says 'Bela'; on playing the second 'from the Bela'. This parallels the French 'Belote' and 'Rebelote'. In Scotland it is acceptable to make the declaration of Bela only on the second card.

There are no other valid combinations - nothing extra for holding a run of five, nor for holding four-of-a-kind as in French Belote.

It is not obligatory to declare combinations (when, of course, they may not be counted to one's final total) - indeed there are circumstances when one deliberately does not make the declaration.

Tricks.

A suit led must be followed if posible. If the suit cannot be followed, then it is obligatory to trump - an important feature of tactical play. When a trump is led, it is obligatory to beat the trump played - another important, tactical consideration. But it is acceptable in Scotland to withold the Yuss (trump J) if one holds the Yuss alone (bare Yuss). Only if one can neither follow suit nor play a trump is it permitted to discard freely. The trick-taking power of a card is determined by its point value - thus A takes Ten, takes K, takes Q, takes J, takes Nine, takes Eight, takes Seven in non-trump suits; and J takes Nine, takes A, etc in trump - and trumps take cards of any other suit (a trump Seven will take an Ace of Hearts - old Scots/Jewish proverb).

The Deal.

Players cut for deal, the higher dealing for the first hand. Here the ranking of cards is the 'natural' A K Q J 10 9 8 7 - which applies also to combinations. Given two equal cards of different suits there is a fresh cut for deal. On subsequent deals it is the winner of the last hand who deals for the next - this is fair, since non-dealer (forehand) - has a distinct advantage. Dealer offers the pack for his opponent to cut (it is slightly bad form in a friendly game actually to cut the pack - a tap on the top of the pack is the 'correct' gesture unless honour is at stake or mockery intended), gives three cards face down to his opponent, then three to himself, then another three to his opponent, then another three to himself. The top card of the undealt stack is turned over for a proposed trump suit and placed face up, partially covered, under the stack. Non-dealer (forehand) assesses the likely value of his hand and decides whether to accept the suit of the turn-up as trump for the hand. Should he accept the trump, he says 'I take' and commits himself to beating his opponent on that hand of play - the consequences of failure can sometimes be disastrous! If he declines the first trump - 'I pass' - it is then dealer's turn to take or decline the turn-up suit as trump. If dealer also passes, forehand has a free choice of trump suit ('I take in xxxx' - naming the suit) - a considerable advantage - but may not now call the turn-up suit. And should forehand decline to name a suit - 'I pass again' - dealer now has a free choice of suit under the same constraint or may also 'Pass again'.

If neither player accepts or names a trump suit, there is a fresh deal by the original forehand. The deal can alternate between the two players several times - especially at a critical phase of the game - with neither player willing to take the risk of accepting or choosing a trump.

But once a trump is chosen, dealer gives three more cards to forehand to take into his hand and three more to himself. Each player will have evaluated their hand on the basis of six cards out of a final nine - this is the moment of truth. Don't expect too much of the last three cards: they can make an already promising hand, or break a mediocre one. The bottom card of the stack is then taken out and turned over for both to see (a little extra information - in two-handed play there would otherwise be 13 hidden cards) and placed on top of the stack.

The Exchange.

Once the full deal is complete, and if the turn-up suit has been accepted as trump, either player holding the Seven of that trump suit may exchange it for the original turn-up - this can lead to some nasty or pleasant surprises depending on your point of view. But no exchange is allowed if a different suit becomes trump.

Play and Declarations.

Forehand leads to the first trick. As he does so, he declares any combination he may hold by saying 'I have a fifty/twenty'. Dealer plays his first card saying 'Good' if he cannot better that combination; 'I have (a fifty/twenty)' if he holds a combination of the same value; or 'Not good - I have a fifty' if forehand declared a twenty when he himself has a fifty. Only one player will be able to count their combination towards the final point count for their hand - the holder of the best combination (a player may have more than one combination in hand, and may be able to count both of them). If both players have combinations of equal value, forehand then says 'Mine is * high' naming the highest card of his sequence ('natural' order again). Dealer replies 'Good' if his highest card in the sequence is lower; 'Not good - mine is ** high' if it is better; or 'I have also' if the leading card is of the same rank. Forehand then says 'Mine is in ***' naming the suit. If that suit is trump, his combination takes precedence (he will have said 'Mine is in trump' in that case) and will otherwise take precedence unless dealer's sequence is in trump. Dealer at this point does not indicate the suit - simply saying 'Good' if his is not in trump, or 'Not good' if it is.

This may seem over elaborate. But the idea is to establish precedence without giving too much away - the score for a sequence (which often swings a hand) is gained in exchange for information and it would be unfair for the holder of a losing combination to have to reveal his hand unnecessarily. The winning sequence is displayed for verification as the second trick is played. A second, inferior sequence - which will not have entered into discussion until this point - held in the same hand must be shown if it is to score. Thus a player with a King-high fifty and a Nine-high twenty will score 70 for combinations against a player with an Ace-high twenty. The rest of the tricks are then played out: winner of the last trick leads to the next.

As an added complication, no sequence can be counted until its holder has actually made a trick. An Ace-high fifty in a non-trump suit will count for nothing (in trump it will contain the Yuss so must make a trick or three) unless a trick - however mean or otherwise worthless (it could be an Eight taking a Seven) is made. Believe me - this happens! 'Bela' is declared as the first card of the K-Q of trump is played, either as the first or second card to a trick, and 'from the Bela' as the second card is played. Bela is an absolute combination - it can always count regardless of any other sequences either player may hold.

It is customary in the Scottish circles in which Mike Block has played that any trump lead must be with a scoring card (Yuss Manel A Ten K Q), not an Eight or a Seven - there is a certain sense of fair play in this.

Last Trick.

The player taking the last trick with whatever card counts 10 points - it is often a good idea to try to keep a winning card for last (or Shtoch to a Clobyosh player), although hardly an overriding consideration.

The Score.

The defending player who did not accept or choose the trump counts his points first - his points are always good. He begins with his combinations - fifty, twenty, Bela as appropriate - then last trick; then adds the point value of the cards he has taken in tricks, starting with Yuss and/or Manel if he has them; then counting the rest one by one. His opponent then does the same - but his points are only good if his score on the hand is the better. Should the trump chooser lose the hand, his points are counted to his opponent - that's what I meant by disastrous earlier on - it is called going/being bate. (It sounds the same in Yiddish or Scots - I have doubts about the etymology - maybe the Scots are descended from one of the ten lost tribes?) An over optimistic take may be shattered on picking up the last three cards, or on the first trick when declarations are settled, or on the early run of play - a good player (we all make mistakes) will decide at this point not to declare the Bela that he holds lest 20 points fall to his opponent.

It happens sometimes that scores are equal. This is not a problem in modern versions of Belote: you said you would win; you didn't; tough - my score! But in Bela/Clobyosh and also older versions of Belote the disputed score is held in abeyance until the next played out hand - whoever wins that next hand gains the score held over - so the original taker still has a chance of redemption. (The deal in this case simply alternates since there is deemed to have been no winner.)

The scores are simply totted up on a scrap of paper. They tend to look something like this (aside from the comments):

 M     Y
---   ---
 56    23 (a slightly chancy win for M)
 38   106 (Y had fifty, Ace-bela - why didn't I deal myself this?)
---   ---
 94   128 (early days, yet, not much in it.)
 88    84 (another chancy win for M)
---   ---
182   212
 80
 64       (Y took with Yuss Manel, went bate as I had a fifty)
---   ---
326   212 (this begins to feel like a comfortable lead)
etc

Winning the Game.

The game is played to a total of 501. The first player to reach or pass that total wins. Note that if you reach 501 points through declarations and tricks won to date in the middle of the play you win, even if you were the trump maker, and would have lost if the hand had been played out to the end. In this case it does not matter whether the trump maker can win more points than the opponent. You can even use the 10 points for the last trick to claim the game if they take you to 501 or over. The count of points and transfer of points to the opponent if the trump maker has not won occurs only if neither player has been able to claim 501 as a result of points won for declarations, tricks and last trick.

Suppose, for example, Y has 478 to M's 495, but is forehand (therefore first lead) holding a possible twenty (Nine-high!?) and J of the turn-up he should take on in the turn-up suit, play his Yuss for 20 and declare his twenty for another 20 points in the (reasonable) hope dealer cannot better it. His 40 points take him beyond 501 before his opponent has scored - he wins then and there whatever the outcome of the fully played out hand might have been. And if M did hold a fifty or even a better twenty, he still gets to 498 before his opponent (who cannot count his combination until he has made a trick) has scored. Y has the small problem of pulling out a winning lead to give the needed 3 points (or 2 points if he were playing Clobyosh against my father, who like many Clobyosh players regarded 500 as the score to be reached or passed for a win.). And if he can't find the right card he can console himself with the thought that he would have lost anyway - better to go down fighting.

It is important to claim the win as soon as 501 is reached or passed - otherwise one's opponent is still in with a chance. One could be sitting on 506, say, yet loose the game to an opponent who sneaks in with 501 but is smart enough to make the claim. Also, if at the end of a hand one's score has passed 501 without game being claimed, one has to make a trick (any trick will do) to consummate the win (at least in Scottish circles) before one's opponent can lawfully claim game. A falsely of claimed game forfeits the game.

Normally best-of-three is played, the winner of the last game dealing for the first hand of the next.

Advice.

Enjoy learning the game - so not much advice. It pays to be a little aggressive and sometimes unpredictable. Push the game along. Don't be mechanical in your assessment of your hand - it isn't always necessary to hold Yuss-Manel of a potential trump (although it's a good, 34-point start). But you do nearly always need some kind of a backing hand - some good scoring cards in non-trump suits - to get away with it. And when you are well ahead or way behind, be outrageous - what's to lose? Don't be one of those boring players who will only take on a 24-carat, nuclear-bomb-proof hand. Games are won as much in defence as in attack, though - so play for the most you can make when forced to defend with a poor hand, even against seemingly overwhelming strength.

Variations

Schmeiss

This variation is mentioned in most printed descriptions of Clobiosh.

If you play this way, then the players have a third option at their first turn to speak: instead of saying Pass or Take, they can say Schmeiss (from the German schmeissen: to throw away). Schmeiss is a proposal to abandon the deal. If the opponent of the player who says Schmeiss agrees, the cards are thrown in and the previous non-dealer deals (there is no opportunity to choose a different trump suit in this case). Instead the opponent of the Schmeisser can insist on playing, in which case the player who said Schmeiss becomes the taker, exactly as though he had chosen the suit of the turned-up card as trumps.

Equal scores

According to some books, if the players' scores are equal, the bidder scores nothing and the opponent scores just the points that he took, not the total.

Last Hand and Winning

Many play to a target score of 500 rather than 501.

Most books give a version of the rules in which the last hand is played out to the end. It is not possible to claim a win if you reach the target score during the play. If at the end of a hand both players have reached 501 (or 500) the player with the higher score wins. If they are equal, presumably another deal is played.

Mike Block reports that a friend from East Lothian plays a variant in which the game gan only be claimed by a player who reaches 501 or more within the first three tricks. Otherwise the hand has to be played out, and the scoring carried through, with the usual consequences if the trump maker fails to win more points than the opponent.

Three-handed Bela.

All the basics are the same. It is a better game for two related reasons:

  1. there are fewer hidden cards (three as against twelve when turn-up and bottom card are included)
  2. there is far less likely to be an endless alternation of deals because no one has the nerve to take
It also allows the possibilities of temporary and completely unprincipled conspiracy between the two defending players. Mike Block came across this version in Scotland and says there is a touch of 'Ah kent his faither' about it, where you have it in for someone who might just be getting above himself.

Dealer deals clockwise in threes to each player. Players speak in turn clockwise. The taker simply has to gain more than either opponent, not to beat their combined score. In the case of a bate the higher opponent wins the bate player's points.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth pointing out that where a lead of a plain suit has been trumped by the second player to a trick and the third to play also has no cards in the suit led, then the third player must still overtrump if possible. If he cannot overtrump he must play a lower trump, and only if he is out of trump may he discard freely.

It is usual to 'Gie it to the low man' when it comes to discarding - second best in the running total of points will often throw a good card onto third best's certain trick to stop it falling to the 'high man'. (The 'high man' will sometimes do this, too, to keep his nearest rival, the 'middle man', out.) Whether this is more fair play, 'Ah kent his faither', or guid (sic) sense, is for you to judge - it generally makes for a better game.

Software

Deberc - a Ukrainian game almost identical to Bela and Clobyosh - can be played online at meingames.de.