Pinochle Tactics

This advice was contibuted by David Dailey, to complement his rules of Pinochle.

Contents

Bidding Tactics

Because cards in the trump suit are very powerful, and because the lead card of a trick dictates, to some extent, what the other players can play on that trick, it is very advantageous to win the bid.

Many of the concepts in this section (such as what your hand is worth) are based on understanding points earned by laying down meld and points earned by taking tricks. You may want to bounce back and forth to those sections as you read this one.

New players frequently ask "How high should I bid?" The glib answer, of course, is "as high as you need to win the bid, but no higher than the points you can take." Truthfully, you should evaluate your hand carefully to see how much it is worth. There are no hard-and-fast rules for doing this, but here are some guidelines:

  • Assume you will take the bid and call trump. What suit will you call and, given only what's in your hand, how well will you do? How many points will you be able to meld, and how many counters can you pull in tricks?
  • Decide what's missing from your hand - the cards you need for a run, or to fill in a piece of meld.
  • Identify losers in your hand. "Losers" are cards which have very little, if any, hope of winning a trick for you. Non-aces out of trump are almost always losers, even though they might earn points in meld.
  • Assuming you get all the cards you need from your partner, and you can pass back most or all of your identified losers, how well will you do with the new hand?
  • Compare the points your hand is worth assuming no help from your partner and assuming perfect help from your partner. You should stop bidding somewhere in this range.

Jump bid A "jump" is a number more than 10 points (but still a multiple of 10) higher than the last bid. This bid generally (but not always) indicates that there is at least one suit for which you have no cards that belong in the run. Example: If you hold no Hearts, you would give a jump bid. Or, if you hold only a Nine of Hearts, you would also give a jump bid (because the Nine is not required for a run - see meld).

Pass with help Saying "Pass with help." removes you from the bidding for the round, but is a legal way of telling your partner that, no matter what suit is called trump, you have four cards that will help his or her hand. Yes, there's some guesswork involved, and some telepathy, but hey, that's what makes the game fun!

Try to bid realistically. Your team will suffer grave penalties if you fail to make your bid. Fortunately, these penalties are only exacted on the score pad, and are not imposed by your local tax collectors.

In this game, as with many other games, the best way to learn the game is to try. You won't learn the best way to play a hand until you've seen it a few times, and if you happen to fail some along the way, don't sweat it. It's just a game.

Calling Trump

Now that you've taken the bid, it's time to call trump. Most players decide, even before bidding, what they're going to call if they should happen to take the bid. Some guidelines for choosing what to call trump:

  • The suit you hold the most cards of (always a good bet), especially if you hold the Ace and at least five other cards in that suit.
  • The suit you're closest to a run in. See meld.
  • The suit of a particular card you need to fill in an especially good piece of meld. (I have a friend who once bid for a Jack of Clubs, to fill in 400 Jacks - so he called Clubs and his partner passed him the Jack!)

Basically, you want to call your strongest suit as trump.

Passing Cards

If your partner takes the bid, it is now your responsibility to select four cards to pass across the table. Your goal is to help your partner's hand as much as possible. To that end, you should send the following:

  • Trump (but if one of these is a Nine of trump, and you can send an off-suit Ace instead, go for it), because these cards will enhance the chances of getting a run for your team, and because these cards will be valuable in the trick-taking phase of the game.
  • Aces out of trump, because these will strengthen the power base of your partner's hand.
  • If your partner called Spades, send the Jack of Diamonds; if Diamonds were called, send the Queen of Spades. Use your intuition and telepathy to decide whether either of these cards should take precedence over a non-trump Ace. What you're trying to do with these cards is fill in a 300 Pinochle, which can be a big boost to your team.

If you've reached four cards before you hit the end of the above list, carefully consider the other cards that you might pass before sending the cards across. Make the best pass you can.

If you've reached the end of the above list before you've found four cards, send an off-trump non-counter. You don't want to burden your partner's hand with losers that will cost your team points. (If your pass was "with help," you should be able to send four good cards regardless of the suit called.)

Okay, now switch roles and pretend you are the declarer. You've named trump, and your partner has passed you four cards. Pick them up and sort them into your hand. Your hope is that some of these cards were the ones you identified as missing. Now, your task is to select four cards to send back to your partner, so that everyone winds up with twelve cards again. Here are some guidelines:

  • If you can avoid it, don't send back trump. If you must send back trump, send the Nine - you don't need it for the run, and your partner can meld it just as easily as you can.
  • Don't break up Aces Around. If you have an Ace in each suit, that's worth 100 points in meld and at least 50 or 60 points when you take tricks.
  • Do send back non-Ace counters in non-trump suits. Unless you have both Aces in a non-trump suit, the Ten is a loser. Unless you have both Aces and both Tens, the King is a loser. Send these cards to your partner, who can play them on your winning tricks, giving the points to your team instead of to your opponents' team.
  • Do send back stray Kings and Queens in non-trump suits. Your partner may have the other halves of these marriages and will be able to meld them for points.
  • Keep legs of the Pinochle if you've called either Spades or Diamonds; send them back if you've called Hearts or Clubs. However, if there's another card you need to get rid of more than a Jack of Diamonds or a Queen of Spades (such as a counter loser), send it instead. If you've called Hearts or Clubs and you're holding both a Jack of Diamonds and a Queen of Spades (this combination is worth 40 points, but both cards are losers in this case), send both if at all possible, because your partner may hold the other Pinochle, and combined, they're worth 300 points.

There's a good deal of intuition and "feel" involved in decided which cards get passed across and back. Practice a few times and you'll discover which cards are assets and which are liabilities.

Taking Tricks

There is much that could be written about strategy for which cards to play. The best way to learn what works and what doesn't is to play several games. However, here are a few hints:

  • The longer you lead the trick, the more counters you will pull. Try to lead a card that will win the trick outright so that you can also lead the next one.
  • The Ace of Trump is an unbeatable card. If you are the declarer, lead the Ace of Trump on your first trick. (If you don't have either Ace of Trump, you may be in serious trouble!) Because of the rules of engagement, you will find out if anyone is out of trump right away.
  • Pull as much trump as you can without giving away the lead before you go off into another suit.
  • If you have a lone Ace out of trump (an Ace with no other cards in that suit), lead it immediately after you have finished your first string of trump leads. You don't want to lose the lead and have an opponent play the other Ace of the same suit, because you would be forced to follow suit (play the Ace), and since it would be the second one on the trick, it would be worthless.
  • If the opposing team took the bid, pay attention to what the declarer melded. If there is a loser among the meld, try to save a card to capture it later on.
  • If you cannot follow suit and you cannot trump the trick, you may "slough," or play any other card. Pay attention, though, to who controls the trick and play a counter or a non-counter, as appropriate, if you can.

Fitting It All Together

There are many things to think about when you're playing Pinochle. You will eventually learn to keep track of which suits each player is trumping, what cards are still out against you, and how many more counters you need to pull to make your bid. But initially you should pay attention to the following items:

  • Determine what your hand is worth, what you are missing, and bid accordingly. Help your partner understand the structure of your hand as much as possible.
  • Don't be afraid of taking the bid. The best way to learn how to play a hand (or how not to play it) is to try it. You're playing Pinochle to have fun, remember?
  • Find a group of fellow players who are willing to discuss strategy before and after (and sometimes during) each round.