Schnapsen

This page is based on a description contributed by Keith Waclena, maintainer of the Austrian Beer Guide, and revised by John McLeod.

Table of Contents


Schnapsen (or Schnapser) is a popular Austrian two-hander. It is essentially a tightened-up version of the classic German game Sechsundsechzig. Other closely related games include Tausendeins (Austria), Tute (Spain), Tyziacha (Russia, Ukraine and Poland) and Snapszli (Hungary), but anyone familiar with any member of the Ace-Ten family (such as Pinochle) will grasp the essentials quickly. Schnapsen is an inherently tense game that requires a lot of concentration and so isn't good for socializing, but it's a challenging game whose interest never wavers.

The Idea of the Game

Schnapsen is a point-trick game of the Marriage group, and so the basic idea is to win points by capturing valuable cards in tricks, and to make bonuses by melding marriages (matched pairs of kings and queens). However, there are a few ideas that set Schnapsen apart. The first is that the game is played at trick-and-draw with no requirement to follow suit until the talon of undealt cards is exhausted or closed, at which point the tricks remaining in hand are played out strictly, F,t,r. The second is that to win a hand you need 66 card points, and the players are required to keep track of their score in their heads -- the use of a scoresheet is not allowed. If your score reaches 66 and you neglect to announce the fact, then your opponent can claim a win when they reach 66, irrespective of your score; also, if a player claims 66 when they have not in fact made it, they pay a penalty. A game is seven game points, and can be reached pretty quickly when penalties and bonuses come into play. Finally, the pack is so short that there's no dead wood: virtually every card counts and it can be agony trying to decide how to play each one. The short pack also allows a pretty complete understanding of the lay of the cards to build up quickly, and closing turns out to be the key element of strategy. Very few games are played out to the end of the pack, and the decision of when to close can be used as a blow to crush your opponent or as a gamble to prevent her from presenting you with the same fate.

A typical game proceeds as follows. The hands are dealt and one of the undealt cards is turned up as trump. The hands are played out at trick-and-draw as the players vie to build up strength (usually in trumps) to allow them to close the talon. They also watch for valuable melds (marriages and the trump Jack, which can be swapped for the valuable turn-up trump) that can swing the hand to a rapid close. All the while the players are keeping track of their own scores and their opponent's. At some point one of the players may flip over the turn-up, signalling that the deck is closed and the cards remaining in hand are played out, with no replacement from the talon, following suit strictly, trumping and heading the trick when required. Usually one player draws trumps and announces 66 before the hand is played out. But if she calls it incorrectly, her opponent wins a big bonus.

The Cards

Schnapsen is played with a 20-card French- or German-suited pack. Austrian Schnapsen packs come with 24 cards, as for Sechsundsechzig; you should strip out the Nines before playing. To play with a standard 52-card international pack, remove the cards from Two to Nine inclusive.

The ranks and values of the cards, from high to low, follow the usual Central European model:

French suited card German suited card Point value
Ace (Ass) Deuce / Sow (Daus / Sau) 11
Ten (Zehner) Ten (Zehner) 10
King (König) King (König) 4
Queen (Dame) Over (Ober) 3
Jack (Bube) Under (Unter) 2

With German cards, the highest card is in fact the two (Daus), although it is sometimes called the ace (Ass), and often the Sow (Sau), since it is a fat card, worth many points. Note also that, in the absence of a queen, same-sex marriages are between the König and Ober. In fact Obers are sometimes referred to as Queens (Damen) and Unters as Jacks (Buben).

The Deal

Determine the dealer by any acceptable means; thereafter, the deal alternates between the players. After the shuffle and cut, deal a batch of three cards to each player. The next card is placed face up on the table to determine the trump suit. Then another batch of two cards is dealt to each player, so that the players have five cards each. Finally the remaining undealt cards are stacked face down crosswise on top of the trump, so that the value of the trump card can still be seen. These ten cards form the talon, from which the players draw after each trick.

The Play

Non-dealer leads to the first trick. In the first part of the hand, a trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any is played. There is no obligation to follow suit or to trump. The trick is taken by the winner, who will count the point value of the two cards in the trick, as per the table above, towards the total of 66 needed to win the hand. After the trick is played, the winner of the trick takes the top card of the talon to replenish her hand, after which the loser does the same. The winner of the trick leads to the next.

In informal ("soft") games, it is legal for a player to look through the cards in the tricks that she has taken. However, when a trick is won by an opponent, you are only allowed to see it until the first card is played to the next trick.

The Trump Jack

As in many Central European Ace-Ten games, the holder of the lowest trump card (in this case the Jack) may exchange it for the trump turn-up. This can only be done by the player whose turn it is to lead, just before he leads to the trick. The exchange does not have to be made at the first possible opportunity - the holder of the trump jack can wait and exchange after any trick that he wins, as long as cards still remain in the talon, and the talon has not been closed. Once the talon has been closed or exhausted, the trump jack cannot be exchanged.

Marriages / Pairs

A "marriage" or "pair" (the matched King and Queen, or King and Ober, of any suit) may be melded at the start of any trick by the player whose turn it is to lead. This scores 20 points (for a plain marriage) or 40 points (for a royal marriage, i.e., a marriage in trumps). The player declares "20" or "40" and must lead one of the two cards to the trick and show the other card. Although a marriage can be melded any time that a player has the lead, the score does not count until the melder has taken a trick. So for example, a player may declare 40 for the King-Queen of trumps on the opening lead, but if she doesn't take a trick by the end of the hand her score is zero.

Exhausting the Talon

If no one closes, eventually the last two cards of the talon are drawn - the last face-down card goes to the winner of this trick and the face-up trump to the loser. After this the rules of play change and become more strict. Players must follow suit; also, subject to the requirement to follow suit the second player must beat the led card if possible. This means that if your opponent leads a non-trump:

  1. you must play a higher card of the same suit if you can;
  2. failing this you must play a lower card of the same suit;
  3. if you have no card of the suit that was led you must play a trump;
  4. if you have no trumps either you may play anything.

If your opponent leads a trump:

  1. you must play a higher trump if possible;
  2. if you have no higher trump you must play a lower trump;
  3. if you have no trumps at all you may play anything.

Closing

At any point, when it is her turn to lead, either player may close the talon, by flipping over the trump turn-up and placing it face-down on the top of the talon. This is an undertaking to reach at least 66 card points using only the cards in one's hand. After the talon is closed, no more cards can be drawn from it, and the remaining cards are played according to the same rules as when the talon is exhausted: follow suit and head the trick if possible, otherwise trump.

The talon can only be closed after drawing a replacement card, when the players have hands of five cards each.

Note that in Schnapsen, unlike the German game 66, it is still possible to meld a marriage when leading to a trick, even after the talon has been closed. Therefore a non-dealer who is dealt the Ace, King and Queen of trumps can do the following: close the talon, lead the Ace, then declare 40 and lead the King followed by the Queen. The opponent cannot have more than one trump (one is in the talon), so this will win unless the opponent is able to put fewer than 8 card points on these three tricks, and then win the remaining two tricks.

Going Out

A player who believes she has 66 or more points can declare this fact, claiming to have won the hand. Play ceases immediately. A claim may be made just after winning a trick or just after declaring a marriage, but not at any other time.

At this point there are two possibilities: the player claiming to be out is right, or she is wrong. If she is right, she scores points toward game as follows:

  • one game point, if the opponent has made at least 33 points;
  • two game points, if the opponent has made fewer than 33 points, but has won at least one trick (opponent is said to be Schneider);
  • three game points, if the opponent has won no tricks (opponent is said to be Schwarz).

If she is wrong, the opponent scores 2 game points, or 3 game points if the false claim is made before the opponent has taken a trick.

When a player closes the talon, reaches 66 points and goes out, the score is based on the tricks and points that the opponent had at the moment when the talon was closed: 1 game point if the opponent had 33 or more card points, 2 if the opponent had at least one trick but fewer than 33 points, and 3 if the talon was closed before the opponent won a trick. (This method of scoring is called Viennese closing (Wienerisch Zudrehen) or dark closing (Zudrehen finster).)

If a player closes and subsequently fails to reach 66 and go out, the penalty is 2 points to the opponent, or 3 if the opponent had no tricks when the talon was closed. These scores apply however few card points the opponent has taken. Note that it is not possible to go out after losing a trick. Therefore, if a player closes and plays on to the last card, but loses the last trick, his opponent automatically wins because the closing player cannot go out at this point, even if it turns out that he actually had 66 or more points.

The same scores of 2 or 3 game points apply in the unusual case where the opponent of the player who closed reaches 66 and wins by claiming first, before the closing player has gone out.

If neither player closed the talon and neither went out, i.e., play continued to the very last trick with the talon exhausted, the player who takes the last trick wins the hand, scoring one game point, irrespective of the number of card points the players have taken.

To determine the correctness of a claim, both players' points are counted up by going through the cards won in tricks and adding 20's and 40's for declared marriages, though if both players agree on each other's scores this step can be skipped. (It's no insult to ask for the points to be counted.)

When settling a claim, it may sometimes turn out that the player who did not claim actually had 66 or more points. This does not affect the score - so long as the claim was correct, the claiming player wins, however many points the opponent had. The opponent should have kept better track of the score and claimed earlier.

Scoring

Both players start with 7 game points, and subtract the game points they win. The overall winner is the first player whose score reaches or passes zero.

Comments on Strategy

Nearly every card in Schnapsen counts. There's almost no deadwood, so you have to think carefully about what you want to do with each card. Aces and Tens are worth a lot of points, but you can't safely lead them in the first half because your opponent is likely to trump them. You want to hold on to Kings and Queens because of the potential for marriages, but of course your opponent is probably holding the mates so you will need to discard them eventually. This leaves only three Jacks that you can throw off to tricks without pain (the trump Jack you probably want to keep for the exchange). Of course you'll be forced to break these rules on occasion. You might pull trump with Aces or Tens when holding a long non-trump suit. It can be advantageous to not have the lead in the first half, so that you can win tricks with Tens and Aces to gain points, but you need to be able to get the lead back in order to meld marriages. But there are so few cards in your hand, and the talon runs out so quickly, that you usually can't manage to make plans like these work.

Closing at the right time is the key tactic of the game. You need to count your points, and always keep a count of the sure points that you could win if you closed, along with the average points you'd gain from your opponent. The minute you have a sure (or likely) 66, you should close and rake in your game points. You also need to count your opponent's points, so that you can change your strategy when you think she's about to close (quickly using your trump to be sure to cross the Rubicon of 33 points, for example). A risky close might be indicated if your opponent can be made Schneider or Schwarz.

Don't be put off your stride by a few bad hands; Schnapsen allows exciting come-from-behind wins. There's nothing like winning the game after your opponent is ahead 1-7!

Variants

The game described above is sometimes known as "soft Schnapsen" (weiches Schnapsen). There is a stricter version, known as "sharp Schnapsen" (scharfes Schnapsen) in which the rules differ as follows:

  • The winner of each trick turns it face down and it cannot be looked at again until the end of the play. It is therefore important for players to remember how many card points they have taken: these scores may not be written down or otherwise recorded.
  • The talon cannot be closed when only two cards remain in it (the face up trump and one face down card).
  • When declaring 20 or 40, the player must lead the King, not the Queen (Ober).
  • The Jack (Unter) of trumps cannot be exchanged by a player who has not yet won a trick, not can it be exchanged when only two cards remain in the talon. With this strict rule, the trump can only be exchanged just before leading to the second, third or fourth trick.
  • A marriage or pair cannnot be declared until the player has won a trick. Therefore the non-dealer cannot declare one when leading to the first trick.

In some tournaments, when a player closes the talon and wins, the score is based on the opponent's total card points, including those in tricks taken after the talon was closed.

Many sources state that if a player makes a false claim to have reached 66, the opponent scores as many game points as the player who went out would have scored, had the claim been correct: 3 if the opponent of the player who claimed had no tricks, 2 points if the opponent had at least one trick but less than 33 card points, or just 1 if the opponent had more than 33 card points. This rule has the defect that a player can avoid Schneider by deliberately making a false claim. Suppose your opponent has about 50-60 card points when you win your first trick, and you do not expect to reach 33 before your opponent wins, you can limit your opponent's score to 1 point by claiming to have won yourself: since your claim if correct would score you only 1 point. the incorrect claim gives only 1 point to your opponent. This tactic is not in the spirit of the game, and to avoid it it is better to give at least 2 points for any incorrect claim as in the main account.

Bauernschnapsen (Farmer's Schnapsen) - an elaborated four-handed partnership version of Schnapsen - and Talon-Schnapsen - a version of Schnapsen for three players - are described on a separate page.

Sechsundsechzig

The German progenitor of Schnapsen, Sechsundsechzig ("Sixty-Six"), is similar, but differs in several important details, and is described on a separate page. Here is a summary of the differences.

  • 66 is played with 24 cards, including the nines. 6 cards are dealt to each player. The 9 can be exchanged for the face up trump card. (Schnapsen is played with only 20 cards and the Jack/Unter can be exchanged for the face up trump.)
  • In 66, from the moment that the talon is exhausted or the trump is turned down, no further 20's or 40's can be declared. (In Schnapsen 20's and 40's can be declared in any trick.)
  • In 66, if the talon is not closed and no one goes out, the last trick is worth 10 card points if the talon is exhausted, and the player with the higher card point total scores 1, 2 or 3 game points. It is possible for a deal to be drawn. (In Schnapsen the winner of the last trick always wins just 1 game point in this situation.)
  • In 66, when the talon is closed, all the opponent's tricks, including those taken after the talon is closed, are counted when determining the score. (In Schnapsen the score is normally determined by the tricks the opponent had at the moment of closing.)
  • In 66 the talon can be closed either before or after drawing from the talon. (In Schnapsen it can only be closed after drawing.)
  • In 66, the opponent of a player who closes may at the moment of closing exchange the 9 for the face up trump, even having won no tricks. (In Schnapsen this is not allowed.)
  • In 66 the winner of each hand deals the next. (In Schnapsen the players deal alternately.)
  • The game of 66 is scored from zero upwards. The first player to 7 wins. (Schnapsen is scored downwards from 7 to zero.)

A comparative analysis of the 66 variants described in various sources can be found on Martin Tompa's page Schnapsen and Sixty-Six Rules Variants.

Gaigel

Gaigel is a four handed partnership version of Sechsundsechzig, played with a double 24-card pack. It's a fun game but lacks the strategic element of closing.

References

  • Helmuth Gugl. Meister Schnapsen. Vienna: Ferd. Piatnik and Sons, 1971.
  • David Parlett. The Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford: The University Press, 1990.
  • David Parlett. Card Games for Two. Teach Yourself Books. Sevenoaks, Kent, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.
  • Johannes Bamberger. Sechsundsechzig. Perlen-Reihe Band 639, Franz Deuticke Verlag, Wien, Austria, 1998.

Other Schnapsen Pages

Martin Tompa has published two Schnapsen strategy pages: the Schnapsen Log and Winning Strategy for Schnapsen or Sixty-Six.

Schnapsen Software

Michael Zillinger has published a freeware Schnapsen program.

You can download a freeware Schnapsen / 66 program from Thanos Card Games.

A 66 game which can be played locally against the computer or on line is included in the Favorite Games Ltd. package. A Schnapsen game for Android OS is also available.

Schnapsen Online

You can play 66 or Schnapsen online at GameDuell.

You can play Austrian Schnapsen online against live opponents at Schnapsen für Freunde - Bummerl.

You can also play Schnapsen on line against live opponents at the Gametwist site.

The German site Skill 7 includes an online Schnapsen game.

PlayOK Online Games (formerly known as Kurnik) offer 66 and Schnapsen.

You can play Snapszer, the Hungarian form of Schnapsen, on line against computer or human opponents at UltiNet and its English edition Rummy Network.