Mechanics of Card Games

This first version of this page has been contributed by Nick Wedd. Did you find it useful? What other material should be covered? Please let us know.

See also François Pingaud's page on Strategy of Card Games

This section aims to describe the general mechanics of card games: that is, those rules which are so widely known that they are often omitted in rules of card games, because the author assumes that "everyone" knows them. First there are general sections on the pack and the deal; then there are specialised sections on trick-taking games, on fishing games, and on rummy games.

The statements given here are general ones. There are countless exceptions to them. Indeed, it would be possible to suffix almost every statement in this section with the words "an exception is provided by the game of such-and-such". They should therefore not be taken as rules; rather they should be used as default rules if you are trying to play a game from an incomplete set of rules which omits the general mechanics.

The Arrangement of the Players.

When a card game is played, the players arrange themselves in a circle around a horizontal surface on which the cards will be played. I will refer to this surface as the "table" although of course any flat surface can be used. The players face inwards, and are approximately evenly spaced (so that they cannot see each other's cards).

The Pack or Deck.

A card game is played with a pack of cards intended for that game. The pack consists of a fixed number of pieces of card known as cards. The cards in a pack are identical in size and shape. Each card has two sides, the face and the back. The backs of the cards in a pack are indistinguishable. The faces of the cards in a pack may all be unique, or may include duplicates, depending on the game. In either case, any card is readily identifiable by its face.

The set of cards that make up the pack will be known to all of the players using that pack.

Pack is British English; Deck is U.S. English. They mean the same.

Suits.

In many card games, the cards in the pack are grouped in suits. Here is an example of such a pack, laid out face-upwards.




You will see that the cards fall into four groups, according to the symbols they are marked with. The names of the symbols are also applied to the suits: so the cards in the top row are called "clubs", those in the second row "spades", those in the third row "hearts", and those in the last row "diamonds". In this example, there are the same number of cards in each suit.

The cards within each suit are distinguished by their ranks. Those in the first column are all "aces", those in the second column are all "kings", etc. In this example, a card of each rank occurs once in each of the suits.

The rules of card games often refer to the suits of cards; e.g. see the section on following suit. Generally, the suit of a card is determined by the suit symbol that is printed on it. So, for example, the jack of hearts is a member of the hearts suit.

However, there are some card games in which certain cards may be regarded as being members of a suit other than the obvious one. For example, in l'hombre, the black aces are always members of the trump suit. So if you are playing l'hombre and diamonds are trumps, a request to play a diamond means "any of the cards with diamond symbols printed on them, or either of the black aces"; while a request to play a club does not include the ace of clubs. While you are playing hombre and diamonds are trumps, the ace of clubs is not a club, it is a diamond.

The Deal.

Dealing is done either clockwise or counterclockwise. If this is omitted from the rules, then it should be assumed to be:

  • clockwise for games from North America, North and West Europe and Russia;
  • counterclockwise for South and East Europe and Asia, also for Swiss games and all Tarot games.

A player is chosen to deal. She takes all of the cards in the pack, stacks them together so that they are all the same way up and the same way round, and shuffles them. There are various techniques of shuffling, all intended to put the cards into a random order. During the shuffle, dealer holds the cards so that she and the other players cannot see any of their faces.

Shuffling should continue until the chance of a card remaining next to the one that was originally next to is small. In practice, many dealers do not shuffle for long enough to achieve this.

After the shuffle, the dealer offers the pack to another player to cut. If the deal is clockwise, this is the player on her right; if counter-clockwise, it is the player on her left. The invitation to cut is made by placing the pack, face downward, on the table near the player who is to cut: who then lifts the upper portion of the pack clear of the lower portion and places it alongside. The formerly lower portion is then replaced on top of the formerly upper portion. Note that this process is different from cutting cards as a randomizing device.

The dealer then deals the cards. This is done by dealer holding the pack, face-down, in one hand, and removing cards from the top of it with her other hand to distribute to the players, placing them face-down on the table in front of the players to whom they are dealt. The rules of the game will specify the details of the deal. It normally starts with the players next to the dealer in the direction of play (left in a clockwise game; right in an anticlockwise one), and continues in the same direction around the table. The cards may be dealt one at a time, or in groups. Unless the rules specify otherwise, assume that the cards are dealt one at a time. Unless the rules specify otherwise, assume that all the cards are dealt out; but in many games, some remain undealt, and are left face down in the middle of the table, forming the talon, skat, or stock. The player who received the first card from the deal may be known as eldest hand, or as forehand.

The set of cards dealt to a player is known as her hand.

Throughout the shuffle, cut, and deal, the dealer should arrange that the players are unable to see the faces of any of the cards. The players should not try to see any of the faces. Should a card accidentally become exposed (visible to all), then normally any player can demand a redeal - that is, all the cards are gathered up, and the shuffle, cut and deal are repeated. Should a player accidentally see a card (other than one dealt to herself) she should admit this.

It is dishonest to try to see cards as they are dealt, or to take advantage of having seen a card accidentally.

When the deal is complete, all players pick up their cards and hold them in such a way that the faces can be seen by the holder of the cards but not the other players. It is helpful to fan one's cards out so that (if they have corner indices) all their values can be seen at once. In most games it is also useful to sort one's hand, rearranging the cards in a way appropriate to the game. For example in a trick taking game it is easier to have all one's cards of the same suit together, whereas in a rummy game one might sort them by rank or by potential combinations.

Trick-taking Games.

After the cards have been dealt, there may be some bidding. This varies very widely from game to game, and is not treated here.

After the bidding (if any), there may be some rearrangement of the cards in the players' hands. For example, one player may take the undealt cards, add them to her hand, and then discard some cards. Unless the rules state otherwise, cards discarded in this way may include those just picked up.

In a trick-taking game, when the trick-taking is about to begin, each player has the same number of cards in her hand.

A trick consists of number of cards, one contributed by each of the players. The term trick is also applied to the incomplete set of cards which have so far been played towards a complete trick.

One of the players, specified by the rules of the game, leads (plays the first card) to a trick by playing a card from her hand. She chooses a card from her hand, and places it face upwards near the centre of the table. The other players in turn, in the direction of play (clockwise or counterclockwise, as specified for that game) each play a card to the trick, until each player has played one card. The cards played to the trick are all played face upwards on the table where they can be seen by all the players. Once a player has played a card to a trick, she may not change her mind and substitute a different card. A player who cannot see a card in the trick may demand that it be made visible to her. A player who does not know which card has been contributed by which player may demand this information.

There are frequently restrictions on which cards a player is permitted to play to a trick. Such restrictions commonly depend on the card led (first played) to the trick, and may depend on cards subsequently played. Some common sets of such restrictions are described under following suit.

When the trick is complete (i.e. each player has played one card to it) the players will observe who has won it. The winner of a trick is commonly the player who played the highest trump to it; or if there is no trump in it (or the game is one without trumps), then the highest card of the suit led. The "suit led" means the suit to which the card led to the trick belongs.

The winner of a trick takes it, straightens it up so as to form a tidy packet, and places it face downwards in front of her. Its contents may not subsequently be inspected. In games which are concerned with the number of tricks won, a player who has won several tricks arranges them so as to make it obvious how many she has won. If two or more players are playing together with a common objective, they may keep the tricks that they have won together: they should still be arranged so that they can be counted.

The player to lead to the first trick may be forehand; or may be determined by the bidding. The winner of a trick leads to the next trick. If the winner of a trick is unable to lead to the next trick, having for some reason no cards left, the lead passes around the table in the usual direction of play to the next player who is able to lead.

During the play of tricks, known as the play of the hand, the players ensure that they do not allow each other to see their cards. It is generally against a player's interest to allow her opponents to see her cards. It is cheating to allow her partner(s) to see her cards. In either case, it is not permitted. The cards already played to the current trick, and no others, should be clearly visible.

Players should do nothing, by word, expression or gesture, to indicate or imply anything about the cards which they hold or the view which they take of any play.

It sometimes happens that a trick is completed, and turned face downwards, before all the players have clearly seen all the cards in it. Before the lead to the next trick, any player may demand to see such a trick.

In trick-taking games, the tricks continue one after another with the players' hands getting smaller and smaller. If all the players started with hands of the same size, they should all play their last card to the same trick. The hand is then over (note that this is a different sense of hand from the set of cards held by a player at the start of play). As the players have no choice about which card to play to the last trick of a hand, it is common practice for it to be played rapidly, without the players waiting for their turns.

There are many infractions of the rules which are possible during the play of a hand. Two of the more frequent are the play of a card by a player whose turn it is not, and the accidental exposure of a card. These may be ignored if they bring no disadvantage to any other player.

Another frequent contravention is the play of a card contrary to the rule of following suit. This is normally treated more seriously. It is known as a revoke (to be distinguished from a renounce, which is a legal failure to follow suit, there being no card of the required suit in the player's hand).

In many official sets of rules for card games, the rules specifying the penalties for various infractions occupy more pages than the rules specifying how to play correctly. This is tedious, but necessary for games that are played seriously. Such penalties for infractions are generally omitted from the Web pages at this site: if you intend to play a card game at a high level, you should make sure before beginning that you agree on the penalties to be used. When playing privately, this will normally be a question of agreeing house rules. In a tournament there will probably be a tournament director who will enforce the rules when required and arbitrate in cases of doubt.

Following Suit.

In most trick-taking games, each player is obliged to try to follow suit, if possible. This means that when it is a player's turn to play, she must, if possible, play a card of the same suit as the card led to the trick. If she is unable to do so, having no such cards, she may play any card.

In many trick-taking games, one of the suits is known as trumps. The trump suit has the special property that all trump cards, however small, beat all cards of the other suits. Therefore if a trick contains trumps, it is won by the highest trump played to it, ignoring any other cards played. Only if a trick contains no trump, it is won by the highest card of the suit led to it.

In games which involve a trump suit, the rule about following suit can be more complicated, because this rule also determines when it is possible to play a trump. A system of describing rules about following suit and playing trumps has been devised by David Parlett, and is given in his book A History of Card Games (O.U.P. 1991). This system is as follows.

The letters f, t, and r are used to mean follow suit, trump, and renege (play a card of some other suit). Capital letters F and T mean the same, except that the card played "heads the trick", beating all the cards already in it. Thus:

  • f means follow suit (i.e. play a card of the same suit as the card led to the trick).
  • F means follow suit, playing a card which will win the trick unless beaten by a later card.
  • t means play a trump.
  • T means play a trump which will win the trick unless beaten by a later card.
  • r means play any card.

In whist, bridge and skat, the rule is f,tr. This means that you must follow suit if you can. If you can't follow suit, you may play any card including a trump.

In most tarock games, the rule is f,t,r. This means that you must follow suit if you can. If you can't follow suit, you must play a trump if you can. Only if you can neither follow suit nor play a trump, you may play any card.

In French tarot, the rule is f,T,t,r. This means that you must follow suit if you can. If you can't follow suit, you must play a trump higher than any other trump so far in the trick, if you can. If you can't follow suit and have no high trump, you must still play a trump if you can. Only if you can neither follow suit nor play a trump, you may play any card. Another rule of French tarot is that you are also obliged to try to play a higher trump when trumps are led; but this rule cannot be covered by Parlett's notation.

In jass games, the rule is ft,tr. This means that if you can follow suit, you must either follow suit or play a trump; otherwise you may play any card.

In pandoeren, the rule is ft,t,r. This means that if you can follow suit, you must either follow suit or play a trump; if you cannot follow suit, you must play a trump; only if you can neither follow suit nor play a trump, you may play any card.

In kaiserjass, the rule is ftr. This means that you may play any card you like.

There are special cases which cannot be covered by this notation. For example, in jass games, the top trump may be withheld as if it were not a trump. In some tarock games, including French tarot, there are special rules governing a card called l'excuse.

Fishing Games.

This section has not yet been written.

Rummy Games.

This section has not yet been written.

Cutting Cards.

Sometimes a randomizing device is needed in a card game, and the one used is known as "cutting cards". There are two ways in which this may be done.

  1. A pack is shuffled and stacked neatly, face downwards. Each player in turn lifts a small packet of cards from the top, and shows the face of the end card of her packet, the card at which she made the cut. The playing showing the highest such card wins.
  2. A pack is shuffled and spread face downwards across the table. Each player chooses a card from it and exposes it. The player exposing the highest card is the winner.

These two processes are of course equivalent. The first is sometimes used as a tie-break. A form of the second may be used to determine the partnerships and seating order at the start of a game.

Who makes the Rules?

These web pages attempt to describe the rules of various card games. Readers may ask "Are these the official rules?" "What authority do they have?".

A new card game starts in a small way, either as someone's invention, or as a modification of an existing game. Those playing it may agree to change the rules as they wish. The rules that they agree on become the "house rules" under which they play the game. A set of house rules may be accepted as valid by a group of players wherever they play. It may also be accepted as governing all play within a particular house, or café, or club.

When a game becomes sufficiently popular, so that people often play it with strangers, there is a need for a generally accepted set of rules. This is often met by a particular set of house rules becoming generally recognised. For example, when whist became popular in 18th-century England, players in the Portland Club agreed on a set of house rules for use on its premises. Players in some other clubs then agreed to follow the "Portland Club" rules, rather than go to the trouble of codifying and printing their own sets of rules. The Portland Club rules eventually became generally accepted throughout England.

There is nothing "official" about this process. If you decide to play whist seriously, it would be sensible to learn the Portland Club rules, so that you can play with other people who already know these rules. But if you only play whist with your family, you are likely to ignore these rules, and just use what rules you choose. And if you play whist seriously with a group of friends, you are still perfectly free to devise your own set of rules, should you want to.

It is sometimes said that the "official" or "correct" sets of rules governing a card game are those "in Hoyle". Hoyle was an 18th-century Englishman who published a number of books about card games. His books were popular, especially his treatise on how to become a good whist player. After (and even before) his death, many publishers have taken advantage of his popularity by placing his name on their books of rules. The presence of his name on a rule book has no significance at all. The rules given in the book may be no more than the opinion of the author.

If there is a sense in which a card game can have an "official" set of rules, it is when that card game has an "official" governing body. For example, the rules of tournament bridge are governed by the Word Bridge Federation, and by local bodies in various countries such as the ACBL in the USA, and the EBU in England. The rules of skat in Germany are governed by the Deutsche Skatverband which publishes the Skatordnung. The rules of French tarot are governed by the Fédération Française de Tarot. But there is no compulsion to follow the rules put out by these organisations. If you and your friends decide to play a game by a set of rules unknown to the game's official body, you are doing nothing illegal.

Many widely-played card games have no official regulating body. Examples range from Contract Rummy to Crazy Eights. Others have had official rules published in the past in an attempt to standardise them, but are now commonly played in many widely differing versions. An example is Canasta.

Infractions of the Rules.

The web pages on this site do not generally deal with what is to be done following an infraction of the rules. By infraction is meant an action which is against the rules of the game, such as playing a card when it is not one's turn to play.

If a player breaks the rules of a game deliberately, this is cheating. Most card players would refuse to play cards with a known cheat. The rest of this section is therefore about accidental infractions, caused by ignorance, clumsiness, inattention, etc.

As the same game is played repeatedly among a group of players, precedents build up about how a particular infraction of the rules should be handled. E.G. "Sheila just led a card when it wasn't her turn. Last week when Jo did that, we agreed ... etc.". Sets of such precedents tend to become established among groups of players, and to be regarded as part of the house rules. Sets of house rules become formalised, as described in the previous section. Therefore, for some games, there is a "proper" way of handling infractions of the rules. But for many games, without governing bodies, there is no standard way of handling infractions.

In many circumstances, there is no need for special rules dealing with what happens after an infraction. As a general principle, the person who broke a rule should not benefit by it, and the other players should not lose by it. An exception to this may be made in games with fixed partnerships, in which it may be felt that the partner(s) of the person who broke a rule should also not benefit. The penalty for an accidental infraction should be as mild as reasonable, consistent with there being no possible benefit to the person responsible.

I shall give examples of some house rules followed by the people with whom I usually play:

  1. If a player plays a card to a trick which can legally been played, and at least one other player sees it, then that card has been played, and may not be taken back. But if a player plays a card that for some reason may not legally be played, then she must replace it in her hand, and play legally instead. There is no penalty, except that that player's partner(s) may derive no benefit from having seen that card.
  2. After the lead to a trick, the player who made the lead (and her partner(s)) may not examine the previous trick. But the other players may still do so.
  3. If a player accidentally acts so as to make further play impractical, and the players are playing for money, then everyone else can claim the most that they might have won had play continued; and the player causing the accident has to pay for all the claims. For example: A and B are partners against C and D. The pair which win the hand will each win $1, and the other two will each lose $1. A accidentally drops her hand face up on the table so that everyone can see all her cards. C and D claim that they could have won the hand, and receive $1 each. B claims that she and A could have won the hand, and B receives $1. A has to pay $3.

These are given only as examples of the type of house rule which I, and a few others, consider sensible. You may have very different views.