Ribs

Introduction

This highly unusual game was described to me by a player from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I do not know how old it is, how widely it is played, whether it has other names or where it originated - see the notes at the end of this page. If any readers can shed further light on this, please let me know.

Each player is dealt eight cards and these are played two at a time in turn, somewhat like a double trick. Before each double trick there is a round of bidding which determines who will play first. At the end of the "trick", the cards are compared: some cards may be won by the leader, some by the other players, and some by nobody. After four such "tricks", when everyone has played their cards, the players count the value of the cards they have won and add them to their score.

Players and Cards

This game is suitable for from 4 to about 10 players.

The number of cards in the deck varies with the number of players. There are 8 cards for each player in the game, ranking from high to low: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7. Suits are irrelevant in this game. So for example 9 players use a 72 card pack containing 9 cards of each rank from Ace down to 7. In practice this could be constructed from three standard 52-card packs by throwing out all the jokers, all the cards from 2 to 6 inclusive, and three of the suits from one of the packs.

The cards have values as follows:

  • Ace: 0 points each
  • King, Queen Jack: 2 points each
  • Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven: 1 point each

so that the total number of points in the pack is 10 per player.

Deal, bidding and play are clockwise.

Deal

The first dealer is chosen by some random process, and after all the cards are played and the hand is scored, the turn to deal passes to the left.

The dealer shuffles the cards thoroughly and then deals the cards, two at a time, to each player around the table, starting at the player to dealer's left and going clockwise. All the cards are dealt, so that each player has a hand of eight cards. The players pick up their cards and look at them.

Bidding and Play

The play consists of four double tricks, each player playing two cards to each trick. Each double trick is preceded by a round of bidding. At the end of the trick, the cards are compared find the result. Some of the cards in the trick will be won by various players and some may not be won by anyone. Each player stores cards won during play in a face down capture pile for scoring at the end of the hand. Cards that are not won by any player are thrown in a face down discard pile and count for no one.

Bidding

Bids are numbers, undertaking that the player will capture cards of at least that value from the other players in the trick that is about to be played. For the first trick the dealer bids first. For the other tricks, the highest bidder in the previous trick begins the bidding.

The first bidder must bid 2. Subsequent players, in clockwise order around the table, must either pass or bid 1 more than the previous bid. A player who has passed cannot subsequently bid for that trick. The bidding continues for as many circuits as necessary until all players but one have passed.

Example (6 players). The dealer A bids 2, B bids 3, C passes, D passes, E bids 4, F passes, A passes, B bids 5, C and D do not get another turn to bid, having already passed, E bids 6, F and A have already passed, B passes.

Note that players are not allowed to jump bid. If the last bid was 3, the next player can only pass or bid 4, not jump to 5 or more.

Play

The highest bidder begins the trick by playing any two cards face down. These cards are called the "ribs".

Each of the other players in clockwise order must also play two cards from their hands. There are no restrictions on which two cards can be played. Normally these cards are played face up, but a player may choose to fold instead by playing two cards face down. A player who folds cannot capture any cards in that trick, but the folded cards cannot be captured by anyone else. A player is not allowed to fold more than once during a hand: once you have folded, you must either lead the ribs or play face up in all subsequent tricks.

Each of the players keeps the two cards they are playing in front of them, so that it is clear who has played which cards.

Capturing cards

After everyone has played their two cards to the trick, the ribs are turned face up and compared with the other players' cards to determine who has captured what.

  1. First, all folded cards are placed in the common discard pile. These cards count for no one, and no one is allowed to look at them until the end of the hand.
  2. If anyone has played two cards which match the two cards of the ribs (for example K-8 against K-8 or Q-Q against Q-Q), that player has cracked the ribs, and captures all the face up cards played to the trick, including the ribs. If two or more players crack the ribs, the one of these who played first (i.e. the nearest player to the left of the bidder) captures all the face up cards, including those of the other players who cracked the ribs.
  3. If the ribs are not cracked, anyone who has played two cards neither of which match either rib card, and at least one of which is higher than both ribs, captures just their own cards. For example if the ribs are Q-9 and are not cracked, and you have played K-7 face up, you put the K-7 in your pile of captured cards for 3 points.
  4. If a player plays two cards neither of which beats both ribs, or if one of them matches a rib card, these cards are defeated by the ribs. For example if the ribs are Q-9 then plays of K-9, J-10, Q-J and A-Q are all defeated by the ribs.

Now the values of the defeated cards are added up and compared with the final bid for the trick. If the defeated cards are worth at least as much as the bid, the bidder captures all these cards together with the ribs themselves, and they are placed in the bidder's capture pile. If the defeated cards are worth less than the bid, the players of the defeated cards add them to to their own scoring piles, while the ribs are placed in the discard pile and the bidder captures nothing. The ribs must always be shown to the other players before they are discarded, even though the bidder knows the bid has been lost.

Note that the value of the ribs themselves does not count towards fulfilling the bid. Suppose your ribs are worth 3 and the cards you defeat are worth 6. If your bid was 6 you capture all these cards and the ribs for 9 points, but if your bid was 7 you capture nothing.

Note also that a player who cracks the ribs wins all the face up cards as well as the ribs, not just the cards that the ribs would have defeated.

Whatever the result of the trick, the bidder, who played the ribs, now begins the bidding for the next trick.

Scoring

When all four double tricks have been played, the players' hands will be empty and all cards will be either in the players' capture piles or in the discard pile. All players now add up the value of the cards they have won. Whoever has the most points wins one game. If there is a tie for most points, all the tying players win a game.

Further hands are played until someone has won 5 games (or some other previously agreed number), and this player is the overall winner.

Tactics

Against a high bid, the most common strategy for the non-bidding players is to play as few points as possible so that the total points won will be less than the bid, causing the bidder to lose and everyone else to score a small number of points.

Strategically, the most powerful two-card hand is Ace-King. This is known as the prime rib. Ace-Ace will beat almost any play, but it is a waste of an Ace, so Ace-King is generally a better play.

Often players will expect one of the ribs to be either an Ace or a King. They may avoid playing either of these cards and may either fold or play number cards in the hope that the bid will fail. As a result, bidders may have to play more unusual ribs (such as Q-7 or J-10) that may not be very valuable, but will defeat a lot of cards due to matching. 

All of the cards except the folded cards are visible to all players at the end of the trick. This is a game where card counting is easily done and is a great advantage to those who do it. On the third or fourth trick, if very few Jacks have been played, it makes sense to bid high and play a Jack as one of the ribs in order to match other players. The risk in this case is there is a significant chance that someone may crack your ribs and steal all your cards.

Players can band together to try and crack the bidder's ribs by each playing a different 2-card combination. If no two players play the same combination, the odds of cracking the ribs are increased.

If you are the bidder and the other players seem to be coordinating to try to crack you, which is possible and legal since cards are played face up, it may be sensible to play equal cards as ribs (e.g. K-K or 10-10). You may end up winning fewer points because you only have one rank of card to match others with, but there is a much lower chance of being cracked.

During bidding, never let the the initial 2-bid be passed out. It is extremely easy to make 2 points and the bidder will probably end up making much more than that.

If someone bids and you know he does not have an Ace, play an Ace along with a low card (e.g. A-7, A-8). You will probably avoid being either matched or beaten by the ribs. The downside to this is that you will only end up winning 1 point for yourself (0 points for Ace + 1 point for number card).

If you fold your cards on your turn, you have automatically lost those points. The cards are out of play and you have no chance to win them back. If you play them face up instead, you do have the chance to save those points back if they are not defeated by the bidder or if the bidder fails to meet their bid. If you know for sure that you will lose to the ribs, then it may be a good idea to fold your cards to try and force the bid to fail. 

If two cards are selected at random from a Ribs deck, the average value of those two cards will be 2.5 points. As a bidder, you may want to keep this in mind. If you are playing with 6 other people, and you expect to beat every other player with your ribs, you might expect to win 6 x 2.5 = 15 points on a round. If you expect to beat half of the people, you might expect to win 3 x 2.5 = 7.5 points on the round. Keep this in mind before raising the bids too high. Inexperienced players sometimes even bid higher than what is possible; in a four-player game, bidding more than 12 points is a surefire way to lose. Any bid of more than 6 will lose if the other players all play low cards.

Variations

A common variation is that in the fourth trick of a game, every player is forced to play their last two cards face up. The ribs are face up and there is no folding. This speeds up the last trick, but an element of strategy is lost if players are not allowed to fold in this trick.

To reduce the scope for collaboration against a player, the game is sometimes played without folding: all cards other than the ribs must be played face up.

Some play that bids must increase by 2 rather than 1: 2, 4, 6, ... This should speed up the bidding with a larger number of players.

Notes on Classification and History

Ribs was presented to me as being a trick-taking game, and I have used the term "trick" for a round of play in which everyone in turn plays two cards. But these are not tricks in the usual sense. It is also slightly reminiscent of partition games such as 9-card Brag, in which players divide their hands into combinations that are played in succession. However, it is fundamentally different from both these groups in that the "trick" is generally not won as a whole by a single player. Also the idea of having a round of bidding before every "trick" seems to be unique to this game.

We have so far been unsuccessful in tracing the origins of the game. It seems to have existed for around 10-20 years at least. One of the players who introduced the game to Case Western Reserve University had previously played with his family, who are from Poland, but the game is not similar to any Polish card game I have seen, nor to any other card game. It is quite likely that the name Ribs and the terminology such as "cracking" were introduced by the university players, and also that there have been some modifications to the rules of the game. We do not know what it was originally called or how it was originally played.

I would be grateful for any further information on the history of this game, details of any other similar games, and information on any other places where this game or games like it are played.