Kaiser

With thanks to the many people who have contributed information about this game and its variations.

Introduction

The origins of this Canadian game are somewhat of a mystery. It has been played for several generations in communities of French, German and Ukrainian descent, and all three groups vigorously claim that the game was brought to Canada by their ancestors. However, so far I have found no direct evidence of this game's origin in Europe: neither in France nor Germany nor Ukraine. So far, the earliest evidence of the game is from Québec, where it has certainly been played in logging camps since before 1900. It is possible that it spread to other provinces as a result of contact between soldiers from different parts of Canada duing World War I. One Saskatchewan correspondent claimed to have relatives in Kiev who play, but I have no direct confirmation of that, nor of whether the Canadian branch of the family learned it from the Ukrainians or vice versa. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has further information on the history of this game - especially any further evidence of its being played in Canada before 1900 or in Europe at any time.

Kaiser is a trick-taking game played by four people - two against two as partners sitting across from each other. A 32-card pack is used. Each trick is worth a point and there are two special cards: the lowest heart is worth +5 points to the player taking it in a trick and the lowest spade is worth -3.

The game goes by several alternative names. The name Kaiser, by which it is usually known nowadays, may have been introduced during World War I at which time the penalty spade card was seen as representing Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the bonus heart card was the French general Joffre. In Québec some players still call the game Joffre, and there are special cards for the game in which the suits reprent countries and the cards in the suits various military ranks. Another version using special cards was published as early as 1893 under the name Lost Heir. It is even possible that Lost Heir was the original game, and that Joffre and the games played with standard cards were adaptations and improvements of it. Before World War I in Québec it was usual to play with a pack in which the sevens were the highest card and kings lowest, and the game was called Les Rois (kings). In Saskatchewan, some players of Ukrainian descent call the game Three-Spot or Troika, since they use the three of spades as the penalty card. I am told that in Saskatchewan the game is also popular with Native Americans.

I should also mention that the Canadian game Kaiser has absolutely no connection with the ancient Swiss card game called Kaiserspiel or Kaiserjass, and in the guise of Les Rois it has no apparent connection with the compendium game King, known in France as Le Jeu du Roi.

Pack

This game is played with 32 cards - 7 through ace in each suit, but with the spade7 replaced by the spade3 and the heart7 replaced by the heart5. The cards in each suit rank from high to low: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7 or 5 or 3.

Idea of the Game

This is a trick taking game, in which each trick is worth one point. In addition the heart5 is worth plus 5 points and the spade3 is worth minus 3 points to the side which takes them in their tricks. The team which bids higher chooses the trump suit and tries to take at least as many points as they bid.

Deal

Deal and play are clockwise. The first dealer is chosen at random - one way is to deal the cards around to the players singly until someone receives a Jack. After each hand the turn to deal passes to the left. The dealer deals out all the cards to the players, clockwise one at a time, so that everyone has eight.

Any player who is dealt no aces, no picture cards and no 3 or 5 can throw in the hand as a "misdeal", and the cards are shuffled and dealt again by the same dealer.

Bidding

Each player in turn, beginning with the player at the dealer's left has one opportunity to bid. He may pass or bid a number; the possible bids are from six to twelve, either with a trump suit or in "no trumps". The trump suit is not specified in the bid, but a player who wants to play no trumps must say so in the bid - for example "eight no". A bid in no trumps outranks an equal bid in a suit, so the possible bids in ascending order are: 6, 6 no, 7, 7 no, 8, 8 no, etc. The maximum possible bid is 12 no.

If a player bids, his bid must be higher that the previous bid, except that the dealer has the special privilege that he only needs to equal the previous bid in order to win the bidding.

Example:
Player A passes (isn't sure how many points his team can make)
Player B bids 7 no (believes his team can make at least 7 points without a trump)
Player C bids 8 (believes he can make 8 with a trump)
Player D bids 8 no (8 points without a trump)
Player D wins the bidding. Player D could also bid 8, equal to C's bid, and would then choose a trump suit.

If the first three players pass, the dealer is forced to bid at least the minimum.

Play of the cards

The highest bidder names trumps (unless the bid was no trumps) and leads a card to the first trick. Play is clockwise. Each subsequent player must play a card of the same suit as the led card, if able to; if unable to, they may play any other card they wish. If any trumps are played, the player of the highest trump wins the trick; if no trumps are in the trick, it is won by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of the trick leads to the next trick. When all the cards have been played, the tricks are counted and scores written down.

Scoring

The score depends on the bid, the number of tricks taken, and who took the heart5 and the spade3 in their tricks. The first team to reach a cumulative score of 52 or more points wins the game.

Each team counts how many points they have taken as follows:

  • one point for each trick won
  • plus five points for winning a trick containing the heart5
  • minus three points for winning a trick containing the spade3
The bidding team's score
If the team which chose trumps took at least as many points as they bid, they add to their score the number of points they took. If they took fewer points than their bid they subtract their bid from their score.
If the team which won the bidding played with no trumps, and took at least as many points as they bid, the add double the number of points they took to their score. If they do not make their bid then they subtract double their bid from their score.
The opponents' score
If the opponents of the team which won the bidding have a cumulative score of less than 45, they simply score the points they took, irrespective of whether the bid was won or lost, and irrespective of whether it was played with or without trumps. It is possible for this team to score less than zero (if they took the spade3 with fewer than 3 tricks); in this case their cumulative score will go down.
If the opponents of the bidding team have a cumulative score of 45 or more, they cannot add any points taken to their score, but they still lose points if they took less than zero in tricks.

Variations

34-card Game with Low bids

In Saskatchewan it is common to play Kaiser with a 34-card pack consisting of A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7 in each suit plus the heart5 and spade3. Eight cards are dealt to each player, and a kitty of two cards is dealt face down to the table. The winning bidder names the trump suit (unless the bid was no trump) and then picks up the kitty without showing the cards to the other players and then discards any two cards face down except the 5 & 3.

Since the bidder has the advantage of using the kitty, the minimum bid is normally set at 7.

This game is usually played with Low No Trump bids as an option. In Low No Trump, the rank of the cards other than the 5 and 3 is reversed, so that the 7 is the highest card of each suit, followed by 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A. The ace is the lowest card in clubs and diamonds: in hearts and spades the 5 and 3 resepctively rank below the ace. A bid of Low No Trumps ranks just above the corresponding normal No Trump bid, so the sequence of bids in ascending order is 7, 7 no, 7, no low, 8, and so on.

Low No Trump bids are scored in the same way as High No Trump bids - the bidding side scores double the number of points they took if successful and loses double their bid if not. The other team scores what they took, without doubling, as usual.

Many groups who play with Low bids do not recognise a hand with "no ace, no face, no 5, no 3" as a misdeal.

Some play that High and Low no trump bids rank equally in the bidding - neither can outbid the other (unless of course one of the players is the dealer, who can always outbid another player by making an equal bid).

Some play that the intention to play "low" is not mentioned in the bidding. A successful no trump bidder announces whether the game will be high or low before picking up the kitty. Some play that any bid, with or without trumps, can be played high or low: this is announced before picking up the kitty.

Québec version with sevens high

In Québec, Kaiser is sometimes played with a 32-card pack consisting of 7-6-5-4-3-2-A-K in each suit. The sevens are highest in each suit and the kings are lowest. As usual each trick is worth 1 point, the heartK is worth +5 points and the spadeK is -3 points. This version of the game is also known as Les Rois (the kings), the heartK being the good king and the spadeK the bad king. Ray Benoit reports that his grandfather played this game in Sainte Marie-Madeleine, Québec in the 1890's

As usual 8 cards each are dealt. Bidding starts to dealer's left: each player gets just one chance to bid. The minimum bid is 4 and the maximum is 12. There are no no-trump bids. If the first three players pass, the dealer must bid 4. The final bidder declares trump and leads to the first trick.

The bidding team scores what they make provided it's at least as much as their bid, otherwise they lose the amount of their bid. The non-bidding team always score what they make. The target score is 40 points. If both teams reach 40 or more points on the same deal, the bidding team wins.

J. Hétu describes another version in which in diamonds and clubs the 8's are used as the lowest cards instead of the kings. A trick containing the heartK is worth +6 points and a trick containing the spadeK is -3 points. The minimum bid is 5, the maximum is 12 and the card led by the high bidder determines the trump suit. This game is also played to 40 points.

Joffre

In some parts of Québec a version of Kaiser known as Joffre is played with special cards. The 32-card deck has suits representing England (blue), Russia (green), Germany (brown) and France (red), each with cards from 7 (high) down to zero (low). The cards from 7 to 1 represent military ranks: General (7), Colonel (6), Major (5), Captain (4), Lieutenant (3), Sergeant (2) and Corporal (1). The English zero is a coat of arms, the Russian zero is a clown, the German zero is Kaiser Wilhelm II and the French zero is Joseph Joffre.

The game is played in a similar way to Kaiser, the Kaiser being worth -3 points and Joffre +5. The main differences are:

  • The target score to win the game is 40 or 41, or in some places 42.
  • There are no "no trump" bids.
  • The minimum bid is 5 and the maximum 12.
  • The first card played by the high bidder determines the trump suit.
  • If the Kaiser wins a trick that contains the Joffre card, the person who played Joffre loses 5 points for the insult.

Joffre is played with these cards in the county of Bellechasse, for example in Sainte-Anselme, but also in Sainte-Germaine de Boulé in western Québec. Since these places are quite far apart, it seems likely that it may also be known in other parts of Québec.

Descriptions of Joffre and illustrations of the cards can be found on the Joffre page of the St-Anselme web site, and attached to the BoardGameGeek Joffre page.

Lost Heir

A rather similar game, using a pack of the same structure, was published by McLoughlin Brothers in 1893 under the name Lost Heir and subsequently by various other makers. The suits represent American, Canadian or British cities, and the cards in each suit are Mayor (7), Chief of Police (6); Commissioner (5), Detective (4), Captain (3), Sergeant (2), Policeman (1). There are two blank cards, a Lost Heir card worth +5 points and a Wrong Boy card worth -3 points.

There must have been several versions of the game, because the rules published by McLoughlin, as reproduced in the AGPC archives, specify a 48-card pack with 11 rather than 7 cards in each suit. These rules are rather different from those of the later games. The suit led by the highest bidder is trump, but the Lost Heir always counts as the highest trump and the Wrong Boy counts as the lowest trump. The two blank cards belong to no suit, so can only be played as discards when the holder is unable to follow suit. If a blank card is played to the same trick as the Lost Heir or Wrong Boy it cancels the value of those cards. There were individual and partnership versions of the game.

The bidding process was strange. The players other than the dealer bid for the right to lead first and make trumps. The dealer could either accept the highest bid and score the amount bid, or reject it, score nothing for the bid, and make trumps himself. At the end of the play each player or team scored the points they made, except that if the bidder made fewer points than the bid, his score for the hand was zero. When playing in teams, the partners simply added their scores together. The first player or team to 25 points was the winner.

It's clear that this game would be rather less interesting to play than Joffre or Kaiser. There is no possibility to capture the Lost Heir from the lucky player who is dealt it: the best the others can do is to annul its trick with a blank card. So it may be that Lost Heir was the original game, and that Joffre and Kaiser were developed later as a result of various improvements to its rules.

Other Variations

Target Score
Many play that if any successful no-trump contract is played during the game, the number of points required to win the game is increased from 52 to 62. This seems to be the normal rule in Saskatchewan.
Some play with a target score of 56, increased to 62 if a no trump bid succeeds.
Some play with a target score of 52, increased to 64 if a no trump bid succeeds.
Some play with a target score of 69.
Minus 52 Loses the Game
When playing to 52, some play that if a team has a cumulative score of minus 52 or worse, they lose the game and the other team wins.
With a different target, the losing score is adjusted accordingly. For example if the target score to win is 69, then the game is lost if a team reaches -69 or worse.
Bid to Win
Some play that the limit for scoring points for tricks without bidding is 47 points rather than 45. In this case if your score is 47 or more, you cannot score for tricks unless you are the bidding team, or unless you capture the heart5 from the bidders, which wins the game for you.
When the target score is increased to 62 by a no trump bid, the amount that can be scored without bidding is also increased, for example to 56.
Some allow a team to score without bidding, however high their score, but a team can only win by means of a successful bid. The non-bidding side cannot win the game, even if their score is well above the target.
 
Minimum Bid
Many play with a minimum bid of seven rather than six. On the other hand, some allow a minimum bid of five, but this is regarded by serious players as making the game too easy.
No Score for Overtricks
Some play that a succesful bid scores only the amount of the bid (or double that amount for no trump bids). The bidding side scores nothing extra for points made in play in excess of the bid.
 
Three of Spades
Some play that a team which takes the spade3 require three tricks to erase the 3 point penalty. If the team with the spade3 take just one or two tricks, their score for the whole hand is minus 3 points. With three tricks their score would be zero, and additional tricks count one further point each as normal. The heart5 can also be counted for plus 5 points provided that the team has at least three tricks.
Misdeal
Some play that if the first three players pass, the dealer can also pass, in which case the cards are thrown in as a "misdeal", and shuffled and dealt again by the same dealer.
Some allow a player who holds all four 10s, 9s, or 8s to throw in the hand as a "misdeal". The same dealer shuffles and deals again.
Kaiser Bid
Some allow a bid of Kaiser, which means that the bidder alone will take 12 points in no trump - i.e. seven tricks including the five of hearts but not the three of spades. The bidder's partner must take no tricks, and the opponents must take a trick containing the 3 of spades. This wins the game if successfuil and loses the game if unsuccessful.
Some groups play with a Kaiser bid in which the bidding team has to take 12 points in no trump. If they succeed they win the game: if they fail they lose it.
Some play with a bid of Kaiser 40, by which the bidder undertakes to win all eight tricks alone (partner does not take part in the play). This scores 40 points if successful and loses 40 otherwise.
Card Passing
Some play that each player simultaneously passes one card face down to partner before the bidding takes place. Others play that each player passes two cards across the table. Note that a misdeal can only be called on the basis of cards held before the pass.
Some play with a card passing scheme similar to Hearts. In the first deal each player passes two cards face down to the left; in the second deal each player passes two cards to the right; in the third deal each player passes two cards to partner; in subsequent deals the pattern is repeated: 2 left, 2 right, 2 across, 2 left, and so on.
One correspondent describes a different variant in which two cards are passed between partners after the bidding.
Kaiser with a Pot
Some play that whenever a team loses a bid, they contribute an agreed amount of money to a pot. The pot is collected by the team that wins the game. This makes it less attractive to sacrifice by bidding 9 of a suit to stop the other team making 8 no trump.
Six players
It is possible for six people to play, either in three teams of two or two teams of three, using a 48-card deck without twos. The heart5 and spade3 remain as scoring cards even when they are not the lowest cards of their suits.
Five players
Dennis Bell reports that at Simon Fraser University, a 5-player individual version was sometimes played using a 40-card pack including all cards down to the 5, except that the 3 of spades replaces the 5.
Two Players
John Suchan describes a 2-player version in which each player is dealt a hand of 8 cards plus four 2-card piles face down on the table. After the bidding, the top card on each pile is turned over and both players can see these cards. In the play, you may play from the hand or a face up card from the table. After the top card of a pile is played, the card under it is turned face up and becomes available for play.

Other Kaiser WWW sites and software

You can dowload a demo of Kevin Currie's program Kaiser for Windows from the KC Magic Data page.

Contributors

Thanks to the many people who have sent me information about Kaiser, its variations and its history, including Dany Bédard, Dennis Bell, Brian Berard, Kim Bertholm, Trevor Brown, Cindie Chaise, Wayne Choi, Jeff Eggen, Bess Fai, J. Hétu, Dale Holaday, Leanne Jaeb, Gordon Joyce, Gerard Kopp, Steve Leigh, Michael Mee, Tereen Mowrey, Tom Niwinski, Chris Pratt, Mel Prokop, Michel Scott, John Suchan, Simon Tanguay and John Thompson.