Croatian / Serbian / Slovenian Preference

With thanks to Davorin Fundak, Predrag Stojadinovic and Anthony Smith for their contributions to this description.

Preference is played across a wide area of Eastern Europe and Russia. The main description on this page is of the Croatian version as played in the Medjimurje region (Northwest Croatia) is described. Very similar forms of Preference are played in Serbia, in Slovenia and in Trieste, normally using French suited cards, and some of the different terminology and rules from these regions is also included in the main text and in the Variations section.

There are several other major varieties of Preference (each of which has variations within it):

Contents

The equipment

In Croatia, a German suited 32 card pack is normally used. The cards have representations of the four seasons on the aces, and the picture cards show characters from the William Tell legend. The aces and picture cards have no indices. They are identified by the pictures and the position of the suit marks. The ranking of the cards in each suit, from highest to lowest is as follows (the Croatian names of the cards are given in brackets):

ace of acorns ace of hearts ace of bells ace of leaves The ace (As) is highest. It has suit symbols at an angle in all four corners and seasonal scenes.

king of acorns king of hearts king of bells king of leaves The King (Kralj) has upright suit symbols at the top left, wears a crown and rides a horse.

over of acorns over of hearts over of bells over of leaves The Over (Kraljica / Iber) also has upright suit symbols at the top left, but the figure has no crown or horse.

under of acorns under of hearts under of bells under of leaves The Under (Decko) looks somewhat similar to the over, except that the suit symbol is lower down the left hand side of the card.

acorn X heart X bell X leaf X The Ten (X). Numeral cards have roman numbers and can also be recognnised by counting the pips.

acorn IX heart IX bell IX leaf IX The Nine (IX).

acorn VIII heart VIII bell VIII leaf VIII The Eight (VIII).

acorn VII heart VII bell VII leaf VII The Seven (VII).

The ranking of the suits themselves, from low to high is:

         Bid / Value      Contract
              2         Leaves trump
              3         Bells trump
              4         Hearts trump
              5         Acorns trump
In the bidding, each suit is represented by a number, as shown in the above table. There are two additional bids:
            Value         Contract
              6         Bettel  (no tricks)
              7         Sanac   (no trump)

In Serbia and Slovenia it is more usual to play with a French suited pack, with cards A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7 in each suit. The ranking of suits from low to high is spades (2), diamonds (3), hearts (4), clubs (5).

In Serbia, the contract Bettel is spelled Betl, and Sanac is known as Sans.

Idea of the Game

In each hand, one player (the declarer) chooses the contract and tries to make at least six of the ten possible tricks. The other two (the defenders) try to prevent the declarer from winning, but also have an objective to make a total of at least four tricks. A defender who thinks he cannot contribute his share is allowed to drop out, leaving the other defender with a quota of only two tricks.

At the beginning of each hand there is an auction to decide who will be declarer. As the contract is always 6 tricks, the different bids relate to the different trump suits, and whether the declarer wants to make use of the two undealt cards.

Players and Deal

There are 3 players; the game is played clockwise.

After shuffling and after the dealer's right hand neighbour has cut, the cards are dealt clockwise: a batch of 5 to each player, 2 face down on the table to form the talon, and then 5 more to each player, so that each player has 10 cards. The turn to deal rotates clockwise.

Note: in Serbia it is normal to play counter-clockwise. When playing that way, of course all the references to clockwise or counter-clockwise, left or right in the description below need to be reversed.

The Bidding

The player on the Dealer's left has first opportunity to bid or pass, and the turn to bid passes clockwise. If all pass, a Refa is given to each player, causing the score next time they are declarer to be doubled; the deck then passes to the next player who becomes dealer.

The possible bids are the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, and game or igra. Two through five represent the suits, six represents Bettel, and seven represents Sanac (pronounced "Sah-natz"). When bidding numbers, only the minimum legal bid can be made at any time (the bids must increase by one). The bid Game or Igra means that the player wishes to be declarer without using the talon cards. This bid is automatically higher than a numerical bid.

The player who has bid the highest number does not necessarily have to play the contract corresponding to that number - he may choose a higher contract.

Thus the first player to bid can only pass or say "two", or "game". Saying "two" expresses the intention to exchange with the talon and then take 6 or more tricks in his choice of trumps. Saying "game" expresses the intention to choose trumps and take 6 or more tricks without exchanging cards. Once a player has bid "game", no more numerical bids can be made.

Once a player has bid "two", a subsequent player has the option of bidding "three" or "game" or passing. Over a bid of "three", "four" or "game" can be bid, and so on. Numerical jump bids are not allowed.

No player who has passed may reenter the bidding and a player who has made a number bid cannot later increase his bid to "game". Therefore if you want to bid a game at all you must do it at your first opportunity to speak.

Once "game" has been bid only another bid of "game" can outbid it. If more than one player bids "game", they must each reveal their proposed trump suit, (or bettel or sanac) in turn and the highest contract wins. (If an earlier player has a higher bid, a later player may remain silent and not reveal his bid). In the unlikely event that more than one player wish to bid the same game, then the first player (counting clockwise starting from the player on the dealer's left) has precedence. "Game" bids with a trump suit are announced using the number of the suit (two, three, four or five); game bids of six or seven are announced as "Bettel" or "Sanac".

When the bidding reaches a player who bid a number on the first round and has been outbid by a higher number, the first bidder can either pass or say "same" or "me too" ("i ja"). "Same" is equivalent to bidding the same number as the second bidder, which is sufficient to allow the first bidder to be declarer. If the second bidder wants to continue, he must go on to the next number, for which the first bidder may again say "same", and so on.

Some examples of legal bidding sequences (A is the first bidder (to dealer's left), B is the second bidder, and C is the dealer):

      A      B      C
     Two    Three  Four
     Pass   Pass          - C is declarer, talon is exchanged,
                            contract must be 4, 5, Bettel, or Sanac

      A      B      C
     Pass   Two    Three
            Same   Four
            Same   Pass   - B is declarer, talon is exchanged,
                            contract must be 4, 5, Bettel, or Sanac

      A      B      C
     Two    Three  Four
     Pass   Same   Five
            Pass          - C is declarer, talon is exchanged,
                            contract must be 5, Bettel, or Sanac

      A      B      C
     Two    Game   Game
            Four   Five   - C is declarer, talon is not exchanged,
                            contract must be game in acorns (5)

      A      B      C
     Game   Pass   Pass   - A is declarer, talon is not exchanged,
                            contract must be 2, 3, 4, 5, Bettel, or Sanac

      A      B      C
     Two   Bettel  Pass   - B is declarer, talon is not exchanged, 
                            contract must be Bettel

      A      B      C
     Two   Bettel  Sanac  - C is declarer, talon is not exchanged, 
                            contract must be Sanac

Note that if all players pass during the bidding, a doubling (Refa) of the scoring for each player's next contract occurs. This is indicated by a horizontal line in the 'declarer column' of each player (see scoring).

The Exchange

Once the bidding ends with a non-game number, the declarer now picks up the talon, exposing it for all to see, adds it to his hand, and then discards any two cards face down. If a game is bid, the talon is not used.

The Contract

After the bidding and the exchange (if any), the declarer announces the contract number, which must be at least as high as the winning bid.

Two through five - indicates the suit which is trump.
The declarer undertakes to take six tricks.
Bettel.
The declarer undertakes to take no tricks. There are no trumps, and the defenders may not drop out. If the declarer succeeds in taking no tricks, the defenders are not penalized.
Sanac.
The declarer undertakes to take six tricks. There are no trumps, and he never leads to the first trick.
All of the contracts can also be played as games, that is, without exchanging the talon. In this case the value for them in the scoring is increased by one. If a player wishes to bid "game" six or seven, he says "Bettel" or "Sanac", rather than the numbers.

The Defenders' Decisions

Now each of the defenders must decide whether to play. Playing is a commitment to win at least two tricks, and there is a penalty for failing to do so. A defender who does not think he can make two tricks can drop out. This means that he does not wish to take part in the play, and he cannot be penalised for failing to take his quota of tricks, but on the other hand dropping out makes it easier for declarer to win. If both defenders decide to play, they play as a team, needing four tricks in combination.

First the defender on the declarer's left announces whether he will play, followed by the other defender. If neither wishes to play then declarer has (by default) won 10 tricks.

If only one defender wishes to play, he may invite his partner to defend with him. This invitation cannot be refused, but the guest is not penalized if he fails to make two tricks - instead the host defender takes on the responsibility for the defending team making at least four tricks. A defender who does not wish to play and is not invited to do so lays his cards face down and takes no further part in the hand.

If one defender plays and wins two or more tricks, he is safe.

If both defenders play voluntarily and they win four or more tricks, they are both safe. If they win three tricks, the defender with two or three tricks is safe, and the defender with one or none pays a penalty. If they win two tricks, only a defender with both tricks is safe and the other pays the penalty. If they win one trick each, or only one or zero tricks in total, both defenders pay the penalty.

If one defender invited the other, and they win four or more tricks, the host is safe. If they win three or fewer tricks the host pays a penalty. The invited player is always safe.

The defenders' scoring is limited to a total of five tricks only. When the defenders have taken five tricks play ends, the declarer has failed to make the contract, and the defenders score for the tricks they have taken.

Kontra

Once the declarer selects the contract, with or without exchanging the talon, and the defenders have determined who will defend, one of the defenders may say "Kontra", which is an undertaking that the defenders will win at least 5 tricks, thus defeating the contract. The defender to declarer's left has the first option to Kontra, and if he does not, then the other defender may Kontra. Saying Kontra doubles all the scores for the hand and automatically "invites" the other defender (only the host scores). If the defenders take 4 or fewer tricks, the host pays a penalty.

Once a Kontra is declared, if the declarer is confident of winning at least six tricks he may say "Rekontra", which doubles the score again. The defender who said Kontra is still responsible for the defence making at least 5 tricks. This defender may then say "Sukontra", doubling again. The declarer may then continue with "Mortkontra", doubling yet again, and so on ad infinitum.

If the contract is a plain "two" (without "game" and without refa), one of the defenders must say Kontra if they want the hand to be played. If neither is willing to do so, there is no play and the declarer wins ten tricks by default.

The Play

If both defenders have conceded there is of course no play - the declarer just wins.

If one or both defenders play, the player to the dealer's left normally leads to the first trick. If the player to dealer's left is a defender who has dropped out and not been invited to play, the next player in rotation leads. If the contract is a Sanac the declarer is not allowed to lead to the first trick, so if it would have been his lead, the lead passes to the next player in rotation.

It is necessary:

  1. to follow suit if able
  2. when holding no card of the led suit, to play a trump if possible

A player who holds no card of the led suit and no trumps may play any card. It is not necessary to play a card beating those already in the trick.

The winner of a trick is determined as follows:

  • If any trumps were played, the highest trump card.
  • If a trump card was not played, the highest card in the suit that was led.

The winner of a trick leads to the next.

Note that although in some situations, the scoring appears to create a slight conflict of interest between the defenders, their priority is to play as a team to take five tricks and defeat the declarer.

Scoring

Each player keeps his own score on paper in three columns, as shown in the illustration below. The center column is the player's "declarer" or main score, the left column is his defender column when his left hand opponent is declarer, and the right column is his defender column when his right hand opponent is declarer. These left and right columns are called juha in Croatian (pronounced "yoo-ha", and meaning soup, or gravy). The Serbian term is Supa, also meaning soup. The declarer column starts as a negative number, and in the final reckoning points in the declarer column are worth ten times as much as points in the other two columns.

The players agree beforehand which number to begin playing from and enter it into their declarer column. Typical starting levels are 30, 50, or more. This starting level is known in Serbian as the Bula. Although this represents a negative number, it is not written with a minus sign. Therefore amounts won are subtracted from this number (to make it less negative) and amounts lost are added. When a player has won enough so that the score in his declarer column crosses zero this is indicated by putting a hat in the column. This hat is known in Serbian as kapa or šešir. This player is then under the hat: his score is positive, so winnings are added and losings are subtracted. It may happen that the declarer then loses so that his score becomes negative again; at this point he draws an inverted hat in his declarer column, and ceases to be under the hat.

The basic score for a non-game contract is double the value of the contract, i.e. double the number of the bid. A "game" contract has one added to the value of the contract before it is doubled. So for example an ordinary contract of acorns scores 10 (2x5) but game in acorns scores 12 (2x(5+1)).

The declarer scores in the declarer column only. If he has won six or more tricks (zero tricks for Bettel), he wins the basic score (double the value of the contract). If he failed to make the contract he loses the same basic score (this is the penalty).

Each defender scores for any tricks he won in the appropriate defender column. Each trick won is worth the basic score (double the value of the contract). The defenders do not score more than five tricks total, as the declarer has failed to make the contract at that point. A defender who was invited does not score; the inviting defender scores all tricks and pays any penalty. The defender columns carry a running total through the game; scores are only added there - never subtracted.

If a defender has failed to make his quota of tricks, he subtracts the basic score (double the value of the contract) from his declarer column (this is the penalty). He still scores any tricks won in the defender column in the normal way.

If the defenders succeeded in making the declarer win a trick during a non-game "Bettel", each scores 60 in the corresponding defender column, and the declarer is penalized 12 (double the value of the contract). In a game Bettel, the declarer is penalised 14 and each defender scores 70 in the appropriate column.

In the event of a kontra, all the scores mentioned above are doubled, in the event of rekontra they are quadrupled, and so on. A refa also has the effect of doubling the scores; if there is a kontra of a contract where the declarer also has a refa, both doubles take effect simultaneously, for a net factor of four, a simulatneous rekontra and refa would multiply all scores by 8, and so on.

Refa

If all players pass during the bidding, a doubling (Refa) of the scoring for each player's next contract occurs. This is indicated by a horizontal line (like this: )in the declarer column of each player.

Whenever a declarer has a Refa in his declarer column, all scoring counts double for that hand. Once the scoring has taken place, that player's Refa is deleted by a short diagonal line (like this ), and the value of the contract is written alongside. If there were no further Refas in his column, the next time he is declarer the scoring is normal.

If a player is above zero (under the hat) in the declarer column, a refa is not declared when all players pass - the deal simply passes to the next player without further effect.

There is a maximum number of refas in a game, which depends on the starting score. Starting from 50, a maximum of three refas are allowed. Starting from 30, just one refa is allowed. After the maximum number of refas have been declared, if all players pass, there is no effect.

Ending the Game

The game ends when the sum of all declarer columns is zero. Note that the declarer column scoring is allowed to go through zero, from negative to positive, and on occasion back again from positive to negative.

If the value of a successful contract should exceed the amount needed to achieve a zero sum of the declarer columns, the value of that contract is reduced so as to make the sum exactly zero, thus ending the game. This same reduction applies to the defenders' trick score as well as the declarer's score for the contract. (If however the declarer were to play that same contract and fail, or if a defender were to fail and be penalized, this would not take the sum of declarer scores to zero, so the contract would be scored in full and the game would continue.)

The final calculation of each player's score is done as follows:

If the declarer column is above zero:
Sum of juha (supa, defender columns)
minus juhas owed (defender columns owed to each other player)
plus ten times the value of the declarer column.
If the declarer column is below zero,
Sum of juha (defender columns)
minus juhas owed (defender columns owed to each other player)
minus ten times the value of the declarer column.

The three scores should add up to zero, and they represent the amount won or lost by each player.

Example of Scoring

Here is an example of how the scoresheets might look at the end of a game. The players, in clockwise rotation, are A, B and C. Each player has his juha column against his left-hand opponent on the left, and against his right-hand opponent on the right. The letters in red refer to the notes below:

A's score
B's score
C's score
Notes:
(a) This is the starting score - in this game the players agreed to start from 30.
(b) C played bells and won 6 tricks, scoring 6 (2x3) in his declarer column, improving his score to minus 24. A and B both played and won 2 tricks each, so they each score 12 against A.
(c) B played in acorns and won; C played and took 3 tricks; A decided not to play. So B gains 10 and C scores 30 against B.
(d) Everyone passed, so a refa was declared. A horizontal line is drawn in each declarer's column.
(e) A played in acorns taking 7 tricks. B dropped out and C took 3 tricks. The scores are doubled, as this is A's refa, so A wins 20 and C scores 60 against A. A's refa is cancelled and 20 written beside it.
(f) C played "game" in hearts. A defended, B wanted to drop out but A invited him to play. A and B won 4 tricks. This is C's refa, so again the scores are double. C's refa is cancelled and 20 is written by it.
(g) A plays in leaves. B says Kontra, but B and C only win 3 tricks. The value of the game is 4, but because of the Kontra, A scores 8. Also B loses 8 in his declarer column because the defence failed to win their quota of 4 tricks, but scores 24 against A in his juha for the 3 tricks. There is no further double for refa because A's refa was already used (e).
(h) B plays a Bettel and loses. This is B's refa so he loses double (24). A and C each score 120 against B (equivalent of 5 tricks). B's refa is cancelled and 24 is written beside it.
(i) C plays a Bettel and succeeds in losing every trick. The 12 he wins makes his score positive - he is now under the hat.
(j) C plays acorns. A and B both defend: A takes 4 tricks and B takes 1. C's loss of 10 points makes his score negative again - he is no longer under the hat.
(k) A plays in hearts. C says Kontra, but A says Rekontra and wins 6 tricks. A scores 32 (4x8) and C scores 128 against A for the 4 tricks taken by the defence. A is now under the hat. As the defence has failed to take 5 tricks, C is penalised 32 in his declarer column.
(l) C plays game sanac, scoring 16. B defends and takes two tricks.
(m) B plays in acorns. C wants to drop out but A invites C to play and the defenders win 4 tricks.
(n) B plays "game" in acorns. Neither A nor C wishes to defend, so there is no play and B scores 12.
(o) A plays and wins a Bettel for 12 points.
(p) B plays acorns. A and C both defend, A winning 1 trick and C 3 tricks. As they won their quota of 4 tricks between them neither defender incurs a penalty. B has won a contract whose value would normally be 10, but as this would make the sum of declarer columns positive, its value is reduced to 6 which makes them add up to zero. The tricks won by A and C are therefore also only worth 6 each.
The final scores can now be calculated as follows:
Player A scores 166 + 132 - 24 - 188 + 420 = +506
Player B scores 54 + 24 - 166 - 168 - 240 = -496
Player C scores 188 + 168 - 132 - 54 - 180 = -10

The scores add up to zero as they should; player A wins 506 units: 496 from B and 10 from C.

Variations

The following variations are played in Slovenia:

  • Bettel is called Berač
  • In Sanac (which is there called sans atout), the first lead is made by the player to the right of the declarer.
  • A refa is called a radlc (pronounced 'rahdlts').
  • If the contract is leaves (2) and no one says Kontra, the hand is thrown in without score, and if no one is under the hat, everyone gets a radlc.
  • Some people play that the declarer does not expose the two talon cards before adding them to his hand.

The following variations are played in Serbia:

  • The entire game is played counter-clockwise.
  • The process for bidding of igra (game), igra betl (no tricks) and igra sans (no trumps) is a little different. A player who wishes to play igra betl or igra sans must say so at his or her first opportunity - bidding just igra commits you to play with trumps (2, 3, 4 or 5) - not betl or sans.
  • Many play that a contract of 2 (spades) is not thrown in but causes a refa if no one is under the hat and there have not yet been enough refe. The number of refe is agreed in advance - usually 1 refa for each 30 of bula (initial score) - so for example 3 refe for a bula of 100. The declarer scores for a contract of 2 if he is under the hat, otherwise he doesn't score.
  • If the contract is 7 (sans) then the player to the left of the declarer starts, so the declarer plays second to the first trick.
  • Some play with an additional contract of preferans (8). There are no trumps, declarer must win all 10 tricks, and both opponents play and have no quota of tricks (as in betl). Like igra betl and igra sans, igra preferans can only be bid at your first opportunity to speak.

In addition, there is an understanding that when the two defenders both choose to play, they will cooperate to defeat the declarer rather than try to save themselves at each other's expense. Also, a defender who has been invited by his partner must of course play to help his partner to defeat the declarer. To aid this, the following conventions should normally be followed by a defender whose partner is playing voluntarily.

  • A defender should lead the highest card he holds in the suit he chooses to lead when the next to play is the other defender.
  • If the declarer is second to play, a defender who has a weak holding in the suit he leads - for example nothing higher than a queen - should normally lead the lowest card he holds in that suit.
  • A defender should not take a trick that the other defender is winning, even if this risks a penalty. A defender who takes a trick from his partner and thereby causes the partner to suffer a penalty can be asked to pay that penalty.
  • When defending against sans, if the player to declarer's left decided not to play but was invited, he should lead his partner's suit if his partner took part in the bidding. If his partner passed but he bid himself he should lead his own suit. If neither defender took part in the bidding, he should lead a spade if the other player said kontra, and a club otherwise.

A defender who invited his partner to play bears the whole risk for the defecnce, and can therefore play as however he sees fit, ignoring the conventions if he wishes to.

Other Web Sites

Serbian / Croatian / Slovenian Preference can be played on line using the iPREF program, using either "Hungarian" (German suited) or French suited cards.

Predrag Stojadinovic has set up prefko - a site for playing Preference on line. Currently only the Balkan (Serbian / Croatian) version is offered but there are plans to add other forms later. He also runs a forum there where players can discuss this and other versions of Preference.

I am told that a free online Preference game using Hungarian cards is available at the Croatian Playtoy site, but unfortunately no details - not even a list of games available - are visible without registration.

The Ligue Française de Pref is a league based in France, devoted to playing the Serbian form of Preference.