Spitzer

This page is based mainly on contributions from Richard Newman.

Introduction

Spitzer is a game of the Schafkopf group of ace-ten games. It is played extensively in North-Eastern part of the state of Michigan, USA, mainly around Rogers City, Alpena and Posen, and regular tournaments are held. The game clearly has some German origins, though I have not been able to find any definite evidence of this game having been played in Germany.

Players and Objective

There are four players. This is a trick taking game and the aim is to win tricks containing valuable cards. Although players form temporary alliances for each hand (two against two or one against three), they keep separate scores and ultimately play for themselves, the object being to be the first to achieve a score of 42 or more points.

Cards

A 32 card deck is used, which can be made from a standard deck by taking out all the cards from 2 to 6. There are 14 trumps (all the queens, jacks and diamonds), and the trumps rank from high to low:

clubQ ("Big Queen"), diamond7 ("Spitzer"), spadeQ ("Little Queen"), heartQ, diamondQ, clubJ, spadeJ, heartJ, diamondJ, diamondA, diamond10, diamondK, diamond9, diamond8

The rest of the clubs, spades and hearts are non-trumps, called fail in this game (from the German Fehlfarbe). The fail in each suit rank from high to low:

A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7

There are two kinds of points: trick points and game points. Each trick is worth trick points according to the cards it contains. The values of the cards (in all suits) are as follows:

Each ace . . . . . 11 points
Each ten . . . . . 10 points
Each king . . . . . 4 points
Each queen . . . . . 3 points
Each jack . . . . . 2 points
Each 9, 8, 7 . . . . . 0 points
Therefore, there are always 120 trick points available in the deck.

At the end of the play the trick points accumulated in the tricks of each team are then counted for each hand to determine what game points are awarded, as explained later. Game points are what count towards a player winning the game.

Deal

The first dealer is chosen by any convenient method. Then the deal passes to the left after each hand. The dealer shuffles and must allow the person to the right cut the cards - if the cut is not offered a misdeal can be called. If any one other than the dealer calls misdeal, the dealer forfeits the deal and it moves to the next player.

The dealer deals 8 cards total to each player. It is customary to deal cards in packets: 3 cards to each player, then 2 to each, then 3 to each.

Partnerships and Announcements

In each hand, there are are two teams. The partnerships are determined by the cards held by the players and by announcements.

It is the responsiblity of the dealer to ensure that all players have had the opportunity to examine their cards and make an announcement if they wish to, before allowing the first card to be led in the hand.

In the usual case, when no announcement is made, the players who were dealt the two black queens - the "Big Queen" (clubQ) and the "Little Queen" (spadeQ) - are partners. The other two players - those who don't hold a black queen - are partners in opposition to the black-queen partners. No player may reveal to the other players the cards they were dealt. The partnerships become clear only in the course of play, for example when the black queens are played. The only case where the partnerships are known from the start is when a player calls for a partner as described below.

It can happen that one player has both black queens. This player then has two options:

  1. to call for a partner,
  2. to play alone against a team consisting of all three other players.
A player who does not hold both black queens may also decide to play alone. In that case the black queens have no effect on the partnerships.

When the deal is complete, the dealer asks each player in turn, starting to the dealer's left and going around clockwise, whether they wish to make a call. Three types of call are possible: to call for a partner, to go alone, and to announce Schneider.

Calling for a partner

To call for a partner, a player must have both black queens. There are three ways to call:

1. Call for an ace.
This is the commonest case. The player calls the ace of a specific fail suit (clubA, spadeA or heartA only). To do this the player must not have the ace, and must have another fail card in the same suit. For example a player who has clubQ, spadeQ, heartJ, diamondJ, diamond9, diamond8, heart8, spade7 may call for either the heartA or the spadeA, but not the diamondA (trump) and not the clubA (doesn't have a fail club). Whichever of the other players has the Ace that was called for is the caller's partner. The player with the ace does not reveal this except by playing the ace during the normal play of the hand. The remaining two players, then, are partners.
2. Call for an ace renounced.
This can only be done if the holder of the black queens has no fail suit without the ace. In this case an ace is called in a fail suit of which the caller has no fail cards at all. The caller must trump the called ace when it is played.
3. Call for the winner of the first trick
This can only be done when the holder of the black queens also has all three fail aces. The partner of the holder of the black queens will be the first of the other three players who wins a trick. Calling for the winner of the first trick is quite rare, because usually a hand that would be allowed to do this would also be strong enough to go alone (see below). However, a hand such as clubQ, spadeQ, diamond8, clubA, club9, heartA, heart7, spadeA, being short in trumps, would call for the winner first trick.

Going alone

Going along is not generally referred to as such in the game but it accurately describes what a player may do with a strong hand, even one that does not have both black queens. There are four possibilities.

1. Sneaker or Stealer or Stiller
This is what happens if a player who has both black queens chooses not to announce this fact to the rest of the group before play. By making no announcement, the holder of the black queens commits to playing a Stealer. A player playing a stealer plays alone. The other three players form a single partnership, but since no announcement is made the other players often won't realize until quite late on in the play that a stealer is being played. "Stiller" is from the German - a "stiller Solo" would be a quiet Solo.

All other go-alone hands are known as "zolas" (the word "zola" clearly derives from the German pronunciation of Solo). Anyone wishing to play a zola must announce it to the group before the lead to the first trick. Zolas do not require the announcing player to have both black queens (though it certainly helps).

2. Zola
A player who announces a basic zola simply plays alone against the other three players in partnership. If the zola player wins, the game points scored are more than would be scored for winning a stealer.
3. Zola Schneider
The "zola schneider" player plays alone and in addition commits to prevent the other three players from earning "brush" (taking more than 30 points - see scoring below). If won, it brings in more game points than a basic zola. In Michigan, schneider is sometimes written as "shnider" or "snyder" - it is the normal term in German card games for the situation where the losers fail to take one quarter of the points.
4. Zola Schneider Schwartz
The "zola scheider schwartz" player commits to win all eight tricks, playing alone. If this succeeds, the player will typically score enough game points to win the game immediately; otherwise, all other players score a lot of points. This announcement is the holy grail of Spitzer and frequent players typically only see a handful of them in a lifetime. Schwartz is from the German schwarz (black), which is the normal term for failing to take a trick; in Michigan it sometimes spelled "swartz" or shworts".

Calling Schneider

This call, which is apparently not allowed in some circles, can be made by any player. The normal partnership game is played, but the team of the player announcing schneider commit to take at least 90 points, so stopping the other team obtaining brush.

Play

The person to the left of the dealer leads, then each following player in succession plays a card until four cards have been played. This is a trick. The winner of the trick is the person who played the highest ranking card (as listed above) of the four. If any trumps were played, the highest trump wins; if not, the highest card of the suit that was led wins. The winner of the trick leads to begin the next trick. When all the cards have been played (eight tricks in all), the score for the hand is calculated.

After a card has been led to a trick, the other players must play the same suit as was led (if trump was led, then trump must be played). For this purpose all 14 trump cards count as belonging to the trump suit and not to the suits marked on them. If a player doesn't have the any cards of the suit that was led, then that player must play trump. A player who has no card of the suit led and no trumps either may play any other card, but of course cannot win the trick.

Note that there is no obligation to play a card that beats those already played to the trick. Note also that if you cannot follow suit the obligation to play a trump applies even if another player before you has already trumped; you must also play a trump if you have one.

If an ace has been called, and the suit is led by someone other than the holder of the ace, the ace must be played on the first trick in the suit. The ace cannot be discarded beforehand, nor can the owner of the ace hold it back when the suit is led, even if the trick will certainly be lost to an enemy trump. However if you hold the called ace and have the lead, you are allowed to lead a different card of the called suit. Since the ace will not appear on that trick, this makes it clear that you are the partner. Having led the suit of the ace, you are released from the constraint of having to play it on the next lead of that suit (unless of course you have no other cards of the suit to play). You are also then free to throw it on a lead of another suit in which you have no cards.

Scoring

To win a hand, the team with both black queens or the player who is going alone must take more than 60 card points in tricks. The team without the black queens (or the three players against the going-alone player) win the hand if they take 60 or more.

Taking 31 or more points is known as earning brush. If the losing player or team take 30 or fewer points and thus do not earn brush, the winners' score is increased. If the losing side does not take any tricks at all the winners' score is increased further.

Game points are awarded to the winners according to the type of game played, who won, and whether the losers took a trick or earned brush. The game points scored are shown in the table below. The scores are given from the point of view of the team or player with the black queens if there was no call, or of the calling team or player. Positive numbers indicate that the black queen holder(s) or calling team scores; negative numbers indicate that the opposing team scores.

Hand typeResult for team with black queens or calling team
no tricks0 - 30 points31 - 60 points61 - 89 points90 - 120 pointsall tricks
Normal or call partner --9-6 +3+6+9
Schneider with partner (-18)(-15)-12 -9+9+12
Stealer --9-6 +9+12+15
Zola -15-12-9 +18+27+36
Zola schneider (-42)(-36)-24 -18+36+39
Zola schneider schwartz (-42)(-42)(-39) -33-27+42

Each of the partners on the winning team have the appropriate game points added to their score. When the black queens or calling team fails, the game points are added to all the players of the opposing team. Points are always added, never subtracted. Individual players earn game points at different rates because partners change during the course of the game. Therefore, it is important to record game points separately for each of the four players.

Note that it is possible for a team to win a trick but to have no trick points. In this case the result is scored according to the 0-30 or 90-120 column.

In the above table, numbers in brackets indicate hypothetical scores corresponding to situations that are almost impossible. It really is impossible for the queens team to take no trick in a normal game or stealer, because the club queen must take a trick.

While game points can be recorded on paper, it is handier to use a Spitzer board, which is somewhat like a Cribbage board. A spitzer board has four columns (one for each player), with 16 peg holes in each column (one for starting with 0 points, then one for each multiple of 3 up to 42 points, and one for winning the game with 42 or more points). Additional holes may be available for each player to record how many games have been won.

 player 
1
 player 
2
 player 
3
 player 
4





win -->oooo





42oooo
39oooo
36oooo
33oooo
30oooo
27oooo
24oooo
21oooo
18oooo
15oooo
12oooo
9oooo
6oooo
3oooo





start -->oooo





When a player achieves a score of 42 or more points, the player with most points wins the game. If playing for money, the winner receives a fixed stake from the other players (say a dollar), plus an extra amount (say 5 cents) per point difference between the score of the winner and each other player. We are not certain what should happen if there is a tie between two or more players with 42 or more points. Probably another deal is played, and the game continues until there is a single winner. This could result in a player who was not involved in the previous tie overtaking the tieing players and winning the game.

Variations

There are slight differences between the rule sets we have seen, which may indicate differences in playing and scoring practice.

Some players may not allow the announcement of schneider in a normal game with partners.

Some may play that the opponents of of the black queen or calling team require only 30 points for brush, not 31. In this case a schneider announcement is an undertaking to make at least 91 points, not 90.

Strategy

Obviously, once one knows who his partner is, he'll want to assure that trick points accrue to his partner or to him. If he knows that his partner has a trick won (by having played the highest likely card to be played), then he can play a high-point-value card (an A, 10, or even K) for his partner to collect. This is called "smearing" to your partner with the high-point-value card called a "smear" card.

Typically, the black queens are split between two players, so determining one's partner is key. If one holds the spadeQ and has an opportunity to lead, then one possiblity is to lead a smear trump card to invite your previously unknown partner to play out the clubQ (even though a lower card might take it) thus revealing himself. Their are three risks to this:

  1. if the other player isn't aware of this strategy, he may save his clubQ and use a lower card that would win, thus frustrating the partner that was fishing;
  2. the clubQ is now spent for a relatively minor power card when it may be needed later;
  3. the partners are now revealed to the other team also meaning that everyone knows who to smear to.

The spadeQ is obviously a high-powered card, but it can be beaten by a card other than the big Queen (clubQ) - the spitzer (diamond7). The spitzer can often be played at the worst time for the spadeQ to steal a trick, so it is vital to keep track of all the cards played. Practice makes this easier. As for the player dealt the spitzer: if neither of the black queens are in the hand, its often better to hold the spitzer until late just to frustrate the spadeQ. An exception would be if a trick was available with a high trick point value and the spitzer is the only available card that could take it; otherwise, beware that the black-queen partners might be trying to lure it out early on a low trick point value hand. Generally, playing the spitzer effectively takes practice and is often not clear as to what the best tactic would have been until after the hand.

At the beginning of a hand, Aces from the fail suits are often led, since it is likely that every one will also have a fail card in that suit thus preserving the 11 points and winning a possible 10 or at least the K (24-point tricks are not uncommon). Sometimes an Ace-fail-suit lead will be trumped, obviously disappointing the player who led the Ace. Since it is usually early in the hand when this is done, the trumping player will play a high-point-value trump (like the diamondA or diamond10) to earn upwards from 30 trick points (diamondA + spadeA + spade10 + spade9 = 32 points). The trumping player can be even more disappoined though, when the last player in the trick doesn't have any fail either and plays a slightly higher trump to steal a one quarter of the total points in the hand. The last player would be said to have "double cut" the led Ace-fail-suit; a play that usually earns the glare from the first trumping player, but is admired by all the others.

It is very helpful to keep track during a hand of what fail suits have been played around already. A particular fail suit cannot make it around a second time without being trumped (there are not enough of them). However, after the second time a particular fail suit has been played, leading one more is the same as leading trump without having to spend a trump.

There is a tendency by newer players to hold smear cards of fail suit back early in the game until the their partner is known. This is not always wise, since later in the game there is less control of how to direct smear cards when there are less cards left in the hand to choose from. At least in the beginning one can distribute smear cards evenly to assure that some will accrue to whomever one's partner is.

Summary: This is a game with many nuances and only experience will make good playing automatic. It demands consistent concentration by even veteran players and yet a rhythm starts to emerge after gaining some exposure to the normal flow of the game.