Strategy of Card Games

This page was written by François Pingaud (pingaud@agropolis.fr) to stimulate discussion and analysis of the general strategy of card games. If you have comments or would like to contribute to this analysis, please contact him.

What is "strategy" or what do we mean by this term ?
In "strategy" we include all aspects of strategy and tactics; all ideas that help to play a game well.

What is a "line of play"?
By a "line of play" we mean any strategic or tactical idea that is a general guide to action, or any tactical combination.

Proverbs and "truths" in games are also interesting as lines of play. As example in the French game Belote it is said that "un valet se prend toujours" - a jack always bids - in other words, with a potential jack of trumps you must bid.

What is the idea of this page ?

  1. To collect ideas upon "transversal" lines of play - that is lines that can apply to several different games or several families of games.
  2. To try to classify card games by these lines of play :
    • horizontal (associative) classification : the same lines are used in different games
    • vertical (hierarchical) classification : games that demand more or less sophisticated strategy

Strategy and mechanisms of play

It is clear that links exist between mechanisms of play (rules) and strategy, but what is interesting is precisely the possibility of other associations : lines of play which apply to many games; ideas which can be "transferred" from one game to another.

The learning of a new game gives a good illustration. When you begin to play to a new card game, you use lines you know from similar games - we say that you "transfer" these lines. Later, you will keep some lines and abandon others, and find new ones...

Levels of lines of play

We hope that we can develop a classification of lines of play by levels, that represent their more or less general nature, their ability to be transferred. Lines of most general application will be on highest level, lines which only just apply to one game (and its variants) will be on the lowest.

As example of the highest level, we will find lines which can apply to games other than card games such as:

"mobility"
  • try to keep as open many different choices as possible for future moves
  • try to the limit mobility of other players

As example of the lowest level, the specific lines of play applying to the "petit" (the one of trumps at French Tarot), or the specific lines for good play of the spade queen at Hearts, or....

As an example of middle lines: all that concern the play of the hand in the games which use trick taking mecanisms.

A first example : the game of Hearts

As a first example, we propose collecting all lines of play for the game of Hearts (basic and classic variants).

We begin with these ones :

Level 3 (highest)

"Mobility" :
L 3.1. = try to make a void so that you can discard what you want every time that suit is led
"Balance of penalties" :
L 3.2. = try to equalise the opponents' scores
"Care"
L 3.3. = reduce the probability of taking penalty cards in subsequent tricks

Level 2 (middle)

Mobility (application of L 3.1)
L 2.1. = pass a card or cards which leave you with a void
L 2.2. = when leading to a trick, play a singleton, if you have one, so as to leave yourself with a void
L 2.3. = when discarding, discard a singleton, if you have one, so as to leave yourself with a void
Balance of penalties (application of L 3.2):
L 2.4. = when discarding to a trick which is likely or certain to be taken by an opponent who already has a high score, keep your penalty cards for later
L 2.5. = when discarding to a trick which is likely or certain to be taken by an opponent with a low score, discard a penalty card if you have one
Care (application of L 3.3):
L 2.6. = pass high cards when not protected by a long suit
L 2.7. = play your highest cards early as long as there is no penalty card in the trick
L 2.8. = try not to take the lead in the last few tricks

Level 1 (lowest)

Mobility (application of L 2.1.)
L 1.1. = if I have one only card in a suit other than hearts, I pass that card with two others
L 1.2. = if I have only two cards in a suit other than hearts, I pass those cards with one other
Care (application of L 2.6.):
L 1.3. = if I have a short heart suit containing high hearts, I pass them

.... and so on......