- Players, Cards and Objective
- Deal and Bidding
- Double, Triple, Quadruple and Gahwa
- Sources of Information
This page is about the Arabic game Baloot, which is played in Saudi Arabia where it is said to be the most popular card game, and also in Kuwait. It is derived from and closely related to the French game Belote, but with several significant differences. One difference is the possibility to play a no-trump contract for double score, whose name Sun is clearly derived from the French 'sans' ('sans atout' means without trumps). Another difference is that an opponent of the trump maker can double the score and 'lock' the game, preventing trumps from being led.
With thanks to Sultan Ratrout for collecting information about this game.
Players, Cards and Objective
Baloot is a game for four players in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other.
A 32-card pack is used. As in most games of this family three different ranking systems are used. For trick taking purposes the cards of the trump suit (if any) rank differently from those of a non-trump suit. Another different ranking is used when forming sequences of consecutive cards in a suit, which can score points when held in a player's hand. The ranks from highest down to lowest and the point values of the cards are as follows.
|Trump suit||Non-trump suits||Sequence
The object of the game is to win tricks containing valuable cards. An additional 10 card points are awarded to the team that wins the last of the 8 tricks, so that the total number of card points available is 162 when there are trumps and 130 when there are no trumps. In addition, combinations of cards (sequences of consecutive cards in one suit or sets of four equal cards) held in the hand of a player may be declared as 'projects' (see below for details) for extra points.
At the end of the play game points are awarded based on the number of card points taken and the projects declared, and further deals are played until a team reaches the target of 152 or more game points to win the game.
The deal, bidding and play are anticlockwise, and the turn to deal passes to the right after each hand.
Deal and Bidding
The first dealer may be chosen by any convenient random method. The dealer shuffles and offers the cards to the player to the left, who may either cut the cards or ask for the deal to proceed without cutting. The dealer then deals 5 cards to each player: first a packet of 3 cards each beginning with the player to the right and ending with the dealer and then a packet of 2 cards each. The next card, the 21st, is placed face up on the table and the remainder of the pack is stored face down until after the bidding.
The purpose of the bidding is to decide who will take the exposed card from the table, which team will be the declarers (the team that commits to take at least half of the card points) and what suit will be trumps (Hokum) or whether the hand will be played with no trumps (Sun). The dealer announces the first round of bidding by saying 'First', and the players speak in turn, beginning with the player to dealer's right. The possibilities and their consequences are as follows.
- Pass. The player does not want to make any commitment at this stage.
- Hokum. The player offers to play with the suit of the face up card on the table as trumps. If the bid stands, the bidder becomes the declarer and takes the exposed card from the table. After a bid of Hokum in the first round, any player has the opportunity to bid 'Sun' even if they previously passed. If more than one player wishes to do so, the player who is first in rotation beginning at dealer's right has priority. The 'Sun' bid then supersedes the 'Hokum' bid.
- Sun. The player offers to play with no trumps. After a bid of 'Sun' in the first round of bidding (either as the first bid or as an overcall), any player whose turn to bid was earlier may overcall with their own bid of 'Sun', which supersedes the 'Sun' bid by the later player. The final Sun bidder becomes the declarer and takes the exposed card from the table.
- Ashkal. This bid is only available to the third player (to dealer's left) or the fourth player (the dealer) is all previous players have passed. It is the same as a bid of 'Sun', except that it is not the bidder but the bidder's partner who takes the exposed card from the table and becomes the declarer.
Example. South is the dealer. In the first round of bidding East, North and West pass, South bids 'Hokum'. West overcalls by saying 'Sun'. North overcalls West by also saying 'Sun'. Now if East says nothing, North-South will be the declarers and North will take the exposed card.
If all four players pass in the first round of bidding the dealer says 'Second' to announce the second round of bidding. In the second round, the possible bids are:
- Pass. The player does not want to bid.
- Hokum. The player offers to play with a trump suit that is different from the suit of the exposed card. After a bid of Hokum in the second round, later players (who have not yet spoken in the second round) have the chance to bid 'Sun', which supersedes the 'Hokum' bid. If the 'Hokum' bid is not overcalled, the bidder's team become the declarer's, the bidder takes the exposed card and must name the trump suit before the second part of the deal.
- Sun. The player offers to play with no trumps. This ends the bidding. The bidder's team are the declarers and the bidder takes the exposed card from the table.
Note that in the second round there is no possibility to bid 'Ashkal', and that a player who has passed in the second round cannot later bid 'Sun'.
If all players pass in the second round of bidding the deal is not played. The cards are thrown in, there is no score, and the turn to deal passes to the right.
If there was a bid, the dealer completes the deal by dealing a further packet of cards to each player, starting with the player to the right and going around the table anticlockwise as before. The player who took the exposed card from the table (normally the final bidder, except in the case of 'Ashkal' when it will be the bidder's partner) receives a packet of 2 cards, and the other players each receive 3 cards. Each player now has a hand of 8 cards.
Double, Triple, Quadruple and Gahwa
If the final bid was 'Hokum', before the first card is led, either opponent of the declarer may double the score for the hand by saying 'Double'. If an opponent of the declarer doubles, the declarer may respond by saying 'Triple' so that the score will be three times its basic value. The opponent who doubled may respond to 'Triple' by saying 'Quadruple', resulting in a quadruple score. Finally, the declarer may respond to 'Quadruple' by saying 'Gahwa', in which case the winners of this hand will win the whole game.
An opponent who says 'Double' to a Hokum bid can also specify whether the play should be 'locked' (closed) or 'open'. In open play, the first player to a trick may lead any card, but in locked play it is illegal throughout the game for any player to lead a trump to a trick unless their hand consists entirely of trumps. There are the same options, locked or open, when saying 'Quadruple'. However if there is no Double or if the final announcement is 'Triple' or 'Gahwa' then the play is always open.
Different groups of players do not agree on what happens if an opponent of the bidder says 'Double' or 'Quadruple' without specifying whether the play will be locked or open: some consider locked play to be the default in this case, others require the play to be open unless the doubler specifies that it will be locked. Therefore, to avoid arguments, it is advisable always to specify 'locked' or 'open' when saying 'Double' or 'Quadruple'.
If the final bid was 'Sun' (or 'Ashkal'), then a double is only allowed if one team currently has a score of more than 100 points and the other has a score of less than 100 points. In this case an opponent of the declarer can say 'Double' to double the score but no further increase is possible - in 'Sun' games there is no Triple, Quadruple or Gahwa. Also there is no possibility of 'locked' play since there is no trump suit.
Irrespective of who is the declarer, the player to dealer's right leads to the first trick. Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if it contains no trumps by the highest card of the suit that was led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.
The rules on which cards can be played in a Sun game are straightforward. Any card may be led, players must follow suit when possible and a player who has no card of the suit led may play any card.
In a Hokum game the situation is more complex. Players are still always obliged to follow suit whenever possible. Subject to this, players must trump and overtrump when needed to beat an opponent's card. In detail the rules in Hokum are as follows.
The first player to a trick may lead any card from their hand, except when the a doubled or quadrupled Hokum game is locked. In a locked game the first player to any trick is not allowed to lead a trump unless they have nothing but trumps in their hand.
- In a Hokum game, when leading a non-trump card which is the highest remaining card of its suit, the player is allowed to say 'Ekka', which means Ace. This may give their partner additional options if unable to follow suit. It is illegal to say 'Ekka' when leading a card if any higher card of the same suit is still in play. It is unnecessary, but not illegal, to say 'Ekka' when leading an Ace.
The second player to a trick must follow suit if possible.
- If a trump was led the second player must play a higher trump if possible. Having no higher trumps, the second player must play a lower trump, and having no trumps at all the second player may play any card.
- If a non-trump was led and the second player is able to follow suit, they may play any card of that suit: it is not necessary to beat the first player's card. If the second player has no card of the led suit they must play a trump if they have one. Having no trumps and no cards of the suit led, they may play any card.
The third player to a trick must follow suit if possible.
- If a trump was led and the first player is currently winning the trick, the third player may play any trump - there is no obligation to beat the trump led by their partner. If the second player is currently winning the trick the third player must play a higher trump than the second player if possible. If unable to beat the second player's winning trump, the third player may play any trump. If the third player has no trumps, they may play any card.
- If a non-trump was led to the trick, the rules are as follows.
- If the third player has a card of the suit that was led, they may play any card of the suit, higher or lower, irrespective of who is winning the trick.
- If the third player is unable to follow suit and the second player is currently winning the trick, the third player must beat the second player's card with a trump if possible. If the second player played a trump and the third player has no higher trump, the third player may play any card - it is legal, but not necessary, to play a lower trump. If the third player has no card of the suit led and no trumps, they may play any card.
- If the third player is unable to follow suit and the first player is currently winning the trick, then the rule depends on the first player's lead. If the first player led an Ace or said 'Ekka' when leading, then the third player is allowed to play any card - either a trump or a non-trump of a different suit from the lead. If the first player led a non-trump that is not an Ace and did not say 'Ekka', the third player must play a trump if possible (even if the third player is certain that the first player's card would have won the trick). Having no trumps and no cards of the suit led the third player may play any card.
The fourth player to a trick must follow suit if possible.
- If a trump was led and the second player is currently winning the trick, the fourth player may play any trump - there is no obligation to beat the trump played by their partner. If the first or third player is currently winning the trick the fourth player must play a higher trump than the trump that is currently winning the trick if possible. If unable to beat the highest trump in the trick, the fourth player may play any trump. If the fourth player has no trumps, they may play any card.
- If a non-trump was led and the fourth player is able to follow suit, they may play any card of the suit, higher or lower, irrespective of who is winning the trick. If the fourth player has no card of the suit that was led and the second player is currently winning the trick, the fourth player may play any card - either a trump or a non-trump of a different suit from the lead. If the first or third player is winning the trick and the fourth player has no card of the suit that was led, they must win the trick with a trump if they can. If the fourth player has no trump that is high enough to win the trick they may play any card - either a card of a different non-trump suit or a trump that is lower than some trump already played to the trick.
Example. After six tricks have been played in Hokum with hearts as trumps the remaining cards are:
- North: K, Q
- West: 10, 7
- South: Q, 9
- East: 10, K
North leads the K and West decides to play the 7. Now South would like to discard the 9 and use the last remaining trump to win the last trick, but this is not allowed even though South's partner North is winning the trick. North did not lead an Ace and did not say 'Ekka' - in fact it would be illegal for North to say 'Ekka' in this case since the 10 has not yet been played. Therefore South must trump with the Q, and East will win a valuable final trick with the 10.
Projects and Baloot
Projects are combinations of cards in a player's hand that can score extra game points if declared. The possible projects and the scores for them are as follows.
|Project name||Card combination||Score in Hokum||Score in Sun|
|Four Hundred||Four Aces||----||40 game points|
|One Hundred||Four Aces||10 game points||----|
|One Hundred||4 Kings, 4 Queens, 4 Jacks or 4 Tens||10 game points||20 game points|
|One Hundred||Sequence of five cards in a suit||10 game points||20 game points|
|Fifty||Sequence of four cards in a suit||5 game points||10 game points|
|Siri||Sequence of three cards in a suit||2 game points||4 game points|
- Sequences must consist of consecutive cards of the same suit in sequence ranking order. A-K-Q is a Sir and A-10-K is not.
- A set of four equal cards is only a project if the cards are Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks or Tens. A set of four Nines, Eights or Sevens has no value.
- No card can be used simultaneously in more than one project. Therefore a single hand of 8 cards cannot contain more than two projects.
Each player may declare one project that they hold at their turn to play to the first trick, provided that no higher project has previously been declared.
Only one team can claim game points for projects. If both teams have declared projects then at the end of the first trick these projects are compared. The team that has declared the best single project will score for all their projects, and the other team's projects will not be counted.
When comparing projects, the following criteria are used
- The project that is worth more points is better.
- A project of 4 equal cards beats a 5-card sequence in suit.
- If projects are of the same type, then the project with the highest card (in sequence ranking) is better.
- If projects are of the same type and the ranks of the cards are the same, then the winner is the project belonging to the player nearest to dealer's right - that is the one belonging to the player who played earlier to the first trick and was therefore declared earlier.
The projects are not shown at this stage. The players only give enough information to decide which project is best: first the type, then only if necessary the rank of the highest card in the project.
When playing to the second trick, the player that declared the best project shows it by placing the cards face up on the table. (It may by this time be incomplete as a card from it my already have been played to the first trick.) This player can also show and score for a second project if they have one. Also the player's partner may show and score for projects that they hold, even if they were not declared in the first trick. The opposing team are not allowed to show or score for any projects, declared or undeclared.
At the end of the second trick, players who have shown projects pick up the shown cards and return them to their hands to continue play.
Baloot is a special combination of the King and Queen of trumps held in one player's hand. It only exists in a Hokum game, since in Sun games there is no trump suit. Although in some respects Baloot may seem like a project, the declaration and scoring of Baloot follows different rules so it is probably best to think of it as a different type of combination.
The score for a Baloot is 2 game points. It is normally declared when the second of the two cards (which could be either the King or the Queen) is played to a trick. It can be declared and scored by either team, even by the opponents of a team that declared and scored for the best project.
Although Baloot is mostly treated independently, there are some interactions with projects as follows.
- If a player shows and scores for a Siri or 50-project that contains a Baloot - i.e. A-K-Q or K-Q-J or A-K-Q-J or K-Q-J-10 of trumps - the Baloot is automatically scored as well and does not need to be declared separately.
- However, a player who shows a 100-project that contains a Baloot (A-K-Q-J-10 or K-Q-J-10-9 of trumps) cannot declare or score anything for the Baloot in addition to the 100-project.
- A player who shows a 100-project of 4 Kings or 4 Queens cannot score for Baloot.
- In a Hokum game hearts are trumps. In the first trick the player to dealer's right declares a Siri holding K-Q-J and the dealer's partner also declares a Siri holding K-Q-J. The other players do not declare any projects. At the end of the first trick the player to dealer's right announces that the highest card in the first Siri is a King, and the dealer's partner concedes, because the ranks are equal and in this case the first player has priority. In the second trick the player to dealer's right shows the club-Siri. Later in the play, when playing the second of the Q and K, the dealer's partner declares Baloot. The dealer's team will score the Baloot and their opponents will score their Siri.
- A player holds K-K-K-A-K-Q-J-10. Although this hand contains two different 100-projects they cannot both be scored as the K is needed for both the set of 4 and the 5-card sequence. The best that this player can do is to declare a 100-project of four Kings and claim the additional score for the Siri Q-J-10.
When all the tricks have been played the hand is scored. The steps are as follows:
- Count the value of cards taken in tricks.
- Convert these card points to game points.
- Add the value of any projects and/or Baloot due to be scored.
- Determine which team has won.
- Apply the double, triple, etc. if any to calculate the score.
- Update the cumulative scores of the two teams and check whether either team has reached a total of 152 game points or more.
Note: throughout this section the term 'declarer' is used to mean that player who took the exposed card, and this player's team is the 'declarer's team'.
1. Count the card points. It is customary that just one team counts the value of the cards in their tricks. If there was no double, it is the opponents of the declarer who count the cards they have taken. In case of a double, triple, quadruple or gahwa, the counting team are the opponents of the last team that increased the score for the hand by saying 'double', 'triple', etc. So if the hand is doubled or quadrupled, the declarer's team count, but if it is tripled or gahwa, the declarer's opponents count. The card values are given above, and the counting team should remember to add 10 card points to their total if they won the last trick. It is of course possible to check for mistakes by counting the other team's card points as well. In this case the total card points for the two teams will be 162 in a Hokum game and 130 in a Sun game.
2. Convert to game points.
- If the game was Hokum, the counting team's card points are rounded to the nearest 10, 5 being rounded downwards, and then divided by 10. So for example any number of card points from 56 to 65 convert to 6 game points, from 66 to 75 card points convert to 7 game points, and so on. The total number of game points awarded for cards in a Hokum game is always 16 (corresponding the the total of 162 card points), so the counting team's card points are subtracted from 16 to find the other team's game point total. For example if the counting team have 66 card points, which convert to 7 game points, the other team has 9 game points. (It may be noted that if the counting team has 66 card points then the non-counting team must have 96 card points, so that in effect, for the non-counting team in a Hokum game, a card point total ending in 6 is rounded down, not up.)
- If the game was Sun, the counting team's card points are are again rounded to the nearest 10, unless the units digit is 5, in which card they are not rounded. The card points are then divided by 5 to convert to game points. For example if the card point total is from 56 to 64 card points it is rounded to 60 and yields 12 game points. A card point total from 66 to 74 is rounded to 70 and yields 14 game points. But a card point total of 65 is not rounded and yields 13 game points. The game point total in Sun is always 26 (corresponding to 130 card points) and the counting team's game points are subtracted from 26 to give the non-counting team's game points. For example if the counting team took 63 card points, which convert to 12 game points, the non-counting team will have 14 game points.
3. Add game points for projects and Baloot. This is straightforward. Simply add the game point values of the projects that were shown to the team that showed them, and if Baloot was declared (or included in a shown Siri or 50-project) add 2 further game points to the team with the Baloot.
4. Determine which team has won.
If one team has more game points (from cards, projects and Baloot) than the other, the team with more game points has won.
If the game points are tied between the teams, the tie is broken by looking units digit of the card points taken by the counting team, which indicate how much was gained or lost in rounding. The team that lost more points in rounding are the winners. If both teams gained or lost the same number of card points in rounding, the declarer's team wins. Specifically:
In a Hokum game where the game points are equal:
- if the game points are equal and counting team's card point total ended in 2, 3, 4 or 5, the counting team has won;
- if the counting team's card point total ended in 6, 7, 8, 9 or 0 the counting team has lost;
- if the counting team's card point total ended in 1, each team lost 1 point in rounding and the declarer's team has won.
In a Sun game where the game points are equal:
- if the counting team's card point total ended in 1, 2, 3 or 4, the counting team has won;
- if the counting team's card point total ended in 6, 7, 8 or 9, the counting team has lost;
- if the counting team's card point total ended in 0 or 5, there was no rounding and the declarer's team has won.
5. Calculate the score
If each team won at least one trick, the score for the hand is calculated as follows.
If there was no double and the declarer's team won (the counting team lost) then each team scores their own game points.
If there was no double and the declarer's team lost (the counting team won) then the the counting team scores all the game points for cards, and also all points for scoring projects and Baloot, no matter which team showed them. The losing team score nothing. So in this case:
- if the game was Hokum the declarer's opponents score 16 + score for projects if any + 2 for Baloot if any.
- if the game was Sun the declarer's opponents score 26 + score for projects if any.
In a game that is doubled, tripled or quadrupled, no matter which team wins the winning team score all the game points while the losers score nothing. Game points for cards are doubled, tripled or quadrupled as appropriate. Points for projects shown by either team are doubled but not increased any further if the game was tripled or quadrupled. Baloot always scores just 2 game points if declared or shown, and is unaffected by doubling, etc.
|cards||shown projects||Baloot||cards||shown projects|
|doubled||32 game points||2×value||2 if declared/shown||52 game points||2×value|
|tripled||48 game points||2×value||2 if declared/shown||---||---|
|quadrupled||64 game points||2×value||2 if declared/shown||---||---|
In case of gahwa, there is no calculation since the winning team wins the whole match.
If one team wins all 8 tricks, this is known as Al-kaboot. The winning team scores 25 game points if the game was Hokum or 44 points if it was Sun. In addition they score the value of any projects they showed. Their opponents score nothing. Projects shown by a team that won no tricks do not score.
In the unusual case where a team wins all the tricks in a doubled Hokum game, they score 50 game points plus twice the value of their shown projects plus 2 game points if they declared or showed a Baloot. In a doubled Sun game they score 88 game points plus twice the value of their projects in a Sun game.
In the unlikely event of a tripled or quadrupled Hokum game in which one team took all 8 tricks the winning team would score 75 game points if tripled or 100 game points if quadrupled, to which they would add twice the value of any projects they showed and a further 2 game points if they declared or showed a Baloot.
Note. The derivation of the scores for Al-kaboot can be explained as follows. In the French game Belote, if a team takes all 8 tricks they score a bonus of 100 card points for 'capot' instead of 10 for the last trick. This results in a total of 252 card points with a trump suit or 220 when there are no trumps, and these totals convert to 25 game points for a Hokum game and 44 game points for a Sun game in Baloot.
6. Update the cumulative scores of the teams
At the start of the match each team has a score of zero.
- If there is no double and the declarer's team wins, each team adds the game points they won for the hand to their cumulative score.
- In all other cases - a loss by the declarer's team or any hand that is doubled, tripled, etc. - the winning team adds the total game points to their cumulative score while the other team scores nothing (their total is unchanged).
If either team has reached a cumulative score of 152 game points or more, then the match (sakka) ends and the team with the higher score is the winner.
There is a possibility, after a hand on which both teams score, that the teams will have equal cumulative scores of 152 points or more. In this case it will be necessary to play another hand to break the tie and decide the result of the match.
Examples of Scoring
In these example the players are N(orth), W(est), S(outh) and E(ast): the teams are N-S and E-W.
- Hokum game with no double and with no projects or Baloot declared. East is the declarer, so N-S are the counting team. N-S take 77 card points. That rounds to 8 game points so each team has 8 game points. Since the N-S score was rounded up from 77 to 80, the declarer's team has won and each team adds 8 game points to their cumulative score.
- Hokum game in which North is the declarer (takes the exposed card) and North also declares Baloot. No projects. The counting team E-W take 91 points, and thus have 9 game points. Therefore N-S have 7 game points from cards plus 2 for Baloot, also 9. Since the game points are equal and E-W's score ends in 1, the declarer's team N-S wins the tie and each team scores 9 points. In this deal, if E-W had taken one more card point for a total of 92, they would have won. In this case E-W would have scored 18 game points (16 plus 2 for the Baloot declared by N-S) and N-S would have scored nothing.
- Hokum game in which West is the declarer. The counting team N-S declared a 50-project and took 56 card points. N-S get 6 game points for cards plus 5 for their project, total 11. N-S have only the remaining 10 game points for cards, which is not enough, so N-S win and score 21 game points (16+5) while E-W score nothing.
- As above, a Hokum in which West is the declarer and N-S declared a 50-project, but in this example North doubles. Now E-W are the counting team. Suppose E-W took 106 card points, which convert to 11 game points. N-S get the remaining 5 game points for cards plus 5 for their 50-project, total 10. So now E-W are the winners and score 42 game points (16×2 + 5×2) while N-S score nothing.
- Note that the card points in example 4 are exactly the same as in example 3: E-W have 106 and N-S have 56, total 162. The N-S project is also the same. The only difference is North's double, which makes E-W the counting team in example 4, with the result that E-W become the winners.
The description of Baloot above is intended to be consistent with this archive copy of the Saudi tournament rules, supplemented with testimony from a number of players. However, it has become clear that some details of the game vary from place to place, both within Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Several other sets of Baloot rules have been published, but most of them are incomplete, glossing over details of the rules of play and the scoring, and some give misleading information. In some cases it is not quite clear whether the different rules given by these sources are genuine variants of Baloot that some people play, or are just mistakes or misunderstandings by the authors.
After the dealer has shuffled, in some groups the player to dealer's left has extra options as an alternative to cutting the cards. According to the English Wikipedia page, instead of cutting this player may shuffle the cards once, then place the top card face up on the table as the exposed card (indicating the trump suit for a Hokum game in the first part of the bidding), and may then take the next three cards from the top of the deck (unseen) as the first three cards of their own hand, or take the bottom three cards (unseen) either for themselves or for their partner. The remainder of the deck is then given to the dealer to complete the first part of the deal in the normal way so that each player has five cards.
Annulling the Deal
Some allow a player whose first 5 cards consist only of 9's 8's and 7's to annul the hand in the first round of bidding. An annulled hand is known as Kawesh or Saneen. There is no score for the hand. The cards are shuffled and the next dealer deals.
Some play that in a Hokum game, if two opposing players declare projects that are equal except for the suit, then a sequence in trumps has priority over a non-trump sequence. If neither sequence is in trumps then the sequence that was declared first - i.e. the one held by the first player in anticlockwise order beginning with the player to dealer's right - has priority. With this variant, in the first example at the end of the Projects and Baloot section above (Hokum game, hearts trump, first player has K-Q-J, second player has K-Q-J) the second player's Siri would have priority and the dealer's team would count 4 game points (2 for the Siri plus 2 for the included Baloot) while the club Siri cannot be shown or scored.
There are different customs about whether and how to declare a Baloot that is within a Siri or 50-Project. Some say that when the project is shown the Baloot within it scores automatically and does not need to be declared separately, some require the Baloot to be declared as usual, and some even forbid the Baloot to be declared since it has already been scored automatically.
Rules of Play
None of the published sources we have consulted gives a clear explanation of the rules of play. The description above gives our best understanding of these rules after discussion with a number of players.
Three of the sources - Jawaker, gamerules.com and catsatcards - state that it is the declarer who leads to the first trick, not the player to dealer's right. None of the players we have consulted agrees with this. Apparently it is simply an error on the Jawaker site, both in their published rules and in the working of their online game, which has since been copied by other authors. All players agree that irrespective of the bidding and who takes the explosed card, it should always be the player to dealer's right who plays the first card to the first trick.
All sources agree that there is a requirement to follow suit. Some then say that a player who cannot follow suit is allowed to play any card, but this is almost certainly an error: all players we have consulted agree that there is an obligation to play a trump in certain circumstances when unable to follow to a non-trump lead, and to beat the highest card in a trick with a trump if possible when the trick is currently being won by an opponent.
It is possible that there is some variation in the rules about when a player may say 'Ekka' and the consequences of saying or not saying it.
The explanation of the scoring is unclear in nearly all the published sources, and from discussion with players it seems that there is some variation in the rules as well as confusion. The difficulties in the scoring centre around three issues.
- The total game points available for cards. Several of the sources clearly state that the total number of game points available for cards is always 16 in a Hokum game and 26 in a Sun game. These totals correspond to the total card of 162 card points divided by 10 and rounded in a Hokum game and to the total of 130 card points divided by 5 in a Sun game. The rounding system in Sun ensures that the total really is 26 however the cards are counted, but a potential difficulty arises in Hokum games when the card point totals of both teams end with a units digit of 6, for example 96:66. In this example if both teams were to count their card points, round and divide by 10, the game point totals would be 10:7, which is more than the 16 allowed. The normal solution is to allow only one team to count and convert their card points to game points, and then give the other team the difference of this from 16.
- Which team counts their card points? According to the tournament rules the counting team are the opponents of the declarer if there was no double, but the opponents of the last player to speak in the case of double, triple, etc. So for example in a Hokum game where the declarer's team take 96 card points and their opponents 66, if there is no double the opponents count and score 7 game points for their 66 card points and the bidding team scores the remaining 9 game points (16-7), not 10. In the case of a win by the bidders' opponents or a double, the situation is normally clear, since in these cases the winners can just claim all 16 points for cards. A tricky situation can occur, however, in the case where a 50-project is declared. Suppose the bidders in a Hokum game take 106 points while their opponents take 56 card points having declared and shown a 50-project. If there was no double, the opponents round their 56 card points to 6 game points and add 5 for their project to make 11, while the bidding team have only 10 game points (16-6). So the bidders lose and their opponents score all 21 game points (16+5). But now suppose that the opponents had doubled: even if the card points and project are exactly the same this changes the result. Because of the double, according to the tournament rules it is the now the declarer's team who count because the doubler was last to speak, and their 106 card points round to 11 game points while the doublers get only the remaining 5 (=16-11) plus the 5 for their project for a total of 10. So because of the double the doublers have lost and it is the declarer's team that score all the game points, in this case 42, i.e. (16+5)×2.
- Treatment of a tie in game points. The principle is that in case of a tie in game points, the number of card points gained or lost by each team in the rounding process is used to break the tie. If the card points gained or lost are also equal, then the declarer's team wins the tie. There are a few details that should be mentioned here.
- If there was no double, then a 'win' for the declarer's team just means that both teams score their game points. So for example in a Sun game with no projects, when each team takes 65 card points each team scores their 13 game points. If a Sun game is doubled and each team takes 65 card points then the declarer's team scores 52 game points (2×26) and the doublers score nothing.
- In a Sun game, since the total card points are an exact multiple of 5, the card points gained or lost by each team in rounding always balance. In case of a tie in game points it is the team that had extra card points that were lost in rounding that wins. In practice this only becomes significant in case of a 50-project. Suppose the declarer's team takes 91 card points while their opponents take 39 card points and have declared and shown a 50-project. Now the opponents count 8 game points for cards plus 10 for their project, total 18, and the team that bid the Sun also have 18 (26-8). However, the declarer's team had an extra card point that was lost in rounding so the teams score 18 each. If the declarer's team had taken only 89 card points while their opponents took 41, the teams would still count 18 points each but in this case it is the declarer's opponents who have lost 1 point in rounding, so they win and score 36 points (26+10) while the bidders score nothing. If the card points had been 90:40 the declarer's team would win since it is a tie in game points with nothing gained or lost in rounding, and each team scores 18 game points.
- In a Hokum game, the situation is a little more complex because of the 2 extra card points in the 162 total. Now an exact tie occurs when each team loses 1 of these extra card points in the rounding. If there is a game point tie, then a team that gave up 2 or more points in the rounding wins, while the other team, which lost nothing in the rounding, loses. For example in a Hokum game with no double and no projects, if the card points are 81:81 it is an exact tie, which the declarer's team win, and each team scores 8 game points. If the declarer's opponents score 82 they give up 2 card points in the rounding and are therefore the winners, and score 16 game points while the declarer's team score nothing. If the declarer's opponents take 80 card points they lose nothing in rounding, so the declarer's team wins and each team scores 8 game points. The same principle works in the presence of projects or Baloot. For example if the declarer's team team declares a Baloot and the opponents take 91 card points or fewer, the declarer's team wins.
When consulting the published sources and discussing scoring with players we have come across a number of alternative interpretations, some of which may be genuine variants while others may just be misunderstandings.
Some play that in a Hokum game that is tripled or quadrupled, scores for projects are multiplied by 3 or 4 respectively along with the card points. This is not part of the traditional rules of the game - most players agree that project values cannot be multiplied by more than 2, even when a game is tripled or quadrupled.
Some play that the 2 points for Baloot can only be scored by the team that declared it. In the event that the other team wins and scores all the points for cards (because the declarer lost or because the game was doubled, etc.) the points for a Baloot declared by the losing team are simply lost and not scored by the winners.
It is possible that some play that it is always the declarer's opponents who count, even in case of a double. This variant can change the result in a few cases of a Hokum game with a declared 50-project when the card point totals have a units digit of 6, as illustrated by the examples under point 2 above.
It may be that some allow both teams to count their cards, but in this case in a Hokum game where both teams' card point totals have a units digit of 6, the total game points will be 17, not 16. But it is likely that this is just a misunderstanding of the rules by some players, rather than a generally accepted variant.
The Kuwaiti website koutbo6.com gives rules of Baloot in English and in Arabic which differ from each other and from the Saudi rules given above in several ways. Neither of them mentions the possibility of double, triple, locking etc. so maybe these options are not allowed by some groups in Kuwait.
In some regions, for example in Riyadh, Ashkal bids by the third and fourth players are allowed in the second round of bidding as well as in the first round. Some players use this possibility to indicate to their partner in which suits they are strong, for example using Ashkal to indicate strength in the other suit that is the sanme colour as the exposed card, and Ashkal in the second round to show strength in a suit of the opposite colour.
Some play that if all pass in the first and second rounds of bidding, and the exposed card is an Ace, there is a 'third round' in which the player to dealer's right, but only this player, is allowed to bid.
Sources of Information
We are very grateful to the many players who have helped us by answering questions about the game, and we would welcome further comments and corrections. Our special thanks go out to all the Saudi players who have provided us with information through social networks (Twitter and Instagram) and YouTube.
Our starting point was to study the following descriptions of this game published on the web, many of which turned out to be incomplete or unreliable.
- The English and Arabic Wikipedia pages on Baloot.
- The rules at gamerules.com.
- The Belote page of the catsatcards site, which includes a section on Baloot.
- The English and Arabic rules at the koutbo6.com online games site.
- Archive copy of English rules from the Jawaker online games site.
- An archive copy of the Saudi tournament rules (in Arabic).