Handjass

Introduction

This is generally considered to be the most basic form of the Swiss game Jass and is also known as Butzer, Sackjass or Schläger.

The game is played to find a loser. In each deal the player(s) who take most card points score a stroke (or stick), and anyone who takes fewer than 26 card points gets a Null - sometimes known as a Herdöpfel (potato) - which is worth minus one stroke. Anyone who achieves a net score of 7 strokes is safe and retires from the game: the loser is the last remaining player who fails to reach 7 strokes.

The description on this page is based on accounts in several Swiss books - see References. My thanks to Alan Trangmar for drafting some notes on the game (which we have often played in London and Oxford under the name 'Potato Jass') and encouraging me to publish this web page.

Players and Cards

There can be two, three or four players. The number of players reduces as players retire from the game, so if you start with four players you will also play the three-player game and finally the two-player game to determine the loser.

A Swiss 36-card pack is used, which depending on the region will have either Swiss German suits (in northeast Switzerland) or French suits (in the south or west of Switzerland). The Swiss German suits are bells, shields, acorns and roses and the French suits are hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades.

The cards in descending order in non-trump suits and their values in card points are:

Swiss
German
French Value
Ace Ace 11
King King 4
Ober Queen 3
Under Jack 2
Banner Ten 10
Nine Nine 0
Eight Eight 0
Seven Seven 0
Six Six 0

In the trump suit the Under (Jack) and the Nine are promoted to be the highest cards, and the ranking from high to low and the card values are:

Swiss
German
French Value
Under Jack 20
Nine Nine 14
Ace Ace 11
King King 4
Ober Queen 3
Banner Ten 10
Eight Eight 0
Seven Seven 0
Six Six 0

The winner of the last trick scores an extra 5 card points to make a total of 157 points in the pack.

The direction of play is counter-clockwise throughout.

Weis and Stöck

Extra points can be scored for certain combinations of cards in a player's hand: a sequence of 3 or more consecutive cards of one suit or a set of four of a kind. These are known as 'Weis', sometimes spelled 'Wys' or 'Wis'.

  • When making sequences, cards always rank in the non-trump order. So U-B-9-8 of bells (J-10-9-8 of hearts) is a valid sequence and U-9-A of bells (J-9-A of hearts) is not valid even if hearts are trumps.
  • The only sets of four of a kind that are valid are Aces, Kings, Obers (Queens), Unders (Jacks) and Banners (Tens). Sets of four 9's, 8's, 7's or 6's are worthless.

The scores for the different types of Weis are as follows:

Four Unders (Jacks) 200
Sequence of 5 or more 100
Four Aces, Kings, Obers (Queens) or Banners 100
Sequence of 4 50
Sequence of 3 20

A hand can score more than one combination, but a card cannot belong to two combinations at the same time. So for example with four Aces plus the King and Ober (Queen) of a suit scores just 100 for the Aces: you cannot simultaneously score the A-K-O(Q) sequence. If you add the Under of the same suit the Weis score is 120 for four of a kind plus a sequence of three.

If more than one player has Weis, the player with the best single combination scores for all his or her combinations and the other players score nothing for Weis. For this purpose:

  1. Higher scoring combinations beat lower scoring combinations
  2. If the scores are equal, a combination with more cards beats one with fewer cards
  3. If the scores and number of cards are equal a combination with higher cards (in non-trump order) beats one with lower cards
  4. If two sequences are of equal length and rank but one is in trumps, the trump sequence is better
  5. If two players have equal sequences in different non-trump suits, the one belonging to the player nearest to dealer's right (i.e. the player who plays earlier to the first trick) is better. So in this case the dealer has lowest priority.

A player whose hand contains both King and the Ober (Queen) of trumps scores 20 points for Stöck. This score is independent of and in addition to any score for Weis - so for example a hand with K-O-U-B (K-Q-J-10) scores 50 points for the sequence plus 20 points for the Stöck. If an opponent has better Weis, for example A-K-O-U (A-K-Q-J) of some other suit, the hand with the trumps still scores 20 points for Stöck.

Four-Player Game

Deal

The dealer shuffles, the player to dealer's left cuts, and the dealer deals out all the cards in batches of three so that each player has nine cards. The dealer's last card - the bottom card of the pack, is turned face up for all to see. The suit of this is the trump suit for the hand.

In the four-player game, unlike the games for three or two players described below, the player holding the six of trumps is not allowed to exchange it for the turned up trump.

Take Part or Drop Out

Starting with the player to dealer's right and going round the table clockwise, ending with the dealer, each player in turn announces whether he or she will play or drop out. Those who drop out take no further part in the play. They cannot win a stroke on this deal but they are also safe from scoring a potato.

If all players except one drop out, that player wins two strokes without play.

Play

The player to dealer's right (or if this player has dropped out the next player in counter-clockwise order who is still active) leads to the first trick. Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, if it contains any trumps. If no trumps are played the trick is won by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.

Players who can follow suit must either do so or trump. On a non-trump lead undertrumping is only allowed if the player has nothing left but trumps. The Under of trumps cannot be forced out by a trump lead.

In more detail, the rules are:

  • Any card may be led.
  • If a trump is led, the other players must play trumps if they have them, except that the holder of the Under of trumps does not have to play it if he or she has no other trumps. There is no obligation to play higher when trumps are led - any trump may be played. If a trump is led, a player who has no trumps or only the Under of trumps may play any card.
  • If a non-trump card is led, players who have at least one card of the suit led must either follow suit or play a trump. When following suit there is no obligation to play higher - any card of the suit led may be played.
  • A player who has no card of the suit that is led may play any card, with the exception below.
  • If a non-trump was led and there is already a trump in the trick, a subsequent player cannot play a lower trump unless at that time his or her hand consists entirely of trumps. However, a player who holds only trumps may choose to undertrump even if able to overtrump.

In order to score for Weis the holder must declare it when playing to the first trick by announcing the score for the best single Weis combination held - 20, 50 or 100. Weis cannot be declared if a previous player has already declared a higher scoring combination. At the end of the first trick, if there is a tie for the highest scoring Weis, the players in question successively give more information to resolve the tie: first the number of cards, then the rank of the highest card, then whether it is trumps. After resolving any ties, the winner declares any additional Weis and will score for all Weis held.

Example. Player A announces 50, player C also announces 50. Both must have four card sequences, so now A says King and C also says King so both have K-O-U-B. Now C says mine is in trumps, winning the Weis. C also has 8-7-6 in another suit so scores an additional 20. C will score 90 points in total for combinations since he will also score 20 for Stöck in this case.

Any other player can require the player scoring for Weis to show the cards that make up the Weis. It can be useful to know these cards in the subsequent play. Players whose Weis is not scored cannot be asked to show their Weis and are not allowed to show it.

A player who holds Stöck - the King and Ober (Queen) of trumps - scores for it by declaring "Stöck" when playing the second of the two cards to a trick. It does not have to be declared if it has already been shown as part of the player's Weis.

Any combinations - Weis or Stöck - that are not declared at the proper time cannot be scored.

Scoring

It is traditional to score on a chalk slate. Each player's score is kept on the corner of the slate nearest to the player - see illustration. The score consists of strokes or strokes worth +1 point each and nulls or circles (potatoes) worth -1 point each.

slate

All players count the value of cards in their tricks, plus the value of any Weis or Stöck they have scored, plus 5 points for the winner of the last trick. The two players with the highest scores each score a stroke on the slate.

Any player who scores less than 26 points scores a null (potato) on the slate. It is not possible to score both a potato and a stroke on the same deal, so if all but one of the active players get a potato, the player with 26 or more points scores 2 strokes.

If all but one player have dropped out, the single remaining player automatically scores 2 strokes. If all but two players have dropped out, those two players can agree to score a stroke each, provided that they can demonstrate to each other and to the players who dropped out that they can each take at least 26 points. In case of doubt the cards must be played until both players have at least 26.

In case of a tie for the second stroke, the tied players each draw a card from the shuffled deck and whoever draws the higher card gets the stroke.

It can theoretically happen that there are two or three active players and none of them manages to take as many as 26 points (because there are too many points in the hands of the players who dropped out). In this case each of the active players gets a potato and no one scores a stroke.

Any player who reaches the target of 7 (or more) strokes retires from the game. The remaining players continue to play under the rules for 3 (or 2) players to determine the loser.

On the illustrated slate player C has 7 strokes (8 minus 1) and retires from the game. The other three players - A with 6 strokes, B with -1 and C with 3 - keep these scores and continue with a three-player game.

Players should take turns to be Vorhand (the player to dealer's right who makes the first decision and plays the first card). So when a player retires, the turn to be Vorhand passes to the right and the next dealer is the player to the left of the new Vorhand. This will usually be the previous Vorhand, but if it is Vorhand who retires, the same dealer will need to deal again to give the next player their turn to be Vorhand.

Three-Player Game

The dealer deals four 9-card hands in batches of 3 cards as in the four-player game. There is one hand for each player and a spare hand known as the blind. The three players pick up their cards and the blind is left stacked face down on the table. The top card of the blind is turned face up and its suit is trumps for the deal.

Each player in turn, starting with the player to dealer's right (Vorhand), chooses one of the following three options.

  1. To play with the cards they were dealt.
  2. To drop out.
  3. To throw away the cards they were dealt play with the blind hand.

Only one player can play with the blind. Once option 3 has been selected, subsequent players only have a choice between options 1 and 2.

A player who chooses option 3 discards his or her cards face down and takes the cards of the blind as a new hand, leaving the trump indicator card face up on the table until the lead to the first trick, after which it is added to their hand. The player is then obliged to play with these cards - however poor the blind turns out to be the player who opted for it cannot drop out.

After all three players have chosen and before the lead to the first trick, a player holding the six of trumps is allowed to exchange it for the face up trump. If a player chose option 3, that player will now have the 6 of trumps in place of the trump that was on top of the blind when they chose it.

The rules of play are exactly as in the four-player game. At the end of the play the players count the cards in their tricks, Weis and Stöck and the points for the last trick. Points in the discarded hand or the blind if not taken, and points in the hands of players who have dropped out count for no one.

As in the four-player game the two players with the highest scores each score a stroke and any player who has less than 26 points scores a potato. Other situations are handled in the same way as in the four-player game. For example if only one player has 26 or more points that player scores two strokes.

If one player dropped out, the other two can agree to score a stroke each if they can convince each other and the third player that they will each take at least 26 points. In case of doubt the cards must be played.

A player who reaches the target score of 7 or more retires and the other two continue playing to determine the loser. The next Vorhand will be the one whose next turn to be Vorhand would have come earliest if the three-player game had continued. The other player deals.

Two-Player Game

As in the 4-player and 3-player games the dealer deals four 9-card hands. There is one hand for each player and two spare hands face down on the table. One spare hand is the blind (available for exchange as in the 3-player game) and the other is the stock (not available to be picked up). The top card of the stock is turned over to determine the trump suit.

The non-dealer chooses whether to play, drop out or play with the blind. Then the dealer has the same options, except that the dealer cannot exchange with the blind if the non-dealer has exchanged. After both players have chosen, the holder of the 6 of trumps may exchange it for the trump indicator card on top of the stock. The rules of play, the declaration of Weis and Stöck are the same as in the three- and four-player games.

Only one stroke is scored per deal in the two-player game. If one player drops out the cards are not played and the other player simply scores a stroke. If both play, the player with more points scores a stroke provided that the player has at least 26 points. A player who has less than 26 scores a potato. If both are under 26 both score potatoes and there is no stroke.

When one player reaches the target score of 7 strokes, the game ends and the player with less than 7 strokes is the loser.

Variations

In the original version of this game, the number of points need to avoid a null or potato was only 21. Since a player who holds the trump Under can always guarantee at least 25 points simply by keeping this card to win the last trick, most players now prefer to make the threshold 26 points as above, so that a hand with the trump Under is not necessarily completely safe.

Depending on the length of game desired, players may agree a higher or lower target to require from the game, for example 9 strokes or 5 strokes.

In the three-player and two-player games, instead of playing with a blind hand, some play with "Bessern", as follows:

  • In the three-player game the dealer deals just three hands of nine cards. The last card of dealer's hand is turned up to indicate the trump suit, and cannot be exchanged for the 6 of trumps. Then the last nine cards are dealt - a packet of three face down to each player. These are the "Bessern". Each player has the option to discard exactly three cards from and replace them with the unknown Bessern from the table. Then players decide in turn whether to play or drop out. Exchanging with the Bessern does not oblige a player to play. Play and scoring are as usual.
  • In the two-player game with Bessern each player is dealt 9 cards, the next card is turned up to indicate trumps, and then 3 cards are dealt face down to each player as Bessern. The remaining 11 cards are out of play. As in the three-player game, players can discard three cards in exchange for their Bessern, after which they decide whether to play or drop out. Before the first lead the holder of the 6 of trumps can exchange it for the trump indicator. Play and scoring are as usual.

Some play that for each null (potato), an extra stroke is scored. If there is one null, an extra stroke is also awarded to the player who took most points in play. If there are two nulls with four active players, then each of the others scores two strokes rather than one. If there is only one active player without a null, that player scores an extra stroke for each null.

Some play a version in which every player must play in every hand. There is no option to drop out to avoid the risk of a null. In the three-player and two-player forms of this game the players are dealt 12 cards each. There is no blind hand and no Bessern.

Some play that in addition to the stake that the loser has to play the others for losing the game, anyone who scores a null must pay a (smaller) stake to each of the other players who were active in that hand.

In "Berner Handjass" the number of strokes and nulls scored are multiplied according to the trump suit. The multiplier for hearts / bells is 4, for diamonds / shields 3, for clubs / roses 2 and for acorns / spades 1. So for example with shields trump in the three-player game the two highest scorers score 3 strokes each, and a player who takes less than 26 points scores three nulls. In this version a score of 27 strokes is needed to retire from the game.

Some used to play that the number of strokes awarded is always one fewer than the number of players. This only affects the four-player game, in which three strokes are awarded rather than two. So if there are only two active players without nulls, the one who took more points therefore scores two of these strokes.

Some play that if two players tie for a stroke, taking equal number of points, the stroke is held in abeyance until the next deal in which both the players in question are active, and then given to the one who has takes more points on that deal.

References

Göpf Egg & Albert Hagenbucher: Puur Näll As (A.G.Müller, Neuhausen, 2007)

Gottlieb Rüttimann: Stöck Wis Stich (Keller, Luzern, 1969)

Paul Leimbacher & Paul Altheer: Schweizer Jass-Büechli (Grethlein, Zürich & Leipzig, 1930)