Sergeant Major


This game was described to me by John Card, who tells me that it used to be popular in Britain's Royal Air Force. Some closely related games, generally known as 8-5-3 or 3-5-8, are played in India and the near east; also the game 9-5-2, played in Canada, is very similar.

Players and Cards

Sergeant Major is a trick taking game for 3 players, using a standard 52 card pack. It is played clockwise.

Object of the Game

The aim is to win as many tricks as possible. If a player succeeds in winning 12 or more tricks in one hand, the game ends and that player wins.

Deal and Card Exchange (first hand)

The first dealer is chosen at random. The cards are shuffled, cut and then dealt singly, 16 to each player. The last four undealt cards are placed face down on the table to form a kitty. The dealer names a suit as trumps (clubs, spades, hearts or diamonds - "no trump" is not allowed), discards any four cards face down, and takes the four undealt cards from the kitty in their place.

The Play

The player to dealer's left leads any card to the first trick. It is compulsory to follow suit if able to; a player holding no card of the suit led may play any card. Each trick is won by the highest trump it contains, or if there are no trumps in it, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.

Targets and Scoring

Each player has a target. The dealer's target is 8 tricks; the player to dealer's left has a target of 5 tricks; and the player to dealer's right needs 3 tricks. A player who won more tricks than the target is said to be up by the number of tricks won in excess of target. A player who failed to reach the target is down by the number of tricks short. The player(s) who are down pay one stake per trick short of target, and the player(s) who are up receive one stake per overtrick.

Deal and Exchange (second and subsequent hands)

The turn to deal rotates clockwise, so the new dealer is the player who led to the first trick previous hand. The pack is shuffled and cut and 16 cards each are dealt singly as before.

Now each player who was up on the previous hand gives away one unwanted card per overtrick to a player who was down, and that player must return the highest card(s) held of the same suit(s). The exact procedure is as follows:

  • If just one player was up, that player gives each of the other players as many unwanted cards face down as they had undertricks. These cards are all given simultaneously. The other players add these cards to their hands, and for each card received, they give back face down their highest card of that suit. A player who has no other cards of the suit received will of course have to give back the same card.
  • If two players were up, the player with the higher target for the hand about to be played trades first. This player gives (face down) as many cards as he or she had overtricks to the player who was down, and that player gives back face down the highest card(s) held in the same suit(s). After that, the other player who was up gives a card per overtrick to the player who was down, and receives in exchange that player's highest card(s) in the same suit(s).

After this exchange of cards is complete, the dealer names trumps, discards four cards and takes the four undealt cards. If the dealer was down and had to give away the highest card of a suit, but then picks up one or more higher cards of that same suit from the undealt cards, any such high cards must be shown privately to the player(s) who traded cards in that suit.

The play and scoring then proceeds as described above. The targets are always 8 tricks for the current dealer, 5 for the player who leads to the first trick, and 3 for the other player.

End of the Game

The game ends when any player succeeds in winning 12 or more tricks in one hand, thereby winning the game.


Some play that the dealer picks up the kitty and then discards (rather than discarding before picking up).

Some play that the game goes on until someone takes all sixteen tricks. This can lead to an extremely long game - my experience with this version is that the game generally gets abandoned before the end is reached.

Shawn's Sergeant Major page, formerly at but now disappeared, described a variation played with only 51 cards (the 2 of clubs is removed). 17 cards are dealt to each player. The dealer chooses trumps, as usual, and the targets are 8 tricks for dealer, 6 for player left of dealer, 3 for player right of dealer. The player to dealer's left leads to the first trick (as usual). Players score +1 for each trick above target, -1 for each trick below. From the second hand onwards cards are exchanged in the usual way (according to tricks above or below target on the previous hand) before trump is called. The game ends when someone wins by reaching +10 points.

Ralph Birch describes a similar variant played by his grandfather who was the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, serving in the British Army in India in the 1930s and 40s. The two of spades is removed, 17 cards each are dealt, the targets are 9 tricks for dealer, 5 the dealer's left-hand opponent and 3 for dealer's right-hand opponent, and in theory the game is supposed to continue until someone wins all 17 tricks though in practice the game is nearly always abandoned 'with a useless hand being thrown at the dominant player'.


Details of this Canadian variation were sent to me by Henry Stevens. The game is identical to Sergeant Major apart from the following:

  1. The targets for the three players are:
    • Dealer - 9 tricks
    • Player to dealer's left - 5 tricks
    • Player to dealer's right - 2 tricks.
  2. After trading cards and choosing trump, the dealer picks up the four kitty cards before discarding four.
  3. A cumulative score for each player is kept on paper. The score for each hand is assessed based on whether the required number of tricks were taken (zero score), more tricks were taken (plus score of number of tricks over required tricks) or fewer tricks (minus score of number of tricks under required tricks). Scores are totaled with the score from previous hands, and the total score of all three players should always be zero.
  4. 9-5-2 is played to a target score agreed in advance, usually 10 or 20 points. The game ends when someone's score reaches or exceeds the target. Since the sum of the scores on each hand is zero, in theory the game could go on for ever, but in practice someone will eventually reach the target.

Nicholas Tallyn reports another variation of 9-5-2 with the following differences:

  • The targets of the players left and right of dealer are reversed - the player to dealer's left needs 2 tricks and the player to the right needs 5 tricks. [This seems odd given that dealer's left hand opponent has the advantage of leading first.]
  • The order of exchanging cards and making trumps is:
    1. Dealer picks up the four spare cards and then discards four;
    2. Players with positive scores on the previous hand pass cards;
    3. Dealer calls trump;
    4. Players with negative scores pass back their highest cards in the suits they were given.
  • The game continues until someone reaches or goes beyond +15 or -15, and whoever has the most points at that time is the winner.

Four-handed Sergeant Major

Bryan Weaver writes:

When I was in college at Georgia Tech in the mid 1980's, there was a large community of card players there. In addition to a lot of Bridge and Hearts (which were typically played for stakes) we played a four-handed variety of sergeant major.

No cards were undealt; the trick taking requirements were 5-4-2-2 with the usual rewards and penalties.

The four-handed game introduces complications when taking extra cards from those who were down (we called the process "plucking" and individual cards "plucks"). To begin with, we handled the situation of competitive "plucking" different from the standard. If more than one player passed cards to the same person, then the person returned his highest cards in the suit to those players based upon the rank of the cards that they used to "pluck" from him, rather than doing it in a particular order.
An example: West has the A9872 of Hearts. North exchanges the 5 of hearts with him and South the 3 of hearts. West returns the A of Hearts to North and the 9 of hearts to South.

It was possible for West to give cards from one opponent to the other.
Example: West has the A432 of Hearts. North exchanges the 8 of hearts with him and South the 5 of hearts. West returns the A of Hearts to North and the 8 of hearts to South.

The general procedure for determining who you plucked when two players were up and two players were down was as follows.

  1. Encourage Competition. Suppose N is -2, E is -1, W is +1 and S is +2. If plucks are uneven, ensuring competition is the most important guideline: South sends a card to both N and E, and West sends a card to North.
  2. Discourage passing cards to your left if possible. Suppose N and S are each +1 and E and W are each -1. South should pass a card to East, not West. The reason for this is that South should get the card, but not the extra benefit of the information that his LHO has no card larger than the one he received.

Other WWW pages

Here is an archive copy of Jim Buckley's description of Sergeant Major at his Jambutty site.

Christopher Dearlove has published rules for a version of Sergeant Major known as Trumpet Major.

3-5-8 can be played on line at the Game Desire web site, and also at PlayOK Online Games (formerly known as Kurnik).

Marya's World of Card Games offers an online Sergeant Major game.

A 3-5-8 game which can be played locally against the computer or online is included in the Favorite Games Ltd. package. A 3-5-8 game for Android OS is also available.