Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The game of Skat lives!

It always fascinates me to discover that hundreds of millions of people do something differently from what I assumed was the one and only natural way. For example in Asia, the clapper of a large bell is often outside the bell.

Skat is a card game with a number of whimsical differences that set it apart from the games we are used to. I won’t try to teach you the game nor try to persuade you to play, it; I just want to tell you enough so that you can enjoy the interesting differences with me.

My father taught me to play what American card game rulebooks describe as a variant – Räuber Skat. I knew that Skat in all its variants was wildly popular in middle Europe before WW II. I hadn’t thought much about it lately. But I just discovered that there’s a Skat game for the Palm PDA (strictly in German), and it sells for about $40, an incredibly high price for a PDA game (But I found it for 13 Euro in Europe). So it must still be quite popular. The PDA version follows official German rules and seems to be similar to Räuber Skat. That’s not surprising, as the “main” game, with its Guckser and Tournée bids is less skilful. The enjoyable peculiarities of Skat reside in:

  • The rank of the cards.
  • The scoring.
  • The style of bidding.

Skat is played with a 32 card deck, four suits of A K Q J 10 9 8 7. (I’ve just listed the cards, from high to low, in “French” order.) Skat is always played by three people, dealing 10 cards to each and putting the two other cards in a “blind” that may be used or ignored. There are three kinds of contracts: Null, Grand and Suit. In a Null contract, the ranking of cards is French, and the bidder undertakes to lose all the tricks. In a Suit contract, the trump suit is (from high to low): J of clubs, J of spades, J of hearts, J of diamonds, and the seven remaining cards of the suit, in German order (Ace 10 K Q 9 8 7). (The game of Schapfkpof takes this idea to an extreme, with the four queens ranking above the four jacks.) In a Grand (pronounce it: Grahhhnd), the four jacks ARE the trump suit.

The Null contracts have fixed values of 23, 46 and 69 (there are three ways to try to lose all the tricks, and you get more points for doing it the hard way).

The other contracts have fixed values (each suit is different) that are multiplied by another number. This other multiplier partly reflects the difficulty of your bid. For example, undertaking to win 91 of the 120 card points in play (not just the majority) while not looking at the blind gives you 1 for game plus 1 for no blind plus 1 for Schneider (the 91 points) = 3. Now suppose you also have the three highest trumps (J clubs, J spades, J hearts but not J diamonds). Then you are “with three” so your multiplier is 3+3 = 6. But strangely, if your highest trump is the J of diamonds (so it will be a lot harder to win tricks) then you are “without three” and you get the same multiplier, 3+3 = 6. (to complete the example, if you are playing a Suit contract in spades, the value of your contract is 6 * 11 = 66).

During the bidding, each player who thinks they can fulfill a contract tries to bid the lowest number that the other players cannot equal. There is a certain amount of “shtupfing” (sacrifical bidding, higher than you can probably make), but I think that shtupfing only makes sense if you suspect one of your opponents has a better hand than they realize.
The first bidder first has a conversation with the second one, something like this:
First: 18?
Second: Good.
First: 20?
Second: Good.
First: 22?
Second: Good.
The Second player has answered the First each time by saying that he, too, can play a contract worth that amount. In other words, in Skat, you can overcall a bid by bidding the same amount, not (in all the games you may be used to) a higher amount. Also,note that bids are questions, not declarations. (Some other European games like Frog have the same convention.)
At this point the first bidder can go no higher, so the second turns to the third:
Second 22?
… and so on.
Different, huh? And let me tell you, it’s exciting playing a Grand “without two”, or realizing that you can make a null ouverte revolution worth 69 points. (In that contract, you undertake to lose all the tricks even though your opponents exchange two cards before the play begins, and you play with your cards face up on the table.) An interesting polyglot of a card game!

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