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Variants

This page lists variants and unusual rules. Feel free to email me suggestions for this page.

 

Jack of Diamonds v. Call an Ace. These two most common variants of five-handed can generate almost religious devotion among their adherents. The rules for these games have been explained elsewhere and need not be repeated here, but in a nutshell the difference is that in Jack of Diamonds the picker's partner is whoever holds the jack of diamonds, while in Call an Ace the picker must keep one fail suit, announce the suit, and the person with the ace of that suit is his/her partner. It seems like Jack of Diamonds is played more in the Fox Valley, while Call an Ace is prevalent in Milwaukee and northern Wisconsin. The two games are actually surprisingly different to play. Although I end up playing more Call an Ace because that's what my friends and family play, I find that Jack of Diamonds tends to lead to more interesting and open play. Call an Ace sometimes has more rote plays because the weak side should always lead the called suit at the first opportunity. In Jack of Diamonds, there tends to be more suspense and hesitation to schmear because the who the partner is may not be obvious. Jack of Diamonds also has the situation where a picker can go alone (or be forced to go alone by drawing the JD in the blind) without the other side knowing it. Finally, in many JD hands the picker has a fail or a fail ace, leading to some unusual plays. On the other hand, I think JD allows for more opportunities for luck to be a factor, and thus Call an Ace is a more rational game for gambling. In all, I really don't prefer one game to another, which is unusual among sheepsheaders.

Clubs Trump. Around Wausau and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, sheepshead is played with clubs as trump. This may be due to inbreeding, muleheadedness, or plain ignorance, but is most probably the result of someone noticing that the clubs are boss among the trump, so it stands to reason that they should be boss fail as well. I guess I shouldn't be too critical of the idea, but I still view anyone who plays this way with suspicion. Diamonds should be trump because . . . well, because they are.

Four-Handed. There are many four-handed variants, created no doubt in desperate, perhaps beer-fueled, attempts to make the four-handed version as fun as the five handed version. All such efforts are doomed to fail, but some of the four-handed variants are less annoying than others. I first learned four-handed played seven cards to each player, four in the blind, if you pick you go alone. I have seen many variants involving different ways of selecting partners. My grandfather apparently played a fair bit of four-handed, eight cards to a player, with the two black queens automatically being partners. If both are dealt to you, you go alone. This game is all right, sometimes having some interesting plays as you try to figure out who your partner is. My neighbor told me about a variant where the first two queens played are partners. This sounded interesting, but in practice it (like the two-black queen game) usually ended up that the partners (i.e., the players of the first two queens) usually won. Then Steven Brezinski, a member of my regular game, seized on having the first two jacks played be partners. This actually borders on the fun, and I suggest you try it. Brezinski came up with a variant crack rule--you can only crack immediately after the first jack is played--and unfortunately labeled this game "Crackerjacks." While perhaps better than three-handed, this game, like all four-handed games, still sometimes makes you wish you were not playing at all.

Seven-Handed. I have also seen seven-handed variants, most of which are wretched. The variant my grandmother plays is maybe the least annoying, and is known as "Sh*t on Your Neighbor." Four cards are dealt to each player, with two two-card blinds. Whoever picks takes one blind, and the person to his/her right takes the other blind and is the partner. With only four tricks, it's possible to take three of the four tricks and still lose--or to bury forty in the two blinds, take one trick, and win. The best part of this game is the conversation before the picking, during which the person to the potential picker's right earnestly entreats him/her not to pick, protests that he/she has nothing in their hand at all, while the rest of the table encourages the potential picker to go for it.

No Trick Rules. Many people play that if the picker loses and doesn't take a trick, the partner doesn't have to pay. This is a good and fair rule, and rightly punishes idiots who pick with crappy hands, or misplay decent hands. Someday I'll have a good enough hand to be called as a partner by someone with a crappy hand, then burn the S.O.B. out and make him pay. There are several people I'd like to do this to. They know who they are. (Actually, since writing the foregoing, it happened. It was every bit as good as I hoped it would be, oh yes.)

Halfsies. A variant I'm ashamed to admit came to life in my presence, and I failed to crush it in its infantile stages. When there are six players, what usually happens is that the game is still five-handed, with the dealer sitting out. At our games, the dealers were getting bored just watching, so they when they saw a player hesitating before picking (generally because they had a marginal hand), the dealer would offer to share half the risk (and the reward) with the picker. (For example, if the picker won but the other side got schneider, the picker and the dealer would each get a point; if the picker lost, the dealer and picker would each lose two.) This became known as "halfsies" or "going halfsies." Worse yet, halfsies degenerated to the point where the dealer would have an opportunity to see the potential picker's hand before offering halfsies, and would have the opportunity to see the blind after electing to go along. And, naturally, halfsies generated table talk like manure draws flies. The long and short of it: I dislike this rule, I apologize for having been involved with it, and it is with considerable reservation that I mention it on this site at all. It is not an utter abomination, but it's close.

Throw-In Hand. Many people play that if you are dealt no trump and no points, you can "throw in" and demand a redeal. This is very rare: there are only nine non-trump, no-point cards, and you have to be dealt six. In fact, I've only seen it happen once, although the group I usually play with had it happen twice in a row in a game where I wasn't present. (Who the heck was shuffling?)

Throwing In For Schneider. A common variant rule is to allow someone who had picked to throw in the cards before the first lead and accept a loss, but be granted schneider. I've never played this rule, but there have been times when I've picked on four to the queen of diamonds in the number-two spot and wished I did.

 

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