Sheepshead

Sheepshead (or Schafkopf in German) is an old card game developed by shepherds a very long time ago. In play it's similar to both pinochle and euchre. With a challenging rule system, the game rewards those diligent enough to learn them. (Click here for other cool card games, or here for another Sheepshead page!) This particular version of the game was taught to the guys of 1501 A-wing, a dormitory at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, in the spring of 1987 by Krist Enstrom, a residential counselor at the time. I write these rules down in hopes that other people can enjoy the game as much as we did back then.

Materials

Sheepshead is a five-player game, using a thirty-two (32) card deck. The deck contains the seven, eight, nine, ten, jack, queen, king and ace in each of the four suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs). A pen and paper will also be needed for scoring purposes.

Card Ranking

The most unique aspect of Sheepshead, its card ranking, stymies a lot of beginning players. The highest cards are the queens, then the jacks, followed by the diamonds, and lastly, the remaining cards in the other three suits. The suit ranking among the queens and jacks are (from highest to lowest): clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds. Therefore, the highest card in the deck is the queen of clubs, and the lowest card among the queens and jacks is the jack of diamonds. The remaining cards in each of the four suits follow the order (again, highest to lowest): ace, ten, king, nine, eight, seven. Together, the queens, jacks, and diamonds constitute trump. To put all that in a table:

Highest

Lowest

Trump

Queens

Clubs

Spades

Hearts

Diamonds

Jacks

Clubs

Spades

Hearts

Diamonds

Diamonds

Ace

10

King

9

8

7

Non-trump

Clubs, Spades,

and hearts

(no order)

Ace

10

King

9

8

7

That last point is usually the last bit of Sheepshead lore to sink in. Try hard not to think of a diamond as diamond, but rather as trump (although it still follows the ace-seven ranking). This becomes quite important in the actual play of the game, so keep it in mind.

The Deal

Decide who will deal first (the deal will go clockwise after each hand, and each person will usually deal the same number of times as the rest of the players). Shuffle thoroughly, and the person to the dealer's right should cut the cards. Starting with the dealer's left, each player should receive three cards from the top of the deck. After the dealer has dealt to himself, two cards should be put in the middle of the table; this is called the blind (some sheepshead players call it the "groin," but in order not to offend any readers, I'll stick to the not-as-graphic "blind"). Continuing on, each player should again receive three cards from the top of the deck. After the dealer has dealt himself three cards, he or she should be out of cards, with each player having six cards, and two cards in the blind.

The Play

The person to the dealer's left must now say whether he picks or not. Picking is done by taking the two cards in the middle. If that person does not pick up the blind, the person to that player's left has the option of picking. This continues until either someone does pick up the blind, or the option gets to the dealer. If the dealer does not pick up the cards, a misdeal has occurred, and a new hand is started (with a new dealer).

If someone did pick up the blind, that person must now discard two cards from his hand and lay them face down in front of him. The person to the dealer's left now puts a card face-up in the middle of the table, to begin actual play. The person to that player's left lays down a card. The card that the player plays must:

  • Be of the same suit as the first card, or
  • If the player has no cards of the first suit, the player can discard anything

Play continues to the left until the dealer plays a card. At that point, the player who played the highest card, either the highest trump, if trump was played, or the the highest card of the suit played, if no trump was played, takes all the cards in the middle of the table (called a trick), and puts them face-down in front of him or her. The player who just took the trick then plays a card from his or her hand, and play continues as in the above fashion, until 6 tricks are taken (i.e., everyone has played all the cards in their hand).

Scoring

After all 6 tricks have been taken, each player counts the number of points in his or her pile, according to following table:

Card

Points

Ace

11

10

10

King

4

Queen

3

Jack

2

Some players' scores are now added together, since they actually formed a team, as determined by who picked and who had the jack of diamonds. The picker and the person who had the jack of diamonds (the boy) need to get a combined score of more than 60 points. If they did, the picker gets 2 points and the boy gets 1 point. All other players get a -1. If the picker and boy did not get 60 points, then the picker gets -4, the boy -2, and the other players gain 2 points (this condition is called the bump).

There are a number of other conditions that can double the score. These are additive, so that if more than one applies, the score just keeps doubling (ie, if three applies, the score doubles, doubles again, and doubles again). The conditions are as follows:

Doubler: There is usually a hand in every round of dealing that is declared a doubler, just to make the game more lively. Also, if in the previous hand no one picked, or the dealer messed up the deal, the current hand is automatically a doubler.

No schneider: If either of the two teams (the picker and the boy, or the three other players) fails to get at least 30 points.

No trick: If either of the two teams does not win any tricks.

Going alone: This happens either when: 1) the person who picks had the jack of diamonds in his or her hand, or 2) before play begins (before the first card of the first trick is played) announces he doesn't want the points collected by the boy to count for his team (throwing off the boy).

Blitzing: Before the person picks, they may announce they are blitzing. This means they currently have both black queens (the two highest cards).

Indian blitzing: Before the person picks, they may announce they are indian blitzing. This means they currently have both red queens.

Cracking: After someone picks the cards, but before play begins, someone who did not have the option of picking may crack (if they have the proper cards, they may blitz crack or indian blitz crack).

Double Cracking: Once someone cracks, the boy may then double crack (and again, if they have the proper cards, they may double blitz crack or double indian blitz crack).

Triple Cracking: Once the boy has double cracked, one of the two remaining players can triple crack.

Strategy

As in most card games of any depth, strategy in Sheepshead is important, but very hard to teach. Here are some simple guidelines:

Picking: Obviously, pick the cards when you have a strong hand. Some people suggest picking when you have only one queen (and no other trump). This is something you really have to develop a feel for. If you pass your chance of picking, but you really should have picked, you are a mauer (German for wall).

Discarding: When you've picked up the blind, you should try to accomplish two things when discarding your two cards: 1) short-suit yourself (discard, or bury, all the cards you have of one suit, so that when that suit is played, you can trump it and win the trick), and 2) bury cards that are worth points (that way, you'll at least have those points to count toward your team total). If you discard trump, you must announce it.

Cracking: Like picking, crack when you have a strong hand, since it will hopefully double the points in your favor.

Being the boy: It is often advantageous to not let everyone know you're the boy until you absolutely have to. The boy's identity can often be deduced, however, by noticing what cards are played when (eg, the boy should throw points to the picker).

Count cards: At the very least, you should try to keep track of which queens and jacks have been played.

Reneging: Technically this is cheating (you played a card of a different suit than what was led, even though you had the suit), but nothing stops you from doing it. If you are caught, however, you lose 32 points, and the other players gain 8.

Copyright © 2006 Stephen Blessing. All rights reserved.