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Articles by Joe Andrews

The Modern Game of Euchre
BID WHIST: A New and Improved Classic Card Game
Spades: Still Growing After Sixty Years
BARBU: The Card Game that's Seven Games in One
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The Modern Game of Euchre

by Joe Andrews

Euchre is a classic card game that is currently enjoying a revival. Its simplicity and speed make it attractive to card players who have limited time, and its balance of luck and skill gives both novices and experienced players reason to think they can win.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, versions of euchre that differ slightly from the modern game were very popular in Europe. John McLeod of London, England, is a leading card game authority who maintains the website www.pagat.com, a treasure trove of information on all card games. He believes that euchre originated from the Alsatian game Jucker. Other card historians, including Catherine Perry Hargreave, argue that euchre evolved from the French game écarté, a descendant of the Spanish game triumph. An early version played in England and France during the mid-1700s was called "ruff," a term still used by bridge and spades players to mean the act of trumping when void in the suit led.

Euchre was modernized and brought to America during the Napoleonic era, although controversy persists as to how and with whom it arrived. Renowned bridge theorist Charles Goren and the great bridge writer George Coffin both claimed that the game was popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch. One piece of evidence supporting this theory is that the euchre term "bower" sounds the same as the German word Bauer, meaning "farmer" (as well as "pawn" in chess, incidentally). However, both Hargreave and John Scarne, the noted poker expert and author of The Encyclopedia of Card Games, are of the opinion that euchre was introduced by the French in Louisiana, and later traveled up the Mississippi River to the northern states.

Around 1850, jokers were first added to playing-card decks in the U.S. for specific use in the game of euchre. Today, a joker is no longer used in the form of euchre practiced by most U.S. players, but it still serves as the highest trump in British euchre.

A little over 100 years ago, when the popularity of whist was fading and poker was somewhat limited to riverboats and the Old West, euchre was the most popular card game in the United States. A few decades later, it was eclipsed by bridge. The United States Playing Card Company tried to sustain the game with specially prepared decks of cards and by creating games with rules based on those of euchre. However, the bridge craze could not be contained. During the 1930s and '40s, contract bridge was all the rage. Pioneers like Goren, Oswald Jacoby, and Fred Sheinwold promoted tournaments, and the American Contract Bridge League grew rapidly in membership. Other games, meanwhile, also began to gain fans at euchre's expense. These included spades (see Games December 1999), canasta (a huge craze from 1948 to 1955), and bid whist. Nonetheless, euchre retained a core following; the Midwest and Northeast continued to be bastions for tournaments and clubs, and the game is still popular in the U.S. Navy. Recently, the Internet has helped to rekindle interest in the game, and several websites-most notably Microsoft Gaming Zone, WonNet, Yahoo!, and Pogo- offer tournaments, ratings, and competitive play for enthusiasts of all skill levels. Today, euchre still has legions of devotees around the country, and thousands of recent converts.

Basic Rules

Euchre is normally played in a partnership format, with two teams of two players each. Partners sit across from each other. (Three-handed and six-handed variations exist as well, but are less popular.) The deck consists of 24 cards-the nine through the ace in each of four suits. A 32-card deck, which was standard a few decades ago, is still used in some locales.

The dealer of the first hand is chosen by dealing out the cards until someone receives a jack. That person becomes dealer, shuffles the cards, and offers the deck to the player on his right to cut. Five cards are then dealt to each player in a clockwise direction, in batches of two and three cards at a time. (Either the set of two or three cards may be dealt first; alternatively, players may agree to deal one card at a time.) The remaining four cards are placed in the middle of the table, and the top card of that group is turned faceup, tentatively suggesting the trump suit for that hand. Players pick up their hands and begin the bidding.

The eldest hand (the player to the dealer's left) is first to bid, either by passing or by "ordering up" the upturned card into the dealer's hand. If the up-card is ordered up, its suit becomes trump, and the dealer takes the up-card into his hand and discards one card, facedown, onto the remainder of the pack. If the eldest hand passes, each remaining player, in turn-moving clockwise around the table-has the same options of passing or ordering the up-card into the dealer's hand (not into his own hand). If the first three players pass, the dealer has this same option, though he will usually say "I take it" instead of "I order it up." If the dealer takes the top card, regardless of who orders it up, its suit becomes trump for that deal. If all four players pass, the dealer turns the up-card facedown, and a second round of bidding begins. Now, beginning with the eldest hand, each player in turn may either pass or name trump by calling any suit other than the suit of the original up-card. If all four players pass a second time, the deal is abandoned, and the deal rotates to the left. (In some circles, the dealer is forced to name trump if three passes occur in the second round of the bidding; this is known as the "stick the dealer" or "screw the dealer" variation.)

Whoever chooses trump-whether by telling the dealer to pick up the up-card or by naming the suit in the second round of bidding-becomes the trump "maker" for that hand. Before the first card is played, any player who makes trump may opt to play alone, in which case his partner puts his hand facedown and remains inactive for the rest of the hand. Either defender may also choose to defend alone.

The Trump Suit

The jacks play a vital role in euchre. Cards in the trump suit are ranked from highest to lowest as follows: right bower (the jack); left bower (the jack of the suit that's the same color as the trump suit); ace, king, queen, ten, nine. For example, if spades were trump, the jack of spades would be the top-ranking trump, and the jack of clubs (clubs being the other black suit) would be the second-highest trump, followed by the ace of spades, king of spades, and so on. If diamonds were trump, the jack of hearts would be the second-highest trump. All nontrump suits are neutral, and rank in the normal fashion from the ace down to the nine. A curious quirk is that the same-color suit as trump has one fewer card because its jack is the left bower.

The Play of the Hand

The player to the left of the dealer makes the opening lead, which may be any card, and the other players follow in rotation. (If someone is playing alone, however, the player on his left makes the opening lead; if two are playing alone, the defender leads.) A player must always follow suit if possible; otherwise, any card may be played, including a trump. Keep in mind that the left bower-the jack that matches the trump suit's color-is treated as a trump for all purposes (i.e., if it is led, others must follow suit by playing trump). The set of four cards played in succession-one by each player-constitutes a trick. A trick is won by the highest trump played in it or, if no trumps are played, by the highest card played in the suit that was led. The winner of each trick leads the first card of the next trick, until the entire hand-five tricks in all-is played out.

The side that makes trump must take at least three tricks to earn points. Failure to do so is to suffer a set, known as a "euchre," which earns points for the defending side.

There are penalties for revokes (reneges), bids, leads out of turn, and premature exposure of cards; these are usually applied at large tournaments rather than in friendly games.

Scoring

One side or the other earns points each hand, as follows:

If the trump makers win three or four tricks, their side scores 1 point. If the trump makers win all five tricks, their side scores 2 points. If the trump maker plays alone and wins three or four tricks, his side scores 1 point. If the trump maker plays alone and wins all five tricks, his side scores 4 points. If the trump-making side is euchred (takes fewer than three tricks), whether or not playing alone, the defenders earn 2 points. If a defender playing alone wins three or more tricks, the defenders earn 4 points. The game limit is 10 points; that is, the first team to reach 10 points wins. Winning all five tricks in a hand is called a "sweep" or "march." Note: One of the players is usually designated as the scorer by mutual consent or by a cut of the cards. Many players use the sixes and fours from a standard deck to keep score, covering or exposing pips on the cards as the score changes.

The following hand illustrates a typical dilemma for a defender:

The Pseudo-Squeeze

In the first hand of a new game, West, North, and East pass. South immediately takes the up-card, making spades trump, and discards the Diamond Queen. He now has two of the top three trumps plus a side ace, which should be enough to win three tricks, barring a very unusual distribution of the other trumps. West leads the Spade 9 (the Diamond Jack would have been a much better choice), North plays the Spade Queen, East tosses his 9 of Clubs, and South wins the trick with the Spade Ace. South then cashes the right bower (Spade Jack), which collects the Spade 10, Diamond 9, and the Hearts 9.

Next, South shifts to the Ace of Clubs; this play ensures three tricks for South, even if West holds the left bower. (If West can trump the Spade Ace, South's Spade King will be good.) Note that if South woodenly played the Spade King instead, he would risk being euchred if West held the Jack of Diamonds, since the defense would win the third trick and take two diamond winners. When the Ace of Clubs wins the trick-East playing the Diamond King and the other two hands being irrelevant-South already has three tricks, making it safe to lead the Spade King. A "double-ace squeeze" position has now developed against the East player-a very common situation in which a defender has a choice of two aces to keep at the end of a hand. It's actually a pseudo-squeeze rather than a true squeeze because there is always a way to play so that it's possible to save the right card, even though the player may have no way of telling which way that is. East does not know that South discarded the Diamond Queen into the deck, and thus must guess which red ace to save at the fourth trick. After much anguish, he tosses Hearts Ace-and now South rolls home with all five tricks, finishing off the sweep with the Hearts King.

Helpful Hints

Since four cards are undealt and one of those is turned up, 3/24 or 12.5% of the deck is unknown. As a hand is played, try to make inferences as to what the three hidden cards are.

The trump suit contains seven cards, and one is probably undealt. That leaves six trumps in play, and the maker will usually hold three. Each of the remaining three players should hold one trump each if the suit is divided equally. The odds are slightly greater than 50% that someone will be able to trump a (nontrump) suit the first time it is led-and most likely, it will be the suit that has only five cards.

If either of the dealer's opponents has two of the top three cards in the up-card's suit, or almost any three potential trumps, he should usually order it up. Side-suit aces are always valuable, but lower cards generally are not. In deciding whether to become the trump maker, it's reasonable to hope that your partner can supply at least one trick for your side in every hand. At the beginning of a game, the dealer has a big advantage because neither opponent with a weak or borderline hand will want to order up the up-card.

Certain scoring situations will call for special tactics. If a side is at the bridge (has nine points in a 10-point game), and holds a lead of 9-7 or 9-6, ordering up-if at all possible-is a good idea to ensure that an opponent cannot decide to play alone and rack up four points with a lone march. In such a case, conceding the euchre is preferable to meekly passing. A team that trails 8-9 may have a bit of an advantage in the bidding, as the other team will not want to risk a euchre (and lose 10-9). A team with a large lead should be content to coast home, one point at a time, especially if the opponents are conservative. Always be aware of the score, and be willing to take a risk when the situation warrants it.

PLAYING ONLINE

Currently, the best places for online euchre games are:
The Microsoft Gaming Zone, WON.NET, Pogo and Yahoo.

Each of these sites is free and each has a unique layout. Be sure that you are familiar with the terms of service and the rules and regulations before you sign up for any particular location.

BOOKS ON EUCHRE

For more information, be sure to visit www.pagat.com, or consult some of the books that are available on Euchre. Three recommended books are:

The Columbus Book of Euchre
by Natty Bumppo (Borf Books, Brownsville, Kentucky; 1982, 1999). This is the most detailed book I've seen on euchre. The second edition, published last year, is especially helpful for intermediate and advanced players. The terms and definitions are very thorough. The author is well versed on all aspects of the game and imbues the text with an abundance of local flavor.

Euchre: How to Play and Win
by Gary Martin (Martin, Fort Wayne, Indiana; 1982). Although many of its sections are condensed and in need of greater detail, this book provides some very good information that will improve your game.

Euchre According to Wergin
by Joseph Petrus Wergin (Huron Press, Madison, Wisconsin; 1990). Wergin, best known as a great cribbage player, had expertise in euchre as well. This book is excellent for the novice player, and includes some very entertaining stories and characterizations (our favorite: "Freddie the Fox").

VARIATIONS

In addition to the 32-card deck and use of a joker, many optional rules have been developed. Here are some of the more interesting variations. (Also see the new, related game Nimby on page 53, Games Magazine, August 2000.)

Stick the Dealer

If the upturned card is declined, a second round of bidding will follow. Some groups insist that the dealer must name a trump rather than pass for a second time. This adds an additional luck factor to the game, and is rarely used in competitive play.

Ace No Face

This is an optional rule with many variations. The most common version stipulates that if you hold all nine and tens, you can ask for a redeal. Another specifies that you can hold a side-suit jack, and still toss in the hand. (Give me a break! As in real life, you should have to play the cards you're dealt.)

Trump Requirement Some groups use a rule that forbids you from taking a turned-up right bower as trump unless you have another trump in your hand. This would probably work well enough in a friendly game, but not in a competitive tournament.

Call-Ace Euchre

This is a cutthroat game without permanent partnerships. The trump maker names the ace of any suit other than trump, and whoever holds it becomes the trump maker's partner just for that hand. The partner's identity is only revealed when the called ace is played. (If the trump maker holds the called ace, or if the ace is buried, the maker is playing alone-and may not know it.) Each player on the victorious side scores the usual number of points that a partnership would score on the deal in standard euchre. If the trump maker is near the 10-point victory total, his partner may deliberately try to lose tricks in hopes of being set, even though this will gain points for the other two players.

This article originally appeared in Games Magazine, August 2000, and is reprinted by permission. Subscribe to Games Magazine.

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Joe Andrews is the author of five books on card games and two music books, including Win at Whist (Bonus Books, 2001) and Music, Music, Music (Pro-Star Publishers, Inc., 2002). He has previously written articles for GAMES on the card games Spades, Euchre, and Bid Whist.