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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

BARBU: The Card Game that's Seven Games in One

by Joe Andrews

Barbu is a mid-20th century card game that originated in France. The name, French for "bearded," refers to the king of hearts, which in some decks is depicted with a beard.

The game is best with four players, each playing independently. Players take turns dealing a series of 28 hands (thus, when the game ends, each player will have dealt a total of seven times). After dealing out the cards and looking at his hand, the dealer chooses, or "declares," one of seven different "contracts" that will be played that hand. Each contract is, in essence, a different game, with a distinct objective and rules of play. The declarer's choice is restricted in one important way: Each time he deals, he must choose a different contract.

In the original form of Barbu, contracts rotated in a fixed sequence, and dealers had no choice in the matter. The far more interesting version presented here was developed by tournament bridge players. The Italian "Blue" Team (Benito Garozzo, Giorgio Belladonna, Pietro Forquet, and Walter Avarelli), which won many bridge championships in the 1960s and '70s, played Barbu regularly. Eventually the game reached the United States, where it became a side game at bridge tournaments; today, it continues to enjoy a loyal following.

Barbu is fast becoming a favorite among club players, college students, and families. Because its contracts include some classic card games, Barbu is accessible to younger players as well. John McLeod of the United Kingdom maintains an excellent Web site with extensive information about Barbu, among many other card games.

General Rules

A standard deck of 52 cards is used, ranked from ace (high) down to deuce. All the cards are dealt, after which the dealer selects a contract. In all the contracts except Fan-Tan, play proceeds very much as in hearts, bridge, or other trick-taking games. The dealer always makes the first play, or "opening lead," by placing a card faceup on the table. Each player in turn, in clockwise order around the table, also plays a card. A player must follow suit if possible; otherwise, any card may be played ("discarded"). After all four players have played, the trick is complete, and it is taken by the player who played the highest card in the suit led (or the highest trump, if the contract is Trumps). The winner of a trick leads a card to begin the next trick.

The designated scorekeeper maintains a record of which games have been declared by each dealer, as well as the individual cumulative point totals. The object of Barbu is to finish with the highest score. A full game of 28 hands will take from two to three hours, depending on the players' level of experience.

The seven contracts

There are five contracts in which only negative points can be scored, and two contracts in which positive points can be earned. The positive and negative scores have been worked out so that the sum of all the players' scores will always equal zero at the end of 28 deals.

Names of contracts vary in different rule sources. Below, we give two common names for each contract, the one in parentheses generally being longer but more descriptive of the players' goal.

Barbu (No Heart King)

Besides being the one that gives the overall game its name, this is the easiest contract to understand. Whoever takes the king of hearts scores -30 points. (That's very bad.) The king of hearts must be discarded at the first opportunity, after which there's no reason to play out the rest of the hand. The heart suit cannot be led until a heart has been discarded or a player on lead holds nothing but hearts (this rule varies widely). Total points: -30.

Hearts (No Hearts)

Each heart taken in a trick scores -2 points, except that the ace of hearts counts as -6. The queen of spades is of no value, unlike in some versions of the game of Hearts. The heart suit cannot be led until a heart has been discarded or a player on lead holds nothing but hearts. Total points: -30.

Last Two (No Last Two)

Whoever takes the 12th trick of the hand scores -10 points, and whoever takes the 13th trick scores -20. Total points: -30.

Nullos (No Tricks)

This is the classic "avoidance" game. Each trick taken counts as -2 points. Total points: -26.

Queens (No Queens)

Each queen taken in tricks scores -6 points. Total points: -24. Trumps (Tricks)

Dealer chooses a trump suit, or may opt for no-trump. Each trick taken is worth +5 points. Total points: +65.

Fan-Tan (Dominoes)

Here's how a Fan-Tan layout might look early in a hand. The first card played was a 10.
  
 
Unlike the other six contracts, Fan-Tan does not involve trick-taking. Instead, each player in turn tries to add a card from his hand to a growing array of cards on the table. To begin, declarer chooses a starting rank and plays a card of that rank on the table. A legal play is then another card of that rank, or a card that matches the suit of a card already played but that is one rank higher or lower. For example, if the jack of spades is the first card tabled, the next play must be the 10 of spades (which would be placed just below the jack, or partially overlapped to save space), or the queen of spades (placed just above the jack), or a jack of another suit (placed next to the spade jack). Aces are always high. A player must play a card if able; otherwise, he must pass. The hand continues until only one player has cards left in his hand. The first person to get rid of all 13 cards earns +50 points; second place scores +25; third place earns +10; and the last player with cards scores -10. Total points: +75.

Illustrative Hands

Below are two hands from recently observed Barbu games. They occurred on the first deals of two separate games. The South player is a life master in bridge.

Doubling

As players become more experienced, they may choose to employ the doubling option, which adds considerable complexity. After the contract has been chosen, each player in turn has a chance to double one or more of the other players. A double is a bet that you will do better on the hand than the player you are doubling. The declarer may only double players who have doubled him. There are many variations, such as requiring each player to double the declarer at least twice during each set of seven hands. In many circles, nondeclarers may not double one another in the positive games, Trumps and Fan-Tan.

Doubles are noted on the scoresheet. After a hand is played and scored as usual, the results of doubles are calculated. The two players involved in each double compare their scores for that hand, and the difference is expressed as a positive number. The player who did better gets this amount added to his score, and the other player gets the same amount subtracted from his score. If each of the two players doubled the other (instead of one remaining silent but being doubled by the other), this amount is doubled before being added and subtracted from the two players' scores. I recommend that players become familiar with the nuances and tactics of the basic game before graduating to doubling, which is best reserved for tournament play.

Short game

Barbu may be played as a partnership game, or in a shortened format. A quick game of 16 hands (approximately one hour) should use these contracts: Barbu, Last Two, Queens, Trumps.

Other variations

There is also an eighth contract called Ravage City, which can be added to increase the number of deals from 28 to 32. Whoever takes the most cards in any one suit scores -24 points. (Figure out what suit you've taken the most cards in, and compare this number to the other players' high-suit counts; whoever has the highest number in any suit gets -24.) This is a very challenging objective and is suggested for experienced players who prefer a longer game.

Note that although the scoring values given in this article are widely followed, many variations can be found in different locales. Someday, no doubt, a standard will be set.

Strategy

The key to success in Barbu is the ability to judge each hand prior to selecting a contract. The easiest hands to play are Trumps and Fan-Tan. The most difficult hands are Queens and Hearts. Others fall into the moderate category. You should strive to get the hardest variations out of the way as soon as possible, then reduce your choices to easier categories as the game moves along. The idea is to avoid getting trapped toward the end of a session with a forced decision that can lead to a large penalty. Finally, the ability to count and track key cards as they are played will give a seasoned player a real edge.

The future

Barbu is really a great game. Someday there will be a Barbu Players Association, as well as regular tournaments. If you are interested in taking part in future Barbu tournaments, please send an e-mail to me, Joe Andrews, at heartsmoon@aol.com. (My special thanks to John McLeod of London, England; Doris Denny of Georgia; and her friend Pat Kolebas of Florida, for inspiring me to write this article.)

ILLUSTRATIVE HAND: QUEENS

South is the dealer, and has a few choices. This hand is ideal for Last Two and reasonably safe for Hearts. However, Queens is chosen, as the layout is ideal for escaping with no points, barring absolutely bad breaks and/or poor distribution. South leads the 10 of diamonds, with the intention of clearing this suit. West is forced to duck (he chooses the seven), and North wins the jack, as East drops the six spot. North now plays a devilish eight of diamonds, and East's nine goes to West's king. (Safely disposing of a high card this way is called "bailing.")

Although West suspects a "hanging" queen of diamonds, he cannot be sure of this, and prudently makes the shift to the nine of hearts. North deposits the six. East rises with his jack, and South is thrilled to bail his king. The four of hearts is tabled, drawing the 8, 10, and, once again, another bailer, the ace.

Now East makes the peculiar play of the club 10 (the low heart would be much better). The eight follows and West gambles with a "finesse" of his ace! Down comes North's jack. West next leads the seven of clubs. Up pops the nine, and a very wild king of clubs by East, as South drops his five spot. At last, the spade suit is opened with the 10, as South plays the five, West sheds the eight, and North is in with the jack.

Amazingly, no queens have appeared; this is about to change. The diamond deuce nails East's hanging queen as South heaves his spade ace and West plays low. Next comes the spade six; South inserts the nine, West flies with the king, and North dumps his seven. West is in a lot of trouble, and he knows it! The four of spades is desperation, as North ducks, East unloads the queen of clubs, and South plays the three. The dogs are now called in; this hunt is over. West is the proud owner of three beautiful ladies and 18 negative points!


ILLUSTRATIVE HAND: FAN-TAN

If you liked South's play on the first hand, you will be amazed at his precise handling of his cards on this next deal.

This hand has only one option-Fan-Tan! What else is there? Although Fan-Tan is usually saved as an escape valve toward the end of a game, the layout here is just too irresistible to pass up. Besides, the lack of high and low cards bodes very poorly for any of the other choices.

The technique of the South player is worth watching. Shown below, trick by trick, is the exact sequence of play. South opens with the 10 of hearts, and the hand is underway.



On South's second turn, the spade 10 is a much stronger play than the nine of hearts would have been.



East has a losing hand, and will do well to finish third here.



Finally, the clubs are opened. South's position is overwhelming!



The East player was helpless. South thus scored a rare "perfect" game, as he ran 13 straight discards to bag the +50 point prize!

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

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.