Hearts is an "evasion-type" trick-taking playing card game for four players, although variations can accommodate 3-6 players. The game is also known as Black Lady, Chase the Lady, Crubs, Black Maria, and Black Bitch, though any of these may refer to the similar but differently-scored game Black Lady. A standard deck of 52 playing cards is used. The objective of the game is to have the fewest points at the completion of the game. Tricks containing any heart and the queen of spades give points to the winner of the trick. There are no trumps. The game is regarded as a member of the Whist family of trick-taking games (which also includes Bridge and Spades), but the game is unique among Whist variants in that it is an evasion-type game.
The game has become popular in live play among grade school students in the United States, and is enjoying more widespread popularity through Internet gaming sites and due to a Microsoft version of the game packaged with its popular Windows XP and Windows Vista operating systems (see Hearts (Windows) for more information on the software game).
The game of Hearts as currently known originated with a family of related games called Reverse, which became popular around 1750 in Spain. In this game, a penalty point was awarded for each trick won, plus additional points for capturing the Jack of Hearts or the Queen of Hearts. A similar game called Four Jacks centered around avoiding any trick containing a Jack, which were worth one penalty point, and the Jack of Spades worth two.
Over time, additional penalty cards were added to Reverse, and around 1850, the game gave way to a simple variant of Hearts, where each Heart was worth 1 point. The Queen of Spades was introduced in a variant called Black Maria which then became known as the standard Hearts game, and soon thereafter, the idea of "shooting the moon" was introduced to the game to add depth to the gameplay. In the 1920s, the Jack of Diamonds variation (ten positive points) was introduced, and some time later the scoring was reversed so that penalty points were expressed as positive instead of negative. Passing cards, breaking Hearts, and leading the 2 of Clubs are recently-standardized additions.
There are many variations on the passing rules:
Other variations on the passing rules include:
The player to the left of the dealer leads to the first trick and the other players play a card in turn clockwise. Players must follow suit when they are able to, but may play a card from any other suit, including a penalty Heart or the Q♠, when they cannot. The player who plays the highest card of the led suit takes the trick, and any penalty cards it contains, and leads for the next trick.
Common variants include:
Simplified scoring with chips is possible: all players contribute one chip to a central pool of chips and the pool is divided equally between those players taking no penalty cards on a deal; if all players take penalty cards, the pool remains on the table and is added to the next pool; once one player has won all available chips, or once another player has run out, the game ends.
There are many scoring variants including:
Although fundamentally a game between individuals, with each player attempting to ensure that the others get the penalty cards, teamwork is sometimes seen. As there is typically one leader and all the other players trailing, the most advanced strategy appears when the trailing players team up to give the leader points. Playing the Q and other penalty cards only when the player with the lowest score can take them, passing favorable cards to trailing players, and setting up the leader all require teamwork and unselfish play. Teamwork is especially important when one player is (or appears to be) trying to shoot the moon.
It is rare to pass low hearts, as the aim should be to discard these on other players during the play (very high hearts may be passed as each stands a chance of taking 4 points in a trick).
One can also read passes from other players as unintended signals. A player passing ace, king or queen of spades is likely to be short of this suit. A player passing low cards may be attempting to shoot the moon.
The general progression of play for a hand is normally to first attempt to empty one's hand of a particular suit, known as "voiding" that suit, and then use tricks in which that suit is led to play high-value off-suit cards, known as "sloughing". During this time, players also usually attempt to force the player holding the Queen of Spades to play it by playing a large number of Spade tricks. This is called "hunting the bitch" or "smoking it out". The logic is that the player with the Queen, if they have few other Spades, will be forced to follow suit with the Queen, and is likely to take that trick and its points, known as "eating it" or "taking it to the grave". To avoid this, players generally hoard Spades when passing in case they are dealt or passed the Queen. If the player with the Queen has enough other Spades, he/she can avoid having to eat it, and can later slough it off onto another player, when this is not the case the best strategy is an aggressive approach to playing the other suits to open them up for "sloughing".
As the winning of tricks is to be avoided, when a player must follow suit it is usually best to play the highest-value card that will not win the trick. For instance, if the Jack of Spades is the leading card in the trick and a player wishes to lose the trick, laying down the Ten, if available, is the best play. This allows the player to save lower-value cards in case they must try to lose a later trick in which they must follow suit. If the player cannot help but take the trick, this tactic changes; they should then lay down the highest-value card of that suit in order to get rid of it. This is especially true when playing last to a trick. The only exception is in Spade tricks when the Queen has not yet been played; players should avoid playing the King and Ace at all costs unless they can be sure the Queen cannot be played on the trick, which is generally one of four cases: when playing last to the trick, when holding the Q, when playing after the player known to hold the Q, or when all players yet to play have voided Spades.
The decision to "break Hearts" by playing the first Heart should be contemplated carefully. The optimum time to do so varies by player and hand. Generally, the earlier Hearts is broken, the more difficult it is for all players to avoid taking penalty points, because players have less opportunity to void suits and slough high-value cards. However, a player who can void and slough early in the game due to a favorable deal might choose to break Hearts early as they are unlikely to be forced to take points. A player who holds the Ace, King or Queen of Hearts may also choose to break Hearts early in order to slough that card quickly. Conversely, players who do not hold a low Heart (2, 3 or 4) should avoid breaking Hearts for as long as possible unless they must slough a high Heart. Once Hearts are broken, the trick that frequently follows it involves leading a low Heart, and the player whose lowest Heart is a 5 or greater has a substantial risk of taking that trick (and four points).
Sometimes it is preferable to take a trick containing one or two Hearts, rather than risk winning the Q in a later trick, especially as capturing a heart or two prevents other players from shooting the moon. Such a case might be when a player holds the Ace of Spades and is last to play on a Spade trick containing a Heart but not the Queen of Spades. Playing the Ace captures a point, but the player now cannot be forced to play the Ace over the Queen.
It is a useful skill to be able to count how many cards remain in each suit, and to remember which players are void in which suit. This knowledge can influence a player's decision to play one card over the other, to their advantage. If a player knows that most or all other players are void in a suit, he or she will avoid leading a card in that suit and will instead try to slough that card.
Playing lead to a trick is risky, especially late in the hand when suits have been voided and Hearts are played freely. The risk is that the card led will take the trick because other players can undercut or play off-suit, which could be a penalty card. It is usually best to lead a card that must be topped by at least one other player (meaning at least one player is not void in that suit and doesn't have any cards that will undercut it). Keeping track of cards played becomes of foremost importance when making such a play.
A low or middling spade (Jack or below) is often the safest lead, because it is not possible to win the Q with such a lead. It is possible however to take points and/or keep the lead.
The strategy for the player holding the Q is usually different. Leading a low or middling spade can lead to the Queen becoming unprotected; in addition it might give the holder of the Ace or King the opportunity to get rid of that card, denying the holder of the Queen an opportunity to drop the Queen under one of those cards later in the hand. Instead, the holder of Q will often want to void herself in one of the other three suits in order to have an opportunity to discard Q on a subsequent lead. Unlike the other players, the holder of the Q can lead any card, even high cards in clubs and diamonds, safe in the knowledge that the Black Lady cannot be discarded on it.
Besides taking into account the cards one might receive when leading, one must take into account the player one seat counter-clockwise from the leader, who will play last in the trick. The player to play last has the most options, and therefore guessing their intentions, and thus their play, is advantageous to each player. An example might be that halfway through a hand, with Hearts broken, a player currently second-place in points is contemplating their lead. The best choice for them individually, not knowing anything about any other hand, is a low Diamond to lose the lead. However, this player knows that the person to their right, who is in first place with the fewest points, has voided Diamonds. That player will likely play a Heart making it a penalty trick, which will likely be taken by one of the other players who already have high scores, hastening the end of the game. The lead player also knows the player to his right still has a high Club because it was passed from the leading player to his right, and it hasn't been played yet. The player has a middle Club they can lead; the other players have voided Clubs, and would thus likely play Hearts. Knowing that the last player must follow suit and is likely to have to play the high Club to take a trick with points, leading the middle Club is the better play than the low Diamond.
This competition also tends to create roles for each player according to their points ranking. The leader, of course, is the target; everyone else attempts to play tricks that result in the leader taking points, while the leader attempts to defend against this and give points to others. The second-place person is the "challenger"; the leader seeks to give him points while the third and fourth-place people are either neutral to him or actively help him avoid points. The third-place player is the "sacrificial lamb"; when points must be taken, for instance to prevent another player shooting the moon, they are the player in the best strategic position to do so. The player in last place is the VIP; the more points that player takes, the sooner the game ends, thus everyone but the leader avoids giving the last-place player points.
All ranking is disregarded when someone attempts to shoot the moon. All other players then attempt to stop him by ensuring at least one point goes to another player. As a player successfully shooting the moon gives 26 points to all other players, all players have a vested interest in taking at least a few. The only exception to this is when the leading player has a lead greater then 26 points over the person attempting to shoot the moon; in such a case the player would still be in the lead and the successful moon shot would hasten the game's end.
There are thus 52 total points per hand that can be taken (however that is a moon shot; the highest score any one player can take on a hand is 50), minus the value of the Q. The actual number of points awarded depends on who captures each Queen and how many other Hearts and/or previously-awarded points the player has. Shooting the moon is also different; it is defined as capturing all penalty cards as before, but the bonus to the player who shoots the moon, or the penalty to all others, is based on the total point count of that player, so capturing one or both of the two beneficial Queens actually reduces the benefit to the player; capturing the Q (-10) makes the benefit 42 points, the Q (-26 with Q) reduces it to 26, and both of these combined make the reward only 16 points. This gives players attempting to prevent a moon shot other options; the players could instead force him to take all four Queens in addition to all Hearts which drastically mitigates the value of a moon shot.
The game can easily be played this way with a standard deck. However, as Royal Hearts introduced these new effects in the first place, the variant is not commonly seen when playing with a standard deck. The main advantage to the commercial Royal Hearts deck is that the effects of each card are on their faces; with this new variant easily translating to a standard deck (at half the price), the Hasbro Royal Hearts game did not sell well and was discontinued as of the 2008 Hasbro catalog.