Definitions

prefa'torially

Preferans

Preference or preferans (преферанс) is a European trick-taking game especially popular in late Imperial Russia, Soviet Union and currently in post-Soviet Russia and Balkans. Preference can be played by 2-4 people, although the 2-person game is somewhat uncommon. It is sometimes considered a simplified game of bridge; like bridge, there is a bidding round after which the hand is played out. Preference is played with a 32-card deck like Skat, that is, a standard deck with the 2-6 taken out.

History

Despite the French derivation of the game's terminology and name, it seems most probable that preference was invented in the 1840s among the Russian nobility. It was developed largely on the basis of whist, with the major change being that preference is the earliest game with suit-based bidding. The game immediately became very popular, attracting such famous players as Leo Tolstoy.

As well as developing and diversifying within Russia and then the Soviet Union, the game of preference expanded from Russia into other countries of Eastern and Central Europe, where games such as Austrian preference or Balkan preference are played. These games are substantially different from the current Russian game, although they are probably more similar to the original preference.

Gameplay

For simplicity, the article deals with the Russian three-player version of the game. The four-player version is pretty much the same as with three players, with the dealing player not taking part in the play-out; after the round is played, the dealer's position rotates clockwise.

It must be noted that numerous variations and complications make it tedious to give more than an overview. For a full version of one version of the rules (in Russian) see the link at the bottom of the page.

The cards are shuffled and dealt face-down, 10 to a person. The remaining 2 cards are kept face down and form the talon (Russian: prikup).

Bidding

Bidding begins with the player on the dealer's left and continues clockwise. The suits are ordered low to high: spades - clubs - diamonds - hearts - no trump and may be called by numbers, respectively, Firsts-Seconds-Thirds-Fourths-Fifths. The minimum contract is 6 tricks so the lowest available bid is for the declarer to take 6 tricks with spades as trump. This bid is announced as "six in spades" or "six in Firsts", often shortened to "Firsts" or just "One". The bid of "six in clubs" could likewise be announced as "six in Seconds", "Seconds" or "Two"; similarly, "seven in clubs" is "seven in Seconds", etc. Once a player passes, he may not re-enter bidding. The bidding is over when a bid is followed by two passes. If all three players pass, a no-trump pass-out round (Russian: raspasy) is played where each player tries to take as few tricks as possible. If a player wins the bidding, he picks up the talon which is then shown face-up to the remaining players and discards two cards face-down from his resulting hand of 12. He then declares the contract and selects the trump suit with the only restriction being that the contract cannot be lower than the one with which he won the bidding. For example, a player winning the bidding with a bid of "seven of clubs" can declare "seven of clubs" or "eight of spades" but not "seven of spades".

There is also a special bid of misère (Russian: mizer); it falls between 8 in no trump and 9 in spades. This is a bid to take no tricks, and is always played in no trump. A player contracting misère must play misère and players not bidding misère cannot play misère; this is an exception to the normal rules of contract declarations. However, misère cannot be declared by a player after that player has entered bidding for a number of tricks. Thus, a player cannot start out bidding by saying "six of spades" but then change it to misère. Similarly, a player who won the bidding for a talon by naming a number of tricks, cannot then (upon picking up a talon) declare a misère. Essentially, this means that misère can be declared only at the first opportunity and cannot be changed thereafter. A player who bids misère can be outbid by a player who bids 9 tricks. That player (in some variants of the game) can be outbid by a player who bids "misère without talon," i.e., he is ready to play misere without seeing (or having access to) the talon.

Once the contract is named, each defender must choose whether to defend (whist) or to pass. If only one player whists, he may choose to play 'open' - with both his and the other defender's cards laid out on the table and the players allowed to cooperate, or 'closed'. If both players whist, they must play closed. If both players pass, the contract is considered fulfilled without playing the hand. To fulfill a whist call, a player must take (either on his own or in cooperation with the other defender, depending on the contract and whisting situation) all or some of the tricks not claimed by the contract. Whisting a contract of six requires the defender to take four tricks; seven - two tricks; eight, nine and ten - one trick.

Balkan version is a bit different, bidding begins with the player on the dealer's left and continues clockwise. The suits are ordered low to high: clubs - diamonds - hearts - spades - battle -no trump (sans) and are called by numbers, respectively, -Seconds-Thirds-Fourths-Fifths-Sixts-Sevenths. In the first round of bidding any player may call for a "game", when he plays with cards in the hand , not taking the talon cards. In both situations, lead player MUST take at least 6 hands to pass, while other players try to take as much as they can., except in the "battle" game, where lead player must not take 1 hand.

Play of hand

Tricks are played out as usual in trick-taking games. Players must follow suit if they can, and must trump if they cannot follow suit. If they can do neither, they may discard any card. In an 'open' round, the defenders may freely cooperate, discuss strategy, etc. Games of misère are always played open.

Scoring

The scoring for preference is notoriously complicated. Since the game is almost always played for money, it is necessary to assign different scores for successful bids, overtricks, undertricks, successful whists, and so on, rather than to simply declare 'winner' and 'loser'. The basic principles behind the scoring scheme are: aggressive bidding should be rewarded, bidding mistakes should be punished. It is always more rewarding to bid a higher game and win it, than to take more tricks than contracted in a lower game. The scoring is tabulated on a sheet called pool (Russian: pulja or pul'ka) where each player's score is tabulated in three tiers. At the end of the game, every player has a specific number of points (or whists) on every other player, and it is the point differential which determines the payouts. There are three main variations in the scoring system, the Leningrad, Sochi and Rostov presumably named after the Soviet Union cities where they were most prevalent.

The Pool

Pool for 4 players is drawn by dividing a piece of paper diagonally into 4 triangles. Each triangle is further divided into 3 areas by drawing lines parallel to the paper edge. A small circle or diamond is drawn at the centre of the sheet.
The paper sheet is placed in the middle of the table so that every player faces one triangle on his/her side. Let's consider one such triangle from respective player's point of view - this would be the bottom triangle.
The smaller triangular area near the center of the sheet - topmost from the player's view - is called a Mountain (Russian: Gora or Gorka). It's used to tabulate all "negative" points the player receives - for undertricks in standard contracts, overtricks in misère contracts or pass-out deals, and so on.) The central area is called a Pool (Russian: Pul'a, Pul'ka). It is used to write points received for successfully played contracts. Bottom area is further divided into 3 parts by vertical lines, they're called Whist areas. The whist areas to the left and right are used to tabulate whist points on the players to the left and right, respectively; central area to tabulate whist points on an opposite player.
The circle in the centre of the sheet is used to write agreements made in the beginning of the game. Usually the bid amount per whist point is recorded (e.g. 1$ per whist point) and the condition to end the game - usually total number of pool points each player has to accumulate. Leningrad and Rostov scoring rules permit agreeing to end the game at a certain time (e.g. 3 AM.), while in Sochi each player has to reach the exact agreed number of points in his pool.

Pool for 3 players is almost the same, except one of the triangles is replaced by elongating the areas of two other players (usually the triangle close to one of the short paper edges is eliminated). The whist area is divided into 2 rather than 3 parts to represent 2 opposing players.

Contract values

The key to Preference scoring system is the table of contract values.

Contract Value Whist responsibility
6 tricks 2 points 4 tricks
7 tricks 4 points 2 tricks
8 tricks 6 points 1 trick
9 tricks 8 points 1 trick
10 tricks 10 points NA
Misère 10 points NA

Writing scores

During the game, each player usually writes his own scores and opposing players take notice if any mistakes are made. Sometimes, one player or non-player (referee) is designated to do the scoring.

For each area, the new value is calculated by adding the old value in a given area and the points earned during the game. The new value is written right after the old value, separated by dot. Example:

10. 12. 14. 18

If an error is made, the correct value is written after the erroneous one, without erasing or striking out.
Example - value 38 was written by error, should be 28:

10. 12. 14. 18. 38. 28

Scoring rules

After winning the contract, the player writes the contract value in his pool area. The whisting player(s) each write the contract value per each trick taken into their whist area corresponding to the player who was playing the contract.
If the contract was not won (a situation called remise, Russian: remiz), the player who was playing it writes the contract value per each undertrick into his mountain (called climbing the mountain). Nothing is written into the pool area. In addition, each whisting player adds a contract value for each undertrick of the winning bidder to his whist, in addition to actual whist points (s)he won by taking more tricks. There's also a Gentlemen's whisting rule, when during remise each of the opposing players gets half the total whist points they won together.
If the whisting player(s) did not get the minimum whist tricks for the contract. Following situations could happen:

  • One player whisting. This player writes half contract value per each undertrick into his mountain.
  • Two players whisting, games of 6 and 7 tricks: each player's responsibility is to take half the total responsibility. The player who doesn't fulfil his responsibility, writes half contract value per each undertrick into his mountain.
  • Two players whisting, games of 8, 9, and whisted 10 tricks: The player second to bid whist is responsible.

In misère contract, the winning bidder gets 10 into his pool area for not taking any tricks, or 10 per each trick taken into his mountain area. No whist points are awarded. Examples:

! Contract by A
Whister B tricks Whister C tricks Player A pool Player A mountain Whister B mountain Whister C mountain Whister B whists on A Whister C whists on A
6 tricks 2 2 2 0 0 0 4 4
6 tricks 2 3 0 2 0 0 6 8
6 tricks 2 1 2 0 0 1 4 2
6 tricks 1 1 2 0 1 1 2 2
6 tricks 3 0 2 0 0 1 6 0
7 tricks 2 1 4 0 0 0 8 4
7 tricks 2 0 4 0 0 0 8 0
7 tricks 2 2 0 4 0 0 12 12
7 tricks 1 1 4 0 0 0 4 4
7 tricks 1 0 4 0 0 2 4 0
8 tricks 2 0 6 0 0 0 12 0
8 tricks 2 1 0 6 0 0 18 12
8 tricks 1 1 6 0 0 0 6 6
8 tricks 1 0 6 0 0 0 6 0
8 tricks 0 0 6 0 0 3 0 0
9 tricks 1 1 0 8 0 0 16 16
9 tricks 1 0 8 0 0 0 8 0
9 tricks 0 0 8 0 0 4 0 0
10 tricks 1 0 0 10 0 0 20 0
10 tricks 0 0 10 0 0 5 0 0

Scoring rules for the dealer

In a 4-player game the following rules exist for the dealer:

  • A winning bidder may throw the talon in the face of a dealer, if he doesn't like it. The talon is left face up on the table until the end of the round. The dealer is awarded 1 point into the mountain.
  • In 6-10 trick games, the dealer is awarded the contract value of whists on the winning bidder, per trick, when the following cards appear in the talon:
    • One ace: one trick
    • Ace and king of the same suit: two tricks
    • Two aces: three tricks
    • Marriage (King and Queen of the same suit): one trick
  • In Misère game, the dealer is awarded 10 whist points on the bidder for each 7 in the talon, or 20 whist points for 7 and 8 of the same suit in the talon.
  • In pass-outs, see below.

In both 3 and 4 player games, the dealer gets 2 mountain points for mis-dealing. Mis-dealing faults are:

  • Any card is turned face up during the deal.
  • Players get other than 10 cards each.
  • Failure to deal talon properly.
  • Talon should be dealt not first and not last, two cards at the same time. Stricter rules exist where talon must be dealt only between dealing rounds, not after the first and not just before the last round. Failure to follow this rule is a failed deal.
  • Failure to let the player on the dealer's right hand cut the deck.

These rules were introduced to reduce cheating. When a deal is declared failed, the same dealer should shuffle the deck again, let the player on the right cut it, and deal.

Scoring in pass-out rounds

The pass-out happens when all players refused to bid for a contract. It's a no-trump round played with all hands closed, where all the players are trying to take as few tricks as possible. After the first pass-out round, the game enters the pass-out mode and leaves it after any player bids and successfully fulfils a contract. Before the game begins, players usually make agreements how to play the pass-outs. Some variants:

  • Non-progressive pass-outs: each trick during pass-outs has the same cost, usually one.
  • Progressive pass-outs: first round is played with the cost of one, each successive round the cost increases. The cost can increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, ...) or geometrically (1, 2, 4, ...). The growth can be limited - when a certain cost per trick is reached, it doesn't grow any more - or unlimited.
  • Exit from pass-out mode: Most of the time the agreement is made to make it harder to exit the pass-out mode. Usually, the minimum contract a player can bid grows after each pass-out round. So, after the first round any bidder is required to bid 7 or more, after second - 8 or more, and so on. This is usually limited to 7 or 8. It can be agreed that pass-out streak finishes automatically after a certain number of pass-out rounds is played, or it can continue indefinitely until some player bids and fulfils a required minimum contract. There are certain possible agreements that make it harder or easier to return to normal game mode: either unsuccessful contracts are considered enough for leaving pass-outs, or unwhisted contracts (such as misère and checked 10) are considered not suitable for leaving pass-outs.

After a round of pass-outs is played, each player adds the current pass-out cost per trick to his mountain. The players can agree to perform amnesty - the number of tricks used to calculate each players' mountain value is reduced by the minimum number of tricks taken by any player (this doesn't affect the final score). If some player takes no tricks in pass-out round, (s)he adds double pass-out cost to his/her pool, no amnesty is performed in this case.

Pass-outs in 4-player game

If the game is played by 4 people, the fourth person (the dealer) can take tricks in the pass-out game. If the players decided to open the talon in pass-outs, it is used to show the suit of the first 2 leads. In 3-player game, the talon card's rank is insignificant, the player who played the highest-rank card takes the trick. In 4 player game, however, if the talon card's rank is higher than that of any card played, the dealer takes the trick. It is considered to be a good manner to let the dealer take at least one trick, even if this would contradict some other player's strategy. Tricks taken by the dealer are then accounted for in exactly the same manner as every other player's, getting points into the mountain or pool as appropriate, and dealer's tricks are counted for amnesty purposes. However, the players can agree to either not open the talon at all, or to have the dealer not participate in pass-outs. In this case, the scoring is performed as in 3-player game among the non-dealing players.

Sochi scoring

The simplest of scoring methods. The players write the points to the pool sheet as described above, with the only difference that the whisters' undertricks are punished by the full contract value rather than half per trick.

American aid

One significant change in writing the score happens once a player has fulfilled a contract, but his/her pool has already reached the value agreed for ending the game (as written in the central circle). The player then performs American aid. First, victim is chosen, one of the opposing players who has the biggest value in his pool area, but has not yet reached the pool value. The game value is then written to the victim's pool area, but also the round winner writes the contract value multiplied by ten into his whist on the victim area. If the contract value is bigger than what's remaining for the victim to reach the pool value, then it's split between two or more victims in the descending order of their original scores in pool areas, with whist points on them being proportional to the actual values added to each victim's pool areas. If the contract value is bigger than the total number of points needed by all opponents to reach the pool value, then the contract winner is reducing his mountain by the difference of points between the contract value and the total number of points he has given to all the opponents.

Stalingrad

Another difference of Sochi game is that when a winning bidder names a contract of 6 of spades, both opposing players are required to whist and play their hands closed. This is in reference to the Battle of Stalingrad when Soviet Army had nowhere to retreat to, being pushed to the banks of Volga river. This is sometimes used when a bidder made an unopposed bid at the beginning, but has the risk of remise and wants the whisters to have harder time opposing him. Sometimes the players agree to play Six of Spades - Stalingrad even when they're not playing Sochi, but rather Leningrad or Rostov variants.

Leningrad scoring

The only difference of Leningrad scoring from the one described above, is that the values written to mountain and whist areas are doubled, while values written to pool are not. The pool value is, however, doubled at the end of the game when the final score is calculated. Since the pool value is used in calculation of the final score, the game can be stopped at any time.

Rostov scoring

Rostov - also called Moscow Pool (Russian: "Московская Пулька") - has significant differences from other variants of Preferans. No points are ever written to the mountain, whists are used instead. Usually, for each point that would go to a player's mountain, each of the opposing players writes 5 times this value into their whist areas on this player. The final scoring can also be performed at any time and it's also the easiest and fastest of the final scorings. This trait made it popular in Moscow suburban commuter trains - since it's impossible to predict when all the players reach a certain pool value, they agree to play "until the train arrives" and promptly do the final score just before the arrival. In Rostov game, pass-outs are usually played without opening the talon. Rostov is usually played with 3 players only.

Final scoring

Whist points

The player's basic winnings against other players are the whist points (s)he has written on these other players. The cost of each whist point is agreed in advance between all the players. After the game is finished, all players have most likely written some whist points on others. For each pair of players, the whist points they have written on each other are subtracted, the one who scored more is given the difference with a '+' sign, another one with a '-' sign. Then, for each player his final whist scores are added (accounting for + and -), this is the final winnings of whist points.

Consider the whist result table:

! Player / whists on
A B C
A -- 32 24
B 20 -- 0
C 10 16 --

The final scores will be:

! Player / vs.
A B C Final
A -- +12 +14 +26
B -12 -- -16 -28
C -14 +16 -- +2
So player A won 26 points, player B lost 28 points, player C won 2 points. The total should be exactly zero.

Mountain points

Mountain points of each player is his/her loss to all other players. To get the actual loss of each player in whist points, his/her mountain points multiplied by 10, and then reduced by the average mountain. The resulting value then negated, the result is added to the player's winnings by whist poins. If the average is not a whole number (common in 3-player games, never happens in 4-player game), the results are rounded to the nearst whole and then adjusted by 1 or 2 points (usually, in gentleman's manner, to narrow the losing player's loss) to get the total winnings of all players to be exactly 0. To ease the calculation of average, Mountain Amnesty is sometimes performed before averaging, that is the minimal mountain score is subtracted from all players' scores. This step doesn't have any effect on the result.

! Player
Mountain Amnested mountain × 10 Average Rounded Adjusted final
A 20 0 46.(6) +47 +46
B 30 100 46.(6) -53 -53
C 24 40 46.(6) +7 +7
Here, the winning player (A) decided to sacrifice a rounding point.

Pool points

In Sochi, pool points have to be exactly the same after the game, so no calculation is needed. In Leningrad, the same calculation mechanism is used as for Mountain, except the multiplicative factor is 20 and the points are positive.
! Player
Pool Amnested pool × 20 Average Rounded Adjusted final
A 10 0 186.(6) -187 -186
B 26 320 186.(6) +133 +133
C 22 240 186.(6) +53 +53
Here the losing player A has his loss narrowed by one point.

Another option is to calculate pool and mountain together, by reducing each player's mountain points by double the amount of his/her pool points and then averaging the result only once.

Final calculation

Using the example above, the following table summarizes the winnings of each player:

! Player
Pool Mountain Whists Final
A -186 +46 +26 -114
B +133 -53 -28 +52
C +53 +7 +2 +62

Assuming the bid value of 10¢ per whist point, A should pay $5.20 to B and $6.20 to C.

Folklore

A significant part of the amusement of the game is the rich folklore of sayings, proverbs and witticisms, often rhymed, related to various aspects of the game. Some examples:

  • "Two passes, the talon surprises" (Два паса, в прикупе чудеса). An empirical observation that if at the very first round of bidding two bidders fold, then there is a good chance that the talon has good cards.
  • "No lead, don't whist" (Нет хода - не вистуй). Applied to the first person to whist, this is to remind that if both players whist, then the round is 'closed'. Then if the first player doesn't see a suit where he can safely lead, a single mistake in the first lead often decides the outcome of the round.
  • "No lead, diamonds lead" (Хода нет - ходи с бубей). If one doesn't see a clearly preferable lead, then any one is good, so just don't dawdle and lead with diamonds. This for some historical reason is not normally said with other trumps.
  • "Fifth player goes under the table" (Пятого игрока - под стол). Applied to spectactors who like to give unasked advices.
  • "Two spades is what he's got; two spades he needs them not" (Две пики приходят ему, две пики ему ни к чему). Said when a talon contains cards of a suit that was overbid, making it useless, or obviously of little use to the winner of the bidding. Any suit in the talon could be mentioned here.
  • "Two spades is not one spade" (Две пики - не одна пика). Just a "sagacious" saying about a shown talon of two cards of the same suit.
  • "If I knew the talon, I'd be living in Sochi" (Знал бы прикуп, жил бы в Сочи). Sochi is a popular Russian resort where people bring money to waste, so if one were good at guessing the talon, Sochi would make him rich. Another possible explanation is that if someone always knew what is there in the talon, he'd supposedly have enough money to live in Sochi and not work.
  • "Rostov is a game of whists" (Ростов - игра вистов). A reference to Rostov scoring rules.
  • "The bid of nine is whisted only by a priest or a student: the former of greed, the latter of poverty". If nine is contracted, high chances are all ten will be taken, since non-rock-solid tens are played very rarely.
  • A pair of complementary advices: "Keep your cards closer to your medals!" (Карты ближе к орденам!) and "Look into the neighbor's first, you'll see yours anytime." (Смотри в карты соседу - свои успеешь).
  • "Cards like tears" (Карта слезу любит). A mock superstition: decrying your own cards or whining about your bad luck is supposed to bring you luck.
  • "Lead under the bidder with a short seven, under the whister with an ace" (Ходи под игрока с короткого семака, под вистующего - с тузующего) is a "golden rule" for a whister's first lead in a closed hand game.

External links

  1. Site with official codex of rules for Russian preference
  2. French site with rules for the version used to be played in former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia)
  3. Preff.net - Play Preferans on the internet (Beta)
  4. Preferans Forum
  5. Preferans Wiki
  6. Preferans Links (Serbian)
  7. Rules for Croatian Preferans
  8. Rules for Russian Preferans
  9. Rules for Austrian Preference
  10. Rules for Greek Prefa
  11. Bringing you rules and information about card and tile games from all parts of the world
  12. Danzig Pref Engine, a preference-playing computer program
  13. Application that assists with counting up the results of a game of Preferance on Windows, Mac, or Linux

Preference online (Game Servers)

  1. www.gambler.ru- The largest Russian on-line preference and backgammon site. (Russian only)
  2. Preff.net- The largest Balkan Preferans website. (English, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Bulgarian)

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