Sheepshead or Sheephead is a trick-taking card game related to the Skat family of games. It is the Americanized version of a card game which originated in Central Europe in the late 1700s under the German name Schafkopf. Although Schafkopf literally means "sheepshead", the term may have been derived from Middle High German and referred to playing cards on an overturned barrel (from kopfen, meaning playing cards, and Schaff, meaning a barrel). In the United States, Sheepshead is most commonly played in Wisconsin, which has a large German-American population.
Sheepshead is most commonly played by five players, but variants exist to allow for two to eight players. The six-player version, notably, consists of one player dealing to five others. The dealer sits out for that round, but the position rotates among the players.
Sheepshead is played with 7-8-9-10-J-Q-K-A in four suits, for a total of 32 cards. This is also known as a German deck of cards
, as opposed to the 52 or 54 present in a French deck (also known as a Poker
deck, or a regular deck of playing cards
). To make a Sheepshead deck, remove all the jokers, sixes, fives, fours, threes, and twos.
Card strength in Sheepshead is unique and one of the most difficult things for some beginners to grasp.
There are 14 cards in the trump suit: all four Queens, all four Jacks, and all of the Diamonds. In order of strength from greatest to least:
- Q♣ - Q♠ - Q♥ - Q♦
- J♣ - J♠ - J♥- J♦
- A♦ - 10♦ - K♦ - 9♦, 8♦, 7♦
Also, there are 6 of each "fail" suit. (18 total)
- A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♣ (clubs)
- A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♠ (spades)
- A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 of ♥ (hearts)
Clubs, Spades, and Hearts take no precedence over other fail suits, unlike trump, which always take fail. (Notice how both aces and tens outrank kings; arguably the most confusing aspect of card strength). The lead suit must be followed if possible; if not, then any card may be played such as trump (which will take the trick), or a fail card. Playing a fail of a different suit is called "throwing off" and can be a way to clear up another suit. Additionally, throwing off a point card is called "schmearing".
Germanic - Standard suit equivalents
|| Grün (green)
|| Rot (red)
|| Schellen (bells) |
|| Diamond |
Card Point Values
Each card is given a separate point value as follows:
- Queens - 3 points
- Jacks - 2 points
- Aces - 11 points
- Tens - 10 points
- Kings - 4 points
- 9, 8, 7 - 0 points
The strongest cards (Queens and Jacks) are not worth the most points, giving Sheepshead some of its unique character.
There is a total of 120 points in the deck. The goal of the game is to get half of these (60 or 61), with the "picker" being required to take 61 to break a tie.
Score is kept using points (not to be confused with the point values of the cards) or using money. Points are given/taken on a zero-sum
The following chart shows the points awarded based on the point value of cards taken during the hand. When playing for money, each point generally represents a common money unit.
|91 to 120||+8||+4||+2||-2|
|61 to 90||+4||+2||+1||-1|
|31 to 60||-4||-2||-1||+1|
|0 to 30||-8||-4||-2||+2|
- Thirty or thirty-one points are called schneider, with the picker being required to get thirty-one points.
- There are 120 points in the deck. Since it is possible to take a trick worth zero points, the distinction between "All Tricks" and "120 points" is necessary.
- Players gain or lose points such that a net gain of zero occurs.
The deck is shuffled and cut. The dealer then deals cards two or three at a time to each person, starting with the player to dealer's left. In most standard five and six-handed games, two cards are also dealt to a separate pile called the "blind
"; usually this is dealt as a pair between rounds of dealing at any time so long as they are not the last two cards dealt.
When done, each player should have six cards, with two in the blind (five-handed).
A redeal is necessary when a player's hand has no Aces, no Face cards and no Trumps.
The player to the left of the dealer gets first choice to take the blind. If he passes, the option is given to the next player (in clockwise order).
If everyone passes and the dealer declines to pick, a leaster may be played. Other alternatives are listed in the Variations section.
The individual who takes the blind is called the "picker". The picker adds the two cards to his hand and then must choose two cards to lay down or "bury". The buried cards are automatically added to the picker's score.
The picker may also have a partner on his team who will then play against the remaining players. Typically, it is someone who has a called ace or jack, based on house rules. The rules behind this are outlined in the Variations section.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Sheepshead is that the picker and partner change each hand, and a good deal of the game's strategy is in determining which player is the partner, as his identity is usually not revealed until after the game has begun.
After the picker has buried his cards, the person to the left of the dealer plays the first card. Play continues clockwise until everyone has played. Then, the person who played the card with the highest strength takes the "trick
", and then plays, or "leads,
" a new card for the second trick. After all tricks have been taken, their point values are totalled (chart given above) and the winner declared. The deal then shifts to the person to the left of the previous dealer.
- The picker and partner should almost always lead trump. Odds are that the picker should have the strongest hand, as he received additional cards, received free points in his bury, and hopefully had a stronger hand before picking. So for each trump he loses, four trump are lost by the other players. This is especially important in the Called Aces variant, as this gives the Ace a much better chance of walking, or going around the table without being trumped.
- When the picker is weak, sometimes it may be wise to lead fail and hope your partner can take the trick. In these circumstances, the partner leading trump may drain the picker's trump faster than a strong opponent, though it can be difficult to tell if this is the case.
- Generally speaking, it is better to clear out as many suits of fail as possible when burying; it is better to have two clubs than to have a heart and a club. There are exceptions to this rule.
- Generally, it's best not to pick unless you have four or more trump in a five-handed game, and it's best if at least one of those trump is a Queen. Picking on three trump is unwise, unless two of those trump are Queens and one is a Jack.
- Being on the tail end (being last to pick) may indicate that there are trump in the blind. Alternately, it means the trump are evenly spread out or someone is mauering, or passing on a decent hand. There's also a chance in Jacks games that the Jack passed on a decent but iffy hand, or didn't want to play alone. You'll also have the advantage of being the last to act on the first round.
- In the Called Aces variant, the opponents should lead out the called suit if possible, as they know that the picker and partner have that fail for sure. This gives the opponents a chance to trump the ace trick.
- If the picker has one suit, he is more likely to have another card of that suit than to have another fail of a different suit. Lead that suit back at them if you can; and if he doesn't have that suit any longer, it's possible that your partners will be able to trump the trick.
- Watch for suspicious play. If someone schmears an ace or ten in front of the picker, there's a good chance that they are the partner.
- Never lead trump unless absolutely necessary, or if you believe you've got more trump than the picker. Be very careful when doing this, as you're likely going to hurt your own team more than the picker.
- Card counting is a very valuable skill when playing Sheepshead, as it enables a player to know if a trick must be taken or if they've already won, enabling them to change their strategy to try for a greater victory. It is also important to keep track of the trump that have been played, especially the Queens and to a lesser extent the Jacks.
- The order of play is a very important consideration while playing. There is a distinct benefit to "being on the end," and at times it may be worth taking a trick away when it's already your team's to keep someone else off the end (usually the picker or partner).
- In three or four-handed games, Aces are much more likely to walk than in games with more players.
There are a number of different play variations for Sheepshead. Typically, the game is played with five people, but variants allow for two to ten players. There are also variants in the ways that partners are chosen, scoring, the suits considered fail, or what occurs when the blind isn't picked.
Typically, the following two variants apply only to five and six-handed games. In some variants, the picker is allowed to play alone.
The picker chooses a called ace suit
after picking the blind. Whoever has this called ace will be his partner. There are a few further rules behind this.
- The called suit must be a fail suit (clubs, spades or hearts).
- The picker must have at least one of the fail suit in his/her hand. If the picker has no fail suits, an unknown may be played. The picker then lays a card face down (typically their lowest trump) and calls a fail suit for the unknown to represent. The unknown then loses all power to take tricks, though its point value remains at the end of the game. Only the player taking the unknown is allowed to look at it until the end of the game.
- The picker cannot call a suit for which he has the Ace.
- If the picker has all 3 fail Aces, he may call a 10 instead of an Ace. The picker is obligated to hold the Ace of that suit in his hand. When the called suit is led, the picker must play the Ace. In addition, the person with the 10 takes the trick if it is not trumped.
Jack of Diamonds
In this variant, the partner is automatically the individual with the Jack of Diamonds. There are a number of variants within this method of play.
- Sometimes, the picker is allowed to call up to the Jack of Hearts if he has the Jack of Diamonds in his hand. Sometimes he's also allowed to call the Jack of Spades or Clubs if he has the two or three lower Jacks in his hand. Some variants require that the picker call up before seeing the blind.
- In some variants, the picker calls the Jack of Clubs instead of the Jack of Diamonds; typically he isn't allowed to call down to the Jack of Spades.
- In some variants, if the picker has the Jack of Diamonds and wishes to play alone (cut-throat), the Jack of Diamonds must be kept in play and not buried.
One variant allows the picker to call "Sheepshead." This means that the picker believes he can take every trick. If he succeeds he receives twice the number of points for a trickless game, but if he misses a single trick (even one lacking points), he must pay twice the value his opponents would have paid him for a trickless hand.
- The picker is almost always required to play alone if he calls Sheepshead. Because of this, this is generally applied only to the Jacks variant, or cut-throat games.
- Sometimes the picker is not allowed to call Sheepshead if he does not have the Jack in five or six-handed games.
Punish the Picker
The standard method of playing Sheepshead is that the picker and partner lose two times the points that his opponents would lose in a similar loss. Some house rules do not enforce this "Punish" rule.
Some house rules require the picker to take at least one trick. If the picker does not take at least one trick and loses, then only the picker loses points.
This is also known as "Double on the Bump."
|Point Total with Punish the Picker
|91 to 120||+8||+4||+2||-2|
|61 to 90||+4||+2||+1||-1|
|31 to 60||-8||-4||-2||+2|
|0 to 30||-16||-8||-4||+4|
In this variant, when a player picks up the blind, any player (who is not the picker's partner) who was not given the opportunity to pick up the blind may knock
by knocking the table with their fist. This automatically doubles the point values determining the score when the game ends. In the Aces variant, the crack must take place after the Ace has been called but before the first card is played.
- Some variants allow the picker to re-crack, or crack-back resulting in a quadrupling of the end scores.
- In another variation, after a crack the partner may crack-around-the-corner, serving the same effect as a re-crack, but revealing himself as the partner at the same time. Generally in any game where cracking is allowed, each player may only crack once, regardless of team.
Blitzing or Blitzers
This variant allows players to double the point value of the game by revealing that they have the two black or red queens.
- Typically, a blitz may only occur after a crack or re-crack.
- Some variants allow for a blitzing with the two black Jacks as well.
- Some variants allow for blitzers after the hand has been played. Players with both black queens need to declare blitzers after playing the second queen during the hand.
- Because of the possibility of escalation, a limit may be placed to cap the maximum value the points are multiplied from blitzing and cracking.
Diamonds vs. Clubs
Typically, diamonds are considered trump, but some groups use another suit (typically clubs). This would mean a nine of diamonds would be fail while a nine of clubs is trump instead.
Alternately, in some groups, the strengths of the various Queens and Jacks differ from standard rules.
A variant popular in some areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin is to change the order of strength of the trump cards. This is done by increasing the seven of diamond's strength to second in the list of trump:
- Q♣ -7♦ - Q♠ - Q♥ - Q♦ - J♣ - J♠ - J♥- J♦ - A♦ - 10♦ - K♦ - 9♦ - 8♦
When playing this variant the seven of diamonds is referred to as "the Spitz". Another variation puts the seven of diamonds first in the list of trump.
Several different scenarios can occur if no one picks up the blind, including a forced pick, a leaster, or a doubler.
In this variant, the person on the end is required to pick the blind. This is sometimes offset by a "No Punish" rule, and statistics; if no one desired the blind, then there's a better chance that the blind has decent cards, unless the trump is evenly spread out.
In a leaster, the blind is set aside (and not viewed until after the hand is over) and the person with the fewest points wins the hand. There is no partner, and the winner simply receives one point from every opponent in the game.
- Generally, it is required to get a trick to be eligible for winning. Three-handed may be the exception, and some variants may pay an individual double for not taking a trick, given the higher difficulty of this in a three-handed game.
- In some variants, the cards of the blind are added to the first or last trick.
In a doubler, the cards are reshuffled and a new hand is dealt and played as normal. However, at the end, the point values lost and gained are doubled.
Typically occurring with a leaster (and during cash games), one point is placed into a pot for the next hand. Then, if the picker wins the hand, he splits the pot with the partner (in a five handed game, the extra point goes to the picker such that he receives three and the partner receives a single point). However, if the picker loses the hand, the picker and partner must pay into the pot what they would have received.
- In some games, the picker and partner double the pot when losing; in others, they simply add a single pot each time. Additionally, the picker and partner may take the entire pot on a win, or they may receive a single pot.
- If the game ends before the pot is taken, or continues to build over several turns, the pot may be divided out to the individuals evenly. Alternately, showdowns may be played, where five cards are dealt one at a time to every player face side up. The best five-card poker hand then takes one or all of the pots.
- If a new player joins a game with a pot (bringing a game from five to six-handed, etc,) typically the pot is divided up, or the new player adds one point for every pot present.
Phrases to Describe Behaviors
The following phrases can be used to describe certain behaviors in the game.
Mauering is when a player has enough power-cards to pick up the blind, and yet passes (whether for fear one's hand is not actually good enough, or worse, one hopes to set up another player to lose). There are different methods of deciding if a player has a strong hand. In a five-handed game, some players pick on any four trump, while others decide based on the number of higher trump (queens and jacks). Others use a numbering system, giving each type of trump a point value and making the decision to pick based on a certain number of points. Statistically players who have an opportunity to pick first need a stronger hand while picking on the end usually means that since nobody else picked, the trump are fairly evenly spread out. Because of the complex nature of the game, in most cases mauering is a matter of opinion. Mauering is considered to be in very poor taste
and in some cases players who do it often enough can be asked to leave a game. Of course, mauering can backfire if the hand results in a leaster, and the mauerer is stuck with what is then a poor hand.
A smear (usually pronounced "schmear") is throwing a high-point card (ace or ten) into a trick you think will be taken by your partner, in order to increase the "take-home" points for the hand. An example of schmearing:
- Partner leads 10♦ (10 points)
- Opponent 1 plays Q♣ (3 points)
- Opponent 2 plays A♦ (11 points)
- Picker plays 8♦ (0 points)
- Opponent 3 (out of trump) plays 10♠ (10 points)
This trick was worth 34 points. That's schneider all by itself.
Opponent 1 won the trick as soon as s/he laid down the big Queen. As a result, opponents 2 and 3 both took advantage of the situation and put high-counting cards down. Also note that the picker played the 8♦, a no-counting card.
Renege means to fail to follow suit when able and required by the rules to do so. In most circles, this results in the guilty party forfeiting the hand.
When a teammate uses a higher powered card to take a trick that already is guaranteed to go to his/her team. Sometimes this is unavoidable especially in cases where you only have one card or a particular suit left in your hand.
Number of Players
There are numerous variations in rules, so a discussion of house rules generally occurs before play begins. The following variations can be employed to accommodate different numbers of players.
1): Each player is dealt four cards in a row, face down. Then, four cards are dealt face up to each player and placed on top of the first four cards. Then, eight cards are dealt to each player's hand. When one of the face up cards is played, the card below it is turned face up and may then be played.
2): Sixteen cards are dealt face down in a four by four rectangle. Players are not allowed to look at the face-down cards. Then, a card is dealt face up on top of these. The sixteen cards (eight stacks of two cards) closest to the dealer are the dealer's cards. A card must be face-up to be played. The opponent starts the first trick by playing one of his face-up cards, and the dealer responds by playing one of his. After each trick is played, any face-down cards uncovered are turned face-up. Play continues until all 32 cards have been played. Players are not allowed to look at their own face-down cards.
1) Each player is dealt ten cards, with two going to the blind. The picker faces the others.
2) The sevens of clubs and spades are removed, leaving thirty cards. Nine cards are then dealt to each player, with three going to the blind. The picker faces the others.
3) The six non-trump sevens and eights are removed, dealing eight cards to each player, with two in the blind.
1) Seven cards are dealt to each player with four in the blind. Four-handed is cut-throat
: the picker plays against the other three players.
2) The seven of clubs and seven of spades are removed. Seven cards are dealt to each player, with two in the blind. The partner is automatically the player with the jack of diamonds. The game is played two versus two.
3) Each player is dealt eight cards, with no blind. The two players holding the black queens are partners; this is not revealed until both cards are played. If one player holds both black queens, he plays cut-throat against the others.
4) The partners are the first two queens played.
- This variation is focused on timing; rather than trying to take a trick with the queen, it may be worth it to waste the queen to become partners with an individual who has already taken a good trick or two, or to avoid being stuck cut-throat.
- Typically, in both variations, the players with the queens (black or first two played) are considered the picker and partner for scoring purposes.
5) In a fifth variation (popular in southern Indiana), jacks and queens flip order and Hearts is usually trump. In this style, all four players are dealt eight cards. A player has an option to call (similar to the call Ace above), go solo, or pass. Whoever gets the bid then reveals what he is playing:
- Call - the person winning the call will call an ace of a non-trump suit that he does not hold. If he holds all three aces, he may call a non-trump 10. When play begins a player's partner is not revealed until the Ace is played.
- Solo - the person winning the call has a choice between playing a trump solo (best), an off-suit solo in which that suit would now become trump (side solo), or a billy (where the winner goes against the other three and attempts not to take a trick.
- Pass - if everyone passes the cards are thrown in and the deal moves to the next player.
Scoring - Players play to 24 on the given system:
- Players who win a call gain 2, 4, or 6 points with their partner (getting set is 2, 4, 6 for the opponents)
- Winning a solo gains that person 18 points (getting set is 6 points for each opponent)
- Winning a best wins the game.
. Six cards are dealt to each player, with two to the blind. The partner is the player with the called ace.
2): Jacks. Six cards are dealt to each player, with two to the blind. The partner is the player with the called jack, jack depending on the rules variation. Most of the time the it is the Jack of Diamonds.
1): Five cards are dealt to each player with two cards in the blind. The partner is automatically the Jack of Diamonds, and is played two-against-four. If the picker gets the Jack of Diamonds in the blind, he/she may call the next higher Jack not in his/her hand.
2): Five cards are dealt to each player with two cards in the blind. The partner is automatically the Jack of Diamonds and the Ace of the called suit, three-against-three. If the picker gets the Jack of Diamonds in the blind or the Jack of Diamonds has the Ace of the called suit it is played two-against-four.
1): Four cards are dealt to each player, with four to the blind. The picker takes all four cards from the blind, and buries four. The partner is automatically the Jack of Diamonds. If the picker has the jack, he/she may call up to the next highest Jack not in his/her hand.
2): Four cards are dealt to each player, with four to the blind. The picker takes two cards from the blind, and the player immediately behind him takes the other two blind cards; they bury together and then play as partners against the other five. Also known as Shit-On-Your-Neighbor Sheepshead.
3): Four cards are dealt to each player, with four to the blind. The picker takes three cards from the blind, and the player immediately behind him take the other card. The partner is automatically the Jack of Diamonds. The player behind the picker is not automatically the partner, so his bury may count towards the picker's opponents.
1): Four cards are dealt to each player. The two black queens are partners.
2): Four cards are dealt to each player. The Queen of Clubs, Jack of Diamonds, and 7 of Diamonds are partners. If one partner has two of these cards, they can call the 8 of Diamonds (if they have the 7 and the queen or jack) or Jack of Hearts (if they have the queen and the jack). If the other partner already has the 8 of Diamonds or Jack of Hearts they can call again. It should always be 3 on 5 unless the partner chooses not to call another partner.