This game is also sometimes known by other names, such as Palace, Karma, China Hand and Ten-Two Slide. The first version of the page was based on a contribution from Michael Labranche, and Jim Curtis, Ciaran Gultnieks, Sean Daly, William Putt, Jane Guarducci and Cristian Seres have added variations.
The game is probably of Scandinavian origin: it may be descended from the Swedish game Vändtia ("turn ten") and it is quite closely related to the Finnish game Paskahousu ("shit pants"). It is now known in many parts of the world, having been spread during the last decades of the 20th century by young travellers (backpackers) of all nationalities.
Shithead is a beating game in which the players try to avoid being the last to get rid of all their cards. The loser typically suffers some forfeit such as having to make the tea, or at least has the job of shuffling and dealing the next hand.
From two to five may play. The game is best is with at least three.
The game requires one regular 52-card deck. The cards rank highest to lowest 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, . . . , 2 (twos are high and low - see below).
The dealer is randomly selected for the first hand. The deal rotates clockwise after each hand.
Any cards remaining undealt are placed face down to form a draw pile. The players pick up their three card hands and look at them.
Before play each player may exchange any number of cards from the hand with her face-up cards. A player may never look at the face-down cards until they are played. (Players usually take lower ranking face-up cards into their hands.)
The first player is the person who receives the first 3 dealt face-up. If no 3 is face-up, the first person to call a three in a hand is the first player. If there is no 3 dealt to a hand, then the same procedure is followed for the first 4, and so on, if need be.
The first player begins a discard pile on the table, playing face-up from her hand any number of cards of the same rank, and taking cards from the draw pile to replenish her hand to three cards. Taking turns clockwise, each player must either play a card or a set of equal cards face up on top of the discard pile, or pick up the pile. The card or cards played must be of equal to or of higher rank than previous play. This continues, possibly several times around the table, until eventually someone is unable or unwilling to equal or beat the previous play. If after playing you have fewer than three cards in your hand, you must immediately replenish your hand by drawing from the stock so that you have three cards again. If there are too few cards in the stock, you draw as many as there are. When there are no cards left in the stock at all, play continues as before, but without replenishment.
If at your turn you cannot or do not wish to play a card, you must pick up all the cards in the discard pile and add them to your hand. If you pick up you do not play any cards on that turn, but your left hand neighbour, who is next in turn to play, starts a new discard pile by playing any card or set of equal cards she wishes. Play then continues as before.
As long as you begin your turn with cards in your hand, you are not allowed in that turn to play from the cards you have on the table; you can only play from the cards in your hand on that turn.
Twos may always be played on any card, and any card may be played on a two.
A ten may be played on any turn, whatever the top card of the discard pile is (or even if the pile is empty). When a ten is played, the discard pile is removed from play and the same player who played the ten takes another turn, playing any card or set of equal cards to start a new discard pile.
If someone completes a set of four cards of the same rank on top of the discard pile (either by playing all four cards at once or by equalling the previous play), the whole pile is removed from play, and the same player who completed the four of a kind takes another turn, playing any card or set of equal cards to start a new discard pile.
If you begin your turn with no cards in your hand (because you played them all last time and the draw pile was empty), you may now play from her face-up cards. When you are playing your face-up cards and cannot (or do not wish to) play a card of equal or higher rank than the card(s) played by previous player, you add one of your face-up cards to the pile before taking the whole pile into your hand. It is then the next player's turn to begin a new discard pile by playing any card or set of equal cards. Having picked up the pile, you will have to play from your hand on subsequent turns until you have once more got rid of all your hand cards and can begin playing from your table cards again.
When you have played all your face-up table cards, and have no cards in your hand, you play your face-down cards blindly, flipping one card onto the pile when your turn comes. If the flipped card is playable, it is played, and it is the next player's turn to equal or beat it. If your flipped card is not playable (because it is lower than the previous play), you take the whole pile into your hand including the flipped card. It is then the next player's turn to start a new discard pile. Having picked up the pile, you will have to play from your hand on subsequent turns until you have once more got rid of all your hand cards and can flip your next table card.
When you completely get rid of all of your hand and table cards, you have successfully avoided being the loser and can drop out of the game. When you flip your last table card, you can only drop out at that point if it beats the previous play (or if you are flipping it to an empty discard pile). If you flip your last card and it is not playable, you must pick it up along with the pile. As people drop out of the game, the remaining players continue playing. The last player left holding cards is the loser (also known as the shithead). This player must deal the next hand, and must also make tea (or perform any other duty the group require for general comfort and wellbeing).
A six-player game is possible by adding two Jokers to the pack. Jokers may be played at any time, singly or in a group, and serve only to reverse the direction of play (from clockwise to counter-clockwise or vice versa). Therefore, if the next player after you plays a joker, the turn comes back to you and you must now beat your own previous play, or take the pile. Jokers are not wild and cannot be played in combination with other cards.
A different method of dealing is commonly used: first deal a row of three cards face down to each player; then deal a hand of six cards face down to each player. The players look at their hands and select any three of their six cards to place face up on top of their three face down cards. This has the same result as the method of dealing given in the main description above, except that in this version the players will not have seen any of the cards which end up in their opponents' three card hands.
The game is occasionally played to find a winner rather than a loser. In that case, the winner is the first player who manages to get rid of all their hand and table cards.
Some people play that a ten can be played at any time, clearing the discard pile. (In the main description a ten cannot be played on a jack, queen, king or ace). Ciaran Gultnieks gives the following extra rules for special cards:
Sean Daly, describes a version of the game Karma, from Radford, Virginia, USA. The differences are as follows:
William J Putt describes a version (locally known as Smeghead) with the following differences:
Chris Winter reports that at West Kent College (UK), Smeghead was played by 2 or 3 players with a single pack, 5 cards each face down, 5 face up and 5-card hands.
Jane Guarducci has contributed the following variation(s):
Twisted Shithead is an elaborate variation in which nearly all the cards have special effects. It was created by Galbraith/Lewis/Constance/Mabely (1993); the description is by Paul JaYmes (1997).
Reverse Shithead is a variation contributed by Andrew Duthie, which includes a reverse phase where beating the previous player's card is compulsory but disadvantageous.
Cristian Seres tells me that in Finland the game is usually played without jokers and with four face down and face up cards in front of each player rather than three. Rules in Finnish for two versions - Mukava and Piina - are available on this archive copy of his web site.
David Driscoll reports having played Ten-Two Slide in Illinois with hands of four cards, but just the normal three cards face down and three face up for each player.
Further variations contributed by readers are listed on the Shithead Variations page of the Invented Games section of gambiter.com.
Here is an archive copy of a web page that described a variation known as Shit-Boot.
Einar Egilsson has published a free Shithead program with which you can play online against one computer opponent. In this version, fives can be played on any higher card and require a card lower than 5 to be played next, and a player is always allowed to try to play the top card of the stock instead of playing a card from hand.
Another Java Shithead game is available from Sam Cavenagh's Shithead page.
You can play Shithead online against human or computer opponents at playshithead.com.
Poohead is a Shithead app for iPhone or iPad.
Neopets offer an on line game of Shithead under the name Go! Go! Go! It has the special rules that an odd card must be played on a 3, and an even card must be played on a 4.