L'Hombre was developed in Spain in the early 17th century, as a variation of an earlier four player game, also called Hombre. The three player version, which in Spain was originally called Hombre Renegado spread rapidly across Europe and during the 17th and 18th centuries became the premier card game, occupying a position of prestige similar to Bridge today. It was variously known as Hombre, Ombre or L'Hombre, and over the years it acquired many variations, of increasing complexity. Its popularity was eclipsed in the late 18th century by a new four player variant Quadrille, which was in turn displaced by Whist, Boston and eventually Bridge.
Although L'Hombre died out in other parts of Europe, it remained popular in Denmark right up to the 21st century. It is played mostly in Jutland and on the island of Funen, and is organised by the L'Hombre union. Versions of the game have also survived in Spain itself, where it is known as El Tresillo, in the Faroes and in Iceland, and in Peru and Bolivia, where it is known as Rocambor.
L'Hombre was one of the first games to introduce bidding, through which one player becomes the declarer, trying to make a contract, with the other players cooperating to prevent him. The declarer was originally called Hombre (i.e. the man). It was from L'Hombre that the idea of bidding was adopted into other card games such as Tarot, Skat and Boston.
An excellent account of the early history of L'Hombre (from which some of the above information is taken) can be found in a series of three articles by Thierry Depaulis in The Playing-Card (Journal of the International Playing-Card Society). They are entitled "Ombre et Lumière. Un Peu de Lumière sur L'Hombre" and appeared in Vol XV, No 4, pp 101-110, Vol XVI, No 1, pp 10-18, and Vol XVI, No 2, pp 44-53.
L'Hombre is a three-handed trick taking game. It is also quite often played by four people, but there are still only 3 active players in each hand; the player opposite the dealer sits out. A deck of 40 cards is used. Each active player is dealt 9 cards and the remaining 13 form the talon. Each hand begins with an auction. The winner of the bidding becomes the declarer, and plays alone against the other two players (defenders) in partnership.
The final bid by declarer determines the contract. Declarer plays either a game contract, where his objective is to take more tricks than either defender, or a nolo contract, where his objective is not to take any tricks at all.
When the contract is known, the players take turns exchanging cards with the talon, subject to restrictions particular to each contract.
Afterwards, nine tricks are played. However, as soon as the outcome of the contract is clear, declarer will face his hand and make a statement to that effect.
After the play, immediate payment is made in the form of tokens. In general, the amount of payment increases with the rank of the contract. When declarer makes his contract, the defenders each pay declarer; when the contract fails, declarer pays each defender.
The general direction of rotation in the game is counter-clockwise.
The following detailed description of the game is based on the rules as played in the author's family. By comparison with other players' rules, it seems reasonable to describe this version of the game as "pure" or "minimal".
Strictly, the version described here is called "Rasle L'Hombre". The Danish L'Hombre literature also describes Pot L'Hombre, in which most of the payments are made to and from a pot, rather than between the players, but few if any people now play this way.
Like many card games, L'Hombre has a particular terminology. When played in Denmark, a mixture of Danish, French, and Spanish terms are used. In this presentation, equivalent English terms have been substituted for Danish terms, but French and Spanish terms have been left as used in Denmark.
L'Hombre is played with a deck of 40 cards in the four standard suits. From a standard deck of 52 cards, the 8s, 9s, and 10s are not used.
The ranking of the cards depends on the type of contract.
In nolo contracts, there is no trump suit. The black suits and the red suits are ranked differently as follows:
In game contracts, there always is a trump suit. The black aces are permanent trumps, independent of which suit otherwise is trumps. In this capacity, the spade ace is called spadille (abbreviated S) and the club ace is called basta (abbreviated B).
The trump suit has the following ranking
When a suit is not the trump suit, it retains its ranking as in nolo contracts, but since the black aces now have their role of spadille and basta, there remain only 9 cards in each black suit.
The first dealer is chosen at random; thereafter the turn to deal rotates. The dealer is also called the backhand (Bh). The player on the dealer's right is called the forehand (Fh); the player on the dealer's left is called the middlehand (Mh). Bh shuffles and Mh cuts. Each player is dealt nine cards, three cards at a time in rotation, starting with Fh. The remaining 13 cards form the talon, which is put aside face down to be used later for exchanging cards.
In the auction at his turn, a player has the following choice of call:
The first half of the auction takes place only between Fh and Mh. Fh calls first, and Mh and Fh then take turns calling until their part of the auction is settled (when both have called, and at least one of them has passed). Then Bh enters the auction, which continues with players taking turns until the entire auction is settled. If all three players simply passed, the hand is a wash-out, no play is made, and the turn to deal proceeds to Fh. If at least one bid was made, the auction ends when two players have passed. The player who prevailed in the auction becomes declarer, and the final bid determines the contract.
A sample auction might go
Resulting contract: solo, played by the forehand.
The bids, and the corresponding contracts, are ranked as shown below (lowest bids first). The rates are provided for quick reference when scoring.
Following the auction, the winner defines the contract. For Simple Game and Solo, he needs to name the trump suit. For Tourné and Grand Tourné, he faces the top card of the talon to determine the trump suit. As a special rule, a player who has won the auction for a bid of Simple Game may define a contract of Spade Game, Tourné, or Simple Nolo at this time. Also, it is usually tolerated that a declarer who won a Solo Contract defines his contract as Spade Solo.
Declarer has the right to exchange cards with the talon when playing low level contracts (including Grand Tourné). The defenders are allowed to exchange cards against game contracts, but not against nolo contracts.
Declarer always exchanges first (if the contract allows it), then each of the defenders exchanges, in rotation.
At his turn, a player may exchange as many of the cards in his hand as he wishes, from none at all up to the number of (remaining) cards in the talon. The player first discards (face down) all the cards he wishes to exchange; then he picks up an equal number of replacement cards in order from the top of the talon, so that he again has nine cards. It is a principle of the game that each player remains responsible for the correct procedure. A player who fouls up the exchange procedure is deemed to have lost the contract and pays accordingly; a defender also pays what the other defender owes declarer.
Any cards from the talon that are not used for exchange are left face down for the remainder of the deal.
Play is counter-clockwise. No matter who is the declarer, forehand always leads to the first trick.
A trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, unless it contains a trump, in which case the highest trump wins it. The winner of a trick leads to the next.
Players must follow suit if they can, playing any card they wish from the suit led. A player with no card of the suit led may play any card, including a trump. Note that in game contracts, spadille and basta belong to the trump suit, not to the suits marked on them.
In game contracts, the obligation to follow suit does not apply fully to the matadors (the spadille, manille and basta). When a trump is led, the holder of a matador need not play it, unless a higher matador was led to the trick, and he has no other trumps. It follows that spadille can never be forced out. For instance, suppose the manille (second highest trump) is led. If the next player has the spadille and no other trumps he need not play the spadille, but may play any card. If the second player had the basta and no other trump, he would have to play the basta, because it is lower than the manille. If the second player had S K 4 of trumps, he would have to play a trump, because although his S cannot be forced out, his other trumps do not enjoy this privilege. If the trump 4 is led, the second player plays the spadille, and the third player's only trump is the basto, the third player does not have to play the basto but can throw a card of another suit. In this case the spadille was not led to the trick but played second, so does not draw the basto.
In game contracts, each player keeps track of the tricks he has won; in nolo contracts, the defenders keep track of declarer's tricks and no one keeps track of the defenders' tricks.
In the great majority of contracts, play continues only until the fate of contract is clear. For game contracts, four outcomes are possible:
For nolo contracts, the outcomes are defined as follows:
After the fate of each contract is known, payment in tokens is effected immediately.
In game contracts (other than Solo and Spade Solo), declarer has the right to abandon the hand provided that he has not yet played to the first trick. He does this by paying for bête and facing his hand. This option is, of course, exercised when declarer's exchange was so disappointing that the risk of kodille outweighs the chances of winning.
When a declarer holds four or more of the top cards of the trump suit, it is customary to describe him as holding that many matadors. For instance, with diamonds as trumps, the hand
D: S 7 B A K Q 3 S: - H: 2 6 C: -
would be said to hold 6 matadors. In spite of this custom, the special exemptions from following suit still only extends to the trumps that outrank the king.
Similarly, a solid holding of top trumps, but lacking Spadille, is described as a number of faux-matadors.
There is a custom that any player holding 9 matadors (possibly after an exchange) receives a special prize of 2 Danish Kroner from everybody in the room, regardless whether they participate in the game. This custom is now very symbolic after a century of inflation, but until recently you could read accounts of players holding 9 matadors in local newspapers. In fact at the beginning of May 1997, the Danish newspapers carried the story that the former Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen had recently held 9 matadors in clubs while playing l'Hombre privately. The 2 kroner per person were promptly paid.
When defending a game contract, it makes a considerable difference how the defenders divide the tricks among them. If the defenders take five tricks, a 5-0 distribution yields kodille, a 4-1 distribution yields bête, and a 3-2 distribution yields a win for declarer. It is therefore good strategy to play in such a way that one defender takes as many tricks as possible. The negotiation between the defenders as to who should be the stronger takes place during the exchange of cards with the talon. For simple games, declarer has usually left around 8 cards in the talon. The convention is that when the first defender exchanges at most one or two cards, thus ensuring that his partner can exchange as many as he could need, he is signalling that he expects to be the weak defender. Conversely, if he determines that his cards merit that he try to be the strong defender, he will exchange freely.
When exchanging freely for a game contract, declarer and a strong defender usually retain only trumps and kings; declarer may sometimes retain a king-queen pair of a side suit. A weak defender (last in hand) will usually try for a void in a side suit. Most tricks in game contracts are won by trumps or side suit kings.
In nolo contracts, the defenders try to give declarer a trick. This requires both that a defender has a low card in a suit, and usually that his partner is void in that suit, so that he does not overtake declarer. Usually, therefore, defense starts with one defender cashing a long suit, hoping that his partner will become void in the suit and be able to discard in another suit, or simply to pave the way for an attack in that same suit. As an extreme example, in a nolo game where the diamonds are distributed so that one defender has K Q 7, the other has 2 3, and declarer has 4 5 6, the successful defense is to cash the K and Q, then to trap declarer with the 7. In order for the defenders to determine when to play the 7 in cases like this, the following carding convention has been developed: the defender following suit starts with his second lowest card, continues with higher cards, and finally plays his lowest card to signal that he is now void. In the example, the defender will follow with the 2 on the first trick and with the 3 on the second trick; his partner will then know from the high-low sequence that he has no more diamonds.
Because defence is inherently more difficult that declarer play, the card requirements for successful contracts are fairly modest. If, for a game contract, you would exchange only two cards with the talon, you should usually be playing Solo.
Simple nolo is usually a fair chance on a hand that exchanges only one card, while exchanging 3 or more cards is normally against the odds.
Because there are 11 trumps in black suits but 12 in red suits, black-suited game contracts win on hands that appear slightly weaker than similar red-suited hands.
For game contracts, all cards from the talon are usually used. Hence, it can usually be assumed that all the trumps participate in the play of the cards, and the players can take advantage of exact counting. In side suits, counting is somewhat pointless.
A declarer exchanging from a side suit with K Q J will sometimes discard the K and Q. A subsequent play of the J can mislead the weaker defender who might not play a trump on the J because he expects his partner to beat it.
A defender exchanging only a few cards usually is best off by trying to make himiself void in a side suit.
Cards from the talon that are not used are said to "sleep".
During an evening's play, all contracts except Nolo Ouvert are usually played. Nolo Ouvert is played once every 5-10 evenings. Tout is rare; the author has never seen an attempted Tout.
Usually only three players are active at a time. The player opposite the dealer sits out, and when two decks are in use, he shuffles the idle deck, leaving it on his left (which is the right of the next dealer).
The fourth player participates in the payment after the play as though he were a defender.
If the contract becomes Simple Nolo, the fourth player must join the contract and participate in the play. After declarer has exchanged cards, the dealer picks up all 13 idle cards (the remaining talon and declarer's discards). Of these 13 cards, he discards four, thus obtaining a hand of 9 cards. At this point he may abandon his hand for bête, but if he plays to the first trick, his fate is scored as if he was a second declarer; he and declarer settle their accounts independently of each other, each counting as a defender against the other.
Usually wash-outs are not tolerated. The simplest avoidance scheme, which is the tradition in the author's family, is the rule that any player holding Spadille must bid at least once, and that the dealer must bid if the two other players pass. In this way, a dealer who is forced to bid a poor hand has the consolation that Spadille is in the talon. In such cases, the dealer will often play tourné, at least ensuring that one additional trump will be obtained from the talon.
Kaske is a technique for avoiding wash-outs which, although playable, appears to have gone out of fashion. If all three players pass, each player in turn may bid "kaske". If the auction is won by a kaske bid, the declarer takes eight cards from the talon and looks at them. He then chooses one of his own original nine cards to supplement the eight cards; but he also has the option to discard all nine of his original cards and take a ninth from the talon. Based on these nine cards, he names a trump suit. The defenders then exchange with the remaining five or four cards in the talon, and a (simple) game contract is played and scored normally.
Another possible method for avoiding wash-outs, useful only when there are four players, is as follows: After three passes, the fourth player picks up all 13 cards from the talon and discards four cards. He then names a trump suit and plays as declarer against three defenders, who cannot exchange any cards, since the talon is already used up. The rate is as for Simple Game. Since there are three defenders, declarer can win on the trick distributions like 3-2-2-2 and 4-3-1-1.
When playing with both kaske and mort, mort comes into effect only after all three players have passed the right to kaske.
Several types of additional contracts and associated bids are played in some circles. The variations on contracts mentioned here are all rated and scored in ranges comparable to Grand Tourne or Simple Nolo. Those who play with them need to agree in advance (or fight during play) on the ranking of the bids and the scores involved.
This is L'Hombre's equivalent of No Trumps at bridge. Only spadille and basta count as trumps. Both declarer and defenders exchange cards with the talon. Declarer must exchange at least five cards, and a win requires at least five tricks.
This is like Grand, but the declarer does not exchange any cards. This contract is to Grand what Solo is to simple Game.
Some players allow Grand Tourne to be bid on holdings other than two black aces. The specific holdings allowed vary widely; many of them must be considered wildly gambling and would seem to undermine the original idea of bidding in the game. Some of the combinations seen are:
Once you open this bag of variations, there is no limit to the holdings that you can agree should qualify for a Grand Tourne.
Sometimes multiple declarers are allowed at Simple Nolo. Once declarer has exchanged cards, a defender (or both) may declare that they are joining the Simple Nolo, exchange cards, and proceed as declarers. At the end of the play, each declarer settles his account with the two other players independently. In a four-person game, the fourth player still needs to join the game.
There are numerous other variations on simple nolo, all of which seem to remove much of the traditional style of the game.
A declarer in a game contract may declare that he intends to take the first five tricks before he plays to the first trick. If he succeeds, he scores an additional token; if he fails he loses a token to each player. The outcome of the five-tricks declaration is independent of the outcome of the contract.
One trick to declarer and four to each defender is a generally treated as a kodille result. However, a known variant is to count this result as bête, and some even play it as a win for the declarer.
Here is the home page of the Dansk l'Hombre Union, which contains tournament rules (in Danish), and club and contact information.