Hearts is a trick taking game in which the object is to avoid winning tricks containing hearts; the queen of spades is even more to be avoided. The game first appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and is now popular in various forms in many countries. This page describes the American version first: the same game is played in Australia under the name Rickety Kate. Some remarks on other variations will be found at the end.
This page is partly based on information collected by John Hay in preparation for his projected book. Many thanks to John for permission to use it here.
The Complete Win at Hearts
by Joe Andrews
The classic guide to Hearts strategy.
Hearts is most commonly played by 4 people. There are no formal partnerships, though there are times when players will find it in their interest to help each other.
A standard 52 card deck is used, with the cards in each suit ranking as usual from ace (high) down to two (low). There is no trump suit.
Each heart is worth one penalty point and the queen of spades is worth 13 penalty points. The other cards have no value.
The object is to avoid scoring points. The game is ended by someone reaching or going over 100 points, and the winner is the player with the lowest score at this point.
Deal and play are clockwise. All the cards are dealt out one at a time, so that everyone has 13.
On the first hand, after the deal, each player passes any three cards face-down to the player to their left. When passing cards, you must first select the cards to be passed and place them face-down, ready to be picked up by the receiving player; only then may you pick up the cards passed to you, look at them and add them to your hand.
On the second hand each player passes three cards to the player to their right, in the same way. On the third hand each player passes three cards to the player sitting opposite. On the fourth hand no cards are passed at all. The cycle then repeats until the end of the game.
The person who holds the 2 of clubs must lead it to the first trick. The other players, in clockwise order, must play a card of the suit which was led if possible. If they do not have a card of that suit, they may play any card. The person who played the highest card of the suit led wins the trick and leads to the next trick.
It is illegal to lead a heart until after a heart has been played to a previous trick, unless your hand contains nothing but hearts. Discarding a heart, thus allowing hearts to be led in future, is called breaking hearts. In general, discarding a penalty card on a trick is called painting the trick.
A player whose hand consists entirely of hearts may lead any heart, thereby breaking hearts, even if hearts have not previously been broken.
Players are permitted to lead spades to any trick after the first. In fact it is a normal tactic to lead lower spades to try to drive out the queen. This is sometimes known as smoking out the queen.
Normally, each player scores penalty points for cards in the tricks which they won. Each heart scores one point, and the queen of spades scores 13 points. However, if you manage to win all the scoring cards (which is known as a slam or shooting the moon), your score is reduced by 26 points, or you may choose instead to have all other players' scores increased by 26 points.
The game continues until one player has reached or exceeded 100 points at the conclusion of a hand. The person with the lowest score is then the winner.
Some play that only 12 cards are dealt to each player. During the deal, four cards are dealt to a face down kitty, which is added to the tricks of the first player who takes a penalty card. A kitty can also be used to cope with the fact that the cards cannot be dealt evenly when there are more or fewer than four players.
Different passing cycles may be used, for example:
Some play that players are not required to pass any cards if they do not wish to. They simply pass on the cards that were passed to them without looking at them. This could result in a player getting their own cards back.
Some players allow hearts to be led at any time. This was the original rule, but in the USA nearly everyone now plays that heart leads are forbidden unless hearts have been broken.
The original rule was that player to the left of the dealer always leads to the first trick (rather than the holder of the 2 of clubs leading it), and may lead any card. Some people still play that way. If you play with the now usual restriction on leading hearts then the opening lead can be anything but a heart.
Some play that is illegal to play points on the very first trick, unless of course you have you have nothing but penalty cards in your hand.
Some play that the Queen of Spades breaks hearts. In other words, hearts may be led anytime after the Queen of Spades or any heart has been played.
If hearts have not been played and a player is on lead holding nothing but hearts and the Queen of Spades, many people allow hearts to be led, instead of forcing the player to lead the Queen of Spades.
Some players insist that you must play the Queen of Spades as soon as it is safe to do so. This could be when you are void in the suit led or to a spade trick when the Ace or King of Spades has already been played.
Many people play that the Jack of Diamonds (or sometimes the Ten of Diamonds) is a bonus card, counting minus 10 points for the person taking it. With this form of scoring, the game is known as Omnibus Hearts. To shoot the moon, you need all the hearts and the Q, and as usual you can choose to have 26 points deducted from your score or added to everyone else's; in addition to this, 10 points are deducted from the score of the player who took the Jack of Diamonds (who may be the same player as the shooter).
Shooting the sun is taking all the tricks (as opposed to taking all points). Some score this as 52 points with the scoring handled in the same as shooting the moon.
There are variations on the choice of scores for shooting the moon. Possibilities are:
For some people, reaching certain scores has a special effect. For example if your score is exactly 100 points at the end of a hand, it is reduced to 50 (or zero).
If a player reaches or exceeds 100 points and there is a tie for low score, additional hands may be played until there is a clear winner.
There are two ways that four players can play hearts in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other.
The game may be played with either three or five players. There are various ways of coping with the fact that the cards cannot all be dealt out equally to the players:
In the 3 player game, the passing may follow any one of these patterns:
In the 5 player game, the passing could follow any of these patterns:
Two players can play Huse Hearts for Two, an interesting version involving a dummy hand.
Turbo Hearts, introduced at Upenn in the 1980's by Richard Garfield, is an American version of the Chinese game Gong Zhu (Catch the Pig).
Richard Garfield recommends the following variation, introduced around 1990. Booster nines work the following way. If a nine is led to a trick or played while following suit, then there is a boost: one more round is played in the same suit - i.e. a further card from each player, in rotation. The suit of the first of the eight cards played is the led suit, and the highest card of this suit takes the eight card trick. If a nine is sloughed (discarded on a lead of a different suit) or played in the last trick, there is no boost - the trick consists of just four cards as usual.
This variation makes shooting the moon somewhat easier, since you can dump a loser on your own good nine (or one drawn from an opponent).
This is a version of Hearts for 6 to 10 players using two 52 card packs shuffled together. The cards are dealt out as far as they will go, any left over cards being placed in a face-down kitty which is taken by the winner of the first trick. The player to the dealer's left leads first and can lead anything.
When two identical cards are played to a trick, they cancel each other out in terms of trick-taking power (but still carry penalty points if they are penalty cards). The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led which is not duplicated. If all the cards played of the suit led are in cancelling pairs, the trick remains on the table, the same player leads again, and the cards go to the winner of the next trick. If the very last trick has no winner its cards go to the winner of the previous trick.
This is a variation in which the penalty value of the hearts is their pip-value. That is, the two the 2 penalty points, the three 3, the four 4, etc. The jack of hearts carries 11 penalty points, queen 12, king 13, ace 14, and the queen of spades 25.
As an alternative, some play that hearts from 2-10 are face value, all heart pictures are 10, the heart ace is 15, and the spade queen is 25.
Playing spot hearts the scores are higher, so a higher target score is needed - say 500.
This is the British version of Hearts, sometimes also called Dirty Lady, Slippery Bitch.
NB. There is also an entirely different Finnish game called Black Maria (Mustamaija in Finnish; Svarta Maija in Swedish). A description of that game will be found on the Mustamaija page.
In Black Maria there are usually 3 players; the 2 of clubs is removed from the pack and 17 cards are dealt to each player. Black Maria can also be played by four people, in which case all the cards are dealt out.
Cards always passed in same direction - the books say pass three to the right, but some players pass three to the left.
The player to dealer's left leads first and may lead anything. There is no restriction on leading hearts.
There are various alternative scoring schemes:
Shiva Ctylyctyc describes a Hearts variation from Florida.
Various tactical nuances now exist, for example:
Here are some other WWW pages with rules for Hearts and its variations:
An excellent guide to the strategy of Hearts can be found in Joe Andrews' book Win at Hearts, a new and expanded edition of which was published in 1998. Here you can learn about card passing technique, spade and heart suit management, how to make and defend against slams, strip plays and advanced endplays.
You can order 'Win At Hearts' from amazon.com
Here are some Hearts computer programs and online games against computer opponents:
Here are some web sites which allow you to play Hearts on line against live opponents:
At World Winner players can compete in tournaments for cash prizes at Hearts and other games.
Megadollar Games runs on line two-player Hearts tournaments for cash prizes.