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Sheepshead - game

Sheepshead's perfect "Grandma hand"
Origin derived from the German game, Schafkopf
Type trick-taking
Players 2-8, usually 5
Skills required Card counting, Tactics
Cards 32
Deck Piquet
Play Clockwise
Card rank (highest to lowest)

Trump: Q♣ Q♠ Q♥ Q♦ J♣ J♠ J♥ J♦ A♦ 10♦ K♦ 9♦ 8♦ 7♦

Fail: A 10 K 9 8 7
Playing time about 3 minutes per hand
Random chance Low-Moderate
Related games
Skat (card game), Schafkopf, Doppelkopf

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 that originated in Central Europe in the late 18th century under the German name Schafkopf. Sheepshead is most commonly played by five players, but variants exist to allow for two to eight players. There are also many other variants to the game rules, and many slang terms used with the game.

Although Schafkopf literally means "sheepshead," it has nothing to do with sheep; the term probably was derived and translated incorrectly from Middle High German and referred to playing cards on a barrel head (from kopf, meaning head, and Schaff, meaning a barrel).

In the United States, sheepshead is most commonly played in Wisconsin as well as the German counties in Southern Indiana, which has large German-American populations, and on the internet. Numerous tournaments are held throughout Wisconsin during the year, with the largest tournament being the "Nationals", held annually in the Wisconsin Dells during a weekend in September, October or November, and mini-tournaments held hourly throughout Germanfest in Milwaukee during the last weekend of each July.



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 Piquet deck, as opposed to the 52 or 54 present in a full French deck (also known as a Poker deck, or a regular deck of playing cards). A sheepshead deck is made by removing all of the jokers, sixes, fives, fours, threes, and twos from a standard deck.

Card strength

Card strength in sheepshead is different from in most other games. It is 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:

Also, there are 6 of each "fail" suit (18 total).

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."

Card point values

Each card is given a separate point value as follows:

The strongest cards (queens and jacks) are not worth the most points, giving Sheepshead some of its unusual character.

There are 120 points total in the deck. The goal of the game is to get half of these (60 or 61); in case of a tie, the player who picked up the blinds loses, and that player's opponents win. (There are variant rules for more peculiar situations, such as the Leaster.)

Keeping score

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 basis.

The following chart shows the points for a five-person game (though other variations, with a different number of players, have different scoring). Points are awarded based on the point value of cards taken during the hand. When playing for money, each point generally represents a common money unit.

Point Total Picker (Alone) Picker (w/ Partner) Partner Opponents
All Tricks +12 +6 +3 -3
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
No Tricks -12 -6 -3 +3

Doubling stakes

Each of the following verbal declarations doubles the stakes. Each must be called before the first card is played, and players are allowed to say "hold the lead" while considering doing so. Aside from blitz and schmaltz, the rest must be called in the order indicated:

Picker may only blitz or schmaltz before picking or after being cracked. No pass-cracks allowed. After that, everything is a matter of judgment alone.

The deal

The deck is shuffled and cut. The dealer then deals cards, starting with the player to the dealer's left, and typically two or three at a time to each person. 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 the last two cards are not dealt into the blind (because the dealer might inadvertently reveal the bottom card while dealing or shuffling).

When done with a five-handed deal, each player should have six cards, with two in the blind.

In one variant, a player may require a redeal if the player's hand has no aces, no face cards, and no trump.


The player to the left of the dealer gets first choice to take the blind (the two face-down cards not dealt to any player). If he passes, the option is given to the next player (in clockwise order). There several Variations for if the dealer does not wish to pick up the blind -- the dealer may be required to pick up the blind, or may have the option to call a Leaster, or may be able to call a Doubler.

The individual who takes the blind is called the "picker". The picker adds the two cards in the blind to his hand and then must choose two cards to lay down or "bury". The buried cards are added to the picker's score if the picker's side takes at least one trick.

The picker may also have a partner on his team who will then play against the remaining players. Depending on the variant or house-rule, the partner must automatically be the player with the jack of diamonds, or the picker may be able to call the ace of a fail suit and have that player be his partner. These are discussed 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.

Game play

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" (the highest trump, or if none, the highest card of the fail suit that was led). The player who took the previous trick then plays, or "leads," a new card for the second trick. After all tricks have been taken, their point values are totaled and the winner declared, with all players adding or reducing their personal points accordingly (see the charts, above). The deal then shifts to the person to the left of the previous dealer.


Picker and partner


All players

Play variations

There are a number of different play variations for Sheepshead. Variants may change how partners are chosen, scoring, the suits considered fail, or what occurs when the blind is not picked. Variations in the number of players is discussed in the next section.


The following two variants apply only to five and six-player games, and possibly four-player games. Variants differ in whether the picker is permitted to choose to play alone, and in whether there are some situations where the picker may be required to play alone.

Called Ace

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.

Jack of diamonds

In this variant, the partner is automatically the individual with the jack of diamonds. Unlike the Called Ace variant, the partner is not required to play the jack of diamonds with any required haste; thus the identity of the partner is usually secret for more of the game.

The normal rule is that if the picker has the jack of diamonds, whether as a result of the deal or picking up the jack in the blind, the picker must play alone. However, there are a number of variants within this method of play.


Calling sheepshead

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.

Double on the bump

If the picker/partner do not win, they are "bumped". The standard method of playing Sheepshead is that the picker/partner lose two times the points that opponents would lose in a similar loss. This may be called the "Punish the picker" rule. Some house rules do not enforce this "Punish" rule. Some house rules require the picker to take at least one trick. If the picker/partner do not take at least one trick and lose, then only the picker loses points. Picker -18, partner 0, opponents +6.

Point Total Picker (Alone) Picker (w/ Partner) Partner Opponents
All Tricks +12 +6 +3 -3
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
No Tricks -24 -12 -6 +6


In this variant, when a player picks up the blind, any player who was not given the opportunity to pick up the blind and who is not the picker's partner may knock or crack 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.

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.


Diamonds vs. clubs

Typically, diamonds are considered trump, but some groups use another suit (typically clubs around North Central WIsconsin). This would mean a nine of diamonds would be fail while a nine of clubs is trump instead.

Alternatively, 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:

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.

No picker

Several different scenarios can occur if no one picks up the blind, including a forced pick, a Leaster, or a Doubler.

Forced pick

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 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. The blind is set aside and normally given to the player who takes the last trick. House rules may allow the dealer to declare which trick is given the blind (e.g. the first trick, or the second, etc.). Another house rule may be to set the blind aside so it is not given to anyone. The blind is not viewed until after the hand is over.


A variant of the leaster is the moster, which is played the same as a leaster, but after the hand is scored, the player who took the most points pays out (as if for a simple loss) to all the rest of the players. Thus, in a five-player game, the affected player loses four points and the opponents get one each, unless the score is doubled by other means (cracking, etc.). The exception is taking all of the tricks, which is still scored as a win by the player doing so.


In a doubler, the cards are reshuffled and a new hand is dealt and played as normal. However, at the end of this redeal, the point values lost and gained are doubled.

The pot

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.

Variations in the 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 other two players.

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. Given the large blind, this variation required the picker go cut-throat (without a partner).

2) The seven of clubs and seven of spades are removed (or the six of clubs and six of spades are added). Seven (or eight) cards are dealt to each player, with two in the blind. Either the jack or ace partner rules may be used.

3) Each player is dealt eight cards, with no blind. Either (A) the two players holding the black queens are partners, where the partners are secret until both cards are played, a player holding both black queens plays cut-throat against the three other; or (B) the partners are the first two queens played. In both these variations, the players with the queens (black or first two played) are considered the picker and partner for scoring purposes. In the latter variation, the timing of playing queens is important. For example, 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.

5) In this variation popular in southern Indiana, jacks are higher than queens (still clubs-spades-hearts-diamonds), and hearts (rather than diamonds) are trump. All four players are dealt eight cards. Starting with the player to the left of the dealer, the player has the option to "call" (call an fail-suit ace for a partner), go solo (cut-throat), or pass. When going solo, the player may play a "best" (pay normally against the other three), a "side solo" (call another suit rather than hearts to be trump, and then play against the other three), or a "Billy" (plays against the three others but attempts not to take a trick).

Scoring: Players play to 24 on the given system:


Six cards are dealt to each player, with two to the blind. A partner may be chosen by either the ace or jack rules. The partner is the player with the called ace.


1) Five cards are dealt to each player, with two cards in the blind. The partner is automatically the jack of diamonds, and the game 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, with the game played 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.

4) Four cards are dealt to each player, with four to the blind. A die is rolled, and the partner is whatever number is on the die with 1 representing the player to the pickers left, and counting clockwise with six being the person to the picker's right. Each takes and buries two cards.


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.

Glossary / Slang

The following phrases or slang can be used to describe certain behaviors or situations in the game.


A player "mauers" when the 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). 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.

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.


A player "schmears" a trick by playing a high-point card (usually an ace or ten) into a trick that a player thinks will be (or has already been) taken by one of their partners, in order to increase the points earned on that trick. The term may also be a noun, referring to the high-point card played in this manner. An example of schmearing (by Opponents 2 and 3):

  1. Partner leads 10♦ (10 points)
  2. Opponent 1 plays Q♣ (3 points)
  3. Opponent 2 plays A♦ (11 points)
  4. Picker plays 8♦ (0 points)
  5. Opponent 3 (out of trump) plays 10♠ (10 points)

This trick was worth 34 points. That's schneider all by itself.

Opponent 1 is guaranteed to win the trick as the queen of clubs is the highest card. 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 -- the opposite of schmearing.

Schmearing is an important strategy. In this example, schmearing increased the value of the trick by 21 points to a total of 34 points -- schneider all by itself and over a quarter of the points available.

Renege (Cheating)

A player "reneges" means to fail to follow suit when able and required by the rules to do so. Reneging is a form of cheating. In most circles, this results in the guilty party forfeiting the hand.

Granny hand

When a player holds all or most of the top trump there is no way for the opposition to win. This unusually powerful hand is often derided for its ease of play; "My granny could win that hand." The hand still counts and is played out.

In some circles, the player simply lays down the granny hand and the opponents conceding by acclamation. Even if not completely a granny hand, some circles permit a player to state that he believes he will take all of the remaining tricks (possibly requiring an explanation, say, "I have all of the remaining trump"), giving opponents an opportunity to object (say, if the calling player miscounted trump) -- forestalling the players from needing to play out the remainder of the hand.


When a teammate uses a higher powered card to take a trick that already is already going to his/her team -- usually when the trick is necessarily going to another teammate. Sometimes this is unavoidable especially in cases where there is only one card of a particular suit left in a player's hand. Sometimes this is strategic, such as to place an opponent on each side of the picker and/or the partner.

Collusion (Cheating)

As with any partner game, code words or signs can be used to cheat. This involves 2 players creating a word or phrase which tells their partner in crime what to lead. For instance, Player A and Player B are colluding with each other in a game of 4 handed. Player A has the lead and Player B is behind the dealer without a fail Spade. Player B uses the phrase "let's rock n' roll" to signal Player A to lead spades. Player A leads spades, the picker trumps it, and Player B trumps over the Picker. This is very much frowned upon and if caught, the players are usually kicked out of the game.

Throwing Off

A player "throws off" when, after a fail card is played and the player does not have any of that fail suit but does have trump, decides to play a fail card rather than trump. The throw off is key to winning at Sheepshead. One must know when to throw off and when not to throw off. One popular situation to throw off is as follows and is known as "The Throw Off"; (1) a fail suit is led that the picker does not have, (2) the picker is 2nd in line, and (3) the picker throws off, usually because he has a poor hand, hoping his partner can take the trick.

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