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Three player Pinochle

The main game described on this page is three player single deck Auction Pinochle, as played in Bison, South Dakota. Several variations of this game are also described. Versions of Pinochle for other numbers of players are covered on other pages of this web site.

Cards, deal, objective

The game is played with a single 48 card pinochle deck. This can be made, if necessary, from two standard 52 card decks by throwing out all the cards 2-8. For the purposes of trick taking, the cards in each suit rank from high to low:

ace, ten, king, queen, jack, nine.

The aces, tens and kings are called counters. Queens, jacks and nines are called losers (though they can occasionally win a trick). Counters are valued at 10 points apiece, while losers are worth nothing. One aim of the game is to win as many counters as possible in your tricks. The last trick is worth an additional 10 points, so the total number of points available to be won in each hand is 250.

The cards are shuffled, cut, and dealt, usually three at a time, but this is not imperative. Each player receives 15 cards and 3 cards are placed in the kitty, or cat, as it is sometimes called. These 3 cards can be placed in the cat at any point during the dealing, with the exception that the last card in the deck can not be put in the cat. If the cards are misdealt in any way, they must be shuffled, cut and dealt again. Any fair means can be used to determine the dealer for the first hand; after that the deal passes to the left after each hand.

There are two ways of scoring points: by melding combinations and by winning scoring cards in tricks. The object of the game is to be the first player to score 1500 points. After the first complete game is finished, the winner is the first dealer of the second game.


In each hand, one player - the high bidder - will name trumps, take the cards in the cat, and play against the other two, aiming to score at least the number of points mentioned in the bid. The first way of scoring points is the meld, or display of scoring combinations held in the hand. Therefore, after the deal, each player looks at his 15-card hand and assesses what scoring combinations of cards he holds in his hand, and what value of meld he might therefore score if he could choose trumps. The cat cards are at this stage unknown; they might increase a player's meld but this cannot be relied on.

The scoring combinations and their values are listed below. Each combination exists in a single and a double version. A double combination is one that contains two copies of each card - for example a double rope consists of A-A-10-10-K-K-Q-Q-J-J of trumps, and a double pinochle is two spade queens and two diamond jacks. In some cases the double combination is worth exactly as much as two singles; in other cases it is worth more.

These combinations of cards can be intermingled to a certain degree. They are divided into three types, and a single card can be used in simultaneously combinations of different types, but cannot be used in more than one combination of the same type. For example, if a player had 60 queens, and a jack of diamonds, he could score both 60 queens and a pinochle for a total of 100 (using the Q in a type II and a type III combination simultaneously). Another example would be to meld a rope and 100 aces: the trump ace from the (type I) rope could be used at the same time as the fourth ace in the (type III) 100 aces to score a total of 250. As far as marriages are concerned, 2 kings and 1 queen of the same suit are not scored as 2 marriages (the queen cannot be used twice in a type I combination) and the same holds true for 2 queens and 1 king. If you score 150 for a rope, you cannot at the same time score 40 for the trump marriage contained in it - to score 190 you would need an additional king and queen of trumps. Tens have no value in the meld portion of the hand, except when making up a rope.

A combination consisting of a king and a queen of each suit is sometimes known as a roundhouse. Its total value is 240 points consisting of 80 for kings around, 60 for queens around, 40 for the trump marriage and 20 each for the other three marriages. Note that the total value of a roundhouse and a rope is only 350 points if they share the same king and queen of trumps - not 390 as the trump marriage cannot be counted in addition to the rope.


By calculating his potential meld, each player determines whether or not there is enough score in his hand to justify bidding. A bid is a promise to score at least a certain number of points in exchange for two privileges: the bidder gets the cards from the kitty and chooses the trump suit.

The player to the left of the dealer begins the bidding process, by passing or making a bid of at least 250. The turn to bid passes clockwise around the table. All bids must be multiples of 10 (250, 260, 270, 280 etc.) At your turn you can either pass or bid higher than the previous bid if any. A player who has once passed cannot bid again in the auction. If all three players pass, the cards are thrown in and the next player in turn deals. If more than one player bids in the first round, the auction continues for as many rounds as necessary until two players have passed. The third player, who is the highest bidder, has won the bidding. At this point, the score keeper should make a note of the amount of the final bid - this has saved many arguments.

Note that although it is legal to begin the auction with a bid of more than 250, or to "jump the bid", increasing it by more than the minimum 10 above the previous bid, it is normal and prudent to start at 250 and increase the bid by just 10 at a time.

The player who won the bid exposes the 3 cat cards for all to see and then places them in his hand. He then discards any 3 of his 18 cards face down into what will become his trick pile. The other players are not entitled to see the discards until after the play. Note that cards that are discarded cannot be used as part of your meld; nevertheless it is sometimes to the bidders advantage to discard meld to improve the playing strength of his hand.

The Play

After discarding, the bidder announces the trump suit and claims his meld, laying out his meld combinations on the table for all to see. Only the cards that form part of his meld are exposed; the rest of his hand remains concealed from the other players. The other two players in turn then expose their meld in the same way.

At this point the bidder has to decide whether it is possible to "make the bid". To make, the total of the declarer's meld points and the cards he takes in tricks must be at least as much as the bid. If the bidder decides that he cannot score enough points to make his bid, he announces that he is giving up. In this case the amount of the bid is subtracted from the bidder's score, and the other two players score for their meld. The hand is then "thrown in", and the deal passes to the next dealer.

If the bidder decides that the bid can be made, and so elects to play on, the scores for the three players' melds are noted, and the players return all their cards to their hands, with the exception of the 3 discard cards in the bidder's trick pile. The play of the hand then begins.

The person with the bid begins by "leading" any one card from his hand. The other two players in turn each play a card, and who ever plays the highest ranking card of the suit that was led wins that trick, unless it was trumped. Cards of the trump suit which was chosen by the bidder beat all cards of any other suit. If any trumps were played to the trick, whoever played the highest-ranking trump card wins the trick. In all suits, the rank of the cards from high to low is A, 10, K, Q, J, 9. Whoever wins the trick collects the three cards, stores them face down, and leads any card to the next trick.

Because the deck contains two identical copies of each card, it can happen that two identical cards are played on the same trick. In this case the first of these cards played ranks higher then the second. The player of the first identical card therefore wins the trick if that card is the highest ranking card in the trick.


After all 15 tricks are played out, each player counts the number of counters (aces, tens and kings) that they have managed to accumulate in their trick pile. These counters are valued at 10 points each, and the winner of the last trick can count an additional 10 points for that. If the three cards discarded by the bidder before play include any counters, the values of these are included in the bidder's total. There is a total of 250 points to be won in the play.

It is now determined whether or not the bidder has made his bid. If the total of his meld and the points he won in play adds up to at least the amount of his bid, he has successfully made his bid. In this case the bidder scores all the points he won in melds and play. Each of the other two players also score for their meld and whatever they won in the play, provided that they won at least one counter. Any player that fails to capture a counter in the play of the hand scores nothing for any meld they may have had on the hand (this is called "losing your meld").

If the total of the bidder's meld and points won in play adds up to less than the bid, the bidder goes set. He does not score anything for his meld nor for points won in play; instead the amount that was bid is subtracted from his score. The two opposing players still add their meld and whatever they won in play to their total score.

The first player to reach a score of 1500 or more points wins the game. In the event that more than one person reaches the 1500 point mark during the same hand, the person with the bid (assuming he is one of those to score over 1500) is declared the winner ("the bidder goes out"). If two players score over 1500 points and neither of these players has the bid, the one with the higher score wins the game. In the unusual event that the two players without the bid should have a tie score over 1500, another hand is played to decide the winner.

Playing for money

When playing for money, a stake is agreed for the game and for the set - for example $2 a game and $2 a set, or 50 cents a game and 25 cents a set. A set occurs when the bidder loses. If the hand is thrown in without play it is a single set, but if the bidder chooses to play out the hand and then loses it counts as a double set. The final winner of the game wins the game stake from each opponent, and in addition each opponent has to pay the winner a set stake for each time they were set (two set stakes for a double set).

Another way to achieve the same result is to use a pot. At the start of the game, each player puts a game stake into the pot. Every time you are set you must add a set stake to the pot - or two set stakes for a double set. The eventual winner takes the whole pot.

It is important to get the balance of the game and set stakes right. The purpose of the set stake is to discourage frivolous sacrifice bids. However if the set stake is too high in relation to the game stake, players will only bid on a certainty, making the game a little dull. Sacrifice bidding to prevent another player from going out is a very much accepted and oft-used tactic and may have a variety of results. For example:

  1. A player may sometimes gets good enough cards in the cat to convert a sacrifice bid into a winning bid.
  2. Sometimes, a player will make a sacrifice bid and the leader will "meld out" anyway.
  3. Sometimes a player who is on the verge of going out will bid 250 in the hope of coercing another player to bid against him to try to drive the bid up and and set the leader. But then the leader will pass the bid and set the opposing player. We call this trick "dropping the bid on him".
  4. A player may have a good hand dealt to him, and the person that is near to going out will try to "drop the bid on him", thinking the bidder will go set, but the bidder ends up winning the game.


The minimum bid allowed has gradually increased over time. Books from the beginning of the 20th century do not specify any minimum. Some people still play with a minimum of 100 or 200. On the other hand, more recently some people have begun to play with a minimum bid of 300 rather than 250.

The newer rule of play, given in almost all card game books since 1945, is that a player is only obliged to beat the highest card so far played to a trick is a trump was led. Players are, however, still obliged to trump if they have no card of the suit led. So if a non-trump is led, players may follow suit with a lower card, and if the second player trumps and the third player also lacks that suit, the third player is free to play a higher or lower trump than the second player. However, many groups continue to follow the older rule that you must always head the trick when possible, as given in the play section on this page.

Some players require player to the left of the dealer always to begin with the minimum bid. Others require the dealer to make the minimum bid if the first two players pass.

There are also a few variations in the values of the various melds, though the values given above are fairly standard. For example Gilbert Ohlson reports that in St Joseph a double marriage in trumps scores 240; if it is combined with rope (sequence) the total score is 390.

Some play that if you have five nines in your hand and you have no meld (except perhaps deeces), the hand is thrown in and redealt.

Some play a fixed number of deals, rather than to a target score.

Tips and ethics

A game game can last from 5 minutes to 2 hours or more, but the average game lasts from 45 minutes to an hour. The game can be won with one hand, but an average game requires 10-12 hands, depending on the number of sets.

  1. It is to the bidder's advantage to discard counters into his trick pile prior to the hand being played out.
  2. It is advantageous for the 2 non-bidders to "smear" to each other. This means that they should try to give each other counters in their tricks in an attempt to set the bidder.
  3. Being the dealer allows a person to be the last bidder. This is sometimes to the dealer's benefit.
  4. Having the ability to determine how the trump is "played out" in a hand can make the difference between making a bid and going set.
  5. "Talking across the table" is forbidden. This means that you cannot tell any of the players in the game which cards they should play.
  6. Remembering which cards your opponents expose during the meld portion of the game is essential to being a successful player. Also memorizing which cards have been played out and which cards remain in their hands during the play portion of the game is important.
  7. Like all card games, gloating is frowned upon.
  8. Any cards accidentally exposed during the dealing process are grounds for a misdeal. Any inaccuracies during the deal will void the hand and cause a misdeal.
  9. "A card laid is a card played". In the play portion of the game, once a card leaves a persons hand and is played on the table, it cannot be picked up and placed back in the hand. Sometimes this is cause for a renege. This rule applies no matter how long the card lays on the table. If either of the other players can describe the card in question it is considered a "played" card.


Any time a player accidentally misplays during the play portion of the hand, it is called a renege. There are various forms of misplay:

These are all grounds for a renege.

If the bidder reneges, he automatically takes a double set and the amount of his bid is subtracted from his score. The 2-opposing players get to count their meld points and the remainder of the hand is thrown in.

If either of the 2 nonbidders accidentally misplay, the bidder automatically makes his bid. The bidder gets to score the amount of his bid and his meld, the player that misplayed loses all meld and takes a single set, and the third player scores only his meld.

Money Game with each hand paid separately

This section is based on a contribution from Br. Paul Medvit.

Instead of keeping score and playing to a target, some people prefer simply to settle up each hand separately in cash. The stake can vary by agreement, but the following assumes 5 cent per 50 points.

To begin the game each player puts 25 cents in the pot. If the pot is won everyone must put in 25 cents again before the next deal. The minimum bid is 250 and if the first two players pass the dealer must bid at least the minimum.

If the bidder wins he is paid by both opponents - divide the bid by 10 and round down to the next 5 cents, so a bid of 250-290 is worth 25 cents, 300-340 is worth 30 cents, and so on.

If the bidder loses he pays the opponents and also the kitty. For a single set (given up without play) the bidder has to pay the same amount per player that the bid would have won, plus the kitty; a double set (played and lost) costs double.

Any bid with spades as trumps wins or loses double. So for example if you bid 330, play the hand out in spades and lose you have to pay $1.20 to each player and $1.20 to the pot.

A player who wins a bid of 400 or more takes the pot in addition to the money won from each other player.

Since the only result on each hand is whether the bidder wins or loses, the opponents of the bidder do not meld. Once the bidder has enough points to win, or acknowledges defeat, the play stops, the hand is settled up and the next person deals.

It is possible, and even preferable, to play this version with more than three people at the table. Only three people are dealt cards in each hand; the rest take turns to sit out, and thus have time to go to rest room, get something to eat, drink and so on. The players who are currently sitting out take part in the payments as though they are opponents of the bidder. If the pot is won, everyone contributes to the new pot, including those that were sitting out.

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