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Skat

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Skat is a sophisticated card game in the Schafkopf group of trick-taking games, played with a piquet pack or an equivalent 32-card pack with German suits. It is reputedly one of the best three-player games. Skat was invented in Altenburg, Germany in the early 19th century. Since the end of the 19th century it has been the German national game. Outside Germany it is confined mostly to areas with a large German community.

The official rules are defined in the Internationale Skatordnung (International Laws of Skat) of 1998, the common ruleset of the Deutscher Skatverband and the International Skat Players' Association. Disputes are settled by the German Skat Court in Altenburg. Local rules often reflect an earlier stage in the game's development or add further features. However, variations are generally restricted to bidding and scoring; the core rules of game play are minimalistic, stable, and standardized, comparable to the basic Whist rules that underlie the various forms of Bridge.

Contents

Official rules

Point-values of cards
Rank A 10 K Q J 9 8 7
Value 11 10 4 3 2 0 0 0
high cards court cards low cards

The game is played with a pack of 32 cards consisting of Ace, Ten, King, Queen, Jack, 9, 8 and 7 in four suits. It is most commonly played with French-suited cards, although in some regions German-suited cards are preferred.[1] The cards carry values as shown in the table, for a total of 120 card points. It can be observed that the 12 low cards have no point value at all, while 84 of the game's 120 card points are concentrated in the 8 high cards. Only the 12 court cards have point values close to the average.

Skat is played clockwise and for a full number of rounds. A round consists of 3 plays; it finishes after each player has dealt once. For each play, the dealer deals 10 cards to each player and deposits 2 cards face down in the middle as the skat. The dealer must follow the scheme 3–skat–4–3.[2]

The players now bid for the privilege of choosing a contract and playing as a soloist against the party consisting of the other two. At the end of the play either the soloist or the opposition players will win, and the play will have a certain value that depends primarily on the contract and the card points won by the respective parties. To comply with the contract, the soloist must win the play and the value of the play must be at least as indicated by the bid. In this case the soloist scores the value of the play. A soloist who loses the play or who wins a game whose value is below the bidding value loses twice the value of the play or twice (an approximation to) the bidding value, whichever is higher.

The main purpose of the complicated bidding and scoring rules is to encourage the choice of a moderately risky contract. Among skilled skat players, all but the most extreme card distributions lead to interesting plays. Moreover, the alternation between playing alone and playing in various teams gives the game variety beyond that of many other auction games.

Suit and grand contracts

Card ranks (suit contract)
Trump suit
J♣ J J J A 10 K Q 9 8 7
Plain suits
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
Card ranks (grand contract)
Trump suit
J♣ J J J
Plain suits
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
A 10 K Q 9 8 7
Base values
9 10 11 ♣ 12 grand 24
Multipliers
No schneider1
Schneider (no schwarz)2
Schwarz3

The soloist may announce a suit contract in any of the four suits. All four Jacks are trumps and full members of the trump suit. The card ranks within the trump suit are as shown in the table. Thus the highest trumps are always the Jack of clubs, Jack of spades, Jack of hearts and Jack of diamonds (in this order), followed by the Ace of trumps etc. As a result, one third of the cards (11 out of 32) are trumps, and the trump suit has considerably more cards than any of the three plain suits (11 vs. 7).

The soloist has the privilege of picking up the skat and discarding any two of the resulting 12 cards. The two discarded cards count towards the soloist's total card point score. This is a good opportunity to discard a single Ten in a suit in which the soloist does not hold any other cards. Two discarded Aces or Tens constitute one sixth of the total card points, a substantial contribution towards winning the play.

Regardless of who won the auction and announced the contract, forehand (the player to the dealer's left) leads to the first trick. Players must follow suit whenever possible. A player who cannot follow suit may play any other card. The trick is won by the party that played the highest trump. If the trick does not contain a trump, it is won by the party that played the highest card of the suit led. The player who won a trick leads to the next trick.

Generally it is an advantage for the opposing players if the player to the soloist's right leads to a trick. In this case the first opposing player can try to lead with a plain suit which their partner does not hold.[3] The partner can then react flexibly after seeing the card played by the soloist. It is much more tricky if the player to the soloist's left leads. A rule of thumb at the beginning of the game is "long path – short suit". "Long path" refers to the path from the leading player to the soloist, the partner being in the way. "Short suit" is the recommendation that the leading player lead with a suit of which they hold only few cards.

A grand is played in exactly the same way as a suit contract, except that no natural suit is declared trumps. As a result, the four Jacks form a tiny trump suit on their own, and along with the 4 natural suits there is a total of 5 suits. The scarcity of trumps (at most four of the ten tricks can contain a trump) gives this contract a flavour that is very different from that of a suit contract.

After the last trick the parties count their card points and check that the total is 120. The soloist must win more than half of the card points, i.e. at least 61 points, to win the play. Otherwise the opposing players win the play. If one of the two parties scored 30 card points or less, the play is called schneider. If one of the parties won all tricks and the other none, the play is called schwarz. Since the two cards discarded by the soloist at the beginning have a maximal card value of 22 points, schneider implies schwarz.

The value of the play is determined by the formula

value = base value × (tops + multiplier).

The base value (see table) depends on the chosen trump suit. Tops refers to the number of top trumps held or not held by the soloist. A play is said to be "with n tops" if the soloist's 12 initial cards included the highest n trumps, starting with the Jack of clubs. It is said to be "without n tops" if the soloist's 12 initial cards included none of the highest n trumps. In either case n is the number used in the formula. The multiplier is always at least "1 for the play". It is increased by 1 if the game is schneider, and it is increased once more if it is schwarz.

The base value for a grand contract is 24, i.e. twice the base value of a clubs contract and almost three times the base value of a diamonds contract. This very high base value is sometimes considered a weak point of skat. Among skilled players grand contracts tend to dominate, and may be felt to be less interesting than ordinary suit contracts.

Example

A player who won the auction with a bid of 48 holds Ten, King, Queen, 9, 8, 7 of hearts but no Jacks, and for some reason wants to play hearts. Ignoring schneider and schwarz, the player expects the play's value to be 10 × (1 + 5) = 60. The player now picks up the skat and finds the Jack of clubs. What was planned as a play without 5 tops becomes a play with 1 top. Again ignoring schneider and schwarz, we can expect a value of 10 × (1 + 1) = 20.

The prospective soloist cannot possibly win all tricks, and even if this were possible the value would still be only 10 × (3 + 1) = 40. The player will have to switch to grand for a value of 24 × (1 + 1) = 48. Whether this can be won depends on the other cards and the player's skills.

Null contracts

Card ranks
(null contract)
A K Q J 10 9 8 7
A K Q J 10 9 8 7
A K Q J 10 9 8 7
A K Q J 10 9 8 7
Null contract values
Null23
Null hand35
Null ouvert46
Null ouvert hand59

Like many solo games, Skat also allows the choice of a negative contract, in this case called null. The objective for the soloist is to lose all tricks. The card points are irrelevant in this case, and in fact the Tens rank in their natural position immediately above the 9. Moreover, there are no trumps, and the Jacks also rank in their natural position between the Queen and Ten.

An important rule of thumb for checking whether a hand is suitable for a null contract is that "nobody goes below 7, 9 and Jack".[4] The contract is safe if all suits are safe.

The soloist may also choose to play without picking up the skat. This is known as a null hand. Another variant is null ouvert, in which the soloist plays with all their hand cards spread face up on the table. These two variants can be combined to obtain an even higher play value.

The values of the null contracts were chosen so that they are between the values of the clubs and spades contracts with 1, 2, 3 and 4 tops, respectively. Historically, the null ouvert is responsible for the grand's base value of 24. The grand previously had a base value of 20, as is still the case in some local variants. It was changed because it was felt inappropriate that a null ouvert (46 points) could beat a grand with or without 1 top (previously 20 × 2 = 40 points) in the bidding phase. In the modern standard rules a grand with or without 1 top is worth 24 × 2 = 48, which is slightly more than a null ouvert.

Hand contracts

Multipliers (hand)
No schneider announced
No schneider2
Schneider (no schwarz)3
Schwarz4
Schneider announced
No schwarz4
Schwarz5
Schwarz announced
Always6
Ouvert
Always7

A soloist who chooses a suit or grand contract may decide to play a hand contract, i.e. not to pick up the skat, to increase the game value. In this case the player has less information about total card distribution and the expected value of the play. Except for the higher play value, the skat is treated as if the soloist had picked up and discarded the two cards. In particular, any trumps contained in the skat factor into the determination of the number of tops.

A hand contract (and only a hand contract[5]) may be further modified by announcing schneider, schwarz or ouvert. By announcing schneider or schwarz, the soloist guarantees not only to win, but to also ensure that the play ends in schneider or schwarz, respectively. Ouvert is a stronger form of a schwarz announcement in which the soloist places all hand cards face up on the table and plays them out from there. Ouvert implies announcements of schneider and schwarz, and by announcing schwarz the soloist implicitly announces schneider as well.

To win a play in which schneider has been announced, the soloist must ensure that the opponent players win at most 30 card points worth of tricks. To win a schwarz contract, the soloist must win all tricks.

If the soloist did not announce schneider (or schwarz, ouvert), the value of a hand contract is determined in exactly the same way as an ordinary suit or grand contract, except that the multiplier is increased by "1 for hand".

If the soloist announced schneider but not schwarz, the multiplier is always increased by "1 for hand", "1 for schneider"[6] and "1 for schneider announced". Thus the total multiplier is 4, or 5 in case either party wins all tricks. There is no "eigenschneider", i.e. "1 for schneider" is never added more than once.[7]

If the soloist announced schwarz but not ouvert, the multiplier is always increased by "1 for hand", "1 for schneider"[6], "1 for schneider announced", "1 for schwarz"[8] and "1 for schwarz announced". If the soloist announced ouvert, an additional "1 for ouvert" is added.

Details of bidding and scoring

The player to the dealer's left is known as forehand and the following player as middlehand. The third player is called rearhand. In the case of four players (in which case a round consists of four plays and the dealer does not participate in the play), this is the player to the dealer's right. Otherwise the dealer is rearhand.

The bidding follows the principle "deal – speak – listen – continue to speak", i.e. initially middlehand makes a numerical bid to which forehand replies by confirming (to bid the same number) or passing. Middlehand repeats with a higher until either of them passes. After that, rearhand similarly addresses whichever of the first two players has not passed yet. One may only bid numbers that can occur as a play value, so the smallest legal bid is 18 (for diamonds with or without one top).

As a simple example, suppose forehand plans to play clubs hand without 2 tops (12 × (2 + 2) = 48), middlehand wants to play null (23), and rearhand wants to play grand without 1 top (24 × (1 + 1) = 48). Then one could witness the following conversation:

Rearhand    Middlehand    Forehand    
18yes
20yes
2 [i.e. 22][nods]
3 [i.e. 23][nods]
pass
4 [i.e. 24] [nods]
48 OK
pass

In the example, middlehand does not omit any legal bids. By passing right after 23, middlehand gives away information about their cards. Rearhand initially continues the sequence with 24, but then jumps right to their own limit of 48. Since this is held by forehand and rearhand cannot go higher, forehand becomes the soloist and undertakes to win a play that is worth at least 48 points.

According to the official rules, if all three players pass without a bid, the play does not take place and the deal passes to the next player. Since this is usually a sign of at least one player being overly cautious, it is an almost universal practice to play a game called Ramsch in this situation. The most important feature of Ramsch is that each of the three players is playing on their own and all card points in tricks are negative.

It can happen that the soloist wins the play, but the value of the play is less than the bid. Leaving aside miscalculations, this often happens in the case of hand games intended to be without two or more tops, if there is a high Jack in the skat. It can also happen if the soloist expected to win the game with schneider or even schwarz, but decided not to announce this (in the case of a hand game) or was not allowed to do so (after picking up the skat). In both cases the problem is that the sum tops + multiplier is too small. Similar things can also happen when the soloist loses. In any case, if the value of the play is less than the bid, the multiplier is increased until the value is at least the bid. As always, the soloist pays twice the play value, in this case twice the increased value.

If, after picking up the skat, the soloist realizes that the intended contract is not winnable and there is no alternative, it is best to announce the cheapest contract possible under the circumstances. Its value must be at least that of the bid. E.g. a player who won the auction at 20 points and has the Jack of hearts but not the two higher Jacks, and who does not see a chance to win a play, would announce a null and lose 2 × 23 = 46 points. (The second cheapest option would be diamonds without two tops at 2 × 9 × (1 +2 ) = 54.) The player need not worry about losing even more due to schneider or schwarz: So long as the soloist holds at least 9 hand cards, they are allowed to unilaterally declare the play lost. In this case it is not continued, and schneider and schwarz do not apply.

Different numbers of players

There are no convincing Skat variants for more or less than three players. Two players who insist on playing a Skat-like game have the choice between Grandmother Skat, in which the simulated third player does not need to follow suit, and Officers' Skat, which is actually a different game and only very vaguely related to Skat.

Four players can be accommodated if the dealer pauses and a round is redefined as consisting of four plays. The official Skat rules are formulated so as to make sense for three or more players.

There are, however, numerous four-player games and even some games for more than four players in the larger Schafkopf group. Some of these games are very similar to Skat, although without a numeric bidding system.

History

Early Skat

The history of Skat begins around 1810, when a group of card players in Altenburg in Thuringia were first exposed to Schafkopf. The coachman of one of the players reportedly brought the game back home after a visit to the Erzgebirge. It was a three-player game similar to what is now known as Dreiwendsch. In this early variant the dealer received 12 cards, two of which had to be discarded, and had to play as a soloist against the other two players – in a trump suit predetermined by cutting. This game was later described as "simple and boring". The earliest written record of a game called "Scat" is in a notebook of Hans Karl Leopold von der Gabelentz in Altenburg and is dated 1813.[9] In 1818 Johann Friedrich Ferdinand Hempel described Skat in his weekly newspaper, the Osterländische Blätter.

Since the dealer usually lost, the rules were soon changed so that he received only 10 cards and was allowed to pass. In this case each player in turn got the chance to take up the skat, declare a trump suit other than the predetermined one, and play as a soloist against the other two. The game spread in Altenburg and acquired some additional features. In an early bidding system based only on suits, the play values were 1, 2, 3, 4 for bells (diamonds), hearts, leaves (spades) and acorns (clubs), respectively. As of 1820 the sequence of play values was 1, 2, 3, 4; plus 4 in case of a hand contract.

Around 1826 Skat reached Leipzig and the universities in Thuringia, from where it soon spread all over Germany. In 1833 its rules were described in Pierer's Encyclopaedia. The cards were dealt according to the pattern skat–3–2–3–2. The players took turns to announce a contract or pass. As in L'Hombre, taking up the skat, declaring trumps and playing alone against the others was called question, and the same without taking up the skat was known as solo and took precedence. Contracts of the same type were ranked like the jacks. Card points were as they are today, 10s ranked high, and payments per player were increased according to the number of consecutive matadors (tops) down from the Jack of clubs which declarer did or did not hold. In 1842 Skat was first described in a rulebook.

In a description of 1848, the main innovation was two new types of contracts: nullo and grand. These modes of play have been described in variants of L'Hombre, the game that Skat was replacing in the north of Germany, as early as 1798. In both games nullo and grand were necessarily solo, i.e. in modern terminology hand contracts.

Due to the bonuses related to tops, a less valuable contract could have a higher bidding rank than a more valuable one with or without many tops. This led to the practice of bidding by contract value, which was first described in 1856. The new number bidding system and the conservative suit bidding system would exist in parallel for the next 60 years.

A large number of additional contracts were introduced during the 19th century. Some of them have long been forgotten, while others are still widely played. Most notably, the game of Ramsch – although no longer part of the official rules[10] – is still played by most circles in case no player bids.

Tourné Skat

Base values
grand
Call  1 2 3 4
Tourné 5 6 7 8 12
Solo 9 10 11 12 16
Ouvert 24
Null contract values
Null [hand] 20
Null ouvert 40

To combat the uncontrolled growth of rule variants in what was since 1871 a unified Germany, in August 1886 the roughly 1000 players assembled at the 1st Skat Congress in Altenburg approved the first Allgemeine Deutsche Skatordnung (General German Laws of Skat). These rules were already very similar to those of modern Skat, but with a number of key differences. One of them is that lost plays were not doubled.

Ordinary suit contracts were known as call contracts, and hand contracts as solo contracts. Call contracts were rarely played because of their low base values. Much more common were tourné contracts: Before picking up the skat, the soloist exposed one of the two cards to determine trumps. A soloist who uncovered a Jack could choose between the Jack's natural suit as trumps and a tourné grand. All other grand or null contracts were hand contracts.

Crucially, the rules prescribed the 'conservative' bidding method that is known as suit bidding. The ranking among the different categories of contracts was call, tourné[11], solo (in a suit), grand. Within the same category, the contracts were ranked by suit. Other factors such as the number of matadors (tops) only became relevant at the end of the play.

Regarding null [hand] and null ouvert, a choice between two rankings was offered. One ranked null between spades solo and clubs solo, and null ouvert above grands with or without 1 top and without schneider. The other method ranked both null contracts according to a numerical bidding scheme based on total play value.

The rules also mention a variant without call contracts. In this variant, if all players pass ramsch, a negative[12] variant of grand without a soloist is played for a value of typically 10 points.

One year before the Deutscher Skatverband, the American Skat League was founded in 1898 at a meeting of 300 mostly German players in St. Louis. The congress also approved official rules of American Skat. These were very similar to the 1886 "Reichs-Skat" rules but preferred the number bidding system over suit bidding. They also described additional optional contracts. Guckser grand was like the modern grand contract, i.e. the soloist was allowed to pick up the skat. The base value was 12 points if won and 24 if lost. As a minor difference, in American Skat the opposing players are not schneider if they reach exactly 30 points.

It appears obvious that Skat has had a strong influence on 500, a game that was "devised and introduced in 1904 by the United States Playing Card Company" and "can be thought of as a combination of Euchre and Bridge".[13] However, the game evolved in a different direction and in its four-handed partnership version is now the Australian national card game.

According to David Parlett, "American Skat" is still played by a few players in Milwaukee. The call contracts are no longer played. The base value for guckser grand is now 16 if won or 32 if lost, and that of grand [hand] has been increased to 20. In tourné, the soloist privately looks at the first card from the skat and may decide not to accept it ("passt mir nicht") and show the second instead. In that case the base value of the play is doubled.

Neue Deutsche Skatordnung

World War I caused an interruption of the centralized standardization efforts for Skat, but the game was played widely by soldiers from all parts of Germany, often under conditions that were not favourable for concentration. It appears that this caused the breakthrough of number bidding, which became apparent when Artur Schubert, a proponent of bidding by suit, published an alternative Skatordnung for bidding by numbers in 1923. The next Skat congress, 1927 in Altenburg, approved standardization on number bidding, and in the following year the 12th Skat Congress approved the Neue Deutsche Skatordnung (New German Laws of Skat). With some amendments made in 1932, it was in effect until 1998, a period of time starting before World War II and ending after German Reunification[14] The main differences compared to the modern rules were that hand games were not doubled when lost, and while all suit contracts could be played ouvert (implying hand as today) grand ouvert had a separate base value of 36.

Some American players mixed the new rules with American rules, resulting in Texas Skat. Of more than local significance were a number of simplifications introduced in 1976 by the then recently founded International Skat Players Association (ISPA). The main differences compared to the modern rules were that grand ouvert did not imply schwarz, null hand did not exist, and the value of null ouvert was 69. The much larger Deutscher Skatverband rejected the changes, and in 1978 banned simultaneous membership in both organizations. The ban was lifted in 1998 by the 27th Skat Congress in Halle, when it approved the new International Laws of Skat that had been agreed with ISPA as a compromise.

Footnotes

  1. Roughly 80 % of German Skat players use French-suited cards. German-suited cards are preferred in the German federal states of Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen. For tournaments the Deutscher Skatverband uses a compromise pack that is identical with an ordinary French-suited piquet pack except for a 4-colour scheme for suits that is in part reminiscent of German-style cards: Clubs (which correspond to acorns) are black; spades (which correspond to clovers) are green; hearts are red; and diamonds (which correspond to bells) are yellow. This is different from the 4-colour scheme that is occasionally used for Poker.
  2. I.e. first every player receives 3 cards, then the skat is dealt, then every player receives 4 cards, and finally 3 again.
  3. A simple heuristics for the first few tricks is: "Short path – long suit". If the opposing player who leads is directly followed by the soloist, it makes sense to lead in a suit in which they themselves hold many cards.
  4. In German: "7, 9, Unter – geht keiner drunter." The long form of this rule says that a competent soloist playing a null contract will rarely be forced to win a trick in a given suit, provided they hold the 7, 9 and Jack of that suit. Several extensions of this rule are also true: Holding the 7, 9 and Jack and any additional cards is also fine. And so is holding only the 7 and 9, or only the 7. Moreover, the rule with all its extensions is still true if one replaces the 9 or Jack by lower-ranking cards.
  5. The only exception is null ouvert, as discussed in the previous section.
  6. 6.0 6.1 This applies regardless of whether the opposing players win more than 30 card points or not.
  7. If the soloist announces a hand game with schneider, "1 for schneider" is added for the undertaking to make the opposing party schneider, whether it is successful or not. If it fails and the soloist themselves is schneider, it would be reasonable to add "1 for schneider" once more. This is explicitly ruled out in the International Skat Order.
  8. As one would expect, there is no "eigenschwarz" either. But the case that the soloist announces schwarz and is schwarz themselves appears extremely unlikely in serious play.
  9. Earlier uses of the word generally refer to the stock in Tarock games, which plays a similar role as the skat in the Skat game.
  10. According to the German Skat Court, Ramsch is not Skat because it does not have a soloist.
  11. Including tourné grand, since at the time of bidding for tourné the details of the contract could not be known.
  12. Ramsch is lost by the player who collects the greatest number of card points.
  13. See [1] and [2]. In its original, three-handed form 500 is played with 33 cards – a piquet pack plus a Joker. The highest trumps are the Joker, the Jack of trumps ("right bower" as in Euchre) and the Jack of the other suit of the same colour as trumps ("left bower"). The skat is called the widow and consists of three cards. Tens rank immediately above Nines, and tricks, rather than card points, are counted. The contract system was very simple: 40 points for spades, 60 for clubs, 80 for diamonds, 100 for hearts and 120 for no trumps (Joker as the only trump). The soloist had to win at least 6 of the ten tricks. For any additional trick that the soloist undertook to win, the value of the game was increased by 40. A nullo (undertaking to lose all tricks in no trumps) was worth 250 points. Bidding was by numbers. The opponents scored 10 for each trick, whether they won or lost. The first player to reach 500 points won the game.
  14. Due to the German separation, the Deutscher Skatverband moved from Altenburg (East Germany) to Bielefeld (West Germany). From 1962 the two German states had separate Skat courts, but in 1963 these agreed to preserve the unity of the national game.

References

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