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Hearts: A 19th century card game with staying power

The Black Lady and her Hearts
The Black Lady and her Hearts



It should come as no surprise that some games, in varied forms of complexity, take a little longer to grasp. Dan Cassar, designer of Cavemen: The Quest for Fire, brought this up during our interview recently, noting that Cavemen is the kind of game that you have to play two or three times to get." He goes on to say that the "subtleties of it don't come out right away."

While idling away in front of the keyboard here, kicking back over a game of Hearts with my Toshiba computer, I noted at the end of two failed attempts to win the game, that I had a miserable winning percentage against this machine.

Hard to believe I've played 127 games of Hearts with this thing, but there it is, every time I sit poised over a decision whether to play again. . . the figures; 127 played, 17% winning percentage. It's embarrasing, but instructive. Hearts, you see, is the kind of game you have to play two or three (or 123) times to get. Its subtleties don't come out right away.

Right away??!!

I've been playing Hearts since I was probably 10 and I'm sitting here 50 years (plus) later, still learning; that, for example, as tempting as it might be to pass the Queen of Spades to a neighbor at the beginning of a hand, with a little "Gotcha!" thrown in for emphasis, it is sometimes, possibly a lot of the time, a good idea to hold on to it. You then control its destiny, so to speak. There are exceptions, of course. . . one of those subtleties. If it's the only spade you're dealt, get rid of it. If it's one of only two spades you have, get rid of both of them. When you start hitting three or four spades in your hand, you should consider holding on to the Queen. If you've got like six or seven spades in a four-player game and the Queen is one of them, you should definitely hold on to it. You'll usually outlast your opponents' supply of spades with higher numbers of them, so the Queen won't be forced out of your hand and you'll be free to nail someone else with her, right after you've short-suited yourself in diamonds or clubs.

Listen to me. . . Mr. 17%, offering sage advice on how best to play the game of Hearts.

I've really gotten annoyed with the artificial intelligence function that the computer calls North in our game of Hearts. It appears to have an attitude. It not only wins the four-player games in which I become involved, a high (though actually unknown) percentage of the time, it appears to enjoy humiliating you (me, too); Shooting the Moon, when you're hovering in the 50s, point-wise, trying to stay as far away from 100 as you can; delivering the Queen of Spades to you when you're three tricks away from going pointless in a hand, or taking the one trick with a heart in it that spoils your own attempt to Shoot the Moon.

My game habits keep me in hopeless games. I'm at 98, North's got 18, and I'm still thinking with a couple of good hands, I can sit tight and not pick up two hearts or the Queen of Spades until after North has passed me to 100. I'm optimistic like that, and rarely, if ever, hit the "Exit" button to get on with my life.

Were it not for the 'three cards passing' rule, that begins each hand of play, there'd be nothing to the game. This is actually an established variant, tacked on to the original card game around 1850, which had its start as a family of related games called Reversi, popular in the 18th century. With four players, you're each holding 13 cards, dealt to you randomly from the deck. You're stuck with them. It simplifies the process, but makes it an optimization exercise. Doing your best with the hand you've been dealt. By passing cards, in successive hands of play - right, left and then across the table - you are making some decisions before the first card has been played. And your opponents are doing the same thing, which you'll notice right away, when you've looked at the cards passed to you, and find that your original plan to short-suit yourself in diamonds has been waylaid by an opponent who's given three of them back to you.

This brings us back to the Queen of Spades and the whole "should I get rid of her or not" question, too. I'm a fan of dumping diamonds for the purpose of short-suiting myself in that suit. With clubs, because of the rule stating that the hand must begin with the play of the two of clubs, and that no points can come out on the first trick, you generally see four of them go by right away; nine left, and some of them, presumably are in your own hand. With four people, even distribution would lead you to think there'd be at least one more full trick of four clubs out there. Uneven distribution of the remaining nine cards in that suit can get you into trouble. You win the first trick with some high club and try that suit a second time, with another high card, and you could end up with the Queen of Spades, when uneven distribution has left one of the other players with a handful of them, and another with none and the Queen.

There's something non-threatening about diamonds in this game. There are 13 points tied up in all the Hearts, spades has the Queen (13 more), and clubs is your forced first trick. But you don't think too much about diamonds right away. So I get rid of them right away. I'm sort of locked into this 'short-suit yourself in diamonds, if you can' approach to the game, which again, one should consider in light of how successful it's been throughout the course of my 127 games against a machine.

Card counting is a big help, though for the life of me, I can't do it. Sometimes I'll be able to make use of a fact, like knowing that three tricks of all clubs have gone by, I'll play with the knowledge that there's only one left. Like poker, Hearts has its set of probability factors and the greater your knowledge of them, the better off you'll be.

This is not just about Hearts, really. It's about any and all games that get your head engaged in how to win, complete with their probability factors and arguable paths to victory. It's about subtleties in a game that take a while to 'get' and whether the time invested getting it is worth the reward.

There's nothing that'll cap my day quite like the computer animation that sends little hearts up onto my screen when I win. They rise up from all points of the screen and pop! in half, broken, to a synthesized crescendo of sound. I'm not into fist-pumping, but if I were. . .

I'm guessing that Hearts is installed on pretty much every computer that sells these days. If you haven't played in a while, or haven't played it ever, give it a whirl. Give it some time. Play half a dozen games (around a dozen hands, per game) and watch them subtleties emerge.

Yeah, worth the effort.

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