How to Play Hearts

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. Some remarks on other variations will be found at the end.

Much of the material on this page was collected by John Hay in preparation for his projected book. Many thanks to John who gave permission to pagat.com to use this material.

Players and Cards

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.

Object of Game

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 Passing

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 they 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 Play of the Hand

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 (as a discard) to another trick. 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.

Although it is illegal to lead hearts until they are broken, players are permitted to lead spades. 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.

Scoring

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.

Variations

Passing

Different passing cycles may be used, for example:

  • pass left, pass right, pass across, then repeat (no hold hand);
  • scatter instead of hold (players pass one card to every other player);
  • both scatter and hold hands are played (the cycle is left, right, across, scatter, then hold).

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.

Play of the Hand

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.

Scoring

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. If playing this way you need to agree whether you have to take the Jack of Diamonds in order to shoot the moon. If a player does shoot the moon, scoring should be handled as usual; the player who took the Jack of Diamonds has 10 points deducted from their score (even if it is 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:

  • the shooter always has 26 points deducted;
  • all the other players always have 26 points added;
  • all the other players always have 26 points added unless this would cause one of them to win, in which case the shooter has 26 points deducted.

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.

Partnership Hearts

There are two ways that four players can play hearts in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other.

  1. Partners keep their tricks together. On each hand your team scores the total number of penalty points you have taken in your tricks. A slam occurs if one team takes all 14 penalty cards in a hand, they can choose give the opponents 26 penalty points or to subtract 26 penalty points from their own score.
  2. Each player keeps an individual score, and in order to “shoot the moon”, an individual player has to win all the penalty cards. The game continues until an individual player’s score reaches 100 or more; then the scores of the partners are totalled and the partnership with fewer points wins. Thus it is possible for your team to win even if it is you who go over 100. For example you have 105, your partner has 34, and your opponents have 78 and 69, then your team wins by 139 points to 147.

Other Numbers of Players

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:

  1. Deal the cards out as far as they will go evenly. There will be one or two cards left over. These cards are called the kitty; they are placed in the middle of the table face down. The player who takes the first trick (or alternatively, the first penalty point) takes these cards and places them with their captured cards (they may look at them first). If it happens that the 2 is in the kitty, the holder of the lowest club not in the kitty must lead it (if no one has the 2, ask if anyone has the 3, then the 4, and so on).
  2. As in method 1 above, but the person who takes the first point or trick adds these extra cards to their hand and discards an equal number of cards face down into their tricks.
  3. With three players, remove the 2 from the deck, leaving 51 cards. With five players also remove the 2, and the holder of the 3 leads it to the first trick.

In the 3 player game, the passing may follow any one of these patterns:

  • Left, right, hold, repeat.
  • Left, right, repeat.
  • If you pass 4 cards instead of 3 you can also scatter by passing 2 cards to each other player. You could then include scattering in either of the above rotations.

In the 5 player game, the passing could follow any of these patterns:

  • Left, right, hold, repeat.
  • Left, right, repeat.
  • Left, right, 2nd person to the left, 2nd person to the right, hold, repeat.
  • Left, right, 2nd to the left, hold, left, right, 2nd to the right, hold, repeat.

Turbo Hearts

Turbo Hearts is an American version of the Chinese game Gong Zhu (Catch the Pig).

  • The Jack of Diamonds is used as in the variations above.
  • Whoever captures the Ten of Clubs doubles their score for that hand.
  • After the pass but before the first lead each player may “turbo-charge” one of the following cards: Ace of Hearts, Queen of Spades, Jack of Diamonds, or Ten of Clubs. They do this by placing the card face up in front of them.
  • A turbo-charged Queen of Spades or Jack of Diamonds doubles the value of that card for that hand.
  • A turbo-charged Ace of Hearts doubles the value of all hearts for that hand.
  • A turbo-charged Ten of Clubs quadruples the score for that hand of the player who captures it.
  • A player may not play a turbo-charged card the first time a card of that suit is led.

Booster Nines

When at Upenn, Richard Garfield introduced a further development of Turbo hearts. 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 first of the eight cards played id 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).

Cancellation Hearts

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.

Spot Hearts

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.

Black Maria

This is the British version of Hearts, sometimes also called Dirty Lady

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:

  • 1 for each heart; 13 for the queen of spades (as in the USA)
  • 1 for each heart; 13 for the queen of spades; 10 for the king of spades; 7 for the ace of spades (total 43 points)
  • as in Spot Hearts: 2 – 10 of hearts face value; J, Q, K of hearts 10 points; ace of hearts 15 points; queen of spades 25 points. In this case the game is played to 500 points, not 100.

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