Best Hearts Game Ever

by J.D. Roth

Kris and I played cards with Mac and Pam on Sunday. No big surprise there; we play whenever we can.

We played Bridge first, but Pam kicked our asses. Again, no big surprise there. She finished with 3700 points in three rubbers while the rest of us each had around 1400 points.

The game of Hearts that we played was more fun.

I started playing Hearts (rules, which are simple) when I was a sophomore in high school. When my family started attending Zion Mennonite Church, learning Hearts was part of the initiation into the youth social scene. (Learning Rook was, of course, the real initiation. Rook is the game of choice among young Mennonites.)

The Hearts that I’ve played with my Mennonite friends isn’t nearly as fun, or as challenging, as the Hearts I play with Mac and Pam. The Mennonite group plays: Black Lady and Passing variations, Two of Clubs opens, Jack of Diamonds is minus ten, a player receives minus three for taking no tricks, and no points may be played on the first trick. Also, the level of play is not as high as with Mac and Pam.

The version of Hearts that Mac and Pam play features: Black Lady and Passing variations, a four card kitty (which goes to the first person to take a point), the person to the left of the dealer opens, no bonus for the Jack of Diamonds or for avoiding tricks, and points may be played on the first trick. Also, the deal skips a player after the hold hand. (Kris and I have convinced them to play with the minus three point bonus for not taking a trick, and they seem to like the rule.)

The basic difference between these rules is that it is more difficult to Shoot the Moon with Mac and Pam’s rules. Removing the bonus for the Jack of Diamonds also eliminates an element of luck that is otherwise involved in the play. In all, their rules are much more fun.

Here’s the score card from the Best Hearts Game Ever:

Pam J.D. Kris Mac
-26 0 -3 0
-17 1 -2 15
-17 3 21 12
-11 23 21 9
9 26 24 9
6 23 45 14
6 25 66 17
27 22 69 19
49 27 69 19
46 36 82 23
43 43 85 39
43 56 89 48
40 74 86 56
41 74 86 81
61 80 83 81
77 77 86 88
96 83 83 89
100 100 86 91
116 106 86 95

Important things to know: Pam has an eidetic memory (or nearly so), so counting cards is easy for her. I go into nearly every hand with the intention of Shooting the Moon. I also tend to overanalyze the game. Kris doesn’t really like Hearts, and she really doesn’t like it when I overanalyze the game. The whole group is very competitive, but Pam and I are especially competitive with each other. Pam rarely loses at Hearts (or any other card game). This just makes me more eager to defeat her.

This particular game started with Pam Shooting the Moon, an event that caused groans around the table. She was likely to win anyhow, and spotting her a 26 point lead just increased the chance that she would be victorious.

For the next few hands, things were typical. Then, Kris hit a string of bad luck, falling far behind with 66 points. Pam continued to lead. But then she had a couple of bad hands, taking the Queen twice consecutively. Suddeny, the men were vying for the lead and the women were behind. Not very common in our group, and a state that both Mac and I relish.

Our taste of the lead was short-lived, however. Kris fell futher behind (and became more surly, sulking and snapping), but Pam stabilized in the low 40s and Mac and I fell nearly even with Kris in the 70s and 80s.

Then things began to fall apart for Pam. Within two hands, she and I were tied at 77, with Kris and Mac only ten points back. Pam took the Queen and suddenly found herself in last place. I was tied for the lead with Kris (who had looked a sure loser only a few hands before).

I felt confident. Victory was within my reach. Whether I won the game or Pam lost the game did not matter: either outcome was a victory. If both happened, it would be all the sweeter. On the pass, I worked myself a safe hand: low cards, Spades protection, few Hearts. I was ready. The first two tricks were typical, but then the bomb dropped. Pam had voided herself in Clubs (or had a singleton, I don’t recall), and was able to sluff the Queen on my lowly Seven of Clubs. The Seven of Clubs took the Queen on only the first or second Clubs trick! I was in agony! I was also now tied with Pam at 100 points; whichever of us took the most points the next hand would lose the game.

The game had lasted eighteen hands, which is extraordinary for a game of Hearts. We were all within fifteen points of each other, and each had over 85 points. I’ve never seen a game so close!

I dealt the cards, and we passed across. My hand was average. I would likely take a few points, but I hoped to avoid the Queen. Little did I know, Pam had passed Kris the Ace and King of Spades, but Kris had passed her the Queen, which was now her only Spade. She was doomed from the start.

As the first Spades trick went around, and Pam was forced to take it with the Queen. It then became only a matter of preventing her from Shooting the Moon (which wasn’t difficult, as she hadn’t the cards to do it), and the game ended with her as the Big Loser.

The game was a blast, especially after the first few hands. The leader changed often. The score was close. The game was competitive. This is the reason I love to play games.

It’s also the reason that I prefer interactive games to non-interactive games. Some games, Eurorails and Empire Builder for example, have little player interaction. These games are dull to me now, though I enjoyed them once. I’m interested in games that allow players to interact, to affect each other’s status within the game, games like El Grande and Settlers of Catan, and Tigris and Euphrates. (Tigris and Euphrates is my favorite of these, I think, but most people find the game too complicated.)

Game night in one week!

Updated: 24 January 2002

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