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The Schnapsen Log

March 5, 2012

The Card Game Called Schnapsen

Martin Tompa

Schnapsen is the best two-person card game. At least in the opinion of one writer, and thousands of Austrians. It is easy to learn, requires only one other willing player (or a computer program, always willing), is quick and fun to play, involves interesting strategy, and is rich in thought-provoking situations.

My goal in this series is to present a number of those thought-provoking situations, in a manner very similar to the daily newspaper’s bridge or chess columns. Think of this as the Schnapsen column.

Just like the bridge or chess columns, I am going to assume that readers of this series know how to play the game and are interested in improving their play, learning new moves, or testing their strategic skills. If you don’t yet know how to play Schnapsen, we have provided clear rules for the game. Grab a friend, learn the rules together, and play a few games. Schnapsen is fun even when you are a beginner. Once you are comfortable with the rules, we have also provided some pointers on Schnapsen strategy.

Schnapsen (pronounced shnop'-sen) is the national card game of Austria, with variations played throughout Europe. The earliest known written reference to the game was nearly 300 years ago, but it was undoubtedly played long before that. Though Schnapsen is related to the American game pinochle, I don’t think Schnapsen itself is well known in North America. I would be happy to be proved wrong or to foster a North American craze.

My brother and I learned Schnapsen as children from our father. He was Hungarian, but as a young man in the 1920’s and 1930’s he lived in Vienna, where he learned the game himself. I imagine him playing it in a Viennese cafe with a friend over coffee and cake, much as the Austrians still do today. I was about 10 years old when I learned it and I played it often growing up. It taught me basic card-playing strategies and more general analytical skills. I taught it to my daughters when they were young. I still love playing it with them or with my brother whenever we are together.

Schnapsen is the perfect precursor to bridge, which is a similar but much more difficult game. Schnapsen is appealing as a sort of “bridge in miniature”: it is played with only 20 cards, it needs only two players, it is simpler to remember which cards have already been played, and figuring out a good line of play is easier. For those readers who like the game of bridge but are frustrated with the difficulty of mastering it, Schnapsen will be a welcome relief. For those who would like to learn bridge or eventually teach it to their children, Schnapsen is a gentle introduction.

Each subsequent article in this series will present you with some interesting situation you might face during a game of Schnapsen. Our assumption will usually be that your opponent is a Schnapsen master who makes the best plays possible. You will be given everything you need to know about the state of the cards and points, and asked to plan your play of the rest of the deal. There will be a link to my own analysis, which you can read once you’ve taken time to think about it yourself.

Later articles in the series will talk about some very advanced endgame plays that are probably known only to a select group of Schnapsen grandmasters. These include squeezes, elimination plays, unblocking, ducking ruffs, and deceptive plays. But we will start with more basic and frequent situations in the next few articles.

Finally, since there are many minor variations of the basic Schnapsen rules played in different circles, I want to clarify which of these I will assume. I will adopt the variants that correspond to what is called das weiche Schnapsen (“soft Schnapsen”), which is the common version except in tournaments. In most cases, the best play in subsequent articles will not depend on the particular variants I have adopted, but we may as well agree on the rules before we start playing together:

  1. When the stock is closed or exhausted, you must win the trick by playing a higher card in the suit led if you can.
  2. When the stock is exhausted, if no one has reached 66 trick points before the last trick is taken, the winner of the last trick wins the deal. There is no such bonus if the stock is closed rather than exhausted.
  3. You may declare one marriage whenever it is your turn to lead, even if the stock is closed or exhausted.
  4. You may lead either the king or queen when declaring a marriage.
  5. When you are on lead, you may exchange the trump jack for the face-up trump on the table, even if only one face-down card remains in the stock.
  6. When you are on lead, you may close the stock, even if only one face-down card remains in the stock.
  7. If a player closes the stock, for the purposes of computing the game points, the opponent’s trick points and number of tricks are frozen at the time the stock is closed.
  8. If the player who closed the stock fails to reach 66 trick points, or the opponent reaches 66 trick points first, the closer’s opponent scores 2 game points, or 3 game points if that opponent had no tricks at the time the stock was closed.

I’m shuffling the cards right now, and will deal you a hand in the next article.

© 2012 Martin Tompa. All rights reserved.


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About the Author

Martin Tompa

Martin Tompa (tompa@psellos.com)

I am a Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where I teach discrete mathematics, probability and statistics, design and analysis of algorithms, and other related courses. I have always loved playing games. Games are great tools for learning to think logically and are a wonderful component of happy family or social life.

Read about Winning Schnapsen, the very first and definitive book on the winning strategy for this fascinating game.

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