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The Schnapsen Log

April 14, 2012

What Authorities Say About the Rules

Martin Tompa

I’m going to break from my usual format, just for today’s column.

If you search around, you will find that there are lots and lots of rules variants for Schnapsen and the closely related German game Sixty-Six. Perhaps you learned the game with a slightly different set of rules than we’re playing together here. I think it’s worthwhile to look at all the variants, see what the authorities say about them, and explain why I’ve chosen the particular variants that I specified at the end of the very first column in this series.

A few months ago I searched the internet for authoritative rules sites for Schnapsen and Sixty-Six, both in English and in German. After reading all these sets of rules, it became clear that there isn’t a single “correct” set of rules for either game. I’ve summarized my findings about all the variants in an article. There are two tables in that article, one for Schnapsen and one for Sixty-Six. Each table lists about 10 rules (Can you do the trump exchange before trick 1? Can you declare marriages when the stock is no longer open? If the stock is exhausted, is the last trick worth 10 trick points or an outright win of the deal? Etc.) and reports what each of 8 authoritative rules sites says about that rule. The Schnapsen table also compares the rules of “soft” Schnapsen (which I have adopted as the default in these columns) and “sharp” Schnapsen (which is usually used in Austrian tournaments).

From these tables, the article goes on to draw conclusions about the consensus opinion of the authorities on each rule. One of the interesting findings consists of two important rules where, according to this consensus, Schnapsen and Sixty-Six differ:

  1. In Schnapsen, you can declare a marriage whenever you are on lead, independent of the status of the stock. In Sixty-Six, you can only declare a marriage if the stock is open.

  2. When the stock is exhausted, winning the last trick is worth 10 extra trick points in Sixty-Six (so a 65-65 tie is possible), but in Schnapsen winning the last trick gives you an outright win of the deal.

I believe that the first of these differences is fundamental to making both Schnapsen and Sixty-Six challenging and fun. In a beta version of our app Master Schnapsen/66, we allowed marriages to be declared in Sixty-Six even if the stock was closed or exhausted. To our surprise, it was much easier to beat Master Schnapsen/66 at that version of Sixty-Six than it was to beat it at Schnapsen. This made Sixty-Six less fun to play than Schnapsen, because it was a little too easy.

In order to understand what was causing this version of Sixty-Six to be an easier game, we performed computer analyses that involved playing Master Schnapsen/66 against itself for 10,000 deals each of Schnapsen and Sixty-Six. What we discovered was that, on average, there were more marriages per deal in Sixty-Six than in Schnapsen, and that Sixty-Six deals on average ended with more cards unplayed than Schnapsen deals. This means that Sixty-Six with no limitation on marriages is less likely to reach the sort of rich endgames that we’ve been discussing here in The Schnapsen Log. It also meant that Master Schnapsen/66 couldn’t exploit its enormous advantage in endgame play as often, which explains why it was easier to beat.

We subsequently changed the rules of Sixty-Six to restrict marriages to those times when the stock is open, in conformance with what the authorities say. We were delighted to find that it was much more challenging to beat Master Schnapsen/66 at Sixty-Six than it had been, and correspondingly more fun to play.

Since I have touched on the use of computer analysis here, it seems appropriate to mention that, while developing our app Master Schnapsen/66, we made tremendous use of computer tournaments in order to test different strategies. What we would do to test a new strategy was to run a computer tournament consisting of tens of thousands of deals. In this tournament, two nearly identical versions of Master Schnapsen/66 would compete against each other, the only difference between the versions being that one would incorporate the new strategy being tested. The results from these tournaments were instrumental in making Master Schnapsen/66 play as brilliantly as it does.

© 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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