Life So Short, the Craft So Long to Learn

The Schnapsen Log

January 28, 2013

Schemes for Remembering Cards in Schnapsen

Martin Tompa

One of our readers asked for the details of a method for remembering which cards have been played and which still remain unseen. For beginning and intermediate Schnapsen players, I know this memory work seems like a daunting prospect. Yet it is also the most essential skill to master because, without knowing which cards remain unseen, it is impossible to plan the endgame. We’ve been learning about sophisticated endplays such as eliminations, squeezes, and counterforce plays, but you won’t be able to pull them off at the Schnapsen table unless you can visualize your opponent’s hand.

I have presented some basic ideas that I use for remembering the cards in my article Winning Strategy for Schnapsen. Included there are some pointers about how to practice increasing your card memory. An example is to start out just trying to remember which trumps have been played so far, without trying to remember the other three suits.

But today’s column isn’t about how to practice, it’s about detailed schemes for keeping the cards straight in your mind. One device that I find helps me manage all these cards is that I never remember more than 2 cards per suit. At first I remember the cards that have been played, but as soon as I have seen at least 3 in the suit (including any in my hand), I switch over to remembering the cards I haven’t yet seen. Since each suit has only 5 cards, I never have to remember more than 2. A second benefit of this method is that, by the time I get to trick 5 or so, I’ve completely switched over to remembering all the cards that I haven’t seen, which is exactly the view needed to plan out the endgame.

Here are more details of how I’m tracking these cards in my head. After each trick, I recite to myself the list of 1-2 cards per suit, either those that were played or those I haven’t yet seen. I find that I don’t need to include the trump suit in this recitation: I can remember the trumps without explicit repetition. As an example, consider the following hand at the end of trick 2:

My cards:

♣ K

Trump: J

Suppose that, in trick 1, A was trumped with T and, in trick 2, J was led and ♣Q was discarded. What I would recite to myself at this point is, “King of diamonds, Queen of clubs”. The meaning of this to me is that the K is the only unseen diamond, and ♣Q has been played. I always list first the suits in which I’m reciting the unseen cards, followed by the suits in which I’m reciting the played cards. Notice that I don’t include T in my recitation, because it’s a trump. The trumps are important enough that I can remember them without explicit recitation. Another thing that I remember implicitly is the “border” between the unseen-card suits and the played-card suits in my recitation. In this example, that border happens between diamonds and clubs. Any suit in which no card has been played yet, or in which I’ve seen all five cards, is simply omitted from the recitation. Again, I have no trouble remembering whether such an omitted suit is untouched or exhausted.

Continuing the example, suppose that in the next trick my opponent leads J, I take it with K, and I draw a trump from the stock. What I would then recite to myself is, “King of diamonds, Ten Queen of spades, Queen of clubs”. Notice that I insert the spade suit before the club suit, because the spades I’m listing are cards that remain unseen and the club I’m listing is a card that was played. The border between unseen-card suits and played-card suits now happens between spades and clubs. Notice also that, in suits such as spades where there are equal numbers of played and unseen cards, I list the unseen cards. There is a slant toward the unseen-card view, since this is the view I will need during the endgame.

It probably sounds more complicated than I think it really is. This scheme evolved as I was training my own memory, and I think it probably evolved so as to minimize the number of cards I had to recite. As part of that evolution, I discovered at some point that I didn’t need to include the trump suit. I wish that I could just remember all the suits the way I remember the trump suit, without the need for explicit recitation, but I don’t seem to be there yet.

I have a friend whose method is somewhat different from mine, and perhaps it will be helpful to some readers to share his alternative method. Like me, he recites cards in the nontrump suits and recites at most two cards per suit, either those already played or those still unseen. But, unlike me, he always recites the suits in the same fixed order: , ♣, , , omitting whichever suit is trump. Because he uses this fixed suit order, he also adds the word “no” to distinguish those suits in which he is listing cards that have been played from those suits in which he is listing cards still unseen. If there is a suit that hasn’t yet been played, he uses the keyword “all” in that suit’s position in the recitation. If there is a suit in which no unseen cards remain, he uses the keyword “none”.

Let’s go through the small example again, using my friend’s recitation scheme.

My friend’s cards:

♣ K

Trump: J

Remember that, in trick 1, A was trumped with T and, in trick 2, J was led and ♣Q was discarded. What my friend would recite at this point is, “King, no Queen, all”, meaning K is unseen, ♣Q has been played, and all spades are unplayed. Notice that the trump suit () is omitted from the recitation. Notice also the slant toward unseen cards: “no Queen” in this example means that ♣Q is not among the unseen cards.

Continuing the example, suppose that in the next trick the opponent leads J, my friend takes it with K, and he draws a trump from the stock. What he would then recite is, “King, no Queen, Ten Queen”, meaning that now TQ are the unseen spades.

What I like about my friend’s method is that he doesn’t have to recite the suit names; they are implicit in the order of his list. I also like the fact that certain information is explicit in his recitation and doesn’t rely on implicit memory, such as whether the cards listed are played or unseen. I find it interesting that he has chosen different items to leave implicit (the suit corresponding to each list of cards) than I have (which lists are played cards and which are unseen cards).

Finally, I have to make a confession about all this memory work. My friend and I both play mostly against two computer opponents, Master Schnapsen/66 and Doktor Schnaps. Both of these programs display the trick point totals of each player, so you don’t have to remember those. But in real Schnapsen games against a human opponent, it is very important to remember both players’ trick point totals. I need a lot more practice keeping these totals and the cards all in my head simultaneously.

There is one more thing a good Schnapsen player should remember, which is any card your opponent holds that you have seen. Such a card could be a trump that was exchanged, or a marriage partner from a marriage declared previously. These are usually memorable enough that I find they don’t need to be included in my explicit recitation.

If you have some other memory scheme that you use, or you have questions about mine or my friend’s, please leave a comment below or send me mail. I always enjoy hearing from readers.

© 2013 Martin Tompa. All rights reserved.


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About the Author

Martin Tompa

Martin Tompa (

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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