Life So Short, the Craft So Long to Learn

The Schnapsen Log

August 28, 2013

A Tale Begins

Martin Tompa

Wednesday, August 6, 1919. Zalaegerszeg, Hungary. Jancsi and Peti, two brothers who look and act very much alike, are sitting on the rough floor of their small bedroom playing cards. Jancsi is 8 years old and Peti is 7. Too young to play a game as complex as Schnapsen? For most children of this age the answer would be yes, but both are precocious and far ahead of their schoolmates in mathematics. Jancsi is particularly clever and Peti, who idolizes his older brother, absorbs Jancsi’s teaching like a sponge.

In the next room, their father Apu and mother Anyu are talking in quiet, anxious voices about the political situation, but Jancsi and Peti can hear every word they say through the open door. The Great War had ended just 9 months earlier with the defeat of Germany and her ally, the once great Austro-Hungarian Empire. The victorious powers split the empire into the two separate countries Austria and Hungary, and each of the emperor’s former subjects was required to choose citizenship in one or the other. Apu and Anyu chose Hungarian citizenship, though Zalaegerszeg, their home town in westernmost Hungary, was close to the Austrian border and Apu had done his medical schooling in Vienna.

Apu had been the county doctor for 14 years, carrying out medical inspections of Zala County for the government by horse and carriage. In recent months, Anyu too held a civil position as proletariat judge in a court dealing in matters of marriage and property rights. The Hungarian Communist Party, led by Béla Kun and including many ex-soldiers, intellectuals, and Jews, had come to power following the war. That is how Anyu obtained her current judicial post, as a former nurse in the military, an intellectual, a communist, and Jewish.

“Béla Kun and his comrades fled to Austria today,” the boys hear Apu say quietly. “The military occupied Budapest, supported by Romanian forces that were already within the city. It does not look good to me. The next government, if things go on this way, will not smile on our kind. Quite the opposite.”

Anyu sighs. “It is out of our hands, my dear. We will just carry on as best we can.” She walks into the next room. “Boys, time for bed.”

“The game is almost over and I’m going to win,” begs Peti. “Jancsi is out of trumps. Please may we finish it?” This is the position in which Anyu finds her young sons:

Peti: (25 points)
♣ Q

Jancsi: (33 points)
♣ AK

Stock: Exhausted
Game points: Jancsi 1, Peti 1
On lead: Jancsi

What should Jancsi do? When you think you have a good plan, you are welcome to read my analysis.

© 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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