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The Schnapsen Log

September 9, 2021

As Luck Would Have It

Martin Tompa

It’s been a long while since I’ve written. This post will be different from usual: it is a collection of anecdotes from the Schnapsen table.

I am constantly floored by the extremes that luck often takes in Schnapsen. I feel as though very low probability events happen much more frequently than they should, even though I am aware that this is just a psychological aberration rather than a mathematical one. I know that you have witnessed such things yourself at the Schnapsen table. How often have you felt that you have gone several games without seeing a trump in your hand or without holding a marriage?

Against no opponent are these extremes of luck as noticeable as against the notorious Doktor Schnaps. In fact, early on in my rivalry with Doktor Schnaps I was so sure that I wasn’t being dealt my fair share of trumps that I started maintaining a spreadsheet of my deals in which I keep track of statistics such as how many trumps I am dealt. Even though I still feel as though I’m not getting nearly enough trumps, the spreadsheet bears out the truth that the number I’m dealt is precisely what probability theory says it should be.

Let’s get on with the stories, then. I will relate a few striking examples of extreme luck that happened to me at the hands of Doktor Schnaps within the span of nine days.

I’m behind with the game point score 5:2 when Doktor Schnaps deals me this starting hand:

A
T
♣ KQ
A

The face-up trump is ♣J. This gorgeous hand gives me my chance to catch up. I close the stock, declare the trump marriage, and lead ♣Q. Doktor Schnaps wins with ♣A. Now I’m thinking, “Don’t lead ♣T”, and sure enough that’s what Doktor Schnaps leads. Then I’m thinking, “Don’t lead A”, and sure enough that’s what Doktor Schnaps leads. Then I’m thinking, “Don’t have any more hearts”, and Doktor Schnaps leads J followed by Q. I scored 0 trick points with that beautiful starting hand and lost the game.

Another similar opportunity to complain about my luck against Doktor Schnaps arose a few days later. The game just prior I had been ahead 1:7 and then lost. The current game I had been ahead 2:7, but now the score was 1:1, turning it from a certain victory into a nail-biter. On the last deal of this game, Doktor Schnaps deals me this starting hand:

Q
T
♣ T
AJ

The face-up trump is J. Not a great hand, though I know from experience that it is a typical one. Doktor Schnaps leads K and I win with A. I draw K, so now I have 15 trick points and my cards are

KQ
T
♣ T
J

Suddenly things are looking great. Should I close the stock? If I needed 3 game points to win, I probably would, hoping that Doktor Schnaps has only 1 trump and I can make one of my tens. In retrospect, I probably should have closed, but at the time it looked unnecessarily risky. So I leave the stock open, declare the trump marriage, and lead Q. Doktor Schnaps discards J and I draw T. Now I have 60 trick points, Doktor Schnaps has 0, and my hand is

K
T
♣T
TJ

The only unseen diamond is Q and there’s a good chance, from the fact that Doktor Schnaps didn’t win the trump trick, that it has no trumps at all. I close the stock and lead T. Doktor Schnaps trumps with A, cashes ♣A, and cashes A, for 63 whopping trick points in just 3 tricks. No matter, the way Doktor Schnaps played, I’m sure it doesn’t have T so, with only 2 cards left, I have to win the next trick with my trump and win the game, right? Wrong. Doktor Schnaps’s last two cards are KQ.

Lest you get the impression that I have nothing but extreme bad luck against Doktor Schnaps, I present a deal I played a few days later.

Concealed cards:
AKQ
AK
♣ K
TK

My cards:
T
TQ
♣ Q
A

Trump: J
Stock: Open, 3 face-down cards
Game points: Doktor Schnaps 1, Me 1
Trick points: Doktor Schnaps 25, Me 5
On lead: Doktor Schnaps

It’s another nail-biter, with the score 1:1. My prospects look terrible. Lots of trumps unseen, and I’m holding T missing AK. The only promising card in my hand is A. And now, to make matters truly horrible, Doktor Schnaps declares the trump marriage for 65 trick points and leads Q. I have no choice but to win with T. I draw ♣K from the stock and now am on lead from this position:

Concealed cards:
AK
AK
♣ —
TK

My cards:

TQ
♣ KQ
A

Trick points: Doktor Schnaps 65, Me 18

Is there any hope here anywhere? I’ll pause while you think about it.


I close the stock out of desperation and lead T, hoping that the last face-down card is A. To my amazement, my T holds the trick! I’m now at 32 trick points, so cashing A and declaring the club marriage is enough to win the game, with a little more wear on my poor heart.

© 2021 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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As Luck Would Have It, Sep 9
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