Natty Bumppo’s euchre columns

from the publisher of

The Columbus Book of Euchre

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Presented here are archives of euchre columns by Natty Bumppo, author of The Columbus Book of Euchre, published on line.

Saving an ambushed loner – December 6, 2008

My friend picked up the ten of diamonds to go alone, with jack-king-ten of diamonds and ace-king of spades, and was pretty happy to make it when his wife, sitting
on his right, trumped the first trick – her partner's ace
of clubs – with the ace of diamonds. My friend over-
trumped with the right bower and then cashed his two
spades before returning to his trump, which were good,
it turned out.

I told him he certainly played the last four tricks
correctly but I was not so sure about the first. He
had to play it that way to save his loner, but he
admittedly knew he was fighting for just a point –
and against being euchred – when he overtrumped
the ace of diamonds.

If that Wife on his right hand had had the left bower
with two more trump and a void in spades, he would
have been nailed. That’s highly unlikely, of course –

Dealer’s hand

Age’s hand

Pone’s hand (the dealer’s wife)
not only because the holding is unlikely in itself, but more so because if Wifey did have such a holding, she probably would have ordered the diamond herself, and quite likely alone. If you want to play with that scenario, it's been set up for you here in Gerry Blue’s Euchre Laboratory.

But beware of a much likelier scenario: Give Wife’s partner the ace of hearts also (she’d better have two aces to lead one against a loner), two little diamonds and a void in spades – back up her ace of clubs with the king, say. Give the Wife the left-ace of diamonds and fill her hand with little hearts or spades, or a mixture of the two. Again you’re dead if you cover the ace ruff with the right, unless you return trump and Wifey makes the mistake of leading a spade to the third trick. Here’s the setup in the Euchre Lab.

Or give Wifey the ace and nine of diamonds and three hearts and her partner the ace of clubs, ace and queen of hearts, and left and queen of diamonds (that is the configuration pictured above). Again you’re dead if you cover the ace ruff with the right. You can still lose your point in this scenario, no matter what you play; but covering the ace of diamonds is asking for it. Ducking the first trick at least makes the left-hand opponent resist ruffing the third trick to come up with a euchre. Here’s the setup in the Euchre Lab.

Another not unlikely scenario is three trump on your right (left-ace-nine) plus little spade and little heart, and a spade void and little trump on your left. The opponents can euchre you with that also even if you duck the first trick, but only with a clever or lucky lead at second trick. If you overruff the ace of diamonds, however, it’s curtains for certains unless you return trump to the second trick. Here it is in the Euchre Lab.

If you “let the babies have it” – duck that high first trick ruff and make them lead to you – you’ll save a point (and avoid being euchred) most of the time. That’s the safest way to play the hand in all the scenarios. Only if you can afford to be euchred (or don’t care, as in desperate times for desperate measures – perhaps you’re fighting back from a 9-3 deficit) should you cover the ace of diamonds with your right bower.

You can still make the point in the second scenario, after taking the first trick, if Wifey and her partner play their cards improvidently or impatiently; but you can’t count on that. And you can still get euchred in the third scenario, even though you ducked the first trick, if Wifey’s partner impatiently (and imprudently) trumps your lead (your second spade) to the third trick instead of leaving it for her partner. But, against many players, you can count on that. And avoiding the euchre in the fourth scenario rests largely on luck after you duck, and you can count on that half the time.

OK, you ask, what ever became of the principle “Play the higher of touching cards”? That is, if Wifey had the left bower, why did she not ruff with that instead of the ace (to let her partner know, etc.)?

Well, equally as important as “letting your partner know” is “fooling the ofays. By ruffing with the ace instead of the left bower, she’s telling the maker she doesn’t have the left (but, she does, in three of the scenarios above – all but the one pictured).

Beware. Play it safe if you feel unsafe.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Ratings, shmatings – November 7, 2008

Here’s why “ratings” and winning percentages on Yahoo! (and on all the other game sites on line) mean nothing.

And, I mean nothing.

A friend of mine – who is not a bad euchre player – was envious of the Yahoo! rating of a mutual acquaintance who had a 3480 rating at the time (2000 is about par for euchre on Yahoo! on line). My friend even posted a message on line asking the 3480-rated player how he got there.

I was embarrassed for my friend. He did not understand.

Look at my Stone Idiots collection. A high rating on line has almost nothing to do with a player’s caliber. Nothing.

I saw a rating of 1931 for sale on e-Bay recently for only $7.99 (latest bid).

Or, you can buy ratings at even more reasonable prices at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Best Buy and Target (I have been told, however, that you have to go to Tiffany’s for a rating of 2000 or higher).

Makes no difference – you can buy your rating, or you can make it. It takes only a little effort to make a good rating.

Some technowizards know how to play a game on one computer in which they control all the players. That’s the high tech way to boost your rating. But there are simpler ways for the hoi polloi.

You can do it with multiple computers on line and the avatar you want to boost. Set up the game, make the table private, let no one in but yourself, and make sure that two of your stooges play stupid and one of them (the partner of the avatar you want to boost) plays smart. Even if you are not smart (and most players aren’t), it will work if the avatar you want to boost and the “smart” stooge are just a little smarter than the others. (You can boost two avatars at once this way, of course.)

Or you can do it with friends. You scratch their backs; they’ll scratch yours. When it’s your turn for a boost, they’ll send their stooges (when it’s their turn, you will offer stooge avatars of your own). This takes only one computer of yours (but it takes two or three friends).

Or, you can go on line honestly, with a friend for your partner (preferably one who knows something about playing cards), and take what comes. Since what comes will be more often random than not, probably you will boost your rating.

A couple of friends of mine got up to 3000 and above without shenanigans, and without arrangements with established friends (and without each other’s help, by and large). They are gregarious guys who made friends on line and looked for the same people each time they played. They are good, but not great, euchre players. They simply played the system by being “friendly. Their ratings had little to do with their relative merits as card players. Their ratings had almost everything to do with their “people skills.

It makes all the difference having a partner you are comfortable with, and knowing what your partner will do in a particular situation.

Think about it: When you team up with a stranger, you are taking pot luck. It’s your 54% winning percentage (or 49% or 65%, whatever) against the 50-50 of pot luck (I say 50-50 even for the highest-rated players, because you have no idea how they acquired their ratings). The other person’s rating and winning percentage mean nothing. Is he or she a good player, or did he manufacture his rating or winning percentage, or buy them at Target or on e-Bay? You don’t know. His or her real 50 per cent won/lost potential, on average, reduces your team average’s to 52 per cent at the start.

Let’s put it in Philosophy 101 syllogisms:

Syllogism No. 1:

Major premise: The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

Minor premise: Yahoo ratings are unpoliced – the only seeding (boot the players with the lower ratings) is unsupervised and prejudicial, and there is no prevention of the scams listed above.

Conclusion: Ratings and winning percentages, in an unregulated environment, mean nothing.

Syllogism No. 2:

Major premise: Good players play well.

Minor premise: Huge numbers of high-rated players listed in “Stone Idiots” and encountered continually in games on line, and huge numbers met on line with substantial winning percentages, lead away from their kings, play second hand high, unguard their left bowers, trump their partners’ aces, and make all kinds of mistakes even the disciples of Grandpa Lou would never do.

Conclusion: Ratings and winning percentages are no indication of competence.

Syllogism No. 3:

Major premise (the conclusions of syllogisms Nos. 1 and 2): Ratings and winning percentages mean nothing.

First minor premise: Proposed partner has a 2769 rating – he won’t play with you if he does, of course; let’s revise that to something a little more realistic – a 2020 rating and a 59% winning percentage.

Second minor premise: The proposed partner’s actual skill, by the major premise, is not determinable. Call it 50 per cent, on average.

Third minor premise: You are a good player, and your won/lost percentage (achieved quite honestly) is 54 (which is about as good as it gets in good competition).

Conclusion: Lots o’ luck! Call it 50-50 against your own rating or record. Your chance of winning the game is 54% (your winning percentage) plus 50% (your partner’s probable actual skill) divided by 2 = 52 per cent. This is not how to build a rating.

Syllogism No. 3 restated (in simpler terms):

Major premise: Ratings and winning percentages mean nothing.

Minor premises: Your winning percentage is 54 per cent, and your proposed partner’s rating and winning percentage are “whatever” (50-50).

Conclusion: Your chance of winning is 52 per cent (average of 54% and 50%).

The point is, you are not going to boost your rating significantly with partners you don’t know, even if you carefully scan their ratings and won-lost records. They simply are not as good as you, on average. Don’t beat your head against a post trying to beat a system that works against you. If you want a superior rating on Yahoo, or Pogo, or Hardhead, go fix it, as I have suggested.

But if you are satisfied with your play, and have confidence in yourself, don’t bother. Those with the higher ratings are phonies. You will find your real competition in the lower echelons of the “advanced lounges” (and in the higher echelons of the intermediate lounges on crowded days in “advanced”).

So, what are ratings for? To give you an investment in the game, so that you won’t duck out like a summer soldier before the game is over. That’s why “social” lounges and unrated games don’t work, by and large: When you are not personally acquainted with the other players at the table, there is no social pressure not to leave the table in midgame when things are not going to your liking. And if there is no ratings pressure either, losers will leave, and few games will be played out.

How do we fix it? Easy. Don’t weight the results. Give a winner the same addition of rating points, and a loser the same deduction, regardless of the rating of the opposition (that's how it’s done in professional sports leagues). That won’t prevent scamming and inflation (for ego), but it will quash the inequity and make it easier to find a game on line (see the last four paragraphs of my column on the St. Louis Browns). If you feel the need to show you’re better than someone else, go to a refereed tournament.

P.S. You probably want to know what became of my two friends with ratings in the 3000’s. They quit playing on line. They got tired of waiting around – for hours at a time – for partners they knew and could trust.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Rules III – October 3, 2008

The last column concluded, “Too much verbosity; too many rules. Verbosity, just like hard facts, makes bad law. . . .

Here’s another case where many will think that just a few more words are needed. A rule widely recognized – not only in euchre, but in most trick-taking games – is that a renege may be corrected before the next trick is led. A local league director in Michigan suggested to me that this rule could penalize the innocent. For example, second player ruffs an ace lead; the leader’s partner overtrumps, and then it’s discovered (and confessed) – before the next trick is led – that the second player reneged. If he can correct his error, and follow suit, shouldn’t the leader’s partner be allowed to withdraw his trump also? Most would agree.

If the rule is stated simply, “A renege may be corrected before the next trick is led,” I would argue that no more need be said. The correction of a renege includes, logically, not only a correction of the reneger’s play but also a correction of all the consequences of his play. Only if the rule reads, “A reneger may correct his [or her] play before the next trick is led” do you have a problem. That can be fixed, however, with the addition of just 18 little words, making it:

A reneger may correct his play before the next trick is led (and if he does, a player who played after the renege may change his play to the trick).
And if you think the original statement does not allow for correction by other players, you can add 18 little words to that formulation, too, making it:
A renege may be corrected before the next trick is led (and if it is, a player who played after the renege may change his play to the trick).
Some rulemakers want to reserve just a little penalty for the reneger’s team (even though his misplay may have been inadvertent and quite innocent, which will almost always be the case when he is the one to catch it and volunteers to correct it, since a renege cannot be proved at the end of a trick, but only at the end of an entire hand). That’s easy. Just change the word “player” to “opponent” in the additional verbiage, to disallow any change in play by the reneger’s partner (in the one case out of three that the reneger’s partner will play after the reneger – remote, remote).

And there’s an inherent penalty anyway, even without the tweaking, nine times out of ten. First, the reneger, by reneging, has exposed a card out of turn, meaning that, by the rule on exposed cards, he will have to play it at his earliest legal opportunity, whether it is to his advantage to do so or not. Second, in the situation in which he played second, his partner also will have played, most likely, by the time the renege is confessed. Let’s suppose that his partner also did not follow suit. In that event the leader’s partner will know to maintain his trump of his partner’s ace. And to play an even higher trump than he did, if he has one. “Renegers never win. Or something like that.

You don’t need to limit the correction. “A renege may be corrected before the next trick is led” is enough. Keep it short and simple, and cool heads and good manners are more likely to prevail. If they don’t, hire an umpire.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Rules II – September 19, 2008

In the last column we encountered a local rule prohibiting any player’s touching any card dealt to him until all cards had been dealt and the top card had been turned on the talon. I questioned the need for such a rule. “A lot of players won't do that anyway,” I mentioned to the local league director, “but as a matter of superstition, not of rule.

The director explained that the “no touch” rule is traditional in some circles, going back to the middle of the 19th century, and is designed to prevent redeals and misdeals caused by exposed cards.

But there already is a rule about cards exposed in the deal, and it is a general rule applying to all card games, not just euchre: For example, it is stated in the United States Playing Card Company’s Official Rules of Card Games, “It is a universal rule that when a player requests it, there must be a new deal by the same dealer if the customary or prescribed rules of shuffling, cutting and dealing are breached in any way. And, of course, dealing face down is one of those rules.

The USPCC statement continues, “Usually the request may no longer be made by a player who has looked at any of the cards dealt to him . . . .

My comments:

1. The “no touch” rule does not prevent cards’ being exposed in the deal, it merely prohibits it. And that is already prohibited by other rules. (A law against murder does not prevent murder; it merely prohibits it. And you don't need two laws to prohibit it.)

2. To the extent that the “no touch” rule tends to prevent exposure of cards in the deal, and to keep a player “chaste” for the purpose of calling a redeal, it is a “water wings” law (like those laws requiring motorists to wear seat belts, and cyclists to wear helmets). I am one of those who believe we should not vainly try to protect people from their own misbehavior.

I do not hold with the supplemental USPCC precept prohibiting one who has looked at all or part of his hand from calling a redeal. Let’s get real. Without looking at his hand, how is he to know (a) whether it contains a “marker” – i.e., a six or a four, or (b) whether it contains the correct number of cards (do we need yet another rule, requiring each player to count his cards, face down, before looking to see what they are)? And what difference does it make when a player first sees his cards, in his decision to call a redeal or not? Either a redeal favors his cause or it doesn’t, and the fact that it does might be clearer once he has seen all his cards.

Too much verbosity; too many rules. Verbosity, like hard cases, makes bad law. Keep it short and simple, and cool heads and good manners are more likely to prevail. If they don’t, hire an umpire.

The purposes of rules, like law in general, are to govern behavior and settle disputes. The easier the rules are to read and understand, the likelier they are to serve their purposes – partly because the likelier they are to be known, understood and respected.

Dispute is inevitable, of course; but that’s what judges and umpires are for.

Lengthy presentations of rules, which you will find here and there (there is one presentation of the rules of euchre on line, for example, running 29 chapters, and 75 pages), are as likely to generate argument as to resolve it. Has anyone out there read the Internal Revenue Code lately?

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Rules I – September 5, 2008

A major revision of the rules is under way for a euchre league in a small Ohio city (the name of which will go unmentioned in this column, but you can guess). The cause de guerre lies in recent incidents of which the most notorious was a hissy fit between Aunt Bertie and Sister Carrie over the pone’s right to shuffle the cards.

Bertie shuffled and offered Carrie a cut. Carrie reshuffled and handed the deck back to Bertie. Bertie reshuffled, dealt, and won the game, 10-9.

The league rule was:

Any player has the right to shuffle the cards, but the dealer shuffles last. The deck must be shuffled face down, and above the table. The dealer then offers a cut to his right-hand opponent. If made, the cut must be a minimum of four cards once, and can neither be reshuffled nor re-cut. The dealer then deals five cards to each player, clockwise, in combination of twos and threes or threes and twos. No cards are to be picked up until after the dealer has turned the up card face up.
Carrie and her partner argued that the dealer cannot reshuffle after the pone has shuffled. It got ugly, I’m told.

Not all statements of rules provide that the cards must be shuffled, at all. But most rule books – for most card games, not just for euchre – provide that any player may shuffle and the dealer may shuffle last. Clearly Aunt Bertie, the dealer, had the right, by most rule books as well as the league rule quoted above, to shuffle again after Carrie shuffled (instead of cut).

But Aunt Bertie probably also should have offered the cut again (unless the context indicated that Carrie already was being a smart ass – I wasn't there). How I would normally handle that situation, were I the dealer, would be to give the player on my right one more bite at the apple – giving her the benefit of the doubt as to whether she was legitimately exercising “any player’s right to shuffle. But if she shuffled again, I would then shuffle again, give her the Columbus cut (a slap of the right hand on the table in front of her), and deal. No one has the right to delay the game indefinitely by repeatedly exercising her right to shuffle, even if the rules don’t quite say that.

A protest was filed with the league director – not by Carrie’s team, curiously, but by Bertie’s partner. Had the profanity risen to a clear and present danger of guns and knives? Wish I’d been a fly on the wall – I just love to hear old women cuss each other out.

In an effort to prevent future such incidents, the league director proposed a revision of the rule, to say:

Any player has the right to shuffle the deck, but the dealer shuffles last. The deck must be shuffled and must be shuffled face down, and above the table. The dealer must then present and release the deck from hand, to the pone (RHO), to be cut. The dealer loses his deal if he neglects to offer the deck to be cut by the pone. If the dealer deals without offering a cut and the up-card is turned, with no notice of infraction called, the deal stands. If the pone cuts the deck, the cut must be a minimum of 4 cards once, and can neither be reshuffled nor re-cut. The pone may either cut the deck or bump or tap the deck – that is, the deck must be physically touched by the pone to indicate that it should be dealt as it is, without cutting. When cutting, the deck can only be separated into two sections with the bottom section placed on top in reassembly and toward the dealer. Separating the deck into three or four sections is not a cut, but a shuffle. If the pone shuffles the deck, the dealer has the prerogative to reshuffle the deck last and must offer another cut to the pone, if the dealer reshuffles. If the dealer reshuffles or re-cuts the deck after it has been properly cut by the pone, he loses his deal. The dealer then deals five cards to each player, clockwise, in combination of twos and threes or threes and twos. No cards are to be picked up until after the dealer has turned the up-card face up.
My first reaction to this revision – as a lawyer, as much as as a card player – was that it was too wordy. Why not just say:

Any player may shuffle, but the dealer may shuffle last; and the dealer must offer a cut to the player on his right immediately before he deals. The dealer then deals five cards to each player, clockwise, beginning with the player to his left, in combinations of two or three cards to each player. Once every player has five cards, the dealer shall turn the top card of the four cards remaining and place it face up on top of the stock.
This dispenses with the requirement that no player look at his own cards until the deal is complete (more about that in the next column). It does not answer the question of repeated shuffling by the pone; but I think most players, and most umpires, would agree that, if the pone has twice used her cut to shuffle, she has forfeited any further right to cut.

You cannot, in general, make better law with more words. The United States Constitution takes up only four pages in the World Almanac; it is the shortest written constitution in the world, and it has held up rather well for 220 years (it has been subjected to only 27 amendments, which take up only four more pages; and the first ten of those amendments – the Bill of Rights – came in one fell swoop in 1791, just three years after the Constitution was adopted). The standard state statute for murder contains only 160 words, including matters of extreme emotional disturbance and motor vehicles. The Sixth Commandment contains only four words.

As for leaving at least four cards in each section of the cut, it is a standard rule of all card games that you must leave as many cards in each section as there are players at the table. As for the “whorehouse cut” (separating the pack into three or more sections for reassembly), just go to the glossary of the United States Playing Card Company’s Official Rules of Card Games, wherein it is said that to “cut” is to “divide the pack into two sections and reverse their order. Any separation into more than two sections is a shuffle (which is merely to “mix the cards,” says the USPCC, purely and simply).

The USPCC glossary would be a good source for the definition of most terms in a set of rules, since its definitions are tight (for God’s sake, don’t go to a dictionary – modern dictionaries will tell anyone anything he wants to hear), and since there will be more words in your rules besides “cut” that will require definition. Or, you can put a separate definitions section in your rules. It’s generally not a good idea to define terms within the rules themselves. That tends to hide the definitions, and it invites internal contradiction.

It’s hard to write any law, let alone a euchre rule, that is incapable of interpretation. For example, this part of the proposed revision raised the following questions in my lawyer’s mind:

The dealer must then present and release the deck from hand, to the pone (RHO), to be cut. . . . The pone may either cut the deck or bump or tap the deck – that is, the deck must be physically touched by the pone to indicate that it should be dealt as is, without cutting.

o Is it OK to drop the deck on the pone’s head?

o Or in his lap and accuse him of shuffling below the table?

o If you’re playing on a pontoon boat, is it OK for the
dealer to keep a finger or two on the deck to keep it
from sliding off the rocking table? How many fingers?
Which hand?

o Instead of “presenting and releasing” the deck, wouldn’t
it be OK for the dealer to ask the pone, in a language
known to both of them, “Do you want to cut?” And to
go ahead and deal if the pone clearly says, “No”?

o What if the pone refuses to cut or tap the deck either one?

o What if the pone is standing behind his chair, in severe back
pain, and maintains, truthfully, that he cannot comfortably
reach the deck to cut it or tap it, that the most he can do
is pick up his cards after they are dealt?

o What if the pone is a double amputee with no arms or hands,
with an assistant who holds his cards and plays them according
to the card the pone touches his nose to? May the assistant
decline the cut by tapping the deck? Or must the pone touch
it with his nose or his tongue?

o What if the dealer has no arms or hands but has prehensile
toes with which he manages to shuffle and deal? How does
he release the deck “from hand”?

Why can’t we just say, “The dealer must offer a cut,” and let reason and good manners prevail? – at least until Sister Carrie or one of her cronies cuts a shine.

But the league director, whose Aunt was Bertie, was particularly desirous of a rule specifically defining the pone’s rights to shuffle and cut. So I proposed the addition of the following, and no more, to the original rule (or to my suggested revision):

If the pone shuffles again on the second offer of the cut, the dealer may reshuffle and deal without offering the cut again.
The director liked that. I still think it’s unnecessary. If you’re dealing with idiots like Sister Carrie, you either take the deck and deal at some point, or you get up from the table and walk away. I’ve done that, a lot. Bertie’s partner’s protest reminds me of an unemployment appeal. If a work environment becomes so hostile that a reasonable person cannot tolerate it, he can quit his job, rather than wait to be fired, and still draw.

So, what did the league committee do? Contrary to the director’s recommendation, it adopted a new rule stating, “The pone can no longer shuffle the deck when offered a cut. In ignorance or defiance of centuries of tradition in nearly all card games, it outlawed the most likely time anyone but the dealer would excercise his or her right to shuffle the cards. It virtually repealed the nearly universal rule that any player may shuffle the cards.

One of those in favor of the new rule commented, “You’re accusing me of cheating by shuffling on my deal” – a sentiment shared by several. Talk about your thin skins, and paranoid sense of honor! One has to wonder why they did not outlaw the cut as well.

The director pointed out that the main reason another player might want to shuffle is not to prevent stacking the deck, but because some dealers simply don’t shuffle the cards well. He was outvoted.

Finally: Why should there be a rule (as quoted above) requiring players not to look at their own cards before all are dealt and a card is turned? I’ll address that issue in my next column.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

“Honor on an honor” – August 1, 2008

Tony picked up the jack of hearts; and Fred,
his partner, took the first trick with the ace of
clubs. Fred then led the ace of hearts. In third
chair John held the jack of diamonds (left bower)
and queen of hearts, along with the ace of spades
and nothing else. So what was he to do? Force
Tony’s right bower with his left, or force him to
decide whether to finesse, with his queen?

The question was, who had the king? Tony?
Or John’s partner, Ron? And if Ron, did he hold
it guarded? John guessed Ron, and guarded, and
played his left bower. “Honor on an honor,” as
they say in bridge – it’s the exception that proves
the rule of “second hand low. (An “honor,” in
bridge, is any high card – ten through ace. Tens,
jacks and queens are hardly “honors” in euchre,
of course, unless a jack is one of the bowers. But
bowers, aces and kings are.)

Tony covered with his right and led back his king
of spades (no, he did not have the king of hearts),
losing to John's ace as Ron and Fred followed suit.
John then led his little diamond, and it made no
difference what Tony played: Ron and John had
three tricks for the euchre.)

Ron’s hand (the age)

Fred’s hand (dealer’s partner)

John’s hand (the pone)

Tony’s hand (the dealer)
Had John played low on the first trick, Tony could have ducked, finessing Fred’s ace (which would have taken the trick). Then Tony would have the right bower for the third trick and a point.)

John did figure that Fred had only one trump: Otherwise Fred would not have led one as tall as the ace to the second trick. It was not unreasonable for John to assume also that Tony had only two trump (or even only one), since, like many good players, Tony was loath to turn down a bower. That gave John the hope that Ron also had two trump, and that they had a chance at a euchre.)

John had no choice but to “unguard” his left bower – either by playing it or by playing its guard. There was really no safe way for him to play the second trick to stop a march. But there was a correct way to play, and he played correctly.)

Tony would be damned if he did, damned if he didn’t, if Ron had held the left bower (guarded), of course. He’d be euchred, whatever he played. The only thing that would have worked for him would have been a finesse if John had had the left bower and played low. The question was, if John had played his queen, would Tony have finessed, letting Fred’s ace take the trick, giving Tony the ability to catch John’s left later with his right? John couldn’t ask him. Tony is John’s little brother, and he never did tell John the truth.)

I’ve set the hand up for you in Gerry Blue’s Euchre Laboratory if you want to play with it.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

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Money games – July 4, 2008

A reader in Michigan asked me if I had – in a “money game” – an opinion on the ideal ratio of a euchre bonus to the winners’ payoff.

“I’ve played at 1:2, 2:3, 1:4 and 1:5,” he said – e.g., $5 for each euchre, $10 for the game, at the high end, and $2 and $10 at the low end – “and I prefer the lowest ratio. What do you experts in Columbus prefer?”

Well, in the first place, they do not pay euchre bonuses “in Columbus. Euchre bonuses skew the game. If you have a separate financial incentive for euchring or not getting euchred, either one, it’s an incentive not to be playing your best game. You won’t call “next” as often as you should, and you are likely not to engage the “Columbus coup” (or “safety,” what some call a “donation”) every time you should.

Or, on the other hand, you will be straining to euchre your opponents when you should be concentrating on stopping a march. Such bonuses queer the game the same way a “defend alone” rule does (if it can be invoked when the maker is not going alone).

Therefore my answer to the question is that the proper ratio is zero to infinity. And I would not be inclined to play in a game in which the ratio was greater than 1 to 10 (dimey/dollar).

There should be no shame, no blame, for getting euchred. It’s the name of the game. (I also don’t like the option in the game of spades by which you are set back a hundred points for accumulating ten overtricks, or “bags. Granny always said, “Overtricks are their own penalties” – i.e., each overtrick represents nine points you didn’t make.)

Another money “No, no” – employed in many euchre tournaments – is a prize for most loners. I don’t want my partner going for a loner bonus. I want him to keep his eyes on the grand prize.

The only variation we “Columbians” like to play on “winner take all” (it’s described in my book) is a point differential bonus. The usual ratio is 1 to 5 (nickie/quarter, or $1/$5). There was a brief era, between the age of poverty and the age of comfort, when the most we could afford to lose on a game was less than $5; and in that era the ratio was 1 to 4 (two bits to a dollar). That’s what gave us the expression “$4.25 game”: $1 for the win plus $3.25 in quarters for a 13-point differential, the largest possible. A “slim win” – 10 to 9 – would pay $1.25.

Even that can skew the game, as it encourages stretching for loners that shouldn’t be risked, and straining for a euchre when you should be focusing on stopping a march. But, unlike a loner prize, a point differential bonus tends not to strain the partnership severely; and, unlike euchre penalties, a point differential bonus has no pregnant tendency to skew the game. It’s been my experience that good players simply don’t stretch loners for quarters. The principal side effect of a point differential payoff is going for loners with 8 or 9 points – which is usually merely insulting rather than risky in a non-money game.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

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Leading – June 6, 2008

A reader I played with recently was having trouble deciding what to lead, and mentioned that there was not much on that subject in my columns – particularly on what to open with in defense.

Well, there’s only:

Champ’s ace
* (Don’t lead the suit turned down)
* Helping your partner sort his hand
* Lead low trump when going “next”
* Lead trump, damn it!
* Lead trump only once on “next”
* Leading away from an ace
* Leading through a loner
* Leading to a loner: A two-ace convention
* Leading to the right bower
* Leading trump on defense
* Leading with three aces
* Setting up a king
* The ten of clubs
* The third-hand loner
* Two lessons for the price of one:
Lead trump when you make it; don’t when you don’t

* What to lead

and a 4-page section in The Columbus Book of Euchre titled “What to lead,” plus more advice in the sections “Help from my partner” and “Lead your longest suit – or lead next – against a loner.

But that’s really not much considering the unique and different contexts of the articles listed. The thing is, there is no good general advice on what to lead. The very first paragraph of the “What to lead” section in the book reads, “ ‘What do I lead?’ is the most perplexing and frequent question of the beginner. But the proper lead is also the most frequent subject of discussion between experienced partners. Leading is the most esoteric and intuitional science of euchre, and to indicate that it could be summed up in a few basic rules would be to deny the essence of the game. . . . There are too many variables for any good general rules besides “Lead a singleton ace” (or not) – or any singleton – if you have one.

Gary Martin, in his book Euchre: How to Play and Win, recommends not leading an ace at all, on defense, whether singleton or doubleton, unless you have two aces (in which case he recommends leading a “green” ace – i.e., one of the color opposite the trump suit’s). In an illustrated section of his book, at page 26, he suggests leading a singleton nine to save a lone doubleton ace. His reasoning is that the ace will be stronger once a round of trump has been drawn. I, too, have addressed a danger in leading an ace in my columns.

But there’s not much more to say. Which is another way of saying that often it does not make a whole lot of difference what the opening lead is. As many times as not a hand will sort itself. And sometimes you have to let it sort itself. Saving your ace may be the best way to stop a march, but leading it may be the best way to score a euchre; and usually you will not have a good idea of the possibility of euchre until at least two tricks have been played.

It’s probably easier to list a few leads not to make, in general (these proscriptions, too, are found in the book or in one column or another):

* Do not lead trump on defense (but see this column);
* Do not lead the suit of the card turned down (the dealer will trump it), and
* Do not lead from a three-card suit for your partner to trump (he’ll be overtrumped).

Unless, in the last-mentioned case, you are leading through a loner called by the dealer’s partner.

One idea I have been experimenting with lately, without any conclusive results, is an attempt to force the dealer’s partner to ruff with a singleton trump when it is the dealer who made trump. The idea is to put the dealer’s partner in the lead and unable to lead trump to his partner. This might be a time to lead high from a three-card suit. For example, if I have the king of clubs (trump), the ace, queen and ten of diamonds, and the ten of spades, I might lead the ace of diamonds, expecting it to be trumped, and hoping that it is trumped by the dealer’s partner without another trump to lead back. If then he has to lead back a heart, I’m sitting on it with my king of clubs (if he leads a spade, maybe my partner has the ace or a void). I know better than to open with a trump (which might strip my partner), and I don’t see any future in opening with the ten of spades anyway.

My reader’s biggest quandary seemed to be whether to lead a singleton ace or from a doubleton without an ace. There’s no general rule. Martin seems rather unequivocal about not leading the ace; but it all depends on the mission (whether to stop or set), on the colors, on whether the doubleton is headed by a king, on which of the opponents made trump, on the score, and so forth. Too many variables. The singleton ace is the most likely lead to take the trick – but it will be stronger after a round or two of trump is drawn, and there is a good chance the taker of a subsequent trick will lead its suit. The thing you do not want to do, ordinarily, is to lead trump to make it good, lest you strip your partner.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Champ’s ace – May 2, 2008

Todd Martin told me his lunchtime euchre pal
“Champ” will always lead a singleton ace, if he
has one, instead of trump, when his team has
made trump, and that he seemingly always comes
away with his point. “I’ve sat there in amazement,”
Todd said, “shaking my head. I’ve even seen him

What do you lead? Your partner, in third
chair, ordered up the queen of hearts
take a trick with a ‘next’ ace when partner ordered up from third chair, and then lead trump to his partner.

Seemingly always, but not always, I imagined. The fact that Champ’s ace is a singleton enhances not only its likelihood of flying, but also the likelihood the partner will have a card of that suit to lead back at the end of the hand. That’s an argument for “Lead trump, damn it!” as Ryan Romanik likes to say.

But Champ’s ace lead was a concept worth testing; so Todd ran off to test it with Fred Benjamin’s simulator while I ran “hands on” tests in Gerry Blue’s Euchre Laboratory. Todd ran thousands of hands of various configurations with the simulator, and I ran hundreds of the same configurations in the Lab to look for patterns and reasons for the simulation results.

First we gave the player in third chair three tall trump, since he ought to have that much to order from third chair. My suspicion after viewing just a few hands in the Euchre Lab was that Champ was getting away with his ace lead, but not optimally profiting by it. The early simulations tended to confirm my suspicions.

We chose hearts for trump (ordering a queen): Right-king-ten, then left-ace-ten, in third hand. We gave a small heart and a “green” singleton ace to first chair (we used a club for consistency), then a “next” singleton ace (diamond), then two aces (one of them – the club – a singleton); then we played with a three-suited first hand, a four-suited first hand; etc., etc. The simulator consistently produced both more marches and more euchres than I found in the Lab, and the reasons appeared to be that the simulator would not screen out (1) hands on which the dealer’s partner would “assist,” pre-empting an order from third chair, (2) hands in third chair good enough to go alone on, and (3) hands in which two diamonds wound up in third chair, giving the player there an incentive to wait for “next” rather than order. But we adjusted for all that.

The test was bifold, in both the Lab and the simulator: We compared an opening trump lead to an opening ace of clubs lead (followed by a trump if the ace flew). Early tests, with two aces in first chair (one of them a singleton), favored leading trump over leading the singleton ace – in net points, in most marches, in fewest euchres. Then we tested hands with only one ace (still a singleton). When the ace was “next” (the diamond), the results were too close to call. Then we went back to “green” (ace of clubs), threw in at least one low trump (always) and sometimes a “next” card, and filled the rest of the hand with the other “green” suit – two or three spades. Net points then consistently favored the singleton ace lead, and we began seeing a lot of euchres on trump leads.

We changed the third chair holding to both bowers, the ace and queen of spades and the nine of clubs. The euchres continued.

After a little study we figured it out. In the first place, you have to expect the dealer to discard a spade or a club when a queen of hearts is ordered to him (that gives him a better chance to trump the opening lead, which is more likely to be “green” than “next” if it’s not trump). And then it became clear that, with no more than two black cards in the dealer’s hand (and not likely spades, considering what the maker and his partner had), the only way to get euchred, with this configuration, was for one of the opponents – the dealer or his partner – to hold three (or four) trump with diamonds to run once he caught the lead on the third trick. And he did not need two diamonds to run if his partner had two and could overtake the first diamond. The key for the defense, once the lead was gained, was to avoid leading a club or a spade, as both of those suits were controlled by the makers.

Another key – and this may be something new – is that the partner of the opponent with three trump must keep one suit, to the derogation of others, ready for the run. For example, let’s say the dealer had three trump (enough to gain the lead on the third trick) and a diamond to lead to the fourth trick. His partner might hold ace and nine of diamonds and queen of clubs down to the third-trick squeeze. Partner must throw the queen of clubs in favor of the nine of diamonds in this situation, because it is the run that produces the euchre. You would save the queen of clubs with the idea of stopping a march, but it won’t work for a euchre. (Todd and I are considering patenting this ploy.)

But another pattern developed in the first chair holding of ace of clubs, ten of hearts (trump), and three spades (king, ten and nine) – whether the partner in third chair ordered on two bowers and ace of spades, or on three tall trump. Although leading the ace of clubs would result in fewer instances of being euchred, leading trump would produce significantly more marches.

Just like drinking Postum, there was a reason the ace of clubs lead prevented euchres. As we said, the opponents, to euchre, must hold at least three trump in one hand, and diamonds to run at the end. If the ace of clubs is led, it forces that three-trump opponent’s hand to ruff, and then he no longer has enough trump to regain the lead to cash the diamonds. But it’s that ruff also that would stop a march that was in the cards.

The differences were striking. In a number of 1,000-hand samples, the euchres on the trump lead exceeded those on the singleton ace lead by as many as 100 to 140, or 10 to 14 per cent (singleton ace euchres ranged from only 10 to 47 per thousand, compared to trump lead euchres ranging from 100 to 190 per thousand). And marches on the trump lead exceeded those on the singleton ace lead by as many as 240, or 24 per cent. But the extra point gained on a march is only one-third as valuable as not getting euchred (a euchre is a 3-point turnaround – the point you don't score plus the 2 points the opponents do score). Thus 100 euchres, on the low end, constitute 300 net points lost compared to only 240 net points gained by marching on the high end. And thus net points favored the ace lead.

(Mind you, the results stated in the previous paragraphs are not general averages. We were not seeking averages of marches or euchres in this experiment on a trump lead vs. an outside ace lead – and you can't, given the idiosyncrasies of different players you will find in third chair. The figures in the previous paragraphs are merely examples from batches of runs on a few finitely defined hands in which the outside ace lead works better, for limited purposes, than a trump lead.)

So, students, here are the conclusions (take notes now; this will be on the final exam): “Lead trump, damn it!” still is the best policy in general.

But not if you have only one ace, and it’s a singleton, and it’s “green. In that case you’ll make more net points leading the singleton ace.

You’ll gain fewer marches that way, but you’ll get euchred less often.

So, one more refinement: If you have the lead and 8 points, go for the march. Lead trump.

But if your opponents have 8 points, avoid the euchre: Lead your singleton ace.

Got it?

If not, just lead trump, damn it.

And there may be another lesson here: Keep your mouth shut in third chair unless you have a sodbuster.

Champ is on to something – but not everything. After we ran all these tests, I got another message from Todd:

“Monday, Champ was sitting in first holding jack of diamonds, ace and queen of hearts, ace of spades and nine of clubs; and he ordered up the ten of hearts. And led his ace of spades! Which flew! Then he led the left bower, which took the trick, everyone following suit. Then he cashed his ace and queen of hearts and finally led his nine of clubs, for which I had saved the ace for a stop. I ran that hand through 500 hands in the simulator. The ace of spades opening lead resulted in a net of 339 points, and a left bower opener garnered 775! The ace lead produced only a little over half as many marches and more than twice as many euchres. Champ got lucky.

I think so. But don’t count him out. They don’t call him “Champ” for nothing.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Five-handed euchre – April 4, 2008

I received a telephone call from a fellow with a Dutch accent in northern Wisconsin. He wanted to know if there was a way to play five-handed euchre.

The first thing that came to my mind was bid euchre, or “buck” euchre, in which everyone plays for himself. For five players you need to restore the 8’s to the deck to fill out five 5-card hands – and you might as well restore the 7’s, too, for an “original” euchre deck, in case a sixth player drops in. (If a seventh player drops in, you can restore the 6’s – you don’t use markers in bid euchre. If you have eight players, you can just make another table for four.) My friends and I sometimes play buck euchre with four players when we could be playing regular partnership euchre, just for a diversion from the routine. It is a fun game.

But my caller was looking for a game with partnerships. He said there was a woman from Michigan in his group who said they commonly played a five-player partnership game “back home. She couldn’t define it, however; and my caller and I quickly concluded that she did not know what she was talking about.

But the United States Playing Card Company’s Official Rules of Card Games describes a game called “auction” euchre for “five, six or seven” players, in which trump is made in one round of bidding (as in spades) and the successful bidder may choose his partner (or more than one partner, if he bids high enough). The scoring is arcane (but not as convoluted as in 500 – more on that below). I’ve never seen anyone play “auction” euchre, but I suppose there are as many variations of euchre out there as there are euchre players.

John McLeod, webmaster of the Card Games internet site, commented, “I have a suspicion that the ‘auction’ euchre in the USPCC book is one of those games that have been copied from one card game book to another over many editions without anyone’s checking that it is actually played. I looked in the 1900 edition of the USPCC’s Official Rules . . . ; and, sure enough, there it was. The wording was different, but the rules and scoring were just the same. Of course, there may be people who still play the game in this form; but I have never come across any.

“The 1900 USPCC book also has a chapter on a specifically 5-handed form of euchre that turns out to be a sort of ‘buck’ euchre – known in this book as ‘penalty’ euchre.

A more traditional version of euchre with floating partnerships is “call ace” euchre, also for any number of players, and also with unbalanced partnerships when played by more than four players (but never tilted in the maker’s favor). Trump is made by ordering, picking or calling, as in regular euchre. The maker not only chooses trump but also declares an off suit, and the other player with the highest card in the off suit becomes his partner, for that hand (and you don’t know who the dealer’s partner is until he plays the ace of that suit – or even later if the highest card in the suit is not the ace). Scoring is the same as in regular euchre, but individual scores are kept, as in “buck” euchre and “auction” euchre. Some consider it a problem in “call ace” euchre (and perhaps also in “auction” euchre) that the maker’s partner will have an incentive to sabotage the partnership when the maker is “at the bridge” and the partner is not – but to others, that’s just part of the game.

I thought also of 500, the euchre-based game commissioned by the United States Playing Card Company more than a century ago, which still is played in Australia. It will accommodate any number of players from two to six, with unbalanced partnerships or not, and uses a 52-card pack (or 53 with a “benny”) for five players, who get ten cards apiece. There’s even a version with a 63-card pack for six players (find me a 63-card deck, please). Trump is made by bidding as in spades and “auction” euchre; but the scoring is more akin to that of bridge, with different values for different suits, and slams and such. Are you catching my complaint? Like a Canon “point and shoot” camera, the game of 500 is unnecessarily complicated – it caters to more interests than a four-peckered billy goat. The game was invented as an alternative to auction bridge. It has the intricacies of bridge, but not the sophistication. Back to euchre.

My caller and I agreed that there’s nothing more fun than good old four-handed euchre with partners. He just needed to know what to do when five players showed up.

“What we do,” I told him, speaking of my own circle, “is draw straws – well, jacks, actually – and make one of the five sit out. When the game or a short series of games is over, the losers have to draw again; one of them sits out, and the player who sat out the previous game or series sits in. Best way I know.

“Ja!” my caller agreed. “Daht vaht vee vill doo!”

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

[For a complete description of the game called “bid” or “buck” euchre
mentioned above, and some strategic tips on the game, get a copy of
The Columbus Book of Euchre – or buy a “euchredoodlebiddy”!]

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Leading with three aces – March 7, 2008

We’ve been discussing lately how to open a defense
against a loner when you have two aces, in various
configurations – leading to the loner, and leading
through the loner, and the special instance of leading
through the loner after he has ordered the dealer –

What do you lead?
and we’ve been introduced to Lyle Filkins’ convention by which you can tell your partner, quite legally, which other ace you have when you lead one.

So, finally, what do you lead from three aces? (No, not your nine or ten, please.) Lyle’s original suggestion, in the presentation of his two-ace convention, was, “Pretend you do not have the lowest ranking one and proceed as above” – i.e., with the two-ace formula. But he acknowledged that that was just a punt, and that there was probably a better course of action.

There is no one answer for all seasons, but there are some things to think about. For example – especially when leading through the loner – one might be inclined to lead the ace of “next,” or the ace heading a three-card suit, if he has one, to give his partner an opportunity to overruff if the loner ruffs it.

But I have found at least one configuration in which that notion is a fallacy. I posed the following poll on the Euchre Science discussion forum: In first chair you hold all three non-trump aces and two small clubs. The player in second chair has ordered a small spade and declared alone. What do you lead?

Ten out of 18 players responding to the poll, or 55½ per cent, opted to lead the ace of clubs. But 50 million Frenchmen can be wrong; and so can ten pretty good euchre players, and leading the ace of clubs in this situation is wrong. And here’s why.

Let’s say the loner has four trump and only four trump (and he’d better have four trump or a suit headed by the three top trump if he’s going alone in second chair with no offsuit aces).

The probability his fifth card is a club is only 1/6. The probability it’s a red card is the inverse, 5/6. You lead a red ace to avoid squeezing yourself. If your lead does not take the trick, you’ve got the best chance of catching the fifth trick in the other red suit coming back. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference which red ace you choose, but you can use Lyle Filkins’ convention here to let your partner know which ace you’re saving. Then your partner would know to save his biggest club while you discarded your ace.

The probability the loner’s hand is void of clubs is the same as the probability his fifth card is a red card: 5/6. The probability of a club void in your partner’s hand is less than a fourth of that. Factor in, then, the small probability your partner will have a trump big enough to overruff if both he and the loner are void, and it’s a fat chance your partner will get to overruff the loner. (If the loner has only three trump, his probabilities of voids are halved for each suit. Yes, he will be twice as likely to have a club; but he will be almost certain to have a red card.)

You, with your three aces, are the biggest threat to the loner. More loners are stopped on suits than on ruffs, and here you have all three outside suits stopped. What you have to think about is, which two of the three aces are the best candidates for tricks. In this situation it’s clearly the two red aces.

That’s not always so clear. For example, what if your three-card suit is hearts, and not clubs? In that case, the loner’s probability of a void in clubs is 2/3, and the probability of a void in hearts is 3/4. I’d lead the club here and save the ace of diamonds.

For another example, what if you have no three-card suit? Say you have A-x in both red suits and a singleton ace of clubs. The loner’s probability of a void in clubs remains 2/3, and that’s his probability also of a void in each red suit. It’s a toss-up? Just about. By holding two cards in each red suit, you have neutralized the “next” suit’s (clubs’) being one card shy of the numbers of the other suits, for everyone else at the table. Your partner’s probability of a void also is equal in each suit (but not nearly 2/3, like the dealer’s). I’d just stick with my red aces here, and use Lyle’s convention to let my partner know I had both (so he’d save a club if he had any).

The overruff of the loner is dramatic, and exciting, but why? Because it hardly ever happens. Bill Clinton might call it a “fairy tale. Play your aces for aces, not for ruffs.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Leading through a loner – February 1, 2008

So, what is your opening lead if the player going alone is sitting between you and your partner?

If you have two aces, the usual rule usually applies: Lead one of them. That prevents your being “squeezed” on the fourth trick (i.e., being forced to decide which ace to ditch if you still have both of them). If you have only one ace, do not lead it, to avoid putting the squeeze on your partner if he has two aces.

So, what do you lead if you have only one ace, or none – with the loner sitting between you and your partner?

The usual best idea is your longest suit (or “next,” if it’s a tie), to give your partner an opportunity to overtrump the loner (or merely to ruff, if the loner has to follow suit).

So, why did I say, in the second paragraph, the usual rule usually applies?.

Because there is a convention that applies when the loner is sitting in third chair and has ordered up to your partner, the dealer, to go alone. It has two facets: (1) The dealer, your partner, must discard “next” if it will void him of that suit, and (2) you must lead “next,” on the assumption that your partner has discarded “next. This is a golden opportunity for overruffing, not to be lost. “Next” is the shortest suit to begin with, and being ordered up gives a player the only opportunity in euchre to create a void.

In my December 3, 2004, column I pointed out that the dealer, when ordered up by the player in third chair, should discard even an ace if it is a singleton in “next.

But the question now is, since you are the dealer’s partner, what do you lead? And what if you have two aces off color? Or only one ace, and it is “next”?

You still lead “next,” the other rules be damned. In particular I still lead the “next” ace even it it's my only ace. The advantages your partner the dealer has in this situation are three: (1) to create his void, (2) to trump the lead (you know your partner has trump), and (3) to overtrump the loner. The probability he will be void of “next” is greater than the probability he has two aces (which is the reason not to lead a lone ace in the first place). So, next away.

It’s also the ace I lead if I have three aces.

“Next,” if you’ll pardon the expression, we’ll discuss what to lead against a loner if you have three aces in other configurations.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

Borf Books
Box 413
Brownsville KY 42210

(270) 597-2187 [copyright 2008] [next]

Leading to a loner: A two-ace convention – January 4, 2008
In a column last year I mentioned the principle of
using an ace for an opening lead against a loner only if
the leader has two aces, in order not to force his partner
to choose which ace to save if he has two. That column
discussed also a principle reported by Bob Wilson, of
Detroit – who has been playing euchre since I was 3
years old – of which ace to lead of the two, if one of
them is backed by a king (lead the other one), in order
to signal partner what suit to save if he does not have
an ace of his own (“Bob’s principle” prescribes sluffing
the other ace at the earliest opportunity, to tell your
partner you still have the king of that suit).

The “age” (hand to dealer’s left)

Dealer’s hand (going alone)
Now I have received an e-mail from Lyle Filkins, of Ann Arbor, Michigan – who has been playing euchre since Bob Wilson was born (and 3 years before I was born) – telling me of a legal and foolproof convention he devised for telling your partner, at the time of the opening lead, what your second ace is.

First, you and your partner must develop a convention of how to sort your cards in a hand opening a defense against a loner (and you must visualize your cards in that order even if you do not sort them physically). Lyle suggests sorting in the order spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs – left to right – because that is the way the suits rank in bridge, and it is easy (at least for a bridge player) to remember. I prefer sorting in the order hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades, because (1) it does not juxtapose two suits of the same color if you have all four suits, and (2) that is the way suits are sorted in Gerry Blue’s Euchre Laboratory (if you need a mnemonic device for that, think HCDS, for “hearts and Consolidated Drug Stores”). But the order is not important as long as it is one both you and your partner can remember to use in the situation.

Then, here’s what to do: Ignoring trump, as if you don’t have any (even if you do), always lead the left-most ace in your hand if you hold aces in touching suits, and the right-most if you do not.

I set up the following hands in the Euchre Lab (and the second of them is set up for you here if you want to go to the Euchre Lab to play with it – you’ll have to click “Play” and “Deal” to make it work):

1. West (age) – ace of hearts, ace-nine of clubs, and queen-nine of spades, and South (dealer and maker) – jack-king-ten of diamonds, and king-queen of clubs.

2. West – same as No. 1; South – jack-king-queen-ten of diamonds and whatever else.

I let the Lab deal East’s (age’s partner’s) hand at random on both hands, and the dealer’s fifth card on the second hand.

I found the convention to be of minimal use. I had to deal ten of the first hand before I found one in which the age’s partner even needed the information. For various reasons the age’s partner had other ways of knowing which ace was his partner’s second – for example, because he had the third ace, or because the dealer trumped the first trick and led out until the age played his other ace before the age’s partner was squeezed. For even more reasons it was irrelevant what the age’s second ace was – for example, because his partner had three trump in defense, or because he had such garbage it made little difference what he saved. The first hand in ten I found in which it was relevant, partner’s decision came to whether to save a jack of one suit or a ten of another suit. That can be helpful, but not often.

This convention works best on a hand in which the partner with the lead has two aces and the other partner has no aces and two kings, one of which is not in the suit of one of his partner’s aces. It tells him which king to save. That’s rare. I’ll leave it to the mathematicians to calculate the exact probability. But it works on down the line, in lesser degree of utility. It tells the partner which suit to save. The only time it cannot possibly help is when the partner has the nine, and nothing else, in the third suit.

The convention, although of minimal use, is clever and intellectually interesting. And, every little edge helps when you’re trying to stop a loner.

Lyle’s convention and Bob Wilson’s principle are somewhat incompatible, and both are about half incompatible with the principle by which you treat a king-high doubleton as a second ace in your hand to allow you to lead an ace to open the defense against a loner. But that does not mean that you cannot use them all, and here is how you can:

Use “Lyle’s convention” if you have a partner who uses it. Use “Bob’s principle” if you don’t (i.e., if you have an unknown or irregular partner, or one who has never heard of the convention or, if he has, does not subscribe to it). Even using “Bob’s principle” with a partner who subscribes to “Lyle’s convention,” you’ll be lying to your partner only half the time; and most of the rest of the time your partner will glean the truth of your holding (by your early sluff of your other ace) before he has to act on Lyle’s convention to his disadvantage.

As for the king-high doubleton principle, you have to lead the only ace you have, which will never be a lie under Bob’s principle but would be a lie half the time by Lyle’s convention. But that makes little difference. In the worst case scenario you will be squeezing your partner – i.e., forcing him to choose between two aces on a squeeze play – which is the very peril sought to be avoided by the rule that you lead an ace to open a loner defense only if you have two.

But that’s rare anyway, and it comes down to a question of whether to squeeze your partner or squeeze yourself. As the player with the lead holding an ace and a king-high doubleton, I know I have two good suits; and I don’t know what my partner has. Therefore I choose not to squeeze myself. If my ace doesn’t fly, I still have a good chance to beat a three-trump, two-suited loner with my doubleton king. And my partner, if he has two aces, still has a 50/50 chance of saving the right one.

Mind you, these principles and conventions apply only to hands in which it is the dealer or his partner going alone.

There is another convention that is useful when it is the player in third chair going alone (I discussed that in a previous column, and I’ll discuss it further in the next column).

When the age goes alone, however, there is no question of an opening lead strategy – since it is the age who has the lead.

Natty Bumppo, author,
The Columbus Book of Euchre

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