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The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Euchre

The perfect partners card game for the cottage

Posted: August 10, 2018

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Euchre is the faster and wilder cousin of bridge. Both are trick-taking card games that involve bidding, trumping, and teams of two. Bridge is methodical, complex, mathematically precise.  It is usually played in near silence, while players focus all their cognitive energies on accounting for all 52-cards in the deck. Euchre only uses 24. Because there are fewer things to keep track of, the game is simpler and easier to play. Of the 24 cards in euchre, only 20 are played each hand. Four cards remain face-down in the "kitty". This increases the role of chance since nobody knows for sure which cards will be in play in every hand. Probabilities matter but certainty is, so to speak, off the table.

The rules of euchre will seem arbitrary to beginners. When you start playing, it will feel like the rules are put there purposely to trip you up. Don't worry about this. You'll catch on soon enough. Your frustrated partner will make sure of it. If bridge is like Batman, slow and orderly, euchre is like the Joker, that avatar of chaos. In fact, the joker card was invented to be used in euchre, though it is no longer used in the Canadian variant of the game.

History

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Euchre has been played in North America since the early 19th century. It originated in Alsace as "Juckerspiel" and was carried to the New World by German-speaking immigrants. Some of the game's other terms also come from German. In euchre, the jacks are called "bowers" which is derived from "bauer", the word for farmers in German. Winning all five tricks is called a "march", derived from "marsch".

Euchre was once enormously popular in America. In the 19th century, euchre was widely regarded as the national card game. In one early book The Laws and Practice of the Game of Euchre, published in 1877, the author calls euchre "the Queen of all card-games", claiming that "no sedentary game is more popular, or so generally played for amusement in domestic circles, throughout the widespread 'eminent domain' of the United States."

The same author says that even "a squatter, in the 'Land of the West,' would consider his education sadly neglected, nowadays, if a knowledge of this game was not one of his attainments ; — it is as necessary to his enjoyment of life as a stone-jug of Bourbon… with a corn-cob cork — the 'democratic decanter,' as they call it."

Although the game has declined in popularity somewhat since its 19th century-heyday, it remains very popular in many regions such as the American midwest, Canada (in Ontario in particular), and other English-speaking countries.

What you need to know to get started

To get started, you need a grasp on the basic rules of the game. Full rules are available on the Pagat site here. Each hand consists of three phases.

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The deal: each player is dealt five cards, leaving four which make up the "kitty". The top card of the kitty is flipped over.

The bidding/making trump: starting left of the dealer, each player decides whether or not they want the suit of the flipped card to be trump. If they do, they "order up" the dealer by saying "pick it up". The dealer then puts the flipped card into her hand, and discards one card. If all players pass, then the same process is repeated with each player able to name any suit as trump, except for that which was turned down in the first round. When a player makes trump, they may decide to "go alone", meaning that their partner sits out that round and they play against both of their opponents by themself to attempt to secure extra points.

The play: the player to the left of the dealer leads. Other players must, if they can, follow suit (play the same suit as the card led). If they have no cards of that suit, they can play another. Trumps beat other suits. The player who plays the highest card takes the trick. When a team wins three tricks, they've won the hand. If that is the team that chose trump, then they get one point. If the other team made trump, then the winning team has "euchred" their opponents, and win two points. If a team wins all of the tricks, this is called a "march" and is worth two points. If a player "goes alone" and wins all the tricks, they get four points. The game ends at ten.

Another important but weird rule in euchre is that when trump is made, the jack of that suit becomes the highest card, and is called the "right bower". The jack of the suit of the same colour is transmogrified by the idiosyncratic rules of the game into a trump, and is named "the left bower". It is the second-highest card. So, if spades are trump, then the Jack of Clubs becomes the second-highest spade. This is easy to forget because, to beginner's eyes, the Jack of Clubs will still look like a club. Make no mistake. It is a spade.

For those interested in advanced strategy, there is a useful series of videos.

What you need to have to get started

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To play euchre, you need a deck of cards. Or rather, you need half a deck of cards (9 - Ace). You also need four players. It's best if at least two of them already know how to play, and so can teach the beginners (who they will take as partners). Variations of the game for 3 players, 2 players, and 6 players are also relatively common.

What you need to do to get started

Euchre is played with cards 9 through Ace of every suit. So remove the 2's through 8's and set them aside. From this group, take out the fives. These are used to count points.

Determine who the teams will be. Obviously, the better your partner, the better your chances of winning. Also, winning together can build camaraderie. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that, although your opponents are your opponents, a bungling partner attracts the most anger. If you are just starting out, pick someone you are not afraid of disappointing.

Decide who deals: this is usually done by flipping over cards in front of each player. The first one to receive a bower (jack) deals.

Deal five cards to each player. The card after the last card dealt is flipped over and the first round of bidding determines whether it shall be trump.  

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You are now ready to begin the bidding round described above.

Top tips:

Euchre has a steep learning curve, so you will soon become a competent player. However, because of its arbitrary rules, it is not friendly to absolute beginners. Here are five things that you must not do, but that you will definitely do.

DO NOT forget that the left bower is trump: the jack of the same colour as the jack of trump (the right bower) is trump. Beginners forget this, leading them to misplay and to frustrate their partners.

DO NOT trump your partner's ace: the ace of any suit (except trump) is usually a winning card. To trump your partner's ace is to waste a trump on a trick that your partner was likely to win anyway.

DO NOT forget how that only the dealer can be "ordered up". In the first round of calling trump, only the dealer is allowed to pick up the card under consideration. Other players may "order up" the dealer, making that suit trump and compelling the dealer to put the card in his hand. However, they may not pick up the card themselves. If you are a beginner, you will forget this and try to pick it up yourself. Then you'll start to doubt whether you wanted that to be trump in the first place. People will let you off the first time. After that, be careful.

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DO NOT order up your partner if you do not want to "go alone". In the first round of bidding, you have the option of ordering up your partner. However, according to Canadian rules, any player who orders up their partner must play alone.

DO NOT "table talk". Even sighs or frowns can be considered hints to tip your partner off to what cards are in your hand. This is taken so seriously that beyond being forbidden, it's a misstep that will earn you disrespect.

Here are four things you should do:

DO lead trump if you are on the team that called trump. This is just a rule of thumb, but it can get you started. If your opponents made trump, don't lead trump.  

DO call trump if you think you can win.

DO count on your partner for one trick. You don't know what they have in their hand, but you can generally assume they'll be able to take one trick.

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DO sow discord in the opposing team: partnerships without trust don't win. If one of your opponents messes up, be sure their partner notices.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter. 

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