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Card game

Related subjects: Games

Background Information

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A card game is any game using playing cards, either traditional or game-specific. Countless card games exist, including families of related games (such as poker). Some games have formally standardized rules, while rules for others can vary by region, culture, and person.

The deck

A card game is played with a deck of cards intended for that game that are identical in size and shape. Each card has two sides, the face and the back. The backs of the cards in a deck are indistinguishable. The faces of the cards in a deck may all be unique, or may include duplicates, depending on the game. In either case, any card is readily identifiable by its face. The set of cards that make up the deck are known to all of the players using that deck.

Although many games have special decks of cards, the standard deck contains 52 cards in four suits (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades) and thirteen ranks running from two (deuce) to ten, jack, queen, king, and ace. In addition to games that use the standard deck, there are also games that use some modification of the standard deck, for example removing all cards of rank lower than some rank (as in a pinochle deck), adding a special card ( joker) to the standard deck, or rearranging the ranks of the cards (i.e. "ace-low" or "deuce-high"). Many European regions have their own variants of the standard deck having different names and imagery for suits, or having a different set of ranks in the cards.

There are also some card games that require multiple standard decks. In this scenario, a "deck" refers to a set of 52 cards or a single deck, while a "pack" or "shoe" (blackjack) refers to the collection of "decks" as a whole.

The deal

Card game, 1895

In games where cards are distributed among players, 'deal' is the act of that distribution. Dealing is done either clockwise or counterclockwise. If this is omitted from the rules, then it is assumed to be:

  • clockwise for games from North America, North and West Europe and Russia;
  • counterclockwise for South and East Europe, Asia, South America and also for Swiss games.

A player is chosen to deal. That person takes all of the cards in the pack, arranges them so that they are in a uniform stack, and shuffles them. There are various techniques of shuffling, all intended to put the cards into a random order. During the shuffle, the dealer holds the cards so that he or she and the other players cannot see any of their faces.

After the shuffle, the dealer sometimes offers the deck to another player to cut the deck. If the deal is clockwise, this is the player to the dealer's right; if counterclockwise, it is the player to the dealer's left. The invitation to cut is made by placing the pack, face downward, on the table near the player who is to cut: who then lifts the upper portion of the pack clear of the lower portion and places it alongside. The formerly lower portion is then replaced on top of the formerly upper portion.

The dealer then deals the cards. This is done by dealer holding the pack, face down, in one hand, and removing cards from the top of it with his or her other hand to distribute to the players, placing them face down on the table in front of the players to whom they are dealt. The rules of the game will specify the details of the deal. It normally starts with the player next to the dealer in the direction of play and continues in the same direction around the table. The cards may be dealt one at a time, or in groups. Dependent on the rules all or a determined amount of cards are dealt out. The undealt cards, if any, are left face down in the middle of the table, forming the talon, skat, or stock. The player who received the first card from the deal may be known as eldest hand, or forehand.

Throughout the shuffle, cut, and deal, the dealer should prevent the players from seeing the faces of any of the cards. The players should not try to see any of the faces. Should a player accidentally see a card, other than one's own, proper etiquette would be to admit this. It is also dishonest to try to see cards as they are dealt, or to take advantage of having seen a card. Should a card accidentally become exposed, (visible to all), then, normally, any player can demand a redeal (all the cards are gathered up, and the shuffle, cut, and deal are repeated).

When the deal is complete, all players pick up their cards, or hand, and hold them in such a way that the faces can be seen by the holder of the cards but not the other players, or vice versa depending on the game. It is helpful to fan one's cards out so that if they have corner indices all their values can be seen at once. In most games, it is also useful to sort one's hand, rearranging the cards in a way appropriate to the game. For example, in a trick taking game it may be easier to have all one's cards of the same suit together, whereas in a rummy game one might sort them by rank or by potential combinations.

The rules

A new card game starts in a small way, either as someone's invention, or as a modification of an existing game. Those playing it may agree to change the rules as they wish. The rules that they agree on become the "house rules" under which they play the game. A set of house rules may be accepted as valid by a group of players wherever they play. It may also be accepted as governing all play within a particular house, café, or club.

When a game becomes sufficiently popular, so that people often play it with strangers, there is a need for a generally accepted set of rules. This is often met by a particular set of house rules becoming generally recognised. For example, when whist became popular in 18th-century England, players in the Portland Club agreed on a set of house rules for use on its premises. Players in some other clubs then agreed to follow the "Portland Club" rules, rather than go to the trouble of codifying and printing their own sets of rules. The Portland Club rules eventually became generally accepted throughout England.

There is nothing "official" about this process. If you decide to play whist seriously, it would be sensible to learn the Portland Club rules, so that you can play with other people who already know these rules. But if you only play whist with your family, you are likely to ignore these rules, and just use what rules you choose. If you play whist seriously with a group of friends, you are still perfectly free, as a group, to devise your own set of rules, should you want to.

It is sometimes said that the "official" or "correct" sets of rules governing a card game are those "in Hoyle". Edmond Hoyle was an 18th-century Englishman who published a number of books about card games. His books were popular, especially his treatise on how to become a good whist player. After (and even before) his death, many publishers have taken advantage of his popularity by placing his name on their books of rules. The presence of his name on a rule book has no significance at all. The rules given in the book may be no more than the opinion of the author.

If there is a sense in which a card game can have an "official" set of rules, it is when that card game has an "official" governing body. For example, the rules of tournament bridge are governed by the World Bridge Federation, and by local bodies in various countries such as the American Contract Bridge League in the U.S., and the English Bridge Union in England. The rules of skat are governed by The International Skat Players Association and in Germany by the Deutsche Skatverband which publishes the Skatordnung. The rules of French tarot are governed by the Fédération Française de Tarot. But there is no compulsion to follow the rules put out by these organisations. If you and your friends decide to play a game by a set of rules unknown to the game's official body, you are doing nothing illegal.

Many widely-played card games, such as Canasta and Pinochle, have no official regulating body.

Rule infractions

An infraction is any action which is against the rules of the game, such as playing a card when it is not one's turn to play and the accidental exposure of a card.

In many official sets of rules for card games, the rules specifying the penalties for various infractions occupy more pages than the rules specifying how to play correctly. This is tedious, but necessary for games that are played seriously. Players who intend to play a card game at a high level generally ensure before beginning that all agree on the penalties to be used. When playing privately, this will normally be a question of agreeing house rules. In a tournament there will probably be a tournament director who will enforce the rules when required and arbitrate in cases of doubt.

If a player breaks the rules of a game deliberately, this is cheating. Most card players would refuse to play cards with a known cheat. The rest of this section is therefore about accidental infractions, caused by ignorance, clumsiness, inattention, etc.

As the same game is played repeatedly among a group of players, precedents build up about how a particular infraction of the rules should be handled. For example, "Sheila just led a card when it wasn't her turn. Last week when Jo did that, we agreed ... etc.". Sets of such precedents tend to become established among groups of players, and to be regarded as part of the house rules. Sets of house rules become formalised, as described in the previous section. Therefore, for some games, there is a "proper" way of handling infractions of the rules. But for many games, without governing bodies, there is no standard way of handling infractions.

In many circumstances, there is no need for special rules dealing with what happens after an infraction. As a general principle, the person who broke a rule should not benefit by it, and the other players should not lose by it. An exception to this may be made in games with fixed partnerships, in which it may be felt that the partner(s) of the person who broke a rule should also not benefit. The penalty for an accidental infraction should be as mild as reasonable, consistent with there being no possible benefit to the person responsible.

Types of card games

Trick-taking games

The object of a trick-taking game is to take (or avoid taking) tricks, or groups of cards played simultaneously or in turn.

Matching games

The object of Rummy, and various other melding or matching games, is to play groups of matching cards before your opponent(s). Non-Rummy examples of match-type games include the children's games Go Fish and Old Maid.

Solitaire (or Patience) games

Solitaire games are designed to be played by one player. Most games begin with a specific layout of cards, called a tableau, and the object is then either to construct a more elaborate final layout (such as Grandfather's Clock) or to clear the tableau by moving all cards to one or more "discard" or "foundation" piles (as in Klondike, Freecell and Pyramid).

Shedding games

In a shedding game, players start with a hand of cards, and the object of the game is to be the first player to discard all cards from one's hand. Examples include Dai Hin Min and Crazy Eights. Some matching-type games are also shedding-type games; some variants of Rummy such as Phase 10, as well as the children's game Old Maid, fall into both categories.

Accumulating games

The object of an accumulating game is to acquire all cards in the deck. Examples include most "war"-type games, and games involving slapping a discard pile.

Fishing games

Fishing games are combination matching-shedding games that share a common element; players "fish" for needed cards by taking them from another's hand, asking other players for those cards, or drawing from a central "pool" of untaken cards. Go Fish is a classic example.

Multi-genre games

Many games borrow elements from more than one type of game. The most common combination is that of matching and shedding, as in some variants of Rummy, Old Maid and Go Fish. However, many multi-genre games involve different stages of play for each hand. The most common combination is a "trick-and-meld" game, such as Pinochle or Belote. Other multi-stage, multi-genre games include Poke, Skitgubbe and Tichu.

Collectible card games (CCGs)

Collectible card games are defined by the use of non-standard decks, the contents of which are accumulated by the player through purchase or trade for desireable cards. Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! are well-known collectible card games. Such games are also created to capitalize on the popularity of other forms of entertainment, such as Pokémon and The X-Men which both have had CCGs created around them.

Casino or gambling card games

These games revolve around wagers of money. Though virtually any game in which there are winning and losing outcomes can be wagered on, these games are specifically designed to make the wagering process a strategic part of the game. Some of these games involve players wagering against each other, such as poker, while in others, like blackjack, players wager against the house.

Other card games

Many other card games have been designed and published on a commercial or amateur basis. In some cases, the game uses the standard 52-card deck, but the object is unique. In Eleusis, for example, players play single cards, and are told whether the play was legal or illegal, in an attempt to discover the underlying rules made up by the dealer.

Most of these games however typically use a specially-made deck of cards designed specifically for the game (or variations of it). The decks are thus usually proprietary, as with Apples to Apples, but other times, as in 1000 Blank White Cards, the cards are created by the game's players.

Fictional card games

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