David Parlett's Skat pages



Germany's national card game

Part 2 : How to play it

Clubjack Spadejack Heartjack Diamondjack

Skat is a three-player game, but usually four play together with each in turn sitting out the hand to which they deal. All play goes to the left (clockwise). Dealer's left-hand neighbour is designated Forehand; at Forehand's left is Middlehand; and at Middlehand's left is Rearhand, who deals if there are only three at a table.
Forehand Rearhand
Dealer (if 4 at a table)
A game is any number of deals exactly divisible by the number of players, typically 48. Choose first dealer by any agreed means.

A 32-card French- or German-suited pack is used. If French, it consists of A-10-K-Q-J-9-8-7 (A-10-K-D-B-9-8-7) in clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. If German, it consists of A-10-King-Ober-Unter-9-8-7 in acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. Some French-suited cards colour the suits respectively black, green, red, and yellow, in imitation of the equivalent German suits. The following description assumes such cards are used.

Deal 10 cards each, starting with Forehand, in batches of 3-(2)-4-3. Between the first round of three and the round of four, deal two face down to the table. These two form "the skat".

Rank and value of cards
The rank of cards for trick-taking purposes, and their card-point values when captured in tricks, are as follows (from highest to lowest):

Trumps: clubJ spadeJ heartJ diamondJ A 10 K Q 9 8 7
Non-trumps:     A10KQ987
Card-points:222211 1043000

  • the four Jacks normally rank as the four highest trumps and therefore belong to the trump suit regardless of their individual suit markings;
  • in suit contracts the trump suit therefore contains 11 cards as opposed to the seven of each plain suit;
  • no fewer than one third of the cards in play are trumps (compared with one half in Bridge, Whist etc);
  • the total number of card-points in play is 120.

There is an auction to determine who will play alone against the other two. The soloist's aim is normally to capture at least 61 card-points in tricks, but he may alternatively bid to capture at least 90, or to win all ten tricks, or to lose every trick. (Note: it is possible to capture 61 card-points in as few as two of the ten tricks played, and equally possible to fail despite winning as many as eight.)

There are three types of game contract:

  1. In suit. A suit is named as trump. The entire trump suit then contains eleven cards, headed by the four Jacks, and followed by A10KQ987. The other 21 cards rank A10KQ987 in each suit.
  2. Grand. Only Jacks are trumps. They form a fifth suit of four cards only, such that the lead of a Jack requires Jacks to be played if possible. The other 28 cards rank A10KQ987 in each suit.
  3. Null. An undertaking to lose every trick. There is no trump, and cards rank AKQJ10987 in every suit.

Any of these games may be undertaken in either of two ways:

  1. With the skat: The soloist adds the skat to his hand and makes any two discards before announcing trumps, grand, or null.
  2. From the hand: The soloist plays with the hand as dealt and announces his game immediately. He does not look at the skat until after the last trick.

Either way, any card-points contained in the skat count for the soloist as if he had won them in tricks.

Game values
The value of a game contract is not the number of card-points you may take in tricks but the score you will get if you become the soloist and make your contract. Whoever bids to play the game of highest value becomes the soloist. Before you can bid sensibly, you must first learn how to evaluate the game that you wish to play. Except for nulls, which have fixed values, game contracts are evaluated in the following way.

Trump games (suit or grand) are valued by taking the base value of the suit selected as trump and multiplying this by a number of additional factors which might as well be called multipliers. The base values are:

diamonds diamond = 9, hearts heart = 10, spades spade = 11, clubs spade = 12, grand = 24

The multipliers are:
  • 1 per "top" (see below), plus
  • 1 for game, plus
  • 1 for schneider (taking at least 90 card-points), plus
  • 1 for schwarz (winning every trick), plus
  • 1 for playing from the hand (if bid), plus
  • 1 for schneider predicted (only if playing from hand), plus
  • 1 for schwarz predicted (only if playing from hand), plus
  • 1 for playing ouvert (from hand, with schwarz predicted)

"Tops" (German Spitzen, sometimes translated "matadors") means a series of consecutive top trumps from the clubJ down.

If you hold clubJ, then you are playing "with" as many tops as you hold. For example, holding clubJ but not spadeJ, you are "with one". If you hold clubJ and spadeJ, but not heartJ, then you are "with two". And so on, up to a maximum of "with 11" in a suit game, or "with four" at grand. (Note: Although you physically hold only 10 cards, you can be with or without 11 because the two cards in the skat count as part of your holding.)

If you do not hold clubJ, then you are playing "without" (or "against") as many tops as lie above the highest trump you do hold.

For example, if your highest trump is the spadeJ, you are "without one". If it is heartJ, you are "without two". If it is the trump Ten, you are "without five", as you lack four Jacks and the Ace. And so on, to a maximum of "without 11" in suit, or "without 4" at grand. (Yes, it is possible to win a grand without holding any of the four Jack-trumps!)

Note that it is only the actual number of tops that count: whether you are playing "with" them or "against" them is irrelevant.

To the number of tops you hold, add
1 multiplier for game if you expect to take at least take at least 61 card-points in tricks, or
2 for schneider if you think you can take 90+, or
3 for schwarz if you think you can win every trick.

If you intend to play from the hand instead of taking the skat and discarding before play, you further increase your game value by adding 1 for hand.

If - and only if - you play from the hand, you may further increase your game value by announcing in advance your intention of winning schneider or schwarz, for 1 or 2 extra factors respectively. These extra values for schneider or schwarz declared will be additional to the 1 or 2 for actually winning them.

If - and only if - you play from hand with schwarz declared, you may add yet another multiplier for playing ouvert - that is, by laying your hand of cards face up on the table before the opening lead and playing with them exposed.

Given the valuations outlined above, it follows that the lowest possible game value is 18 (diamonds, with or without 1, game 2, × 9 = 18), and the highest 264 (grand ouvert with 4, game 5, hand 6, schneider 7, declared 8, schwarz 9, declared 10, ouvert 11 × 24).

Null bids. Null (misère) contracts have fixed and invariable values as follows:

Null (with skat) 23
Null hand 35
Null ouvert 46
Null ouvert, hand 59

The auction
Middlehand starts the auction by either passing or bidding against Forehand. He does so by naming successive game values from the lowest up, i.e. 18, 20, 22, 23, 24, 27, 30, 33, 35, 36, etc. (It is permissible to "jump bid" by omitting individual values, but not to bid imaginary game values like 19 or 21.) To each of these, Forehand says "Yes" if he is prepared to play a game worth at least that amount, otherwise "Pass".

When one of the passes (either Middlehand because he will not make a higher bid, or Forehand because he can't accept the last bid named), it is time for Rearhand to enter the bidding. He can either pass, or continue bidding against the survivor by naming the next higher bid and continuing in like manner from that level. When one of them passes, the survivor becomes the soloist, and must play a game at least equal in value to the last bid made or accepted.

If neither Middlehand nor Rearhand will open at 18, Forehand may undertake a game of any value; but if he also passes, the cards are thrown in and Forehand becomes the next dealer. (More commonly, the hands are kept and used to play one round of a game called Ramsch, but this is not part of the Official Rules and is not played in tournaments.)

Game announcement
If you become the soloist and intend to playing with skat exchange, you add the two cards of the skat to your hand without showing them, make any two discards face down in their place, and then announce your game - saying, for example, "spades", or "grand", or "null", or "null overt", as the case may be. There is nothing to prevent you discarding either or both of the cards you pick up, nor from announcing a game different from the one you had in mind (if any) when bidding, so long as whatever contract you do announce is worth at least the last bid you made or accepted. In fact, a very common reason for electing to play with skat exchange rather than from the hand is that you have two or three different potential game contracts and need to see what is in the skat to help you decide between them.

If playing from hand, you may not examine the skat but must announce your game, adding "hand" (e.g. "hearts hand", "grand hand", "null hand", etc) and any other declaration that may be applicable ("schneider declared", "schwarz declared", "schwarz declared and ouvert").

If playing ouvert, you lay your hand of cards face up on the table before the opening lead, regardless of who makes it. Remember that you can play ouvert only from the hand and with schwarz declared.

As the soloist, you may concede defeat at any time between announcing your game and the end of the first trick. Once the second trick has been led you may do so only with the permission of at least one opponent.

The commonest cause of conceding before play begins is when, playing with skat exchange and without two or more tops, you find one or more higher tops in the skat. For example, suppose you won the bid at 22, intending to play in hearts "without 2, game 3, × 10, = 30". You turn the skat and find the club (or spade) Jack. This revalues his game at "with (or without) 1, game 2, × 10 = 20", which is lower than the 22 you bid. You now have three options:
  • Announce hearts, as intended, and attempt to win schneider for the extra multiplier which will bring you game value to 30. You don't have to announce that you need schneider to justify your bid.
  • You may attempt a different game - perhaps spades (22), null (23), clubs (24), or even grand (48).
  • If none of these is playable, you will have to concede the game without play. In this case you will (of course) declare your game to be the lowest possible one consistent with your bid-in this case spades.
(Of course, if you were bidding "without 2" and were lucky enough to pick up both both black Jacks in the skat, the problem would no longer exist, as you would be counting "with three", at least.)

Either opponent can concede at any time. His partner is bound by the concession, and play ceases immediately.

Forehand always leads to the first trick, and the winner of each trick leads to the next. You must follow suit if you can, but may play any card if you can't. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played.

At grand, the lead of a Jack calls for Jacks to be played, since they constitute a separate four-card trump suit. In a suit contract, the lead of any trump calls for the play of any other trump, not necessarily a Jack for a Jack.

Cards won by the partners are kept together in a single pile. Unless either side concedes, all ten tricks must be played - except at null, when play ends if and when the soloist wins a trick. The skat is then turned up to ensure that the game is correctly valued.

Won game
The soloist wins if -
  • he took at least 61 card-points, or 90 if he bid schneider, or every trick if he bid schwarz, or no trick if he bid null; and
  • the game as revalued after play is worth at least the amount bid.
In this event, the soloist's actual game value is added to his aggregate score. In this connection, note:
  • The actual game value may be higher than originally envisaged, for example if the skat extends the number of tops originally dealt, or if the soloist makes schneider or schwarz without having declared it in advance;
  • The skat counts as part of the hand for game valuation purposes, so it is possible to be with or without eleven tops even though only ten cards are actually held.
Lost game
If you lose your contract, you must first calculate your actual game value as described above, and then, provided that this value is not less than the amount you bid, double it before deducting it from your aggregate score.

If, however, the value of your lost game proves to be less than the amount bid, then the amount to be doubled and deducted is the next higher multiple of the relevant base value that equals or exceeds your bid. For example, suppose you won the auction at 33, bidding on the basis of being without two, game three, hand four, times 10 for hearts = 40, but on turning the skat at end of play had found it to contain clubJ. This devalues your game to 30 (being with one instead of without two), which is less than your bid of 33. You must therefore lose the next higher multiple of your base value, namely 40, which is doubled to 80 for a lost game. This applies regardless of whether or not you actually made your contract. Of course, if you had made schneider (by taking 90 or more card-points in tricks), you would have counted an extra multiplier for that feat, and scored plus 40 instead of minus 80.

If you lose your contract and are yourself schneidered (by taking in 30 or fewer card-points), you must count an extra multiplier for the schneider lost as part of your game valuation.

Copyright © 2017 by David Parlett

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