4. Finding Your Partner

One of the most important questions when playing Sheepshead is with whom one is playing. That is, who is your partner? Of course, this is obvious in a solo game -- the soloist plays against the other three players who are partners. You will soon discover, however, that Solo games are not as common as you might imagine.

Under the American Sheepshead rules, the determination of partners is simple. Either the players sitting opposite each other are permanent partners or the partners are the ones - similar to Doppelkopf - who hold two particular Queens. The latter case is a "call" or "two-card-partnership game." The partnership is revealed only through the play of the cards, however. It is not permitted to announce that one holds a Queen. The players holding the special Queens make up the Re-Team who then oppose the others who are the Contra-Team. If a single player happens to hold both of the special Queens, s/he has the choice (as under the Bavarian rules) of calling an Ace or announcing a "Marriage" (1st trick is partner).

According to the Bavarian rules, a player (the play "maker") may select a partner by naming a non-trump Ace (Clubs, Spades, or Diamonds) that s/he does not hold. The maker must hold at least one card in the suit of the named Ace. Whoever holds the Ace is then the partner, but must not reveal this fact except through the play of the cards.

One might suppose that it is advantageous to conceal the partnerships as long as possible, even as far as playing the Club Queens to the last trick. This strategy is usually not the most successful one, however. Normally it is better to clarify who is playing with whom sooner rather than later. You receive no points for secrecy, rather only for the card points that you capture in tricks. As a practical matter, you will soon discover how advantageous it is to know who is playing together. You can, for example, trump when appropriate, "smear" an insecure 10 to a trick won by your partner, bring a 10 or an Ace "home" yourself, or "catch the fox" (american rules). In this regard, there are many possible strategies which we will explain more completely in the next chapter.

You could say, "What difference does it make, if I know who my partner is? I had great cards - 4 Queens, 2 Jacks. It made no difference who my partner was. My cards were destined for a great win, no matter what." Okay. But, be truthful with yourself. With such cards, you should really play a Solo by yourself rather than having a partner who you ignore. Besides, you get more points for a Solo than for a normal Call game.

Certainly there are thousands of reasons pro and con for any particular strategy. We won't take it up further here, but rather simply refer you to the comprehensive literature on Doppelkopf.

In a call game, there are actually two ways to discover who is playing with whom. The first is to announce with whom you are playing. The second is simply to play out the cards a particular way. Let's take first things first.

4.1 Double and Redouble

We'll come back to it again in Chapter 6 (Scoring), but we want to note here that the value of a game can be increased by announcements such as, "Contra," "Re," which mean double and re-double the score. This means that you should only make such an announcement when you hold a strong hand and expect to win at least 3 or 4 of the tricks.

The first announcement can only be made by the defensive (Contra) team and saying "Contra" means that the player doesn't believe that the offensive side (Re team) can make the required 61 card points necessary to win. If the offensive side wishes to dispute this claim, it can announce "Re." This can continue with the responses, "Supra" and "Resupra." But, be careful with such announcements. Each one doubles the resulting score, plus or minus. This can be an expensive proposition.

What's the point of all of this in terms of scoring? We want to show you briefly that such announcements have consequences for the odds of winning as well as for the value of the game. Aside from the inflation of the score, these announcements convey information legally about the strength of a player's hand and indicate who is playing with whom, i.e, the partners can identify each other -- on both sides!

Let's assume that you hold good cards and say, "Contra." The other players then know that you belong to the Contra-Team. This can be announced only at the beginning of the game before any cards have been played.

What kind of cards should you hold in order to announce Contra or Re? Certainly, one would expect that you think you can win the hand. More specifically,

Contra/Re means: "If the distribution of the cards is normal, I will certainly take 3 or 4 tricks."

By, "normal distribution of cards," we mean that you assume that "Lady luck" is neither with you nor against you. That is, you expect your short-suit Aces to go through and your long-suit ones to be trumped and under these conditions you expect to win the estimated number of card points.

Please resist the notion that you can risk an announcement only when you hold terrific cards. Failing to make an announcement when you should is just as big a loss as when you make an announcement and lose. In both cases it costs the same so you should always increase the game value when your odds of winning are greater than 50%.

4.2 Strategies for Playing out the Cards

There are many strategies for playing a card when you don't yet know who your partner is.

4.2.1 The Case Where Your Partner Announces Contra or Re

Let's assume that your partner has just announced "Contra" or "Re." That is, you know with whom you are playing, but your partner is still "in the dark" that you are his/her partner. Of course, you could simply wink or give some kind of hand signal to indicate that the two of you are playing together, but this is bad sportsmanship and, besides, it is not permitted by the rules.

What legal alternatives do you have? There are several possibilities:

  1. If you belong to the Re Team, you could simply lead the called Ace (or appropriate Queen under the American rules).

  2. Suppose that you find yourself playing the last card to a trick that currently belongs to your partner. If you have no more cards of the suit that was lead, simply "smear" a high-counting card (such as an Ace or 10) to the trick won by your partner. In this way, your partner will figure that the two of you are playing together. Otherwise, why would you have given away so many card points?

  3. Your partner leads a high card, a Spade Ace perhaps, and you have a choice of two Spades to play. It's best to select the one with the higher point value. Your partner will not know for sure that the two of you are playing together, but will suspect it, if you follow this pattern consistently.

4.2.2 The Case Where Your Opponent Announces Contra or Re.

This case is the exact opposite of the one described in section 5.2.1 above. There are the following possibilities:

  1. If you belong to the Re Team, play the called Ace (or appropriate Queen under the American rules) at the next opportunity so that your partner knows who you are.

  2. Suppose that you find yourself playing the last card to a trick that currently belongs to your opponents. If you have no more of the cards of the suit that was lead, you can trump or over-trump so that you capture the trick. This indicates that you oppose the player who would have otherwise won the trick and identifies you to your partner.

  3. Your opponent leads a high card, a Spade Ace perhaps, and you have a choice of two Spades to play. Select the one with the lower point value. No one will know for sure with whom you are playing, but it will become clear if you follow this pattern consistently.

4.2.3 No Announcement Has Been Made by Either Side

This is the most common case that you will encounter. There are two possibilities when you play the first trick.

Simply play the called suit (or appropriate Queen) as soon as possible.

If this isn't possible or, for some reason, you don't want to play this way, the best option is to behave as if you are playing a Solo game and try to capture as many card points as possible.

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