Zen And The Art Of Euchre

Back in grade school my dad, a friend, his dad and I went on a camping trip. Among other things–listening to Cheech & Chong, hiking and cooking over a campfire–they tried teaching me a card game called euchre. I wasn’t very interested at the time, so the game’s complicated hierarchy of trump and whatever-the-heck a bower was went over my head. I think I grasped enough to play for a little while, but most of the knowledge skipped away by the next day. Soon enough I was in high school though and, among my group of friends, euchre was the way to pass the time during lunch. I soon picked the game up and got the hang of it to the point where four of us would sit in pre-ordained seats (two on each side of the end of a lunch table), toss out that year’s deck of cards and play almost on autopilot while talking about who had a test coming up or girl problems or music. You’ve never seen a dirtier, grosser or more bent-in-half deck of cards in your life by the end of the school year thanks to hundreds of games and lunches.

It might seem strange to play a game that you don’t have to pay attention to, but I think we all found it kind of calming. No matter what kind of chaos was going on around us either at school or in our personal lives, I think the rules and structure of the game balanced out with some order. Everyone can use a little order, right?

I guess is a Midwest thing, though because, I’ve never met anyone from a state other than Ohio, Michigan or Indiana who knows how to play the game. One night during my Freshman year of college I sat around with some friends–two of whom were from Ohio even–and tried teaching them the game to no avail. Either I was explaining it poorly (very possible, though liquor was definitely not involved, as some of you might be thinking) or they just didn’t care, whatever the reason, we quit and played something else. I haven’t bothered teaching anyone since then. After nearly 10 years of no euchre I ordered a video game version for my computer earlier this year and recently downloaded the Euchre Online app for my iPhone (I chose that one because it’s free). I still find myself sitting here, mindlessly playing euchre after a long day of baby-watching, work, cooking and doing dishes. It’s a great way to decompress.

The post could easily end here, but I’m going to attempt to explain how the game is played. If you’re interested, hit the jump!Right off the bat, you’ve got to get yourself a euchre deck that consists of the 9 through Ace cards of all four suits. You can actually buy euchre-specific decks, but that just seems lazy to me. We also had the 4 and 6 of a red and black suit for score keeping, though I’m not sure if the suit itself matters (I’m going by what I was taught, I’m sure there’s plenty of variations out there). I’ll get to scoring later. Mix all the non score cards together and shuffle them up. Also, euchre is a game played with a partner. You guys sit diagonally across from one another while your opponents do the same. You’re not allowed to communicate with your partner, though I’ve known players who partner up often to work out signals with one another. Technically this is illegal and called Table Talk.

Even dealing’s a little odd when it comes to euchre. The way I was taught to deal was 2 or 3 cards at a time to alternating people. In the hand above I dealt from the bottom left which meant I passed two to the person across from me, three to my partner (partners sit diagonally from one another), two to the person next to me and three to myself. Each person gets a total of five cards total, so then you keep the pattern going as you deal them all out. You’ll notice by the time you deal five cards to all the players, you wind up with four cards left. That’s the buried pile, but it’s not completely useless. You flip the top card of the buried pile over and that’s the first potential trump card. The ability to call that suit up as trump moves around the circle to the left. If it comes back to the dealer, he can either pick it up or turn it down. Then the cycle continues with players able to call whichever suit they want as trump. The way we played, if the choice comes back to the dealer the second time around, the dealer got stuck and had to choose a trump (we called it “stick the dick” or “dealer” if in mixed company). The app version I have just cancels the hand and moves the deal to the next person (always the person to the left of the previous dealer). So, trump. I wasn’t familiar with it before learning euchre, but then again I wasn’t exactly a worldly card player to begin with. Whichever suit winds up being trump is the best suit to have, they trump any other suit a player might throw on the table. But, this being euchre, the hierarchy of cards is a bit unusual. Let’s take the above layout for example. In this case Diamonds is trump. The cards might seem out of order, but that’s how it works in euchre. The Jack of whatever suit is trump is called the right bower, it’s the best card during that hand. Making matters even more confusing, the Jack of the other suit of the same color (called the left bower) is the next highest card, in this case it’s the Jack of Hearts. For all intents and purposes the Jack of Hearts is a Diamond. It then goes down from there in Diamonds (Ace, King, Queen, 10, 9). However, like I said, even the lowliest trump can take out an Ace of any other suit. In this case the spades would not be trump, so they are ordered as they would be in a game like Poker with the jack of clubs not related in any way. Of course, the next hand, it will all change again. Even though the cards are revealed in the above picture, you don’t actually play with your hands face-up. This is just for explanatory reasons. I should have properly ordered them, but instead I just flipped them over with no organization. So, I dealt from the bottom left which means the person to my left has first crack at trump. He can either tell me to pick up the 10 of clubs or pass (in high school, we’d just knock the table to pass). He’d probably order it up because he’s got the Ace, Jack and 9 of Clubs. Sure, he’d be giving me a trump card and has no idea where the left is (turns out my partner has it), but it’s probably worth the risk. If the other three players pass, it’s up to you. You can either pick the suit up or turn it down. If you pick it up or are ordered up, you have to discard a card to keep five in your hand. If you turn it down, it goes back around the circle with the other players able to call whatever suit they want as trump (aside from whatever was up in the first round). If you’re calling trump either as a dealer or during the second round of calling, you can choose to go along which means your partner sits the hand out and you play against both of your opponents. It’s risky, but also the best way to score lots of points, but only if you get all five tricks.

Once trump is called the person to the left of the dealer leads with whatever card they choose. If you have a card of that suit, you must lay it (following suit). If you don’t, you can play whichever card you choose. You can throw a trump if you’ve got one or get rid of a useless non trump 9s or 10s. Whoever wins that trick with the highest card then leads with their choice of cards. We played very informally, so if you had both bowers and the Ace of trump, we’d just throw them out right away to make things move along a little quicker. The video game versions don’t have this option.

When it comes to scoring, you and your partner need to win three tricks to get a point. That’ll get you one point. If you get all five tricks you get two points. If your team calls trump and the other team winds up getting three tricks, that’s called a euchre and it’s worth two points. If you go alone and get all five tricks you can score four points, but if the other team gets a point or two, you only get one. The first team to 10 points wins. I was always taught that you should be able to rely on your partner for at least one trick, so if you’ve only got two trump and want to call it, it’s within reason to do so. As I mentioned, we kept score using two other cards from the regular deck of cards, revealing the corresponding number of suit images (ie clubs, spades, hearts or diamonds) on the card. Obviously, this only works with a deck of cards that shows the corresponding number of suits and not just a big number or nudie girls.  You could also use paper, but since you’re probably cannibalizing a regular deck to play, you might as well save some paper and use some of those other cards.

All of which brings me to another aspect of the game: the flexible rules or strategies. The hard and fast rules are very set. No table talk. The deal moves around the circle, always to the left. You have to follow the suit lead (not doing so is called reneging). Trumps always beat everything else. The rules are solid and when we played, we stuck to them, only occasionally screwing up on accident, being distracted by an indepth conversation about which Led Zeppelin album was the best. Then there’s the strategies and “rules” I was taught that are more flexible. For instance, I was told that, if a bower winds up being the card flipped over as the first potential trump and you dealt, you always pick it up. If it was dealt to your partner you never order it up (unless you’re going alone and effectively burying that card) because you might be robbing him of going alone. You’re also never supposed to order up a bower to one of your opponents because you’re guaranteeing them a point. Let’s see, what else? Oh, if you dealt and have to discard after trump has been called, it’s best to leave yourself with the fewest suits possible. So, if you’ve got two cards that are trump (let’s say Hearts), a 9 and King of Clubs and the Queen of Diamonds, you want to get rid of the Queen of diamonds. Even though it’s higher than the 9 of Clubs, you’re limiting the number of suits you’ll have to follow and increase your ability to throw down trump. I followed most of these strategies pretty strictly when I was starting out, but as I got more comfortable I realized that they were good guidelines, but not hard and fast rules that had to be followed. I’ll often turn down a bower if I’m filled with the opposite color. You get the idea.

Reading this all over, it’s no wonder my friends in college couldn’t keep up (it didn’t help that it was late too). The game just feels so different and weird that it can be hard to grasp. Trying to juggle all the rules and remember the order, which changes from hand to hand, and THEN trying to remember all the rules and strategies your friends are telling you to also follow can start to feel like work instead of a game that’s supposed to be fun. Heck, I’m the guy who has to consult a list of the best hands when playing poker still. But, once you get past all the strangeness–it really doesn’t take long, I promise–the game’s simplicity and structure can not only prove to be a lot of fun, but also a nice balance to the craziness of every day life.

So, anyone want to play?

3 thoughts on “Zen And The Art Of Euchre

  1. Haha, fun post TJ! I remember that camping trip well. I haven’t been camping in forever but I reclaimed my old tent from my parents’ house recently. I still play a decent amount of euchre whenever I’m back in Toledo. You should bring Lucy for a Cleveland visit and we’ll play.

  2. Dad and I were thinking of getting some people together this fall for a euchre night. Maybe we can teach Emily and have a game next time we visit. Good memories….

  3. I also remember that camping trip very well. Didn’t know you had been so disinterested in the card game but I remember we had a really good time with the 2 Geof’s. I’m hoping mom & I can get the euchre nite to happen – love playing that game. I especially like it when mom is my partner – it’s like playing with Obi Wan Kenobi – she feels the force with the cards!

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