What is Euchre anyway? A brief history of this classic card game

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Euchre is a classic card game that is currently enjoying a revival. Its simplicity and speed make it attractive to card players who have limited time, and its balance of luck and skill gives both novices and experienced players reason to think they can win.

During the 18th- and 19th-centuries, versions of euchre that differ slightly from the modern game were very popular in Europe. John McLeod of London, England, is a leading card game authority who maintains Pagat.com, a treasure trove of information on all card games. He says euchre originated from the Alsatian game Jucker. Other card historians, such as Catherine Perry Hargreave, argue that euchre evolved from the French game écarté, a descendant of the Spanish game triumph. An early version played in England and France during the mid-1700s was called "ruff," a term still used by Bridge and Spades players to mean the act of trumping when void in the suit led.

Euchre was modernized and brought to America during the Napoleonic era, although controversy persists as to how and with whom it arrived. Renowned bridge theorist Charles Goren and the great bridge writer George Coffin both claimed that the game was popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch. One piece of evidence supporting this theory is that the euchre term "bower" sounds the same as the German word Bauer, meaning "farmer" (as well as "pawn" in chess, incidentally). However, both Hargreave and John Scarne, the noted poker expert and author of The Encyclopedia of Card Games, are of the opinion that euchre was introduced by the French in Louisiana, and later traveled up the Mississippi River to the northern states.

Around 1850, jokers were first added to playing-card decks in the U.S. for specific use in the game of euchre. Today, a joker is no longer used in the form of euchre practiced by most U.S. players, but it still serves as the highest trump in the British version of euchre.

A little over 100 years ago, when the popularity of whist was fading and poker was somewhat limited to riverboats and the Old West, euchre was the most popular card game in the United States. A few decades later, it was eclipsed by bridge. The United States Playing Card Company tried to sustain the game by using specially prepared decks of cards and by creating games with rules based on those of euchre. However, the bridge craze could not be contained. During the 1930s and '40s, contract bridge was all the rage. Pioneers like Goren, Oswald Jacoby and Fred Sheinwold promoted tournaments, and the American Contract Bridge League grew rapidly in membership. Other games, meanwhile, also began to gain fans at euchre's expense. These included Spades Canasta (a huge craze from 1948 to 1955) and Bid whist. Nonetheless, euchre retained a core following: the Midwest, Pennsylvania, Florida (retirees) and much of Ontario, Canada. These regions are still bastions for tournaments and clubs, and this game is also popular in the U.S. Navy. Recently, the Internet has helped to rekindle interest in euchre, and several websites - many of which offer tournaments, ratings and competitive play for enthusiasts of all skill levels. Today, euchre still has legions of devotees around the country and thousands of recent converts.



Basic Rules

Euchre is normally played in a partnership format with two teams of two players each. Partners sit across from each other. (Three-handed and six-handed variations exist as well, but are less popular.) The deck consists of 24 cards - the nine through the ace in each of four suits. A 32-card deck, which was standard a few decades ago, is still used in some locales.

The dealer of the first hand is chosen by dealing out the cards until someone receives a jack. That person becomes dealer, shuffles the cards, and offers the deck to the player on his right to cut. Five cards are then dealt to each player in a clockwise direction in batches of two and three cards at a time. (Either the set of two or three cards may be dealt first; alternatively, players may agree to deal one card at a time.) The remaining four cards are placed in the middle of the table, and the top card of that group is turned face up, tentatively suggesting the trump suit for that hand. Players pick up their hands and begin the bidding.

The eldest hand (the player to the dealer's left) is first to bid, either by passing or by "ordering up" the upturned card into the dealer's hand. If the up-card is ordered up, its suit becomes trump, and the dealer takes the up-card into his hand and discards one card, face down, onto the remainder of the pack. If the eldest hand passes, each remaining player - in turn moving clockwise around the table - has the same options of passing or ordering the up-card into the dealer's hand (not into his own hand). If the first three players pass, the dealer has this same option, though he will usually say "I take it" instead of "I order it up." If the dealer takes the top card, regardless of who orders it up, its suit becomes trump for that deal. If all four players pass, the dealer turns the up-card face down, and a second round of bidding begins. Now, beginning with the eldest hand, each player in turn may either pass or name trump by calling any suit other than the suit of the original up-card. If all four players pass a second time, the deal is abandoned, and the deal rotates to the left. (In some circles, the dealer is forced to name trump if three passes occur in the second round of the bidding; this is known as the "stick the dealer" or "screw the dealer" variation.)

Whoever chooses trump - whether by telling the dealer to pick up the up-card or by naming the suit in the second round of bidding - becomes the trump "maker" for that hand. Before the first card is played, any player who makes trump may opt to play alone, in which case his partner puts his hand face down and remains inactive for the rest of the hand. Either defender may also choose to defend alone.

The Trump Suit

The jacks play a vital role in euchre. Cards in the trump suit are ranked from highest to lowest as follows: right bower (the jack); left bower (the jack of the suit that's the same color as the trump suit); ace, king, queen, ten, nine. For example, if spades were trump, the jack of spades would be the top-ranking trump, and the jack of clubs (clubs being the other black suit) would be the second-highest trump, followed by the ace of spades, king of spades, and so on. If diamonds were trump, the jack of hearts would be the second-highest trump. All nontrump suits are neutral, and rank in the normal fashion from the ace down to the nine. A curious quirk is that the same-color suit as trump has one fewer card because its jack is the left bower.

The Play of the Hand

The player to the left of the dealer makes the opening lead, which may be any card, and the other players follow in rotation. (If someone is playing alone, however, the player on his left makes the opening lead; if two are playing alone, the defender leads.) A player must always follow suit if possible; otherwise, any card may be played, including a trump. Keep in mind that the left bower - the jack that matches the trump suit's color - is treated as a trump for all purposes (i.e., if it is led, others must follow suit by playing trump). The set of four cards played in succession - one by each player - constitutes a trick. Each trick is won by the highest trump played in it or, if no trumps are played, by the highest card played in the suit that was led. The winner of each trick leads the first card of the next trick until the entire hand - five tricks in all - is played out.

The side that makes trump must take at least three tricks to earn points. Failure to do so is to suffer a set, known as a "euchre," which earns points for the defending side.

There are penalties for revokes (reneges), bids, leads out of turn, and premature exposure of cards; these are usually applied at large tournaments rather than in friendly games.



Scoring

One side or the other earns points each hand, as follows:

If the trump makers win three or four tricks, their side scores 1 point. If the trump makers win all five tricks, their side scores 2 points. If the trump maker plays alone and wins three or four tricks, his side scores 1 point. If the trump maker plays alone and wins all five tricks, his side scores 4 points. If the trump-making side is euchred (takes fewer than three tricks), whether or not playing alone, the defenders earn 2 points. If a defender playing alone wins three or more tricks, the defenders earn 4 points. The game limit is 10 points; that is, the first team to reach 10 points wins. Winning all five tricks in a hand is called a "sweep" or "march." Note: One of the players is usually designated as the scorer by mutual consent or by a cut of the cards. Many players use the sixes and fours from a standard deck to keep score, covering or exposing pips on the cards as the score changes.

Euchre is a fast paced and lively game. It is also very easy to learn, and the 5 card hand is ideal for young players as well as the elderly!

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Joe Andrews is the author of four card game books, and director of Grand Prix "live" card game tournaments (1999-2011). He is also a columnist for various online gaming sites. He has written eight full length articles for Games Magazine (1998 - 2011). He also invented card games "Heartswitch" and "Down and Out" (Copyright Pending). Mr. Andrews has also created instructional YouTube videos for Spades, Hearts, Pinochle, Bid Whist, and Euchre.

[Image credit: Greencastle Moose]
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