Why do people love Contract Bridge? Because it’s so logical, elegant and strategic. And why do people love Poker? Because its surprising, risky and unpredictable. Now imagine there’s a card game that has features and benefits of Bridge and Poker. This game is called Oh Hell and you just have to give it a try.
Oh Hell is a really nice card game, but I can’t say much about its history. I know that author known as B. C. Westall described Oh Hell in 1930. It’s hard to say when the game was invented or by who, but we can be sure it derives from Whist. I think its possible that many similar games appeared separately in a few parts of the world. The idea on which the game is built is quite obvious. This is something that many Whist or Bridge players could invite. And there are many variants of the game, with varied scoring, biding and additional rules, although Oh Hell is a relatively young game. What’s more, Oh Hell is known around the world under many names. Below I list some of them.
- Diminishing Bridge
- Estimate or Estimation (in Egypt)
- Wizard (in Spain)
- Diminishing Whist
- Nomination Whist
- Kachuful (in India)
- Knock Bridge
- Piekiełko (in Poland)
To make things more complicated, I saw mobile apps to play Oh Hell but under the name of… Whist. Remember. Whist is different game, even though there is a clear kinship between Oh Hell and Whist. One of the Polish books about games describes Oh Hell under the name of “Makao”, but Makao is also a different game (known as Mau-Mau in English speaking countries).
As you can see, it can be really hard to trace Oh Hell’s history. But the game is quite popular and even tournaments are organized in USA since 90s. Former President of USA – Bill Clinton – is known as Oh Hell player. He learned this game from Steven Spielberg.
If there are many variants and names, how can we say if a game is Oh Hell variant? Well… in most trick-taking games you have to take as many tricks as possible (it’s always good to take even more than in your contract). There is also a group of games where you have to avoid taking tricks (Hearts). On Oh Hell you always try to take an exact number of tricks. No less and no more.
Oh Hell! Rules of the game
Oh Hell is a trick-taking card game for 3-7 players. Each game consists of a certain number of hands. In each hand, players declare how many tricks they will take and they score points for taking an exact number of tricks.
To play Oh Hell you need a standard card deck with 52 cards (from aces to twos). The highest card is an Ace, then King, Queen, Jack and spots. So rank from the highest to lowest is: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.
The dealing, bidding and the Play
In the first hand, the dealer deals only 1 card to each player. After the dealing, one card is turned face up to reveal the trump suit. After revealing the trump suit, each player bids for the number of tricks he/she can win. Of course in the first hand, it may be only 0 or 1 trick.
After the bidding, the player to the left of the dealer plays his card first. Then subsequent players play their cards (game goes clockwise). Four played cards form so-called trick. Players must play a card of the led suit if possible. There’s no obligation to win a trick.
Only when a player has no card of the suit led, he (or she) may play any card. The trick is won by the player who played the highest card in the led suit. The exception is when someone played a card in the trump suit. Then the trick is won by the player who has played the highest card in the trump suit.
The player who wins the trick leads to the next trick.
In the second hand, the dealer deals 2 cards to each player. Again the trump suit is revealed and each of the players bids for the number of tricks (0, 1 or 2). The play goes on again as described above.
In the third hand the dealer deals 3 cards to each player, and again – the trump suit is revealed and each of the players bids for the number of tricks. In the fourth hand, each player gets 4 cards, in the fifth hand 5 cards, in the sixth hand 6 cards and so on. Shortly speaking, on each succeeding deal, one more card is dealt out to each player.
The total number of hands depends on a number of players. For example with 4 players there are 13 hands in total (because in the 13th hand all cards are dealt). With 5 players you can play only 10 hands. And so on.
The last hand is played with no trump suit.
After each hand players sum up their points. It’s good idea to nominate one player as a scorer.
The player who took an exact number of tricks bid, scores as many points as the number of tricks plus 10 points.
If a player took more or less tricks, he scores nothing (0 points).
1. In the 5th hand player declared to take 4 tricks. For making a contract he receives 14 points (4 for tricks plus 10).
2. In the 13 hand player declared to take 7 tricks. He took 10 tricks. He scores nothing.
Rules are quite simple but as I wrote above, there are many variants of Oh Hell, with varied rules for dealing, bidding, and scoring. I don’t want to make a complete classification of all possibilities. Let me just mention a few alternative rules that are interesting in my opinion.
- You can start from dealing all cards in the first hand, and diminish hand size in the subsequent hands.
- The number of hands can be doubled by playing two series of hands. In the first series the number of hands is increasing, in the second series, the number of cards is diminishing.
- Trump suit is not determined randomly but chosen by one player (for example by a player to the left of the dealer). This player can choose to play with no trumps.
- The last hand may be played with a trump suit, that is determined by the last card delt.
- The number of tricks bid may not be equal to the number of tricks available (last bidding player may be forced to play lower or higher than he wants to).
- Alternative scoring method: Players who underbid lose points accordingly to the number of tricks missing (for example: for missing 3 tricks they score -3).
- Alternative scoring method: The first undertrick or overtrick costs one point, and each additional undertrick/overtrick costs a point more than the one before it. A player with the lowest score wins the game.
- Alternative scoring method: Any overbid or underbid results in losing a number of points (equal to the difference between a contract and the final result). For example, if a player bids 4 tricks and wins 2, he/she loses 2 points. The player who bids 4 tricks and win 6, also loses two pints.
- The game can be played with two or more decks when there are 6 players or more.
Why do people love Oh Hell?
The name of the game says it all. You play, you take the tricks and there’s a moment when you made a contract. And then… OH HELL! I HAVE TO TAKE ANOTHER TRICK! That’s how it works 🙂 Sometimes you’re really bad and that’s why this game is also known as “Oh Shit”, “You Bastard” or even “You Dick”.
If you’ll find partners for this game, you’ll quickly become addicted to it. If you already play trick-taking card games like Bridge, Whist or Hearts, you can be sure this is a right game for you. Oh Hell really has some features of Contract Bridge. You have to carefully estimate the number of tricks to win and you have to take some additional circumstances into account. How many high cards you have? Is trump suit favorable for you? You have to watch out not only during the biding but also during the play.
This game can be also very surprising and you feel a sense of risk. There’s a different number of cards in each hand and what that means? You have to adjust the strategy to the amount of information you have. This game is definitely not boring.
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Header Image license: Public domain (source)