Infrequently Asked Questions about Pinochle

I’ve gotten a number of really interesting questions in e-mail from people reading my Pinochle rules page. I thought I’d share them here as they arrive.

What do those letters stand for?

Common abbreviations for playing cards are

Usually, you’ll also see H for Hearts, S for Spades, D for Diamonds and C for clubs, giving you notes like “If JC is led, you must play QC instead of QD or 9C.” I’ve avoided that because I find it just confusing enough that it’s detrimental to understanding.

Am I playing it wrong?

Depends on which of literally dozens of variations you’re playing. Look at the subtitle of the main web page:

Single Deck
means two of each of Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine in four suits: a 48 card deck. There are “double deck” variations (sometimes called “Navy Pinochle”) that have four of each card, but no 9’s, so it’s an 80 card deck.
Partnership
because originally, Pinochle was not played with partners.
Auction
means there’s bidding, which was also tacked onto Pinochle when Bridge burst onto the scene and stole the players away.
Racehorse
refers to passing cards between the partners of the winning bid. John Scarne calls this form “Aeroplane Pinochle” in his book on card games, and seems to think it’s an obscure and uninteresting form. However, he thinks that “interesting” Pinochle is played for money, so I don’t feel at all guilty about ignoring his opinion in this case.

If you’re looking for “official” rules, I hate to tell you: there aren’t any. I’ve been looking through myriad books on card games, and most of them have rules for Pinochle that are, well, unquestionably not the game described here. Some of them don’t have bidding at all! That’s why I put this page up in the first place: so that when I play Pinochle, I can quickly and easily show the other players what rules I happen to play by. If they’re used to different rules, all we have to do is agree on what the rules are going to be that evening. It’s not as important which rules you use, as long as you’re all using the same ones.

I was taught that you don’t have to shuffle between hands. Is it really necessary?

In a word, “yes.” Pinochle play leaves the cards scrambled enough that it seems like you can get away with not shuffling. But I’m pretty confident that the same lazy card player who couldn’t be bothered to shuffle, or some poor sucker who learned not to shuffle from them, is the one that then had to invent this cockamaimey rule: “if a player is dealt ‘five 9s no meld’ or ‘six 9s with meld’, they can toss in their hand and declare a misdeal.”

You see, by not shuffling, the chances that the cards will not be randomly distributed go way up. So people are going to see a lot more really good hands, and a lot more really bad hands. So then, some victim of that original lazy card player, tired of all the crappy hands they kept getting, made up this new rule to try to mitigate that. But “re-deal if somebody got too many nines” means, whether you shuffle or not, if somebody gets a really great hand, they’ll probably have to throw it away because somebody else at the table got a hand bad enough to force a re-deal.

Finally, having six nines, especially if you’ve also got meld, is hardly the pinnacle of bad hands. You think six jacks in three suits is better? Or no nines at all, but nothing higher than a King, and no meld? Playing a weak hand well is one of the challenges of playing Pinochle, and it’s a very different challenge than playing a strong one. Plus, you won’t have to do it very often if you just shuffle the deck in the first place. And if you think skipping the shuffle saves time, um, just how much time are you going to save once you include the time you spend with all those re-deals?

By the way, if the few seconds spent shuffling really bothers you that much, just play with two decks. While you’re dealing out this hand, the next player can be shuffling his deck, so it’ll be all ready to go for the next hand.

Do I have to lay down all my meld?

Nope. If you think you’re going to really hoodwink your opponents by hiding the fact you’ve got that Queen of Spades to go with your Jack of Diamonds, you can choose to keep it in your hand. However, this is almost never going to be worth it. Who cares if you have the Queen of Spades? Are you going to take 40 more points in your tricks because the other players don’t know you have it?

There are only three situations that I can think of that you’d even consider doing this:

You’ve got a nine of trump,
and you don’t want the other team to know where it is. Unless you’re really long on trump, and expect that you’ll be playing the nine last instead of early, this just isn’t worth giving up the 10 points. Otherwise, they’ll know soon enough when they pluck it out of your hand with their high trump.
You’ve got an extra K or Q of trump for your run,
but you want your opponents to think you have less trump than you do. Well, they’re not going to think your partner has it (unless you’re not playing Racehorse), but are you really going to get two extra counters through this sleight of hand? Nah. Also, this reason only applies if you’re playing the variation where you can score an extra K or Q with your run, which I don’t recommend in the first place.
You’ve got 40 Jacks (aka Jacks Around),
but you’re too embarrassed by this hand full of garbage to admit it. Hey, now, no point in hurting your partner just because your hand is full of doo-doo.

If an opponent gets the bid, and I have a run in the suit they name as trump, can I meld it?

Absolutely! If Hearts is trump, and you have an A 10 K Q J of Hearts, you can lay it down and score 150 point of meld, no matter who got the bid and named trump.

Does each person individually have to beat trump if they are able to or just a person from each team?

Let’s say Diamonds are trump.

Does Player D have to play the 10? Yes. It doesn’t matter what your partner has or hasn’t played.

How do you end the game if you have to get the bid to win and the other team keeps getting the bid?

Here’s part of the email message that prompted this one (edited for clarity):

 

Towards the end of the game, my partner and I were up 1230 to 600. We had not won the game yet because we also play that if you have scored 1000 points, you have to win the bid to win the game. The other team kept outbidding us and going set in order to keep the game going. Eventually we realized that when we had over 1500 points that we could bid 250, win the bid, and win the game even if we went set. We’d still be over 1000 points!

In a situation like ours when the rule is you have to have 1000 points and take the bid in order to win; would we technically still be considered winners because we took the bid, even though we set ourselves thereby not winning the hand?

Well, my short answer is “sure, that’s fine.” The long answer is don’t play with a rule as bad as that one!!

First, we have the extra, unnecessary rule tacked on: “you must win the bid to win the game.” Now we have to clarify with even more rules: “But you don’t have to win the hand; just the bid.”

Second, with the scoring as described on my page here, if you have 1500, bid 250 and go set, you will lose the meld that you just scored plus your bid, putting you at 1250. So you only need a score of 1250 to bid 250, go set, and still win the game.

But wait! There’s nothing to stop the other team from outbidding you anyway. The other team can still bid, say, 300, and if you bid 310 and then go set, your 1250 points is now 990. I still don’t know why the author thought having over 1500 points make any difference. Is there yet another rule? “You can’t bid more than 250?” The author of the message wasn’t playing Racehorse; no passing. Even so, if I’ve got a double pinochle and my opponent’s got a run, we can both safely bid well past 300 or so. Capping the bid is not a reasonable option; therefore, your opponents can always outbid you if they’re so inclined.

Finally, if you’re playing as part of a group (as the author was), then all the other players at other tables are waiting for your especially long game to get over, so everybody can trade tables and play another game.

In short, you do not need to get the bid to win the game. You only need to score as many points as are required to win.

If one team has 1450 and the other 1300, can the team with 1450 just throw their cards in as they reach 1500 and win, without finishing or playing the hand out?

Nope. That team doesn’t “reach 1500 and win;” their score is going to be 1450 until the hand is scored, and that doesn’t happen until everybody’s played all their cards. Furthermore, if the team with 1300 won the bid and earns at least 200 points, then the team with 1450 loses the game, because, as the rules point out, the team that won the bid scores first.

If you like “simple” and “clear,” how come you’re using 10 points per counter, instead of the just-as-good 1 point version?

The “extra zero” version is what most people are used to, and that’s because everything at ten points is a recent change. When Pinochle first appeared, the cards’ points were as follows:

Card Ace Ten King Queen Jack Nine
Value 11 10 4 3 2 0

Among other things, counting up the score at the end is a real hassle, although the total number of points in the tricks does still total 250. Later, it was simplified to this:

Card Ace Ten King Queen Jack Nine
Value 10 10 5 5 0 0

Much easier, but you still can’t drop the trailing zero. Only with the most modern variation could you divide all the values by 10 and still be able to avoid decimal points. Wikipedia’s Pinochle page (at the moment, at least) is of the opinion that the “10, 10, 10, 0, 0, 0” scheme “reduces strategy in trick-taking.” After thinking about it, I’m inclined to agree. I may try that version next time I play. But I think the version on my main page is still the one most commonly used by far.

Isn’t picking up your cards before the dealer’s done dealing rather, um, rude?

Good point. Personally, I think playing slowly is rude, which includes chatting with other people when it’s your turn to play, getting up to get snacks during a hand, and asking the cat sitting in your lap which card they’d play. Sorting your hand during the deal is another way of spending more of your time actually playing Pinochle, and less time waiting to play Pinochle.

However, if a dealer is uncomfortable with players picking up cards before they’re done dealing, by all means, humor them. There’s certainly no point in getting into a fight over as minor a matter as this one.

What is the proper way to handle errant play (aka ”reneging“?

OK, so while an incorrect play could be deliberate cheating, let’s give the poor player the benefit of the doubt for now and assume it’s an honest mistake. For example, say a trick is started with spades and one of the players trumps the trick with a diamond even though they’ve got a spade in their hand as well. A few tricks later, they play the spade, and one of the other players points out the mistake. What to do?

Although there isn’t one sure-fire “right” answer, probably the most technically correct response is to declare the hand compromised, and re-deal the hand.

However, a good general principle is that the wronged party chooses the penalty. We don’t want people deliberately ‘screwing up’ just to void the hand and hopefully get a better deal next time. So, if a player on Team A is caught in an error of play, then Team B can ask for one of three options:

  1. Continue playing the hand as is.
  2. Re-deal the hand.
  3. If the error was caught quickly enough, “un-play” the last trick or two, returning the cards back to their owner’s hands, until you get to the mistake. The player who erred then makes a legal play, and the game proceeds forward again.

Option 3 really only works if the mistake was in the last trick or two. Otherwise it’s too time-consuming to figure out who played which cards.

Hopefully Team B will make their choice based not only on what would be to their advantage, but also with the graciousness that we always hope for in fellow game players. If Team B feels that they’re going to make their bid anyway, they might well let the error pass, and not be concerned about the two or three counters that they lost in the trick. Or, especially if it was a mistake by a beginning player, allow the play to stand and accept the challenge of winning the game despite the unexpected obstacle. If the mistake was detrimental to the player who made it, then Team B might instead offer to re-deal the hand.

And if they did it on purpose, or you think they did? Take a deep breath, tell yourself that it’s just a game, and let the player know that you would appreciate it if they would try to be more careful in the future about following the rules. If they keep doing it, at some point you simply tell them that they’re such a poor player that you don’t enjoy playing with them, and let them find somebody else to play Pinochle with.

 

If you secure the bid, does a lack of a marriage in trump automatically result in a set?

The short answer is “no.”

An old rule that has fallen out of use is that a player had to have a marriage (any marriage) in order to bid at all. That rule, I believe, is much older than the modified “racehorse” game with passing. So if you’re going to use the “partner passes cards” rule, it doesn’t make sense to keep the “must have a marriage to bid” rule. It sounds like somebody tried to shoehorn both rules into the game, without really thinking about how silly the result would be. “I was trying to fill my run, but my partner sent me aces, so I’ve got 100 aces and a lot of trump, and my partner has three non-trump marriages. We’ve only got to get forty more points in order to make our bid. What? We’ve automatically gone set because I don’t have a queen in trump? Are you kidding me?”

What is your opinion on the “five 9s no meld” or “six 9s with meld” rule that allows a player to show such a hand and demand a re-deal?

I think it’s a terrible rule. It seems pretty clear that somebody invented it one day because, oh, boo hoo hoo, it’s no fun to play Pinochle if you have lots of nines. Oh, please.

First of all, it’s just one hand. Don’t waste everybody’s time with a reshuffle and redeal just because you don’t like what you got dealt.

Second, “six nines and meld” is hardly the worst hand you could have. Three kings, two queens (both in the suit you don’t have a king), three jacks (but not the jack of diamonds, or maybe not the queen of spades), three nines, and one ten would be a lot worse, for example. You’re not likely to be able to do anything with those kings but give them away.

Third, a hand like that is probably a great passing hand.

However, even if ‘one hand’ feels like forever to you, five nines really does indicate a very bad hand, and it’s a poor passing hand, this re-deal rule is still a terrible idea. Because if your hand is really that bad, then somebody else’s hand is probably really good. Maybe it’s your partner’s. Maybe not. But this rule doesn’t apply just to you; three hands later, you might be the one holding an amazing hand with 100 aces and a natural run, and somebody else at the table says “five nines, redeal,” and you have to throw it away. By letting people force a re-deal because they have a ‘bad hand’ (that isn’t even all that bad), you’re going to also cut way back on the number of good hands that people get to play.

So I say, if you’re going to play Pinochle, then play Pinochle! Learn to minimize the damage from really bad hands, and learn how to max out your points with really good hands. Don’t waste time redealing because somebody wants to get pouty over having to play the hand they were dealt.