Pinochle Rules

More precisely, “Single Deck Partnership Auction Racehorse Pinochle.”IAQ

Welcome to my “Rules of Pinochle” page. These Pinochle rules are especially good for people who have already learned (some form of) Pinochle (pronounced pea knuckle), because these rules are here to provide a “standard” set of rules and reduce confusion and disagreement. My Pinochle rules are based on the ones found at Pagat Card Games, Rules Central, and Wikipedia (although see my notes on other rules pages). Well, all right, they’re primarily based on what my grandmother the Pinochle shark taught me. The thumbnail sketch of the distinctions: “pass 3,” “you don’t have to play a losing trump,” “extra KQ of trump in a run only score as a royal marriage, ” and “no ‘pass with help’ bid.” For more information on what these are, and why, keep reading.

Actually, let me briefly address the underlying principle behind most of my choices when recommending one rule vs. another. I figure if I’m sittng down at a table to play Pinochle, then that’s what I want to do. I want to spend as much time as possible actually playing Pinochle. I do not want to waste time with needless re-deals, with waiting for people to sort their cards, or having to explain some rarely-used overly-complicated rule. In almost every case, if somebody’s pet rule is going to waste time that could have been spent playing the game (and most of them do), I have banished it as non-recommended.

Also, I’ve started collecting some interesting but Infrequently Asked Questions. I’ve put little IAQ marks in this text to show where they came up. I also include brief notes for playing pinochle with two, three, five, and six players.

Shuffling and Dealing

Although it’s traditional in some circles to deal out the cards three at a time, and some rule books even insist this is required, if the deck was properly shuffledIAQ to begin with, it’s random no matter how you deal it, so a dealer can (and should) deal out the hands in whatever manner is most comfortable for them.

Mathematicians will tell you that "properly shuffled" means shuffling seven times. This is the minimum number of shuffles required to randomize a standard 52-card deck. However, mathematicians don't play card games. In the case of Pinochle and its 48-card deck, three shuffles (and a cut) will provide sufficient randomization if you deal the cards one at a time. If you deal three at a time, then you have to shuffle five times.

Misdeals and Redeals

If the dealer accidentally flips a card over during dealing, I reccommend that the dealer stops, makes sure everybody sees the card, then asks the player if they still want it or not. If they do, then just keep dealing. If they don’t, stick it into the middle of the remaining deck, and keep dealing. If there’s not much deck left to deal, shuffle it a little first.

Some people tack on a rule or two to let people who think they have bad hands (in particular, lots of nines) force a redeal. I think this is a really bad idea.IAQ

Two Decks

I like to play with two decks at the table; it saves even more time once you get the rhythm down. Player 1 deals out the first deck (I'll call it the red deck). When the hand is over, their partner Player 3 collects the cards. Player 2 sets the blue deck in front of Player 1, who cuts the deck. Player 2 then deals while Player 3 is shuffling. Player 3 sets the shuffled red deck aside and picks up their (blue deck) hand. If Player 3 doesn't finish shuffling (3 or 5 shuffles depending on their dealing style) before it's time to start bidding, set the deck aside and give it another shuffle or two while waiting for meld to get counted, or at some other moment during the hand. There's usually plenty of pauses before the hand is over to sneak another riffle in.

When the second hand is done, Player 4 collects the blue cards, Player 3 passes the red deck to Player 2 to cut, then Player 3 starts dealing. Two decks means not having to wait while the deck's being shuffled, which makes it more likely the deck will get shuffled enough to mix it up properly.

Cutting the Deck

On the other hand, there are good reasons for cutting the deck properly (in any card game). The dealer, after shuffling, should set the deck down to their right, and that player should lift up some portion of the deck and set it down closer to the dealer. Frequently, there’s conversation or distractions during the deal, and if the dealer’s distracted during the cut, they might not be sure which stack should be put on which. If you always cut toward the dealer, they know to always take the far stack, put it on the near stack, and then deal.

Picking Up Your Hand

Why on earth would I have a section in the rules on how to pick up your cards? Because most people sort their cards, and you can save quite a bit of time by starting to sort your hand before the dealer’s done dealing. Start picking up your cards as soon as you have some, and get to work. However, leave at least one card on the table. That one card marks your spot for the dealer, and makes it much less likely that they’ll accidentally skip you. (That’s more important in games with more than four players.) Also, if there’s a misdeal, as long as you have one or two cards still on the table, they can just be passed to whoever ended up short a card without having to redeal the whole thing.

Of course, the dealer can’t get a head start on sorting; they’re busy dealing! But the dealer bids last, so they’ll finish arranging their hand while the first few bids are being made.IAQ

Points

Some people learned Pinochle where the point values are in “ones,” that is, a counter’s worth one point, and there are 25 points to be taken in tricks. I believe most people learned the game with “tens,” and this is the custom I recommend. See my IAQ entry to learn why.

Reneging

A fancy card-players’ term for “not following the rules.” Pronounced “reh NEG ing”. See my IAQ entry on errant play.

Bidding

Because this is a “racehorse” form, with cards passed between the partners who win the bid (just the winning partners), the minimum bid is 250 points. (If it weren’t racehorse, the minimum bid would be 150.) Bids must be in multiples of ten. You can’t bid “two sixty-five.” If nobody else bids, then the dealer is required to bid at least the minimum bid. This is sometimes referred to as “being under,” as in “the dealer is under,” and possibly comes from the idea that they are “under obligation to bid.” Bidding continues around until all but one player has passed.

Variations

These include no required opening bid, or that the first player (to the left of the dealer) must open with the minimum bid. I learned to play Pinochle where the player to the left of the dealer had to open, but after thinking about it, it makes more sense to have the person “stuck” with the bid be the last person. Besides, it’s their own fault for having dealt such a horrible set of hands! Also, in surveying all the different variations of Pinochle published on the web, sticking it to the dealer is more common.

Another fairly common bidding variant (well, at least common to online rules, although I’m not sure it’s common in terms of people who actually play Pinochle) is that the bidder must have a marriage or run in the suit they name as trump in order to bid. Why? I cannot imagine what the point of this dumb idea is, except to cut out a lot of bidding. It’s particularly useless when playing Racehorse Pinochle (passing cards), because the person who gets the bid might not have that marriage when they start, but will get the cards to make or complete a marriage passed to them by their partner.

Requiring somebody to open cuts down on all the shufflingIAQ and re-dealing. It is really hard to not take at least 250 points between meld (which might just be a couple of marriages or whatever) and the playing hand you get when your partner passes you some more trump for your hand, so making sure that somebody at the table has to make the minimum opening bid means that you get to play more Pinochle.

Finally, it seems that some groups play where each player gets to bid once. That's interesting, because a player can't start low and hope to get it cheaply; they have to bid about as high as they dare right away. I'd be tempted to pick this as the preferred way to play if I didn't think it was extraordinarily uncommon.

Signaling

I was taught that if you don’t think you should get the bid, but you have meld, you can signal your partner by bidding once. However, I’ve gotten stuck with the bid on occasion by doing that, and been pretty darn sorry.

Variations

Some people allow people to pass by saying “Pass With Help,” which is an explicit way to say “I don’t want the bid, but I have some meld” or “I have a great passing hand.” I do not recommend either form of signaling as a general rule. If you’re not playing with your regular group, they’ll probably have no idea that your low bid was a hint that you had meld, instead of a real bid, and “Pass With Help” takes a lot of the agony (that is, the fun) out of bidding. There are even more elaborate schemes out there for signaling what’s in your hand (see my notes on Herbison’s rules for an example). Personally, if I thought memorizing elaborate and complicated bidding codes was fun, I’d be playing Bridge.

Passing Cards

Once somebody gets the bid, they name a trump suit, and their partner passes them three cards. Four is a more commonly passed amount, but I strongly suggest three instead. The primary reason to pass cards is to fill your partner’s incomplete run, and if you can’t do that with the first three cards, you’re already in big trouble. Passing that fourth card sometimes means giving your partner some “bonus” meld like 100 Aces or a Double Pinochle or the like. I feel it’s far more interesting to pass over your two trump cards, then agonize over whether to pass the 9 of trump as well, or the non-trump ace. Or maybe that queen of spades? Decisions, decisions! It also means that your hand won’t be quite as boring to play as one that’s been stripped of all interesting cards by a four-card pass. It’s your partner’s job to pass you cards that could result in you gaining extra meld from marriages or a pinochle.

Laying Down Meld

Because this version includes passing cards, the winning bidder should lay down their meld first.IAQ While those cards are on the table, they pass three cards back to their partner. This ensures that meld isn’t counted but then passed back. Once cards have been passed back, then the other three players can lay down meld. If the other players lay down before the cards are passed back, they might give the bidder important information on what to pass back.

Scoring the Meld

Meld In Suit Basic Run (A, 10, K, Q, JIAQ in trump)* 150 pts.IAQ
Extra K or Q in trump 0 pts. each1
KQ in trump (aka “Royal Marriage”) 40 pts.
KQ, not trump (aka “Marriage”) 20 pts. each
A nine in the trump suit2 10 pts. each
Meld In Rank
(aka “Arounds”)
A, one of each suit (aka “100 Aces”)* 100 pts.
K, one of each suit (aka “80 Kings”)* 80 pts.
Q, one of each suit (aka “60 Queens”)* 60 pts.
J, one of each suit (aka “40 Jacks”)* 40 pts.
(Around The Horn3) (240 pts.)
Pinochle J of Diamonds & Q of Spades 40 pts.
Doubled 300 pts.
*If you have this meld twice, it is worth ten times the value. In other words, a “double run” (A, A, 10, 10, K, K, Q, Q, J, J in the trump suit) is worth 1500 points (10 × 150), and “Double Queens Around” (all eight queens) is worth 600 points. I have no idea why a double pinochle is only 300 instead of 400.
1Many people score these as worth 20 or 40 points each. See “Categories of Meld” below for an explanation.
2It’s also known as “Dix” or “Deece.” “Dix,” which is pronounced dees, is very likely French (although in French, that word means ‘ten,’ or so I’m told.) “Deece” is obviously the Americanized spelling of the word. Personally, I just call it “the nine of trump.”
3This isn’t really a legal meld. See “Around the Horn” in “Categories of Meld” below for an explanation.

Categories of Meld

Any card you play for meld can be used more than once, as long as it’s not used more than once in each category. The categories are indicated by the divider lines on the table.

For example, let’s say you call Diamonds as trump and lay down A, 10, K, K, Q, J, 9 of Diamonds; K, Q of Spades, K of Hearts; and K of Clubs.

Variations

I’ve run across all sorts of variations on how many points extra kings and queens in a run are worth: they’re worth 40 pts. each, the K is 40 and the Q is 20, they’re each worth 20 extra points, or they’re not worth anything unless you have both, in which case they’re a Royal Marriage and worth 40 together. Having thought about this a lot, I think this is an artifact of the fact that most people learn Pinochle scoring as simply a long list of “xxx is worth n points,” so if/when somebody mis-remembers a score or rule or whatever, nobody else notices the inconsistency. A beginner gets this list scribbled out on a piece of paper, then gets taught by trial and error when you can score the same card in more than one meld, and when you can’t. Somewhere along the line somebody started using extra kings and queens in runs to make marriages, treating “marriages” as a separate scoring category. Eventually that was just turned into a rule that extra royalty in a run was worth 40 points. Other people accidentally or deliberately changed it to 20, and now we have all sorts of versions that don’t quite match.

(Remember, there are no “official” rules to Pinochle. Play it any way you want to. But if you want to be able to figure out your meld unambiguously no matter what, score them like I have described here.)

“But why not let the extra K or Q be worth something? I mean, c’mon! The game already has 10s outranking Kings, who cares if the scoring rules aren’t perfectly consistent?” Well, for one, I do. I like having scoring rules that are simple and absolutely unambiguous. But who cares what I think? The good reason is that if you’ve got a run with extra Kings or Queens, your hand is already really great. What’s the justification of a few extra points? To make the other side lose even more? Nah. Making the King or Queen of trump worth extra points, but only in a run, throws extraneous rules into the game, making it more complicated, while decreasing the actual fun, and how dumb is that? I vote “less rules, more fun.”

Around the Horn

“Around the Horn” is simply a name for having marriages in all four suits; some people find it easier to remember this name and its point value than to add up all the points the normal way: Around Kings (80) + Around Queens (60) + Royal Marriage (40) + 3 Common Marriages (3 × 20) = 240. So if you’ve got Around the Horn and an extra Q of Clubs, you can’t score (another) marriage with the K of Clubs. The king’s already married; that’s part of the score for Around the Horn.

Missing the Bid

If a partnership’s meld is more than 250 points below their bid, then there’s clearly no way they can avoid “going set” (see “Counting the Score” if you don’t know this term), unless you’re playing with some kind of “shoot the moon” ruleIAQ, which I don’t recommend. They may, if they choose, “throw in the hand:” their meld doesn’t count, their bid is subtracted from their score, the hand is not played, and the next hand is dealt. This does deprive the other team from getting the points from tricks they might have taken (but does not prevent them from scoring their meld), but if the bidding team missed the bid that much, it’s cruel to make them play out the hand. However, if they miss the bid by 250 or less, then they must play out the hand unless everybody agrees to throw it in. (I have seen despairing people who needed to take 220 points actually make it, to their utter astonishment.)

Playing Cards and Taking Tricks

Whomever got the bid leads the first card. They can play any card they like; they do not have to lead trump on the first trick.IAQ

Key rules, in order of precedence:

  1. If two identical cards are played, the first one outranks the second.
  2. You must follow suit if you can.
  3. You must take the trick if you can.IAQ
  4. You may play any card in your hand.

Let’s say Hearts are trump. Queen of Diamonds is led, with a Jack of Hearts following. You have Ace of Diamonds and J and 10 of Hearts. Can you take the trick with the 10? No. Rule #2 comes before Rule #3: you must play the Ace of Diamonds.

If you don’t have any diamonds, you must play the 10 of Hearts, even if you don’t want to waste it on this trick, because of Rule #3.

But! if you have just the J of Hearts, you can sluff your 9 of Clubs on the trick instead. Since you can’t take the trick (see Rule #1), you do not have to trump the trick.

Don’t confuse Rule #4 with Rule #2, though. If somebody leads with a Heart, then you will have to play that J.

Variations

This is another area where there’s some significant variation. An uncommon variation doesn’t require you to play trump. A much more common understanding is that you must follow suit or play trump even if you can’t take the trick. I don’t recommend this for two reasons. One, it’s more often going to benefit the bidder, allowing them to extract opposing trump cheaply. Two, and more importantly, the more often you can choose which card to play, the more opportunity there is for strategy. Having a low trump sucked out of your hand because you have to play it is just annoying. Sluffing a nine and saving the trump for later is a lot more fun.

Somebody has stuck into Wikipedia’s page on Pinochle the claim that “must follow suit or play trump” are the “pre-1945” rules, and “play whatever you want” are the “post-1945” rules. They do not, however, offer any supporting evidence for what cataclysmic event shook the world of Pinochle to its very roots, and utterly overturned the previous custom of play. I find the entire assertion highly dubious at best.

Scoring

Counting the Score

At the end of the hand, each team receives 10 points per counter in their tricks (counters are the A, 10, and K of any suit). The team that took the last trick get 10 points for that. Twenty-four counters in the deck plus the points for last trick means that there are 250 points available in the tricks. If the bidding team earns the amount bid (combined meld and trick score), then all the earned points are added to the team’s previous score. If they do not, they “go set:” they do not score any points melded, they score no points taken in the tricks, and their previous score is reduced by the amount bid. If the other team fails to earn points while taking tricks (that is, they pulled no counters and failed to capture the final trick), they do not score any points that were melded. (They failed to “save their meld.”)

Variations

Some variations include allowing taking any trick, even one with no points, to save the meld, and allowing the team to count deece whether or not they took a trick. I don’t recommend either variation. The first one actually goes against my principle of not rewarding the guy in the lead; after all, if a team can only take one trick, and it has no counters, isn’t it rubbing salt on the wound to make them lose their meld anyway? Well, yes, but this rule is an incentive and challenge to play well even with a bad hand.

The second rule is just a lot of unnecessary paperwork for a situation that’s very rare, and one begging to cause arguments. “Did I have the nine?” “I don’t remember,” and “What? I never heard of that rule! You’re making it up!”

A nice time saving tradition is for the partners that did not get the bid to count their points first. They’ll usually have fewer points to count, and if their score is, say, eighty, then the other team knows that it can score 170 (since 250 − 80 = 170).

Another good habit to learn is to count by simply flipping through your stack of tricks, counting (in your head, not out loud, please) the counters as you pass them. Some people will sort their trick into counters and non-counters, either counting them as they separate them, or counting the stack when they’re done. If you do this, you’re making more work for the next dealer, because they have to be shuffled even more to get the counters mixed back in again properly.

Winning

First team to 1500 points wins, and whichever partnership had the bid gets to add their score first.IAQ

What this means is if both teams get more than 1500 points on the same hand, the partners that had the bid on that hand win, even if the other team has a higher score. Keep that in mind when you’re deciding whether or not to keep bidding near the end of the game. Yes, you could play that who ever has the most points wins, but with that variation, a team with good meld can choose not to bid, planning on winning just because they got dealt a Double Pinochle. It’s more exciting if both teams have 1400 or more and they know that you have to get and make the bid to win the game.

Variations

On the other hand, I recently ran across a variation that said a team couldn’t win unless they’d earned enough points and gotten the bid. This is, bluntly, a really stupid idea, so stupid that this group had to make up a whole new extra rule: “To prevent a team from endlessly prolonging a game by taking every bid, we declare the team with the most points the winner if either team reaches negative 1200 points or when the difference in scores between the teams reaches 1500 points.” Good grief. Trust me, my way’s a lot better.IAQ

As for the number of points to win, if you’re not playing racehorse, then you’d play to 1200. You could make the game go longer by playing to 2800 or 4000, but why? Just play two or three games to 1500.

Keeping Track

Some people use good old pencil and paper, but a much more convenient way uses poker chips. Each team gets 10 white chips (worth 10 each) and 14 colored chips (worth 100 each), which start with one of the partners. Scoring works rather like an abacus. For example, let’s say on the first hand, a team scores 80 in meld. The team passes 8 white chips across. They get 110 in trick points, and pass 1 colored and 1 white chip. On the next hand, they get 40 in meld. Pass 1 colored chip over, and 6 white back. (100 - 60 = 40). The meld is set next to the other chips, so that if they go set, it’s easy to pass the meld back before passing back the bid amount. This might seem more complicated than pencil and paper when you read it, but believe me, with only a bit of practice, it becomes far more efficient and easy than the alternative. As a bonus, it’s always easy to tell who’s winning, and by how much.

Variations

A minor puzzle you might face when scoring with chips is how to deal with a partnership that’s gone set, and needs to track a score below zero. I learned to just put the negative score on my other hand; if I was the partner with the chips, and we had −130 points, I’d have one colored and three whites on my left, and we’d have to get them back onto the stacks on my right before we could start passing them across the table. I recently ran across an alternative that I think makes a lot of sense. If my partner and I go set (whether we’d have to track a negative score or not), we would score zero, and our opponents score our bid as a positive value. This will puts the two scores the same distance apart as would subtracting the bid from our score, but neatly solves the awkwardness of tracking negative points with chips. It does mean games will tend to end a bit sooner, especially if people go set fairly frequently.IAQ

Rotation

If you’ve got enough people to have multiple games of Pinochle going simultaneously, then instead of playing to 1500, you can play four hands per game, then switch tables.

Finis

If you find these rules helpful, or want to comment, please drop me, Dave Howell, some email at dh.pinochle4@GrandFenwick.net. The occasional email is what lets me know it was worth spending the time to write these rules up in the first place! Another great option is to link to this page from your own website (if you have one). Not only does it let me know you thought they were good enough to share, but it’ll help other people find them, too.

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