How to Play Hearts for Real Money When Gambling with Your Buddies

by Michael Stevens
on December 1, 2018
8

Minute Read

Hearts is a trick-taking card game that belongs to the “whist” family of card games. I learned to play hearts as a young boy, so my explanation of how to gamble for real money on the card game hearts comes from my own experience. (We played for pennies when I was really young, but we moved up to quarters when I was in high school and college.)

You might play hearts a different way. Some people do. I’m going to start by explaining how I was taught to play, then I’ll include details about common variations later in the post. I’ll also offer some strategy hints.

I should mention in these introductory remarks that hearts, while being a game of chance, is also a game of skill. Yes, it’s still gambling if you bet on it, but if your skills are better than your opponents’, you can be playing a game with a positive expectation.

Be careful of cheating and collusion, though. Hearts is usually played every-man-for-himself, but the most common way to cheat is for 2 players to team up and signal each other regarding what they have in their hands.

I don’t care how skilled you are at the game, it’s tough to have a positive expectation mathematically when your opponents are collaborating and cheating.

How to Play Hearts – The Basics

You use a standard 52-card deck to play hearts. Jokers aren’t usually used, although, in some variations with lots of players, the jokers are sometimes added to the deck. The cards are ranked from high to low as follows:

  • Ace
  • King
  • Queen
  • Jack
  • 10
  • 9
  • 8
  • 7
  • 6
  • 5
  • 4
  • 3
  • 2

These are pretty standard hand rankings for card games, by the way. Spades uses the same rankings, although the object of the game is practically the opposite that of hearts.

Everyone gets to deal. You can choose who deals first any way you’d like, but after that, the position of dealer rotates around the table. It’s customary for the dealer to shuffle the cards and offer the player to his right the opportunity to cut the cards.

After the cards have been shuffled and cut, the dealer deals out the entire deck, one card at a time, to the players at the table. Each player should get the same number of cards. Hearts is most often played with 4 players, which means that most of the time, each player will have 13 cards. (52 divided by is 13.)

If you have an odd number of players, some cards will be left over. You place those face down in the middle of the table. The player who takes the 1st trick gets those cards, too, but no one gets to look at them until it’s time to take score.

After everyone gets their cards, they usually organize them in their hands by suit and by rank. Then it’s time for “the pass.” Everyone chooses 3 cards from their hand to pass to the player on their left. This means you’ll give 3 of your cards to the player on your left, but you’ll also get 3 cards from the player on your right.

It’s important that the cards be passed face-down. You’re not allowed to look at the cards you get through this process until after you’ve passed your 3 cards. Obviously, if you know what cards you’re getting via this process, you might make different decisions about which cards you give away.

Your goal, by the way, when passing these cards, is to get rid of cards that you think will hurt your score.

In a hearts game with 6 or 7 players, you’ll only pass 2 cards, instead of 3.

The Black Lady (Or “Black Maria) and Point Values of the Cards

The queen of spades is called “Black Maria” or “The Black Lady” in hearts. This card is worth 13 points.

The goal of hearts, by the way, is to be the player with the fewest points. This makes the Black Maria the worst card you could have.

All the hearts are also worth 1 point each.

Here’s a strategy tip:

If you have the queen of spades, it’s almost certainly one of the 3 cards you should pass to your opponent.

You’ll sometimes see variations of hearts where your goal is to collect more points than your opponents, but that’s not really hearts in my book.

How to Play a Hand of Hearts

The player to the immediate left of the dealer goes 1st. He can lead with a card of any suit. You’ll see hearts referred to as “trumps” in this game, but they’re not really trump cards in the send that spades are trumps in the game of spades, for example. When taking a trick, a heart has no special significance. They only become important during scoring.

After player 1 plays the 1st card, the next player must play a card of the same suit if he can. This is called “following suit.” (If you’ve played spades, you’re already familiar with the concept of following suit.) Each player plays a card in order, and each player is supposed to follow suit.

If you don’t have any cards of the suit that was led, you can play any card in your hand.

The player who plays the highest card of the led suit wins the trick and collects those cards (to be scored later in the game.)

Here’s an example hand:

Player 1 plays the ace of diamonds. Every other player must play a diamond if they have one. Since the ace of diamonds is the highest ranked card of that suit, player 1 will automatically take this trick. If you don’t have any diamonds in your hand, you could play a heart or even Black Maria in this situation.

The player who wins the trick gets to lead the next trick, too.

In most games, there’s a rule that the queen of spades must be played at the 1st legal opportunity. This, of course, has a major effect on strategy, too.

Keeping Score in a Game of Hearts

After the last trick of the hand, each player calculates his score and records it. Most games of hearts are played until one of the players has 50 or 100 points.

The cards are scored as follows:

  • Any heart = 1 point
  • The queen of spades = 13 points

There are 26 total points in each hand. The sum of the players’ scores at the end of each hand should total 26.

At the end of the game, everyone’s scores are totaled and there’s a settlement. You take each player’s score and add them together, dividing that sum by the number of players to get an average score.

You then calculate the difference between each player’s score and the average score. You then put chips into the pot or take them out based on the positive or negative value of your score compared to the average.

Here’s an example:

  • Player 1 has 36 points.
  • Player 2 has 31 points.
  • Player 3 has 54 points.
  • Player 4 has 35 points.

The average score, therefore, is 36 + 31 + 54 + 35 = 156, which is then divided by 4, for an average score of 39.

  • Player 1 subtracts 39 from 36 to get -3. He gets to take 3 chips out of the pot.
  • Player 2 subtracts 39 from 31 to get -8. He gets to take 8 chips out of the pot.
  • Player 3 subtracts 39 from 54 to get 15. He must put 15 chips in the pot.
  • Player 4 subtracts 39 from 35 to get -4. He gets to take 4 chips out of the pot.

If you’re gambling for real money on the card game hearts, each chip will have a dollar value. It’s customary to have a buy-in for the chips before starting to play. For most adult players, you’ll probably want to play for at least a dollar a chip, although $5 per chip is probably more interesting.

One alternative way of scoring in hearts is to score after each hand instead of at the end of the game. For every heart you took, you must put a chip in the pot. If you took the queen of spades, you must put 13 chips in the pot. At the end of the hand, the player with the lowest score gets to take all the chips from the pot.

Variations of Hearts and Different Rules Changes Available

Hearts, like most card games, is available in multiple versions. These versions usually involve a single big rules change, but often that single rules change has multiple implications. Here are some examples of different ways to play hearts for money:

The Queen of Spades Is No Big Deal

In some games of hearts, the queen of spades has no special significance. It counts as 0 points. Instead of 26 total points per hand, there are only 13 points. When playing this variation, no one passes cards to their left before the play of the hand.

This variation uses alternate scoring called “The Howell Method.” Instead of putting in one chip for each heart that you’re holding, you put in as many chips as there are other players for each heart that you’re holding. Then he subtracts the number of hearts he’s holding and removes that number of chips from the pot.

Let’s say you have 6 hearts, and you’re playing with 3 other players. You put 18 chips in the pot, but then you get to remove 6 of those chips.

Domino Hearts

One variation of hearts where the queen isn’t counted is “domino hearts.”

In domino hearts, each player gets 6 cards only. The rest of the cards go in the stock. The game is played as normal, but if you can’t follow suit, you must draw a card from the stock until you’re able to follow suit.

Once the stock is gone, if you’re unable to follow suit, you must discard a card of any suit. The game continues until all the cards have been taken as tricks.

One peculiarity of domino hearts is that players will have a different number of cards in his hand. This means that over time, players will start to drop out of the game because they have no cards left in their hand.

When you get down to 2 players, if one of the players runs out of cards, the player who’s left just adds the cards left in his hand to his tricks.

Sweepstakes

In “sweepstakes hearts,” each player puts in a single chip for each heart he took. The player who took the queen of spades also puts in 13 chips. If a player had no hearts and also didn’t have the queen of spades (i.e., he scored 0) he gets to take the entire pot. If no one had a score of 0, the chips stay in the pot, and another hand is dealt. The pot grows after each hand until someone gets 0 points and wins the pot.

You can grow some large pots this way, but you might want to lower the cost of the chips for this variation. Sweepstakes hearts is a fun variation, though.

Auction Hearts

Auction hearts is a variation of sweepstakes hearts that includes a bidding round at the start of the hand. Instead of hearts automatically being the penalty suit, the highest bidder gets to name the penalty suit.

The 1st bidder is always the player to the left of the dealer. He can bid or pass. The next player to the left can bid higher or pass, too. Whoever the high bidder is must put the amount he bid into the pot at the beginning of the game, but he also gets to decide which suit is the penalty suit.

In auction hearts, the highest bidder also gets to lead 1st. At the end of the hand, each player puts a number of chips into the pot equal to the number of cards he took of the penalty suit.

And since this is a sweepstakes hearts variation, a player with a score of 0 gets to take the chips in the pot. If no one was able to score 0 points, the money stays in the pot, and subsequent hands are played until someone can win the pot.

Also, there are no subsequent bidding rounds until someone wins the pot. The high bidder from the 1st hand gets to continue naming the penalty suit in each subsequent hand until someone wins the pot.

The Role of Strategy When Playing Hearts for Real Money

Strategy doesn’t change much in hearts regardless of whether there’s money on the line. Like most trick-taking games, the main aspect of strategy to memorize is keeping track of which cards have already been played. If you know what’s been played and when, you’ll have an idea of who has which cards and what you should do next.

Another important aspect of hearts strategy is making good decisions about which card to lead with. If you have a suit where you’re short, like if you have 3 cards of a single suit, you should get rid of your higher cards 1st. This will protect you later when you might have to follow suit with one of those high cards and accidentally get stuck taking a trick you don’t want.

Here’s an example:

You have the king of spades, the jack of spades, and the 4 of spades. You should get rid of the king and the jack early if you can, so that later you use the 4 of spades as a kind of “escape hatch.”

Understanding how the scoring variations in effect change things is another aspect of strategy. Sometimes it makes sense to take hearts if it prevents you from taking future tricks.

In sweepstakes hearts, you should go for a score of 0 as aggressively as possible. But if it becomes impossible to achieve that goal, your new goal becomes to ensure that every other player also scores at least 1 point. You want to grow the jackpot until you get a chance to win it, and the only way to do that is to ensure no one else wins it 1st.

Conclusion

Playing hearts for real money is somewhat out of vogue, but if you’re looking for an interesting way to gamble at home with your buddies, you should give it a try. It makes a nice change of pace from Texas holdem. If and when you start including variations like sweepstakes hearts, you can really build up some nice jackpots.

And who doesn’t like winning jackpots?

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