Styles of Play

The following styles expand on the basics and present more comprehensive styles of play. It is difficult for anyone to function in an environment where there are few or no rules, therefore people will often devise conventions to fill the void. Moreover, it is likewise difficult for people to function in any environment with a high degree of randomness and disorder. As Hearts is a very simple game with very few rules, and likewise an unpredictable game with a high degree of randomness, it can be helpful to follow a conventional style to give your gameplaying some order and orientation.

None of the styles presented here need be followed religiously. Indeed, doggedly sticking to only one style when a situation would lend itself better to another can often lead to a player's undoing. It is therefore advised that a player examine each hand when it is dealt to him and select the style that would work best for that hand.

The Low-Layer

The low-layer is a defensive player who wants to stay under every trick; Hence, low cards are prized, and high cards are evil. Ideally, the low-layer wants to take no tricks, and in so doing, take no points. More realistically, the low-layer will take a few tricks, but hopefully not any that have points in them -- especially the Queen.

The basic approach of the low-layer goes like this:


At first, one would think that the low-layer would pass his high cards with a bias first for spades and secondly hearts. This is often the case, but a bit amateur to be sure. The only time that it's really bad to be holding high cards is when you don't have any low cards to cover them; If you're holding the two and the three of hearts, then holding the King and Queen isn't all that bad. In addition, some low-layers don't concern themselves with building voids (see below) and are content to be holding cards in every suit, as long as they've got low ones in there.

The following approaches are given to help the aspiring low-layer determine where his trouble suits are to be found. Some of the advice given is far in away too complex to be of great use in much gameplaying, and would serve better as instructions for a computer simulation. They are simply given to get you thinking.

As mentioned earlier, none of these approaches need be followed rigorously -- don't go whipping out a calculator in the middle of a game, or anything. They are simply given to get you thinking about what weight certain cards carry and where trouble suits can be found. After some practice, you can usually spot your trouble suits just by eyeballing them.


When it is the low-layer's turn to lead, he will do one of the following:


When the low-layer follows, all he wants to do is get just beneath the highest card that has been played in the trick. The only time a low-layer purist will take a trick is when he is the last in the rotation and the trick contains no points, in which case, he will take it as high as he can so as to safely dispose of a high card.


When the time comes to slough, the low-layer will use any of the approaches described in the "Passing" section above to locate trouble suits, and slough those off beginning at the top card and preceding down the line. Once it is exhausted, the low-layer will locate his next trouble suit, and begin sloughing them off.

Problems with the Low-Layer Style

Because the low-layer is not concerned about building voids, and because he plays low cards early and often, it's not unheard of for a low-layer to take all the tricks in the final stages of a round. This can be problematic as the last hands often contain a lot of point cards. To ward against this possibility, it can be a good idea to play some fairly high cards early in a round when they're less likely to hurt you.

The Voider

Having a void means having no cards of a given suit. Having one or more voids can be a great advantage because A) you won't take a trick, and B) you can slough off your uglies. Building voids means actively trying to eliminate all the cards in a single suit. This is best accomplished at the outset of a hand with the pass.

Responding to What You're Dealt

As a general rule, it's better to respond to what you're dealt than to doggedly try to go void in the same suit every time. Persistently passing three diamonds will not always build you a diamonds void (there's a chance that at some point you'll be dealt more than three diamonds). Moreover, other players will eventually figure out your routine and stymie you simply by passing you a load of diamonds every chance they get.

When your hand is dealt to you, survey all your voidable suits (that is, suits with three cards or less), and do one of the following:

The way the suit distributions break out after the deal, you will always have the ability to go void in at least one suit, and occasionally in two.

Picking What to Void

But which suits are the best candidates for voiding? The following sub-sections consider and give guidelines for each suit. They all apply to voiding a suit by way of the initial pass. As you can well imagine, the "holding hand" is the voider's biggest bugaboo.

Fondness for Clubs

The advantage to voiding clubs is that you can easily slough on the first trick, either to get rid of some ugly high cards, or to begin building another void suit. This is especially handy if you are holding the KS or the AS, don't have the QS and don't have a lot of other spades underneath.

The other great thing about clubs is that if you've got four of them, you can still build a void in fairly short order. Simply pass three of them, play the remaining one in the first clubs trick, and presto, instant void.

Voiding Diamonds

The diamonds suit is the only suit that doesn't have any remarkable features. Clubs you have to lead with, and it quickly goes short, hearts are each worth a point, and the spades suit holds the Evil One. The really distinguishing feature of diamonds, then, is that it is the only "normal" suit.

Diamonds are usually the second-best choice when deciding what you want to void. Because they needn't be broken like hearts, and because they're not quite as spicy as spades, they can often be a good candidate for voidancy.

Voiding Hearts

What you're hoping for here is that you can survive well enough until hearts are bled. Once they are, there's a good chance that people will lead hearts, and then you can slough off your problem cards when those hearts tricks go around.

The best time to employ this tactic is when you have a boatload of spades under the Queen.

This can also be an amusing tactic when you want to try to shoot the moon (see The Shooter below).

Voiding Spades -- A Devilish Maneuver

Given that many experienced players will not pass spades, a particularly cagy maneuver is to pass all of your spades and create a spades void.

The best times to do this are:

Playing after the Pass

Once a round proceeds, the voider will follow someone else's lead much like the low-layer. If a voider takes the lead, however, he will not necessarily lead out with just any low card, but with a card in the shortest suit that he holds, in order to begin building another void. Even if it's a fairly high card, the voider will feel pretty safe in doing this, because if he's short in a suit, chances are that no one else is. Naturally, the later on in the round, the less desirable it is to have the lead, and the less apt a voider will be to play any high cards. By that time, however, the voider should have been able to get rid of his uglies and hold onto some out cards so that he can quickly lose the lead.

When the voider has the opportunity to slough, he will want to take advantage of that occasion to build yet another void suit by sloughing off cards from whichever suit is the shortest. There are always exceptions, of course: If he's holding the Queen and hasn't got many spades, he'll probably dump the Queen. Also, as per the low-layer style, if he finds that he's got a trouble suit, he might deem it a better idea to first slough cards out of there.

Ideally, after several tricks have gone round, the voider should be holding only one or two long suits with a range of highs, mids, and lows in each one. At this point, the voider might begin maliciously dumping points on other players, and who knows, if no point cards have been played yet, he might even try to shoot the moon (see "Shooting" below to see how this is done).

Tripping up a Voider

As you can probably guess, the best way to throw a wrench into the plans of a voider is to pass him cards that will fill his voids back up. Pay attention to what he passes you. If you observe that he has a habit of passing you clubs, pass him a whole bunch of clubs when you get a chance to pass to him.

A canny voider could use this psychology in his favor, however: Every time you pass to the player on your left, pass clubs. Every time you pass to the player on your right, pass diamonds. If you can fool them well enough, they'll never fill your void suits, and may even supply you with long suits that you could use to shoot the moon. (A little table talk amongst the players could diffuse this in a hurry, though.)

The Equalizer

The Equalizer is an offensive player who seeks to hit other players with point cards -- especially the player that is currently winning. Where other players try to "dump" point cards, the Equalizer aims them. Naturally, the Equalizer wants to be in possession of as many point cards as possible, and as such, will not pass them. Holding the Queen is the Equalizer's fondest wish.

In order to hit other players with points, however, the Equalizer needs to have some void suits. Hence, the Equalizer style largely follows the same conventions as the Voider style. The suits of choice, however will most likely be either clubs and / or diamonds. An Equalizer would probably not void heart and spades suits because these hold the point cards, and point cards are what the Equalizer wants to have in his control.

When to Play the Equalizer

Being an Equalizer is like being a bounty hunter: you're trying to hit someone else, so someone else will probably be trying to hit you. Equalizers can end up taking a lot of points. The safest times to attempt to play the Equalizer are:

The Shooter

Shooting the Moon is the act of taking all the point cards. A successful shoot will leave you with no points and stick all the other players with twenty-six. Shooting is like executing a jujitsu move where you try to use the other players' offensive moves (and paranoia) against them. A daring feat, shooting the moon is not often attempted by the uninitiated, as it can carry such a high cost for failure. This section gives some advice on how to make a shoot more successful.

To Shoot, or not to Shoot?

Deciding if you're going to try to shoot can happen at any of the following times:

Shooting Guidelines

The following items are general tidbits of advice on shooting. More comprehensive approaches are covered in the sections that follow.

Approaches to Shooting

There are a number of ways to accomplish a successful Moon Shoot.

High Cards in All Suits

After the cards are dealt, see if you're holding lots of top cards in every suit, especially aces. If you like, use the same "weight" system described in the "lay low" style to determine how many high ones you've got and decide on a threshold, to wit: "I'll only shoot if the total weight of my cards is 45 or better".

The problem then becomes your low cards; How do you safely get rid of them?

Early on in the game, you don't need, and probably don't want the lead, so lead and follow with your low cards and just pray that no one bleeds a point onto anyone else. This is a good occasion to develop your skills at counting cards to see how many cards are left in a suit and / or to be on the lookout for any stoppers that could hold you up (see Counting). With any luck, people will see you leading / following low and just assume that you are trying to lay low and dodge taking the lead.

If you end up going void in a suit and someone leads into it, you can take advantage of that opportunity to slough off other low cards that might otherwise impede your shoot.

Attempting to shoot the moon in this fashion has the advantage that other players cannot try to sheriff you by leading in a suit in which you are void, with the intent of bleeding out a heart on someone other than you; You will likely always be able to take the lead back, should you lose it, in whatever suit any other player leads. There is a big disadvantage, however: If the shoot fails because someone else takes a point, you're going to be in heap big trouble for the same reason: You'll be able to take the lead in any trick thereafter. Even if you still have a few low cards, chances are you've got a lot more that are toppers.

One or Two Long Runs

The idea here is that you have a long suit with cards in a range from the top to the bottom. When the moment arrives that you decide to engage your shoot (i.e. you've seen a few key stoppers go out of play), you start at the top of your run, bleeding out all the remaining cards in that suit from the other players, such that once you get to the mid- to low-range cards in the suit, everyone else is void in it, and you can take all the tricks from then on.

To deal with your low cards in other suits, or for that matter, any cards in other suits, you will want to lead, follow, or slough them early on in the round in such a way that you hold onto any high cards and keep your long run intact. Late in the game, a low non-heart card will probably still take the trick because people have been sloughing everything but hearts to try to stop you from shooting.

Shooting via a long suit is a much safer way to attempt to shoot than holding high cards in all suits, because should the shoot fail, you still have low cards at the bottom of your run(s) that you can either lead or follow with to get out of trouble.

The Problem with a Long Hearts Run

As previously illustrated, holding a long run of cards can be a very effective and relatively safe way to shoot the moon. Since the bulk of the point cards are in the Hearts suit, one might conclude that a shooter should be holding a lot of those. Indeed, most beginners think you need to hold a lot of hearts to be able to successfully shoot.

Uncanny as it may sound however, having a long hearts run does not often yield a successful shoot. This is due to the fact that someone else must bleed hearts first, and you'll need to take them when they come out. If you have a long hearts run though, it probably means that you don't hold many cards in any other suits. This means that if you still want to attempt the shoot, you're going to have to slough cards other than your hearts. Under those kind of conditions, most people can't take the lead, and can't hold out for long before they have to start bleeding their hearts!

On the bright side, if the shoot is unsuccessful, you'll make a great Low-Layer by playing your low hearts, or a great Sheriff due to your high hearts, or a great Equalizer due to all the points that you can foist off onto the player of your choice.

Just a Few Pulls

A more effective means of pulling in all the points is to be holding the top 4 or 5 hearts (that is, the J, Q, K, and A), and not many hearts besides. Your only challenge under these circumstances is to take the first trick with a heart in it (hold onto some high cards in other suits so you can do this). Having accomplished taking the first heart bled, all you need to do is lead hearts, starting at the top of your run, and bleed all the rest of them out of the other players. You should be able to do this with just a few pulls. Thereafter, all you need is the Queen. At that point, the worst that can happen is that you don't take the Queen, and end up splitting the points with someone.

A Fiendish Approach

A more fiendish approach, however, is to have absolutely no hearts in your hand; Pass them all at the beginning of the round. With any luck, the passee won't believe that you're up to anything more sinister than getting rid of a few uglies. When you begin your run, and people catch on to what you're doing, they will likely try to hold onto their hearts, sloughing you only the stuff they've got in other suits. This can then prove their undoing, because as you begin to lead lower cards in the suits they've been sloughing, they'll probably be void and you can keep the lead even with low cards.

The Sheriff

When you are "Sheriffing" you are trying to stop someone from shooting the moon, or prevent anyone from shooting in the first place. The "Sheriff" style can be easily combined with any of the previous styles.

Playing the Sheriff is a lot like any other kind of law enforcement: A dirty job that somebody's gotta do and you'll often find yourself in the line of fire. Like the Equalizer, the Sheriff can often take a lot of points.

Sherrifing Guidelines

There are a number of things you can do to play an effective Sheriff:

Pass a low heart

This is an especially effective prevention if the person you are passing to has a reputation for being a shooter. The five or six of hearts is usually about right, but if you're especially paranoid, you may want to go as low as the three.

Hold onto a stopper

This is typically a high heart, but can be any high card. This tactic is especially effective when combined with the previous. Here's a little advice: When you have a chance to slough, dump the second highest card in the suit of your choice (usually a trouble suit). A Master Sheriff will have suits with plenty of low cards, and one topper.

Pass a bunch of low cards of any suit(s)

While not often entirely feasible, you can achieve this if you are going void in a suit that has only low cards, or if you are trying to shoot the moon yourself!

Bleed hearts early in the game

The earlier hearts are bled, the more difficult it is for a shooter to succeed because he must try to take more tricks.

Split hearts

Easier said than done if you're up against an expert shooter. Try to place hearts onto two or more players. The best way to accomplish this is to give a heart to a player that usually tries to lie low. If you can bleed one onto a Low-Layer, he will likely not have what he needs to shoot, and will therefore take few or no other hearts. Likewise, a shooter will likely have a bunch of high cards and be able to take any number of point-card tricks thereafter.

Lead in a suit in which the shooter is void

If the shooter is trying to shoot off of a diamonds run, but you know that he's void in clubs, lead clubs as much and as often as you can until someone can bleed a point onto somebody else.

Give the shooter the Queen before you give him any hearts

As mentioned in the "Shooting" section above, the most awkward way to shoot is to have taken the Queen and then be needing all the hearts. This is not a foolproof approach though. Sometimes, the Queen may be all the shooter needs!

Take the lead after the Queen comes out

Coinciding with the previous technique: After you have drawn out the Queen (that is, someone other than yourself has taken her), try your darndest to take the lead and play as high as you can -- pull out your toppers for this. Since the Queen is gone from play, there is very little risk in doing this. What you're hoping is that someone will bleed a heart onto you and prevent anyone from shooting. Once you get a heart bled onto you, lead back low and try to stay under all the rest of the tricks. As an added bonus, you've managed to get rid of a lot of your high cards in a fairly safe manner.

Pass a bunch of spades

This is perhaps the most devilish move of all. As mentioned before, the conditions under which you might do this are typically when you are passing to a renowned shooter. This makes it hard on them, because spades will draw the Queen out, and the shooter ultimately wants to take the Queen himself! This tactic is particularly effective when you can pass a bunch of low spades. The only way this could backfire on you is if the shooter has a long spades run to begin with, in which case you will add to the length of the run, and probably help them to shoot!

So I'm done Sheriffing. Now what?

You have accomplished your job as sheriff by verifying that point cards have been taken by two or more players (one of which could be yourself), thus ensuring that no one can shoot the moon. At this point, you want to fall back on the Low-Layer style. Slough off any other toppers you might be holding, and stay under the rest of the point tricks.