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Styles of Play in Hearts

by | Mar 14, 2018 | Hearts Strategy

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Those words said by Leonardo da Vinci can describe pretty well the rules of Hearts. Take as fewer point-bringing cards as possible. That’s all. But despite its simple rules, Hearts is a surprisingly complex game. There are various strategies you should follow, according to the cards you have, the tricks played, and the opponents you are facing.

In an article dating back 20 years, the card game expert Mark Whitley described pretty well five different roles of play for Hearts players, according to their style. Of course, it is inadvisable to follow strictly those roles or to stick to them on each hand. Styles should be blurred and changed according to the cards you have, but all in all, here are the five different types of players:

The Low-Layer

This is the role every beginner tries to take, as it is the most natural and logical. The Low-layer hates high cards. He is a defensive player that tries to win as fewer tricks as possible. After all, zero tricks mean zero points (in most cases).

Passing cards as a Low-Layer

Playing the Low-Layer means you don’t necessarily try to make voids. Your main objective when passing is to get rid of any cards equal or above Jacks. Spades are the top priority, followed by Hearts. But following this advice blindly is a sure ticket to trouble-station. Because going under doesn’t require having low cards, it requires having lower cards from the suit being lead.
This means you should first and foremost locate your trouble suit. It will have mid to high cards only and no low cards. Void it first!

Don’t pass A or K of Spades all the time. If you have four or more Spades below the Queen you will upstand any siege other players may lay to you. You better pass those 7 and J of your trouble suit instead.

To summarise:

  • Locate your ‘trouble suit’ where your card median is the highest and take care of it.
  • Be sure you don’t have any uglies (high cards) that you can’t cover with low cards.
  • Void a suit if you can, but don’t let that be your priority.

Playing your hand as a Low-Layer

The playstyle is really simple to follow: avoid taking any tricks! Go under in any scenario possible. This might be particularly tricky when you are playing second and there will be times when playing one of your uglies instead is a justified risk.

The only exception to the above rule should be when you are playing last and there are no points in the trick. It is the perfect situation to win the trick with one of your uglies and then lead with a low card that is bound to be taken.

If you are in the rare position of leading, try to bleed out the Spades. You want the Queen of Spades out of the game as soon as possible.

When sloughing, get rid of your trouble suits first. Don’t be quick on breaking the Hearts. Get as many inconvenient cards from the rest of the suits first.

Potential risks of playing as a Low-Layer

Since creating voids is not a top priority and playing low cards from the beginning is a part of the strategy, playing as a Low-Layer leaves you exposed of taking all the tricks in the final stage of the game. This can be really bad since most players leave their point cards for the end.

Another risk is that low-layer style is a pretty passive one. If there are two or even three low-layers on the current play, this makes it extra easy for The Shooter to run his game and Shoot the Moon.

The Voider

Having no cards of a given suit means you’ve created a void for that suit. Having one or two voids from the start gives you a great advantage because you have 0 chance of taking a trick from them and it gives you the opportunity to slough your uglies when someone leads those suits. The Voider has a defensive and passive role in the game.

Passing cards as a Voider

Never void the same suit each round. If you only pass Clubs, your opponents will eventually figure it out and pass their Clubs to you as well. Adapt to the hand you are dealt with instead.
There is around 25% chance you will be able to void two suits in the Passing phase. Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration what cards are going to be passed to you, but that’s not something you can know.

Voiding Clubs

Clubs are the most preferred suit to be voided. You can easily slough an ugly on the first trick if you don’t have any clubs. Even if you have 4 Clubs, if you pass 3 you will still void the suit on the first trick.

Voiding Diamonds

Being the most ‘boring’ suit, Diamonds is also a good choice for voiding. Although not as much as Clubs, Diamonds are often played in the early tricks, leaving you an opportunity to slough the bad apples sooner rather than later.

Voiding Spades

If there is one single, most important rule to follow in the game of Hearts, it is “never pass Spades”! And as any rule, this one can be broken under the right circumstances. Voiding Spades can be a very bold move. If you don’t have A, K, and Q of Spades to pass in your turn, receiving them can ruin your round and your whole game. The benefit of voiding Spades is it is always an unexpected move. Experience players will never void Spades lower than the Queen and you can take advantage of it. Although really risky, it may be a good move if you are not leading the score.

Voiding Hearts

The bad thing about voiding Hearts is you can`t profit from it in the early tricks of the round. There is a good chance that once Hearts are broken, next few tricks will give you an opportunity to get rid of your uglies. But you got to survive the first tricks.

Playing your hand as a Voider

Once the round starts, the game style of the Voider should be similar to the Low-layer. You don’t want to win any unnecessary tricks if it can be avoided. Sometimes though, if you want to create a new void, you will win a pointless trick in an attempt to drive the play to the suit you desire.

When sloughing, logic dictates that you slough from the suit you have the least cards. But if there is a really problematic suit, where you lack mid and low cards, you might want to pick it up instead.

Ideally, in the final tricks, you will have one or two long suits with enough mid and low cards to make you comfortable with the outcome. Given the right circumstances, you may even try to shoot the moon if you have a long enough suit.

Potential risks of playing as a Voider

There are two main risks playing as a Voider:

  • You get passed the suit you are trying to void, thus ruining your strategy.
  • The suits you voided aren’t being actively played.

Using psychology can tackle the first problem at least. Always pass Clubs when you are passing to the left, and always pass Diamonds when passing to the right. This way you may confuse your opponents into passing the right suit to you on their turn, thus helping you create a long suit.

The Equalizer

The Equalizer aims to bring back balance to the force game. His goal is to pass the point cars to the other players, mainly to the current leader of the game. It is a passive, but offensive role and even if played correctly, will leave you with a few points scored.

Passing cards as an Equalizer

Playing as an equalizer means you want to have all the point cards, so you can distribute them to whoever you like. Voiding diamonds and clubs is the practical thing to do here. You want to keep all the point cards you have, and of course, keep a long suit of Spades to endure any siege attempts there may be.

Playing your hand as an Equalizer

The best strategy to follow is to void your Diamonds and Clubs if you haven’t done it in the Passing stage. If you want to distribute points to others, you shouldn’t be leading tricks, so try to go under when you can. Be careful not to slough all the point cards to a single opponent, thus helping him Shooting.

Potential risks of playing as an Equalizer

You won’t be the most adored person on the table when you always try to give points to others. This means you will surely get hit now and then. But since you won’t have a risky hand and you probably won’t be leading if you play as an Equalizer, this means it is a relatively safe role that won’t bring you many points.

The Shooter

Playing as the ‘bad boy’ of the table is a high risk. The consequences of failure are great, but the prize is even greater. Playing the Shooter should be done rarely, as others will always try to sabotage you. Try Shooting the Moon only if your opponents are not expecting it.

Passing cards as a Shooter

There are two ways you may want to try and do a Moon Shot.

  • Having High cards from all the suits.
  • Having a really long suit.

Obviously, you can’t try Shooting with every hand. So picking up one of the two strategies for shooting should depend on the cards you have. If you can make a 7+ long suit, leave only Aces or Kings from the other suits. Don’t forget that you have to win a trick, presumably outside your long suit, to lead it.

If your initial hand is filled with high cards from all suits, well, even better. Pass all your low hands, especially low Hearts. In the late tricks of the round, everyone is going to keep their Hearts. You want only high Hearts that are going to be trick-winners.

There is a third option that is both sneaky and hazardous – void your Hearts. Firstly, this will mislead the player you are passing to. Secondly, you will have an advantage in the late game once they figure it out you are a Shooter. Everyone will try to stop you with a Heart, but you won’t have any. But most importantly, if someone sloughs a Heart in a trick won by an opponent, you can rethink your strategy and play a low-layer instead.

Playing your hand as a Shooter

When shooting, your goal is to take all the point cards. Many new players mistake that as taking ALL the cards. You can easily skip the first tricks. Actually, it is advisable to not win them. It will bleed you out of your high cards and additionally it will give up your strategy to your opponents.
Counting cards is especially valuable when you are a Shooter. If you can keep track of every potential card that can stop your long suit / high cards, you can calculate when to stop going under and start winning tricks. The later you do that, the better. But the risk of someone else sloughing a heart into a trick you are going under becomes greater as well.

Always try to have a backup plan. Leave a low card you can lead, if the round doesn’t go accordingly. Also, try winning all the Hearts first and leave the Queen of Spades for the later tricks (if it is in your hand of course). This way if someone can stop you, he will have to take the Queen himself, thus leaving you in the worse case scenario of sharing 13 points with an opponent – a price not that big to pay for a failure.

Potential risks of playing as a Shooter

Oh boy, where to begin with? First of all, once they figure it out, everybody is going to try and stop you. Even if they have to take the Queen of Spades, 13 points are far better than 26.
The price you pay for failing to Shoot the Moon is always enormous. There is nothing worse than scoring 25 points because someone kept that last Heart out of your reach.

Then comes the strategy implementation. It may all be fine and dandy, but if an opponent passes you a low Heart, you are most probably doomed. A single card passed to you can really ruin your plan. And if you try to be the Shooter more than once a game, everyone will be on the lookout.

The Sheriff

Whenever a villain shows up, trying to give everyone 26 points and rob them of their good passing strategy, a law-enforcer must rise to the occasion. The Sheriff’s only objective in the round is to stop anybody from shooting. It is an ungrateful task that will win some points, but as any cop would tell you, somebody’s gotta do it. Clearly, if you want to win, being a full-time Sheriff is not a good idea. That’s why usually you combine this role with another one.

Passing cards as a Sheriff

Pass a low heart. They are generally a nuisance to any Shooter, especially if combined with a higher Heart you can beat.

Another option is to pass a combination of a low and a high card you can beat at any given suit. Or simply pass your low cards in an attempt to disrupt the Shooter’s plan. If you collect the proper hand after the Passing, you may even try to be the Shooter yourself.

But most importantly, always leave a stopper in your hand. A stopper is a card that will stop a long suit and will almost certainly win a trick. This way you will have some ammo when you go to a duel with a Shooter.

Playing your hand as a Sheriff

Remember, your main goal and only duty is to have two different players win a trick with a point card in it. Often one of those two players is you. After you achieve that try to salvage what’s left of your hand and score as fewer points as possible.

That being said, bleeding hearts the sooner you can is your main strategy. It obliges the Shooter to try and win tricks sooner in the round, thus making his play harder.

If you discover what suit the Shooter has voided, try playing it extensively. He won’t be able to win a trick in it and you can hope another player will bleed a Heart, thus ruining the Shooter’s gameplan.

Another strategy is to try and take the lead after the Queen of Spades is played. This will be a direct rivalry to the Shooter for every trick. It will end poorly for both of you, as you will score points for sure, but they won’t be 26.

After you make sure nobody can successfully shoot, change your strategy. Try playing as a Low-Layer.

Potential risks of playing as a Sheriff

As said above, being the Law is an ungrateful task. In order to stop the Shooter you will get hit. And if things go South you can end up with a lot of points. Play Sheriff only if there is a really active shooter and only if you aren’t in the lead.