Oh Hell!


O hell! What have we here?

Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene vii.

I’m a tournament bridge player and a pretty fair cribbage player, but the card game that I’ve enjoyed the most with my family is called Oh Hell, which also has other names, some not suitable for children. If even this name offends you, you can call it Oh Heck or Oh Darn. The point of the game is in the sentiment. It is full of nasty surprises, and one player’s nasty surprise usually means hilarity for the other players. In other words, it’s greatest appeal comes from schadenfreude.

Oh Hell is a simple game that can be played by almost any number of players. It’s best with three, four, or five, but it can be played with more. The rules and basic strategy are easy enough for a ten-year-old to learn very quickly. There are fewer rules than hearts or crazy eights, but it’s a much better game than either, challenging enough for a good bridge or poker player. Strategy is important, but there’s enough luck that that ten-year-old might beat the bridge Life Master. Hence the name.

Like hearts, spades, ombre, and whist, Oh Hell is a trick-taking game. It’s played with a standard 52-card deck, aces high. One suit is randomly designated as trump (the “master suit” for that hand, beating any card in the other three suits). The player to the left of the dealer leads a card. The others must play cards in the same suit if they can. If a player can’t follow suit, he may discard any card from his hand, or trump. On each trick (one card from each player) the highest trump card wins the trick. If no trumps are played to the trick, the highest card in the suit led wins. The winner of each trick leads to the next trick.

What is most different about Oh Hell is that the number of cards dealt in each round changes progressively. In the first round only one card is dealt to each player. In the second round, two cards; in the third round, three. And so on. The maximum number of cards in the top round is 52 divided by the number of players. If four play, the last round can be 13 cards. If five play, the last round can’t be more than ten cards. In our family, we like to play up to ten cards in a round, and then back down to one. Nineteen rounds takes us about 40 minutes. You can adjust the number of rounds to whatever pleases you.

Oh Hell is also a bidding game. The deal rotates clockwise around the table. The dealer distributes cards to the other players and himself, and then turns up one more card as trump. You evaluate your hand before the first card is led to the first trick, and guess (bid) how many tricks you will take, from zero up to the number of cards in your hand. The player to the left of the dealer bids first, and the bidding progresses clockwise. The scorekeeper records the bids. You get one point for every trick you take, and you get 10 bonus points if you “make your bid” (correctly guess how many tricks you will take). As the game progresses, other players tend to gang up on the leader, which leads to shameless politicking and increases the fun.

The dealer bids last. In our family, we have a special rule that the dealer is not allowed to make a bid that would permit all the players to make their bids and get the 10-point bonus. Somebody has to fail. For example, if there are five tricks in the round and four have been spoken for, the dealer is not allowed to bid “one trick.” He may bid more (two to five), or he may bid zero, but he may not bid one. This ensures that someone will say Oh Hell (or something similar) during the round. In our house, you are at a disadvantage when it’s your turn to deal, but you softhearted, anti-competitive types don’t have to play that rule.

All you need is a deck of cards, a piece of paper, and a pencil. Make a score sheet. Agree how many rounds there will be, one per line. Write the names of the players across the top of the score sheet (it’s easier if they’re in the order they’re sitting around the table). There should be two columns under every player’s name, one for his/her bid and one for the cumulative score.

Cut for deal and let the agony begin.