Wednesday, November 5th, 2008...1:07 pm


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I’m currently on vacation. As such I will take a break from blogging about weighty matters like theology, politics, and the like to post about the popular Merrimack Valley card game “forty-fives”, an example of folk culture. It is almost unknown outside of northeastern Massachusetts and southeastern New Hampshire. Variations are played in Nova Scotia and Ireland. There is a little dispute about the origin of the name, seeing as how the game has nothing to do with the number 45. The likeliest explanation is that it started out as forte fives. (Forte means “strong” in Italian.) Much of the ethnic make-up of the area is Irish or Italian, and the game as it’s known today might have been a product of those two ethnic groups. This is more speculation than scholarship. Because of the New England accent, it sounds more like “fotty fives” when the locals say it. My recap of the rules is mostly lifted from <>. I have added commentary where appropriate and edited it slightly

Objective: Partners try to win tricks and prevent their opponents from doing so. The first team to reach 120 points wins the game. (Exceptions explained below.)

Scoring: Each hand is comprised of 5 tricks. (A trick is each time all players play a card.) Each trick counts for 5 points, and the highest trump in play (known as the “boss card”) is an additional 5, for a total of 30 available points per hand. After the hand, each team counts what they have taken. If the bidder’s team has taken at least the amount of their bid, they score all they have won. If this team fails, the amount of their bid is deducted from their score. The non-bidding team(s), in either case, always score what they have won in tricks.

Winning the Game: The team to first reach a total of 120 points wins the game. If both teams are 90 points or higher (referred to as being “on the green”), you must bid in order to win. If you don’t bid and reach 120 points, play continues. This goes on until either the bidding team goes out or all other teams fall off of the green.

Players: This game can be played with anywhere from 2 to 6 players. It can either be played in partners or “cut throat” (every man for himself). Changes in the amount of players don’t often fundamentally alter the rules of the game, but greatly affect the probabilities (and consequently strategies) involved.

Cards: A regular deck of 52. The highest trump is the 5, then the Jack, then and Ace of Hearts (no matter what suit is trump). After that it goes Ace of suit, King, Queen, and then it black it goes 2 through 10 and in red 10 through 2 (in both cases skipping the 5). The Full rank in the trump suit is the following, from highest to lowest:

Hearts: 5♥, J♥, A♥, K♥, Q♥ 10♥, 9♥, 8♥, 7♥, 6♥, 4♥, 3♥, 2♥

Diamonds: 5♦, J♦, A♥, A♦, K♦, Q♦, 10♦, 9♦, 8♦, 7♦, 6♦, 4♦, 3♦, 2♦

Clubs: 5♣, J♣, A♥, A♣, K♣, Q♣, 2♣, 3♣, 4♣, 6♣, 7♣, 8♣, 9♣, 10♣

Spades: 5♠, J♠, A♥, A♠, K♠, Q♠, 2♠, 3♠, 4♠, 6♠, 7♠, 8♠, 9♠, 10♠

The Full rank in off suit is as follows: (the Ace of Hearts is not shown since it is always a trump and always the third highest card); From highest to lowest:

Hearts: K♥, Q♥, J♥, 10♥, 9♥, 8♥, 7♥, 6♥, 5♥, 4♥, 3♥, 2♥

Diamonds: K♦, Q♦, J♦, 10♦, 9♦, 8♦, 7♦, 6♦, 5♦, 4♦, 3♦, 2♦, A♦

Clubs: K♣, Q♣, J♣, A♣, 2♣, 3♣, 4♣, 5♣, 6♣, 7♣, 8♣, 9♣, 10♣

Spades: Kâ™ , Qâ™ , Jâ™ , Aâ™ , 2â™ , 3â™ , 4â™ , 5â™ , 6â™ , 7â™ , 8â™ , 9â™ , 10â™ 

Dealing: Each player is dealt 5 cards in batches of 3 then 2. After the initial 3 cards to each player, 3 are dealt to a kitty followed by 2 more to each player.

Bidding: The bidding starts with the player to the left of the deal and continues clockwise. Each player in turn may either bid or pass. Bids are made in multiples of 5 up to 30, with the minimum opening bid being 15. (An optional house rule allows you to bid “30 for 60.” If you get all 30 points for that hand, you get 60 points. If you don’t make your bid, 60 points are subtracted from your score.) No suit is mentioned during the bidding process until all bids have been made. The highest bidder names the trump suit. If nobody bids the dealer is “bagged” and forced to bid 15 for that hand.

Drawing: After the highest bidder names the trump suit, he gets to look at the kitty and take whatever he wants from it. Each player discards as many cards as he wishes from his hand, usually discarding all off-suit cards. (Note: If there are 6 players, each player can discard a maximum of 3 cards. If there are 5 or fewer players you can discard a maximum of 4 cards. An optional house rule may allow players to discard all five of their cards. If this is the case, then the fifth card is dealt face-up.) The dealer then restores each player’s hand to 5 cards, starting with the player to his left. Cards are dealt all at once to each player (no 3-2 method).

Playing: The bidder makes the opening lead. The hand is played out in 5 tricks. If a trump is led and you have any trump cards, you must follow suit.* If an off-suit card is led, any card may be played. (Note: A somewhat common variation of this is that you need to follow an off suit that is led if you are able to before being able to play an off-suit card from a different suit.) A trick is won by the highest trump or the highest card of the suit led if no trump cards are played. The subsequent tricks are led by the player who took the previous trick.

*Reneging exception: The three highest trumps (5, J, Ace of Hearts) have the privilege of reneging when a lower trump is led. For example, if the trump 6 is led, a player holding any of these three top trumps without lower trumps may throw off-suit instead of following suit (if he has lower trump also, then he must play a trump). But there is no reneging when a higher trump is led. For example, if the trump Jack is played, the holder of the 5 may renege, but not the holder of the Ace of Hearts.

Partner Play: If you have four or six players, you can play the game with partners. Partners sit across from each other. (If you have 6 players, you would have 2 players from other teams to either side of you.) Tricks taken by either member of the team count toward that team’s total.

Strategy tips:

•When playing partners, watch to see how many cards are drawn. If a bunch of people draw the maximum, you may want to lead with the 5. Otherwise, you would generally lead low and let your partner take the first trick. If you have a lot of trump cards, lead on-suit. If you don’t have many, lead off-suit.

•Bidders have a significant advantage because they get the kitty and get to choose the trump suit. If you have decent cards, don’t be timid. You should just about always bid 15 if you have a five and 20 if you have a five and jack of the same suit. Because of the risk of losing points, there is a greater risk involved, but there is also a greater award. When bidding, take note of how many people are playing. If you have good cards for a suit but don’t have the 5, you can bid 20 in a two player game, but you should almost never bid without the five (and never bid 20 without the 5) in a six player game.

•Don’t be too predictable in how you play. Sometimes, you may want to play your best cards early, and sometimes you want to save them. If you always play the same way, you give observant opponents an advantage. (This is by no means a suggestion to play crazy random cards; just switch things up every once in a while. To use a baseball analogy, a good change-up will make an average fastball much harder to hit.)

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