Oh Hell Card Game

Oh Hell or Oh Shit is an extremely interesting card game. The basic rules are described in many places (see Wikipedia and playohsit.appspot.com). Please read those descriptions if you are not familiar with the game. This page discusses the finer points of the game in more detail, including the variation that I have found to work the best.

There are many appealing aspects of the game:

In most card games, each player eagerly examines the cards they have been dealt, hoping to see a profusion of valuable cards. E.g., in poker, to see a promising three of a kind. In bridge, to see many aces and kings. (Duplicate bridge is a notable exception to this pattern.)

In Oh Hell, by contrast, a hand with many strong cards can often be very hard to play. E.g., say that each player has received ten cards. One player's hand has many trumps and high cards, and the player expects to win five tricks, maybe six. Should that player bid five or six? Say that the player bids five, but wins six tricks, because a low trump unexpectedly wins. Hence the player loses the scoring bonus. By contrast, a player who has just two strong cards can usually get exactly two, and thus get the scoring bonus. So having two strong cards is often better than having five strong cards!

Here are the playing rules that I have found to work well, leading to a more exciting and entertaining game.

Spades as trump suit

The same suit should always be trumps. I use spades as the trump suit, just because that is the highest suit in bridge.

Many versions of the rules specify that trumps should be chosen by turning over an extra unplayed card. Say there are four players, and each should get 10 cards. So forty cards are dealt for play. Then an extra card is turned over, visible to all, and the suit of that 41st card becomes the trump suit. The 41st card has no further role in the play.

There are two disadvantages to this procedure. The principal disadvantage is that it reduces the number of cards in play that are trumps! In the example I gave, after 40 cards are dealt, there are 12 remaining cards. Say that, by chance, in the 40 cards dealt, there were only 8 diamonds. Then in the 12 remaining cards, 5 are diamonds. So a diamond is more likely to be the next card turned over, precisely the suit that has fewer cards in play.

In general, the trump suit chosen in this manner is likely to be the suit with few cards in that suit that were dealt to the players. Each suit constitutes 25% of the cards. When trumps are chosen in this manner, however, only about 23.4% of the cards in play will be trumps, as I determined by simulating the cards being dealt. The relative paucity of trump cards in play makes the game less exciting.

The other disadvantage is relatively minor: the need to have an extra card to turn over means that 4 players cannot play a round with 13 tricks, utilizing the full deck of 52 cards.

Because of these considerations, I suggest that spades always be the trump suit.

Scoring

The scoring method I use is very simple: if you win as many tricks as you bid, your score increases by that amount. Otherwise your score decreases by how many tricks you ended up being off your bid.

Here's an example: Say that your score is currently 7.

On the next round, you bid 3.

When the round is played, if you win exactly 3 tricks, then your score increases by 3, from 7 to 10.

If you win just 2 tricks, so that you are off by 1, then your score decreases by 1, from 7 to 6.

Similarly, if you win 4 tricks, so that you got one more trick than you wanted, then your score again decreases by 1, from 7 to 6.

If you won just 1 trick, so that you are off by 2, then you lose 2 points, going from 7 to 5.

Similarly, if you won 5 tricks, so that you are again off by 2, then you lose 2 points, going from 7 to 5.

Here's a summary of this example, based on the old score being 7:
Tricks Bid Tricks Won Change in score New Score
3 1 -2 5
3 2 -1 6
3 3 +3 10
3 4 -1 6
3 5 -2 5

This shows the importance of getting exactly what you bid, because it makes a massive difference to your score.

The same rule is applied consistently for bids of 0. Say that, on some round, you have bad cards, and bid 0 tricks. When the round is played, if you win 0 tricks, then your score is unchanged. By some vagary, if you win 1 trick, despite not wanting any, then you lose one point.

Here's a summary, again based on the old score being 7:
Tricks Bid Tricks Won Change in score New Score
0 0 Unchanged 7
0 1 -1 6
0 2 -2 5

This scoring system is very simple, provided you are not confused by negative numbers, as it is common for a player's score to be negative at some times during the game.

This scoring system emphasizes the distinctive feature of "Oh Hell": viz., bidding what you expect to win, and then playing to get exactly that. Accordingly, you get a bonus for bidding and playing accurately, otherwise you get a penalty based on how much you were off.

Many of the scoring systems described elsewhere do not have this property. Say that in one round, Alice bids one trick, and Bob also bids one trick. When the round is played, Alice wins 2 tricks, and Bob wins 3, because both under-estimated the strength of their hands. The scoring system in Wikipedia says "players score 1 point per trick and a bonus of 10 points if they achieve their bid." Under this scheme, Alice would gain 2 points, and Bob would gain 3 points. This would be simply a reflection of the strength of the hands that they were dealt. It unfairly rewards Bob, despite Bob's bid being more inaccurate than Alice's bid.

By contrast, under my preferred scoring system, Alice loses 1 point, for a somewhat inaccurate bid; and Bob loses 2 points, for a more inaccurate bid. Bob's bid was more inaccurate, so he lost more points. This emphasizes the distinctive feature of "Oh Hell", viz., the primary importance of bidding and playing accurately.

Why does my scoring system reward higher accurate bids? E.g., Alice bids 3 tricks, and gets exactly that; and Bob bids 2 tricks, and also gets exactly that. In that case, Alice gains 3 points, and Bob gains 2 points. This is because (as discussed earlier), it is harder to exactly bid and win a larger number of tricks. So the score gained accounts for that difference in difficulty.

Other rules of play

Here are several other procedures of play that work well:

The game can be easily adapted to a varying number of players. But having four players works very well. Three players is not really enough. With five or more players, there is too much randomness. E.g., an ace that is led often gets trumped because another player had a void in the suit led. This makes the game less interesting. If you have five people, I suggest having one person act as just the dealer and scorer for the other four people.

Randomness is very important in this game. The order of play can make a significant difference. E.g., if Bob is seated to play immediately after Alice, then Bob can choose a card to play based on Alice's prior play, possibly giving Bob an advantage over Alice.

To address this, the first person to play should be randomized, and the order of play should also be randomized.

I use the following procedure: at the beginning of the game, each person draws a random card. The order of play is based on the random card drawn by each (aces high, down to 2, ignoring suits or trumps). If two or more players draw the same value of card, then each of those players draws a further card, to decide among them. Repeat if needed until the order is fully determined.

Here is an example: Say that the four players draw the following cards:
First card
Frank 7 of Hearts
Gloria 9 of Hearts
Harry 7 of Diamonds
Irene 4 of Spades

Gloria has the highest card, and Irene, the lowest. Frank and Harry are tied, so they each draw another card:
First card Second card
Frank
Gloria
Harry
Irene

Harry's second card is higher Frank's second card. Thus the final order of play is as follows:
First card Second card
Gloria
Harry
Frank
Irene

The players should seat themselves accordingly, and the cards drawn for this purpose are returned to the pack Furthermore, when the game starts, Gloria will be the first person to bid, and also the first person to play.

This randomization procedure should be done before the players have settled down comfortably in seats!

For similar reasons, the deck of cards should be well-shuffled each time, and cut by somebody other than the first person to be dealt a card.

The cards should be dealt one at a time to each person, in rotation. I.e., if each person should get 7 cards, deal one card to each person, four cards in all; then deal another card to each person, another four cards; then repeat five more times (rather than dealing 7 to one player, then 7 to the next player, etc.). This increases the randomness of the cards.

In each round, the first person to bid is also the first person to play. This rotates each round. E.g., in the above example, Gloria is the first person to bid (and play). On the next round, Harry is the first person to bid (and play). Then Frank, and then Irene. Then Gloria again, and so on.

Each round consists of a number of hands dealt and played. E.g., one round may consist of each player getting 7 cards, for 28 cards dealt in all. The play consists of 7 tricks (each trick containing 4 cards, one from each player).

The winner of each trick should gather the four cards, turn them face-down, and keep them in a neat pile near themselves. Once the next trick is started, nobody can look at the cards in prior tricks.

Changing bids or cards is permitted, before any information is supplied by another player. E.g., say that Alice bids 2, and the next player Bob does not bid immediately. Alice can then interject and change her bid.

Similarly, say that Alice plays the 6 of diamonds. Bob follows suit, and plays the Ace of diamonds. The next player Carol does not play immediately. In that case, Bob is allowed to take back the Ace of diamonds, and play another legal card, such as a low diamond.

The guiding principle is that Bob can change his play until the subsequent play by Carol reveals information to Bob. The hesitation by Carol is not considered actionable information!

After one round is completed, all 52 cards are collected and shuffled. Then the next round starts, with the player who is first to bid/play rotating one spot around. The dealer can also rotate, or one person can always serve as the dealer.

A complete game consists of several rounds. The players should agree beforehand about the rounds in the complete game. If you have enough time, you should play from 1 trick, upto 13 tricks, then back down to 1 trick, for 25 rounds in all. This works very well. The first few rounds are mostly just fun, and help newcomers understand the game. As the number of tricks increases, each game becomes more consequential, culminating in the full game with 13 tricks. Then the number of tricks decreases, with the players' positions solidified, ending with a few final fun rounds.

If you have less time, a partial game can be played. E.g., start with 7 tricks, go up to 13 tricks, then back down to 7 tricks.

The game may be more enjoyable if each player has the objective of trying to maximize their own score (rather than trying to beat the other players). For example, in a full game, going from 1 trick to 13 tricks and back to 1 trick, a final score of 25 is extremely good. A player who scores 25 should be very pleased and proud, regardless of whether another player happened to score higher.

Then the only element of competition between the players is confined to the necessity of complying with the hook, described below.

In each round, the last person to bid is constrained in their choice of bid, as the total of the bids must differ from the number of tricks (this is called the hook by Wikipedia). E.g., say that the first round involves just 1 card each, with the bids as follows:
Order Bid
Alice First 1
Bob Second 0
Carol Third 0
David Fourth ??

In this case, David is the last to bid, and is required to bid 1.

The next round involves two tricks, and Bob is the first to bid/play:
Order Bid
Alice Fourth ??
Bob First 0
Carol Second 1
David Third 0

In this case, Alice is the last to bid. The bids by the other three players total 1. If Alice bid 1, that would make the total be 2, which is not allowed. Instead, Alice must bid either 0 or 2, depending on whether she prefers to have an overbid round, where at least one player would get fewer than the desired tricks; or an underbid round, where at least one player would win a trick that they do not want to win.

This is the commonest case where a player exclaims "Oh Hell": in an underbid round, the final unwanted trick is won by some tiny inoffensive card such as the 3 of diamonds, because another player ducked with the 2 of diamonds, and the other two players were void in diamonds and trumps.

Here's how I typically score a full game. Each individual round gets one row. Each player gets one column, with two values in each column: the bid, and the running total.

Say that the initial bids are as shown above. David bids last, and is forced to bid 1, because of the hook. The bids are entered as follows, each number written towards the left of its column:
Tricks Alice Bob Carol David
1 1     0     0     1    
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

When the hand is played, Bob wins the single trick. So Bob, Carol and Alice got their bids, while David is one off. The successful bids are circled. Then the resultant score for each player is written towards the right of each column.
Tricks Alice Bob Carol David
1 1   1 0   0 0   0 1   -1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

On the next round, for 2 tricks, play rotates to the left. So Bob bids first, then Carol, and then David. Say these are the bids, with Alice still to bid:
Tricks Alice Bob Carol David
1 1   1 0   0 0   0 1   -1
2 ?     0     1     0    
3
4
5
6
7
8

The first three bids total 1. Alice is the last to bid, so she cannot bid 1, because that would make the total be 2. She bids 2 instead:
Tricks Alice Bob Carol David
1 1   1 0   0 0   0 1   -1
2 2     0     1     0    
3
4
5
6
7
8

When the round is played, Alice wins both tricks. For each player, the running score is updated as follows: Alice gains 2 points, Bob & David are unchanged, and Carol loses one point:
Tricks Alice Bob Carol David
1 1   1 0   0 0   0 1   -1
2 2   3 0   0 1   -1 0   -1
3
4
5
6
7
8

As you can see, it's common for some scores to be negative!

I have spent many many enjoyable hours playing this game. I hope that you do so as well!


Rujith de Silva
Created 2021-07-17; edited 2021-09-12.