Basic Strategy for Hearts
Becoming a successful Hearts player requires a wide array of skills, and the mastery of a number of different strategies. Fortunately for Hearts enthusiasts none of the strategies are overly complex (there is plenty of nuance to each) and perhaps the best way to learn the game is to play and observe more seasoned players. The key to learning the strategies of Hearts when you first start out is to keep an open mind and pay attention, since the game flies against what most of us know about card games since the goal is to LOSE tricks in Hearts!
In this article I’ll go over each of the main strategies of the game and give a brief explanation of why they are important –for more detailed insight on any of these topics you can check out our Advanced Hearts Strategies articles.
Bleeding and Defending Spades
One of the first strategies a Hearts player needs to learn is how to Bleed Spades (draw out Spades from opponents) and Defend Spades (keep Spades from being led) since the #1 priority in every hand of Hearts is to avoid winning the trick with the Queen of Spades.
Creating “Voids” in your hand is the first step in dropping penalty cards on your opponents’ tricks. Voids are also incredibly important when you have the Queen of Spades, or even simply a lot of high cards (especially Aces) that have the capability of winning multiple tricks.
Voids allow you to offload your penalty cards and Aces and Kings on your opponents’ tricks with no fear of winning a trick yourself.
The first strategy you will need to implement on every hand is which cards to pass to your opponents. Passing cards is almost entirely dependent on the other cards in your hand, since sometimes you will actually welcome high cards, and other times you will want to offload the one or two high Hearts you have been dealt. Thinking about what your opponents are likely to pass is also an important nuance to the game and can sway your decision as to what cards you should keep and what cards you should pass.
Shooting the Moon
Shooting the Moon is a powerful play in Hearts, but like the moon it’s also foolish to chase. Looking for reasons to Shoot the Moon is usually a bad idea, whereas finding a reason to NOT Shoot the Moon (and not being able to come up with any) is usually indicative of the time being right.
Most of the time you’ll find that slow and steady will win the race in Hearts, but when the cards are dealt right Shooting the Moon can be precisely the knockout punch you need to deliver. BUT, always beware that when you fail in your attempt to Shoot the Moon you will be handcuffed by up to 25 points yourself!
Once you get through these topics you will know everything you need to know about Hearts. The next move is to try another form or cards. I suggest poker. So get over to Carbon Poker and try you hand at that once you’ve mastered Hearts.
Bleeding Spades (the act of leading Spades that rank Jack or lower) is a far simpler proposition than Defending Spades. The reason for this will become very apparent as you read this article, since when you Bleed Spades you are never in danger of inadvertently ending up with the Queen of Spades (worth 13 penalty points) although you might end up with a stray Heart here and there (worth only a single point each), but when you are Defending Spades all manner of things can go wrong, and they can go wrong very fast.
Defending Spades becomes your #1 priority when you have a lone Ace, King or Queen of Spades. In these cases you need to develop a void as soon as possible and hope someone leads that suit. While this is a risky proposition, especially since your opponents will likely be trying to Bleed Spades at the same time you are Defending Spades!
Anytime you can lead in a suit where you hold only a single card or perhaps two cards (this is best done when you have a good chance of winning the first trick) you need to create that void. Furthermore, it’s also ok to lead a long run if you also have the Queen of Spades, and hope someone breaks Hearts. You can do this because you are never in danger of having an opponent play the Queen of Spades since it resides in your hand –of course any decent opponent will quickly understand where the Queen of Spades happens to be when you take this approach!
The key to Defending Spades is to create as many voids in your hand as soon as possible, but you must also be cognizant of which players are trying to Bleed Spades. For instance, suppose you have the Queen of Spades and the 5 of Spades. When a player leads the 9 of Spades you can be fairly certain this player has more low Spades in their hand that they want to lead, your primary goal here is to keep the lead out of their hand on subsequent tricks until you can dump the Queen of Spades.
However, if the player is to your immediate right and wins the first trick with their 9, and leads a second trick you may dodge a bullet as the player behind you may have held their Ace or King not knowing if the final player held the Queen. There is no chance one of those cards is with the last player since they closed the action.
On the flipside if you are the third player to act you will be stuck with the Black Maria in this situation. So as you can see, Defending Spades is a much dicier proposition than Bleeding them.
In Hearts no play is more exhilarating (or debilitating to your opponents) than Shooting the Moon (winning each and every penalty card). Unfortunately, the sexiness of Shooting the Moon often leads many players to take unwarranted risks as they try to cripple their opponents with 26 points each –and try to prove their superior ability in the game. In this article I’ll explain the basics of Shooting the Moon, and when and where it should be attempted.
The Basics of Shooting the Moon
Most players start to ponder Shooting the Moon when they have the Ace, King, and Queen of Hearts (without these three cards you should strongly reconsider your attempt to Shoot the Moon unless you have other “Boss” cards). Most players also pass on Shooting the Moon if they do not possess the Queen of Spades.
Looking at the Score
Never take an unnecessary risk when you have 75 points or more. This should be plainly obvious, but when you try to Shoot the Moon and fail it’s often by a single point, so if you are already at 75 or more points you need to be almost certain that your attempt will be successful, since failure means your total will be at least 100, thereby losing you the game!
You need more than a few High Cards
Having the Ace, King, Queen and Jack of Hearts is an awful nice start, but keep in mind that there will be 13 tricks, and failing to win even one can cost you 25 points. For every “hole” in your hand (a trick you are not guaranteed to win) it becomes increasingly difficult to Shoot the Moon.
It’s important to take the lead
Since you only should attempt to Shoot the Moon when you have Boss cards, you want to take the lead as early in the hand as possible. Some people like to disguise their Moon-Shots by sitting back, but any astute player will know precisely what you are doing when you start dumping meaningless cards like the 4 of Diamonds. As soon as you think you can run the table with your remaining cards you should try to take the lead.
Don’t overvalue a long run
Just because you have 6 diamonds doesn’t mean you are going to be able to bleed your opponents dry and then take trick after trick, especially if you don’t have some Boss cards in other suits. Long runs often lead to Shooting the Moon, but usually only when they have at least three high ranking cards.
Pay careful attention to what has been played
One serious mistake, especially when a player has a very strong hand, is to not pay attention to which players are following suit and which cards have been played. Just because you have six clubs doesn’t mean another player doesn’t have the Queen of Clubs four deep. Make sure you pay careful attention to what cards have been played.
In the game of Hearts there are a total of 14 penalty cards, with an overall tally of 26 penalty points that will be dealt out each hand. Each Heart in the deck will only cost you a single penalty point (unless you are using one of the non-standard scoring variants), while the Queen of Spades is worth 13 penalty points on its own. Because of this, it’s extremely important that you learn how to avoid getting stuck with the Queen of Spades, AKA the Black Maria.
One of the best ways to avoid being the recipient of the Queen of Spades is to “Bleed Spades”. Bleeding Spades simply means to lead any Spades you have in your hand that are a Jack or lower in rank as much as possible. By doing so you will force the players with the Queen, King, and Ace of Spades to play their cards, which will get rid of the Queen of Spades as early on in the hand as possible, and keep the dreaded Black Maria from being played by someone with a “void” later in the hand.
If the player holding the Queen of Spades has a “void” (no cards in another suit) they will be able to dump the Queen on one of these tricks. By “Bleeding Spades” early and often you will force their hand, and they will have no choice but to play the Queen.
Additionally, even if the player holding the Queen has two or three other Spades, by Bleeding Spades you give them the opportunity to play the Queen sooner than they normally would since one of the other players may be forced to play a lone Ace or King of Spades that they have in their hand.
Of course, if your hand is so poor that you stand little chance of winning a single trick than Bleeding Spades becomes far less important. On the other hand if you have only a deep run of Diamonds (suppose the Ace, Jack, Ten, Nine, and Seven) you are in extreme danger of winning a trick with the Black Maria should you happen to take the lead at some point, since the Queen of Spades is likely in the hands of a player with a void in Diamonds due to the sheer number you possess. And don’t get fooled into thinking your seven will not win the first Diamond trick!
One of the best ways to Bleed Spades is to pick up an insignificant trick when you are the last person to play a card. You can then lead with your highest Spade (other than the Ace, King, or Queen of course) and either 1) Win the trick and lead Spades again or 2) lose the trick and hope that the Queen is played or the player who wins the trick will continue to Bleed Spades. Either way, by Bleeding Spades you are never in danger of ending up with the Queen of Spades.
A “void” in Hearts is when you no longer have any cards in a suit and cannot follow suit. Voids allow you to play any card, including offloading your penalty cards. The reason creating a void is a crucial element to Hearts is because it allows you to dump your penalty cards (Hearts and the Queen of Spades) on these off-suit tricks. There are two very important elements in creating a void:
- Creating a Void in your own hand
Creating a void in your own hand is critical when you have high-ranking penalty cards in your hand, or the lone King or Ace of Spades –which can win you the dreaded Queen of Spades. In these cases you are creating the void with the intention of off-loading your point cards as soon as possible. When your hand is full of low-ranking cards this is not as much of priority.
Now suppose you have a couple low hearts and zero high spades, and a fairly long run of Clubs or Diamonds. In this situation the one long run becomes your priority and it’s best to simply dump the highest cards in your long run first, before the penalty cards (since they are unlikely to win a trick where you have to play them).
Many times I have seen a player offload a Three of Hearts early-on and then get clobbered later on when they have five diamonds in their hand, win a trick and have to keep leading Diamonds. In these cases the player in question wins trick after trick in Diamonds, eventually having opponents dump the Queen of Spades and a bunch of hearts on each successive trick.
- Recognizing when an opponent has a Void in their hand
It’s also imperative that you understand which opponent’s have Voids in their hands. This simply entails that you pay attention to who is playing what cards. Watch for the player that “breaks” Hearts, and also which suits players are leading since this is typically in an effort to create a void of their own.
Creating a Void
One of the simplest ways of creating a void in your hand is by passing cards to your opponent when you are dealt one, two, or three of a particular suit (remember it’s not out of the realm of impossibility that someone will pass YOU this same suit back!) especially in Diamonds or Clubs.
There will always be at least one Club trick that you cannot discard a penalty card on (the first trick of the game) so having a lone club is never a bad thing. Likewise, you are far more likely to be passed high Spades or Hearts so keeping a few lowly cards in these suits is never a terrible thing. This is why Diamonds are the most likely candidates for creating voids early on in the game.