The Midwestern Card Game I Would Have Played At Camp

Euchre—pronounced you-cur—is a Midwesterner's card game. Most everyone I know who grew up outside of the Rust Belt knows nothing about it and, I am certain, mocks its odd name. It doesn't sound as slick as blackjack or poker, and it doesn't even use an entire deck—but it's a game that even our COO Bridget (hailing from Cleveland, Ohio) admits to having been obsessed with at one point. It's the game that I would have played and taught others with zeal if I had gone to camp.

So grab a deck of cards and listen up: Here's how to play euchre—a Midwestern rite of passage and my family's favorite game, one that should be any precocious teenager's weapon of choice when trying to impress fellow campgoers.

1. Split your deck and then split into teams.

Or rather, take most of the deck and set it aside: All you need to play euchre are the 9, 10, jack, queen, king, and ace of each suit. Keep two 4s and two 6s out (just for scoring, nothing more), too. This is a two-team, four-person game, so you're going to have to pick sides. Sit diagonally from your partner, and get ready to rumble.

2. Shuffle things up and deal it out.

I am a bit of a showboat when it comes to shuffling—I like everything from the ripple to the dovetail. (This is a low-quality video, but it's a helpful primer on shuffling.) Make sure your slim deck gets a good jumble, and then dealing goes as such:

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Everyone should get five cards. This is my family's style: If you're the dealer, you deal two cards to your left, three cards to your partner, two cards to your right, and three cards to yourself. Then you deal three cards to your left, two cards to your partner, three cards to your right, and two cards to yourself. Check the amount of cards leftover (there should be four, and if not, you've misdealt!) and set them aside without turning them over—this is the kitty. The dealer flips over the top card of the kitty, and this top card is up for grabs to be called trump, a.k.a. the dominant suit of the round.

3. Pick up your cards and decide on what's trump.

Every round of euchre will have a dominant suit (suits are diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs). As I mentioned above, this dominant suit is called trump. The player to the left of the dealer gets first dibs to call the trump based on what was flipped up on top of the kitty (and if the kitty's top card is hearts, for example, and the player to the left of the dealer has a lot of hearts in their hand, they may well call trump). If the player passes (say, if the suit is hearts and they have no hearts in their hand), then the next person chooses, and so on around to the dealer until trump is chosen. If trump is called, the dealer picks up that card, adds it to their own hand, discards one of their other cards, and then play begins.

Whoever asks the dealer to pick up the card on top of the kitty, they are "calling trump," but it's important to remember that that card gets picked up by the dealer, and not by who calls it—so if it's a high card—like a king—think carefully about giving it to the other team. If trump is not called on that card, it gets turned over and the kitty set aside untouched for the rest of the round. Then players have the chance to choose trump from the other suits. So, for example, say a king of hearts does not get picked up in the first round and is flipped over. Hearts cannot be called trump for that round—but players can call clubs, spades, or diamonds.

If trump isn't chosen by the time you reach the dealer, there's a few options: The dealer can fold and pass on the deal to the next person, or you can "screw the dealer" and make them choose. Depends on how cutthroat you are.

Now's a good time to talk about the hierarchy of cards, and what you want to look for in a hand. Bear with me; it's a little confusing, but will all make sense in the end.

  • There are five hands to a round. To win a hand—this is called a trick—you just have to lay down the card that has the highest value of all the cards laid down. If you win the trick, you pick up the stack of four cards and set them aside.
  • But the highest card in a round is not the ace—it's a jack, and which jacks will have meaning depends on what the dominant suit is each round.
  • In general, all of the other cards should be taken at face value. It's the jacks you need to be concerned with.
  • When a dominant suit (a.k.a. trump) is called, then that suit's jack becomes the Right Bower. For example, if hearts is the trump, the jack of hearts would be the Right Bower. What's the Left Bower, or the second highest card in the round, you ask? This is a tough one to remember, but you must: The Left Bower will be the jack of the suit that's the same color as the trump suit. So, from our example, the Left Bower would be the jack of diamonds and it effectively acts as a heart for that round. Both of the black jacks, in this case, carry their own weight, right between the 10 and queen, per usual. If one of the black suits, spades or clubs, is called trump, then it's reversed. Make sense? Ask me below in the comments and I'll clarify.

4. It's time to play!

The person to the left of the dealer starts the round by pitching out a card from their hand—the one they think is the highest—and the rest of the players try to beat it. There are a couple important rules to remember when playing:

  • You must follow the suit that's played at the beginning of a hand—so even if you have trump in your hand, you must first consider if you have the suit that's been played. So, for example, if hearts is trump but a club is played, and you have both heart and club cards in your hand, you have to play the club.

  • This first rule plays into the second: If you play a card that doesn't follow suit when it should, and it's discovered later in the hand, then you forfeit that hand.

Whoever wins each hand (the trick!) then plays first, and so on until a winning team of the round is called. If you call for trump, then your team has to win at least 3 rounds to get 1 point. If your team wins all 5 rounds (one for each card in your hand), your team gets 2 points. If neither you nor your partner calls for trump, and beat the team that did in 3 rounds, you get 2 points. If you have a hand that you'd like to "go alone" on—which means it's just you against your opponents, no partner—and win all 5 rounds, you get 4 points. If you just win 3 or more, you get 1 point.

You play to 10 points, scored on the 4 and 6 cards (by stacking one card on top of the other and moving it so as to reveal one symbol per point; you can also just score on pen and paper if you like). Whichever team gets there first, well, they win!

What's your favorite game to play at camp, or otherwise? Tell us in the comments!

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Lindsay-Jean H. July 28, 2016
Love euchre! It's the best thing I learned in home ec class, hands down.
Heather July 28, 2016
We use 2-5's for scoring in Canada, or a 2& a 3 (too confusing for me.) We also like to play Bid euchre which is similar to bridge using 2 euchre decks. Euchre is a great quick game. I think that's why it's so popular.
Christine R. July 27, 2016
I have played euchre since my childhood in Michigan. I live in TX now and no one here plays. I'll play next month when I go to Lewiston, MI.
Olivia B. July 27, 2016
I'm the worst Michigander ever and don't know how to play Euchre. Sam, you shall be my guide.
AoibhinnGrainne July 27, 2016
Euchre is something of a nemesis for me. I grew up in the Chicago area. My late first Husband was from Southern Indiana. We met at University. So, at the first weekend he "brought me home to Mom", his whole family, Euchre-obsessives, tried to teach me this game. All 20 of them. Except they kept arguing over which rules, when and how, mentioning oh-by-the-way nuances and strategies in the midst of the hand, and confusing me, totally. This was 41 years ago and I STILL can't play the game. So, yes, folk outside the rust belt have heard of it and play it constantly at church picnics, family reunions, and weekly house parties. Thank you for clear, simple, concise instructions that make the that I might.just.try again. Finally, closure.
M July 27, 2016
I'd love to see Euchre (and Bridge!) make a return.

And it's certainly known and played by those north of the 49th parallel!