How to Play Hearts

By Neal - 08/03/2022

What is Hearts?

Hearts is an evasion-style, trick-taking card game that can accommodate three to six players.

The game is believed to have originated in Spain in the 1700s. A popular game at the time – known locally as "Reversis" – has similar rules where players are penalized for winning tricks and Hearts is said to be a variant of this format.

The aim of Hearts is to strategically win or lose certain tricks to avoid collecting any heart cards or the queen of spades. Receiving any of these cards means incurring penalty points. The winner is the player with the least points by the time any player reaches the 100-point limit.

Games can last longer or shorter than 100 points – you can create an agreed-upon score depending on how long or short you want the game to be.

While most card games feature an element of luck, Hearts is primarily about player skill and knowledge. Choosing to win and lose tricks at the correct times makes all the difference to your score.

How to set up a game of Hearts

Setting up a game of hearts is simple – you just need to make sure that every player on the table has the correct number of cards to start. When four people are playing, shuffle the deck and deal 13 cards to each player.

Setting up the game changes slightly with a different number of players.

With three players, you must remember to remove the two of diamonds and deal each player 17 cards.

In a five-player game, the two of clubs needs to be removed, and every player needs to be dealt 10 cards.

Although uncommon, six-player games are possible. To do this, remove the two and three of diamonds and the three and four of clubs and deal each player 8 cards.

How to score Hearts

Hearts is similar to other trick-taking card games – especially Spades – however, there are differences in how the game is scored.

The ‘winning’ player receives one point for every heart card in their trick pile at the end of each round. If you have the Queen of Spades in your trick pile, you take 13 points, so you want to avoid ‘winning’ the trick that includes this card at all costs.

If a player manages to "shoot the moon", all other players receive a maximum of 26 points.

How to play Hearts

For those just starting out, Hearts is typically split into two phases of play – the card passing and gameplay phases.

Passing cards

Before each round of Hearts, you must pass three of your cards over to an opposing player – who you pass cards to changes based on the hand. Passing cards give each player a chance to offload high-scoring or risky cards to opposing players to align with their strategy and improve the strength of their own hands.

In a typical 4-player game of Hearts, the passing rule goes as follows:

  • First hand – pass three cards to the player on your left and receive three cards from the player on your right.

  • Second hand – pass three cards to the player on your right and receive three cards from the player on your left.

  • Third hand – pass and receive three cards from the player on the opposite side of the table.

  • Fourth hand – No players pass any cards.

Repeat this order for future hands until the agreed-upon points limit has been reached and the game is won.

The gameplay

Once all players have transferred their cards, the gameplay phase begins.

The play happens as follows:

Playing tricks – The player with the two of clubs begins play. Moving clockwise, each player lays a card from their hand that matches the suit of the leading card. The player with the highest value card in the suit ‘wins’ the trick. They then start the next trick with a card of their choice.

Heart cards can only be played when the suit is ‘broken’. This means one player has run out of cards in the leading suit and is now free to play any card suit. Once the first heart has been played, heart cards can be played at any time, including leading tricks.

Highest ranked cards – During a trick, the higher the value of the card you put down, the more likely you’ll ‘win’ that trick. The winner of any given trick takes all the cards put down in that round and keeps them in a pile at the side of the playing table, ready to be tallied up later.

Typically, you don’t want to win tricks, as this increases your likelihood of claiming hearts (which incur point penalties). As players begin to run out of cards in each suit and are forced to play other cards, you’re at the mercy of the other players’ hands.

Tally the scores at the end – The round is over when players use up all the cards in their hand. At the end of each round, players simply flip over their trick piles and count the number of hearts. Each heart is worth one point, and the queen of spades is worth a punishing 13.

The wider game is over when 100 points – or a different agreed-upon score limit – has been reached. The winner is the player with the least points at this time.

How to win at Hearts

The beauty of Hearts is that you can win the game using different strategies. From shooting the moon to baiting out opponents’ hearts or even avoiding as many tricks as possible – many playing styles can give you the win.

However, there are some basic rules and strategies that many experienced players follow that will help step up your game.

Here are some examples of some critical dos and don’ts when playing Hearts:

  • Never pass the ace of clubs – The ace of clubs is a guaranteed trick winner in the opening round – letting you control the pace of the game as you lead the second trick.

  • Never lead with an ace – Unless you’re going for broke, leading with an ace only ever puts you at risk. It’s impossible to tell when someone has voided a suit from their hand – so, you might be handing them an opportunity to get rid of their unwanted cards or risk getting unnecessary points.

  • Hold onto low hearts – Low-value hearts can be used in many ways. When you’ve voided a suit, they can be a great way to pass on some points. If another player leads with a heart, low-value hearts can guard against you winning the trick.

  • Take care when passing the queen of spades – Often, your hand dictates what you should do with a queen of spades. Passing it on means it can be used against you later in the play. However, there are advantages to knowing who on the table has it – helping to influence your game.

  • Never pass your last club – Doing so exposes your game plan in the first trick, when you have to play a club – letting people change their game to combat your strategy. You don’t even get the benefit of sliding in a heart or the queen of spades as you can’t play those cards on the opening trick. This makes voiding clubs early on redundant.

  • Try keeping the ace of hearts – This is a risky strategy but can be rewarding. The ace of hearts guarantees you taking between 1-4 points (assuming you’re playing a standard 4-player game). If played incorrectly, you just concede unnecessary points. However, it can serve as a blocker to stop a player from shooting the moon or help you claim hearts if you’re going for it yourself.

  • Pay attention to the cards you are passed – The cards that are handed to you in the opening phase of the game reveal a lot about your opponent’s strategy. For example, being handed two or three cards of similar suits indicate they’re trying to void that suit – while being given high hearts might be an attempt to sabotage your game.

  • Void clubs or diamonds as soon as possible – Voiding these suits early lets you take more control of your own hand by giving you opportunities to throw out high-value hearts or the queen of spades at your convenience.

  • Keep track of cards that have already been played – Part of playing Hearts confidently is knowing that the card you’re placing down has the minimum risk. For example, if you know the king or queen of a suit hasn’t been played yet, you know it’s safer to place your jack, ten, etc.

Rules of Hearts

In the gameplay phase of Hearts, there are a couple of additional rules that players need to bear in mind.

  • Hearts and the queen of spades cannot be played on the first trick.

  • Unlike other trick-taking card games, there are no trump suits in Hearts – all cards are of equal value, and no one suit is prioritized over another.

  • Players can only play a different card to the lead suit when they are out of cards in that suit.

  • If a player ‘shoots the moon’ – collecting all of the hearts and the queen of spades – all other players receive the maximum points.

Other rule variations

There are different rule variations when playing Hearts that some people prefer over others. Integrating some of these alternative rules is up to you and can make gameplay more exciting.

For example:

  • Some Hearts variations feature a ‘hole pile’. This is a pile of cards left over after dealing. The first player to claim a heart and concede a point is given all the cards in the hole pile - which may or may not contain additional hearts.

  • In other variations, ‘shooting the moon’ doesn’t add 26 points to everybody else’s total but subtracts 26 points from the total of the player that collected all the available point cards. Sometimes, adding 26 points to every player’s score pushes other players over the score limit, meaning the shooter doesn’t have a chance to catch up.

  • Traditionally, the player holding the two of clubs is the one to start. To keep it fair, players may instead choose to play left of the dealer – either way is fine.

Hearts glossary

Black Lady – Reference to the queen of spades. Whoever wins the queen of spades in a trick risks an additional 13 points added to their score.

Broken – Hearts need to be ‘broken’ before they can be played freely in the game. If a player can’t follow suit in a trick, they can play hearts or other suits to ‘break’ the suit.

Hand – This is the selection of cards each player must make moves from.

Hole pile – A leftover pile of cards after dealing used in some variants of Hearts.

Kitty – Usually used in variants of Hearts with an odd number of players, a kitty is a face-down pile of cards that are added to the trick of the first player to take a penalty card (heart or the queen of spades).

Shoot the moon – This means gathering all the hearts, plus the queen of spades in a round. Although the objective is to collect no hearts, collecting every one in the deck and the queen of spades means all points are null and void, and the player that succeeds in collecting them all wins the round. In this instance, every other player is penalized, with 26 points added to their score.

Trick – When every player has played their chosen card to the table, this is called a trick. In each round, the highest card in the lead suit wins the trick – as well as all penalty cards that come along with it.

If you like Hearts, browse our range of over 500 free online games, check out other trick-taking games, or try a similar game like Spades.

About the author

Neal Taparia is one of the founders of Solitaired. He loves playing card games and is interested in understanding how games can help with brain training and skills building. In addition to card games, he also likes fishing and mountain biking.

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