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Joker (ჯოკერი) is a trick-taking card game from the country of Georgia. It's a fun little game with a great history in that country, but little international recognition. However, if you follow these rules you too can be playing Joker in no time!

Game Setup[edit | edit source]

Joker is a free-for-all game for 4 players, seated around a table in any order you want (it can be random, or based on whatever chair you feel is comfy, or whatever). Joker is played with a normal deck of playing cards, with all the 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and the black 6s removed. The two Jokers are kept in, leaving a 36 card deck (9 hearts, 9 diamonds, 8 clubs, 8 spades, and 2 jokers). Once the players are seated, the first dealer is chosen at random between the four of them.

How to Play Joker[edit | edit source]

Joker is played as a series of hands divided into four rounds. The first round consists of eight hands, starting with a hand of "ones" (every person dealt one card, with one trick to be taken) and increasing up to the hand of "eights" (every person dealt eight cards, with eight tricks to be taken). The second round consists of four hands of "nines" (every person dealt nine cards, with nine tricks to be taken). The third round starts with a hand of "eights" and counts backwards down to a hand of "ones" (like the first round, but backwards). The fourth round is the same as the second, with four hands of "nines". It might sound confusing, but once you start playing it's pretty easy to follow. Just count up, then nines, then count down, then more nines to top it off!

The Call[edit | edit source]

Before each hand of play, players "call" the amount of tricks they hope to take in that hand. A strong hand, with Aces, Kings, etc. will probably have a higher call than a weak hand filled with 7s and 8s. However, the primary goal of each player is to get exactly the amount of tricks they called for that hand, because the points for a successful call are signifcantly more than those for a botched one. For example, a successful call of "one trick" is worth 100 points, while someone who called "six tricks" but took seven tricks is only awarded 70 points.

A successful "pass" (meaning, "no tricks") call is worth 50 points. A successful "one trick" call is worth 100 points. A successful "two tricks" call is worth 150 points. This pattern continues upwards, adding 50 more points for each trick in a succesful call (so a successful "seven tricks" call is worth 400 points). If a player fails to make their call, they are awarded 10 points for each trick they take. So, if a player called for "three tricks" but only took two tricks, they get 20 points. If a player makes a call other than pass, and fails to get any tricks, they are penalized -200 points (-500 in "nines"), and this is called a "hist". Lastly, if a player takes every trick in a hand (for example, calling "nine tricks" in a hand of "nines", and succeeding in that call) they are awarded 100 points for each trick (so a "nine tricks" call gets 900 points). Calls and scores are usually kept on a small paper nearby.

An example Joker scoring sheet
As you can see, each hand is scored individually, with scores being tallied at the end of each round.
For ease of tallying up the scores, some hists have been crossed off along with the positive scores to cancel them out.

At the start of each hand, the dealer deals out the appropriate amount of cards to each player (including themself), then sets the remaining cards aside. The top card of that remaining pile is flipped up, and its suit indicates the "trump suit" for the hand (a Joker indicated "no trump", and in "nines" there is no remainder pile, so each hand is played with no trump suit).

The player to the left of the dealer then announces their call for the hand, followed by the person across from the dealer, the person to the right of the dealer, and finally the dealer themself. Any player can call for as many of the tricks as they want, except for the dealer, who must call for a number of tricks such that the total of all the calls is not equal to the amount of tricks in the hand. This is very important, as it means that not every player can get their call, and thus at least one person will be short of their call or get an extra card they did not want.

Playing the Cards[edit | edit source]

The person to the left of the dealer is the first person to play a card. Once they play a card of their choice (called the "leading card"), each player proceeding clockwise from the "leader" must play a card that matches the suit of the leading card if they have one, and once all four players have played a card, the highest card of that suit takes the trick. If a player does not have a card that matches the leading suit, they must play a trump card (indicated by the suit of the top card in the remainder pile) if they have one. This is very important, so it bears repeating: a player must play a trump if they can not follow suit. Naturally, a trump (if played) beats out even the highest non-trump card, so regardless of the lead, a trump will take the trick if played. If the player has no cards with a matching suit and no trumps as well, they can play any card of their choice. After the trick, whoever took the trick starts the next one with a leading card of their choice.

Now, that might sound a bit complicated, but it's actually pretty simple. Simply follow the suit of the lead card if you can, trump it if you can't follow the lead but have a trump, or throw whatever you want if you have neither.

The Jokers[edit | edit source]

The two most powerful, and most flexible, cards in the game are the two Joker cards. These can be the highest card in the game (higher than even the Ace of trumps), or the lowest card in the game (lower than even a 6 or 7). However, that is not all. In total, a Joker can do four different things: two if played as the leading card, and two if not. If the player with the Joker is not leading, they can play their Joker instead of another card either "on top of" the other cards, which takes the trick even over trump cards, or play it "under" the other cards, meaning that it can not possibly take the trick (useful if the player would have otherwise been forced to take a trick they did not want).

If the Joker is played as the leading card, the leading player can use it to call for the highest cards of a specific suit in each player's hand, and take them in a trick (in this way, even the Ace of trumps is not a guaranteed take, as a Joker can always call it away from you). Lastly, a leading Joker can choose a suit and declare that suit to win the hand, like if the Joker was played as a low card of that suit.

Thus, a person with a Joker has an enormous amount of flexibility, as they can use their Joker either to take a trick they might have otherwise lost, or get out of taking an extra trick if they are at risk of going over their call. The only card that can beat a Joker is the other Joker, which can be played "on top of" of the other Joker to take the trick.

Rules Conclusion[edit | edit source]

So there you have it, that's Joker! It might sound daunting at first, but once you get rolling you'll quickly get the hang of it. Get some friends around a table and start taking tricks, and you'll be having a blast in no time!

Basic Strategy[edit | edit source]

There's a lot of depth in playing Joker, and the best way to get better is to just play it! However, it can be nice to have a few pointers to begin with, so here's a couple basic concept and tips to brush up on before playing.

Deficit and Excess Games[edit | edit source]

Remember that in each hand, the dealer can not call the number of tricks that would let everybody make their call. Thus, in each hand, the players in total must call for more tricks than are available, or fewer tricks than are available. If the players call for more tricks than there are in the hand, this is called a "deficit game", because there is a "deficit" of tricks. In a deficit game, players are generally aggressive in trying to secure their takes, with Jokers often being used "on top of" other strong cards, and high cards like Queens and Jacks oftentimes losing out to Aces, Kings, and trumps.

Alternatively, if the players call for fewer tricks than there are in the hand, this is called an "excess game", because there is an "excess" of tricks to go around. In an excess game, players must be careful to make their call without going over it, with Jokers often being used to go "under" other low cards to avoid taking extra tricks. Jacks for example, which oftentime would fail to take in a deficit game, take quite often in excess games, with the other players using low cards like 7s,8s,9s, and 10s to get under the Jack and force that player to take too many tricks.

There are no hard and fast rules about deficit and excess games, but it's nice to be aware of what sort of hand it is, and whether you should be playing aggressively to take tricks when you can, or playing passively to avoid taking extra.

Filling up on the Dealer[edit | edit source]

Remember that in each hand, the dealer can not call the number of tricks that would let everybody make their call. This means that in some cases, it is possible to force the dealer to call for one or more tricks with a hand full of bad cards. For example, in a hand of "nines", if the first three players each call for "three tricks", the dealer can not "pass", as that would total up to nine tricks total (3+3+3+0). Thus, the dealer must call for one of more tricks, even if they have a bad hand of cards. This is called "filling up on" the dealer, and can lead to opportunities for a "hist" (which is a great way to knock down someone in the lead).

Counting cards[edit | edit source]

As with many other games, you can keep track of what cards have been played to gain an advantage. In "ones" through "eights", however, there are some cards hidden in the remainder pile, so even with perfect counting you won't be able to know exactly what cards are left in people's hands. Even in "nines", it's not really necessary to have a perfect idea of what cards are left out there, but it can be helpful to know what suits haven't been played much, to get a rough sense of what's left. For example, if a heart has been played as the leading card twice already, even without counting you can have a sense that there aren't many hearts left in the game.

Advanced/Optional Rules[edit | edit source]

Following the rules up above is enough to get you started playing Joker, but once you're more experienced, there are extra rules that can be added to spice up the game a bit.

Premium[edit | edit source]

If a player gets every call in a round (remember, a round is defined as the eight hands of "ones" through "eights", four hands of "nines", or the eight hands counting down from "eights" to "ones") their highest score in that round is doubled, and every other player's highest score in that round is erased. This bonus can really shake up the game, and even someone far behind in points can make a great comeback with a solid premium in a round. If someone is "on premium" (meaning, they've made every call in that round so far) with only a hand or two left to play, the rest of the table might play specifically to throw off that person, which is exciting!

Trump in Nines[edit | edit source]

While the "nines" hands are generally played without a trump, one optional rule is to allow the lead player to call a trump for the hand. To do this, they look at the first three cards dealt to them in that hand, and announce a trump suit or "no trump". The hand is then played with the usual rules about following suit and trumps.

Double Games[edit | edit source]

In the rounds of "ones" through "eights", if a Joker appears as the top card of the remainder pile, the leading player can look at their hand and choose to either play the game as usual (with no trump) or call for a redeal for a double game. If the leading player calls for a double game, the cards are collected and the dealer deals each player a new hand. Every score in a double game is worth twice what it would be worth in a regular game, except for passes, which are still worth 50 points ("hists" can also be doubled, to a -400 point penalty). If a Joker is revealed in a double game, the leading player can again choose between playing with no trump, or for a redeal for a "triple game" (not quadruple), and so on.

Alternate Game Variants[edit | edit source]

Sometimes you don't have enough time for a full game of Joker, or not enough people, but you still want to play! So, here are some variants you can use in a pinch.

Half Game[edit | edit source]

If short on time (or short on patience) the players can elect to play a half game, which is just an abbreviated game of Joker with just the first two round of play. So, players will count up the hands of "ones" through "eights", then play the four hands of "nines", then be done. Just be aware that sometimes if the game is close at the end of the half game, people might be clamoring to finish up the next two rounds!

Three Person Joker[edit | edit source]

If you don't have a fourth person, you can still play Joker! Simply remove the diamonds from the deck, and play with the remaining 27 cards. All the other rules are the same, just with one fewer suit in play.

Only "Nines"[edit | edit source]

Rather than the first and third rounds being hands of "ones" through "eights" and "eights" through "ones", some people opt to just play four hands of "nines" for those rounds instead. Thus, the full game would be four hands of "nines", four more hands of "nines", another four hands of "nines", and a last four hands of "nines".