The basic game has an ideal four players, using playing cards and a pen and paper for scorekeeping. The dealer gives all players thirteen cards, dealing out the entire deck. In each suit, the ace is high, followed by the king, queen, jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2. There is no trump suit. In the traditional variant, each player is given a certain number of chips, with the winner being the person who gets all the chips. In the Black Lady variant, the goal of all players is to have the least points of any player; usually games end when a point threshold has been reached, for example if one or more players scores 100 points or higher.
Hearts is turn-based and is played in ’rounds’, where the deck is shuffled and dealt, cards are passed (if a passing round in the Black Lady variant), the play of tricks, and the scorekeeping. In the traditional game play, each player will ante up the same number of chips before the round begins.
In the Black Lady variant, each player is able to pick three cards and pass them either to the player to the left, the right, or across from them, in the “passing” phase. They will likewise receive three cards from another player. Players must pick which cards to pass before they can see what other players give them. The pass sequence rotates, with one of every four rounds a “hold round”, where no cards are passed. The pass sequence, repeating every four rounds, is as follows:
Rounds 1, 5, 9… : Pass Left.
Rounds 2, 6, 10… : Pass Right.
Rounds 3, 7, 11… : Pass Across.
Rounds 4, 8, 12… : Hold; no passing occurs.
This phase plays like most other trick-taking games; however there is no trump suit. The 2clubs is a round’s initial lead: whoever is holding this card after passing leads off. The other players play their cards, starting to the left of the lead and going clockwise. The player who plays the highest card of the led suit takes the cards and leads off for the next set of cards. Players must play the led suit, even if it means they will take the tricks and/or points. All hearts and the Qspades (when playing the black lady variant) are penalty cards which players avoid winning in the tricks.
If a player does not have a card of the led suit, he or she may play off-suit, playing any card from another suit. If the player plays a heart in this manner, called “breaking hearts” or “breaking the ice”, then this allows subsequent hands to be led off with hearts. A player can also lead off with hearts (before hearts has been broken) only if he or she has no other suits to play. Generally, no penalty cards can be played on the first trick, even if the player does not have Clubs.
Once all tricks have been played and/or there are no more penalty points to give, the play round ends and the scoring phase begins.
In traditional Hearts, if a player has taken no hearts he gets the pool of chips. If two players take no hearts, the pool is divided. If all the players have taken hearts (called being “painted”) or if one player has taken all the hearts, then the pool remains on the table. When this occurs the pool is called a “jack”. If a player has won all the chips he has won the game, otherwise a new round begins. In Black Lady, penalty points are assessed according to the cards taken in tricks. Each hearts gives 1 point to the person taking it, and the Qspades carries a penalty of 13 points. Therefore, 26 points are assessed each round. However, if a player takes all the penalty cards (known as shooting the moon, gaining control, or running hearts) they take no penalty points, and the other players take 26. Alternatively, some circles will have the individual subtract 26 points from their score, add 26 to their score, or no scores are given to any of the players for that round. If the game-ending score is not reached, a new hand begins.