Sunday, April 13, 2008

Apple #310: Setback

My parents came to visit me this weekend, and after dinner we played a game of Setback. This is a card game we've played in my family ever since I can remember. My mom's sister's family also plays it, but outside of our family, I've never met anybody who ever heard of it. It's a lot like Euchre, and when I haven't played one or the other in a while, I sometimes get the rules mixed up.

I found some descriptions of this game and how it's played online, but other people's rules vary a little bit (which cards get left out of the deck, whether the Jack of the opposite suit is worth points or not, how much you can bid, etc.) So I'll lay out the rules according to the way we play, in case you're interested.

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  • Apparently, Setback is also called Pitch, and Pitch is the more commonly-known name.
  • Setback is the word used more often in Northeast US, while Pitch is the name used in the Midwest.
  • Setback is a descendant of a British game called All Fours.

The name Setback refers to the fact that if you don't make the number of points you bid, your score is set back by the amount you bid. Since I think that's more descriptive of what happens in the game, and also since that's what I grew up calling it, that's what I'm going to continue to call it.

  • If you have an even number of players, they can team up in groups of two. If an odd number, everyone plays individually. 4 players is probably the best, but we've definitely played with 6 people.
  • Use a standard 52-card deck, but use only the A-K-Q-J-10-3-2. If you're playing with more than 4 people, you can leave in more cards like the 9 or the 4.

The Ace of trump is the highest card in the deck. Note that trump can change with each hand.
(Image from Pokerfiches)

  • Deal 6 cards to each player. Not every card will be dealt. The fact that some cards remain in the deck is a crucial factor.
  • The person to the left of the dealer bids first.
  • The minimum bid is 2, next is 3, then 4, and finally the highest is 11 or "shooting the moon."
  • You're bidding on how many points you think you can take. Points are as follows:
      • High: the highest card in the trump suit. This is usually the Ace, but not necessarily.
      • Low: the lowest card in the trump suit. This is often the Two, but not necessarily.
      • Jack: the Jack of the trump suit. If the Jack is among the cards not dealt, it would be impossible to win this point. So unless you have the Jack of trump in your hand, you can't be certain that it's possible for you to get this point.
      • Game: the total value of the cards you have taken. These values are only taken into consideration when counting towards game. They are true for all cards, regardless of suit.
          • Ace: 4
          • King: 3
          • Queen: 2
          • Jack: 1
          • Tens: 10
          • everything else: zero
      • So after all the cards are played, everybody tallies up the "Game" values of their cards. Whoever has the highest value has won Game and gets one point. If it's a tie, then nobody gets a point for Game.
  • If you have the Ace and Two of one suit, you are guaranteed to have two points because you have in your hand the High and the Low.
      • With respect to the Low card, you can all decide ahead of time whether you want to play Keep Low, which means whoever has the Low card automatically gets the point.
      • Or you can play Win Low, which means that if I have the Two and you take it with a higher card, you get the point for Low.
      • Keep Low is much easier, and that's the rule we play most often. If you play Win Low and you have the Two or Three in your hand, you're pretty much stuck handing it over to somebody else.
  • If you have the Ace and Jack of one suit, that's a pretty risky two-point bid because if an opponent has the King or Queen of trump, they can easily take your Jack. So even if you have the Jack in your hand, you want to make sure you have some other high cards of trump, or that you're short-suited with high cards in an off-suit so you can protect your Jack.
  • If you have the Ace, King, Queen, Ten, and Two of one suit, you'll probably be able to make three points -- but not necessarily. You don't have the Jack in hand, so you can't count on its being in the cards in play. You'll have to try to win Game, which means you need to take lots of tricks with high-value cards like Tens and Aces. This will be easier to do if you have high cards in non-trump suits.
  • If you have the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten of one suit and an Ace of another suit, shoot the moon, man. That hand is gold and nobody can stop you.

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  • Bidding proceeds counter-clockwise from the left of the dealer. Bidding begins at 2. If you're the first one to bid and you think you can make more than 2, you can bid that higher amount. Subsequent bidders must bid at least one point higher than the previous bidder or say "Pass." So for example, if I dealt, my mom would bid 2, my dad 3, and I would pass.
  • You can also choose to play Stick the Dealer, which is what we do. If everyone has passed and the bidding comes to the dealer, the dealer must bid at least 2. The dealer can opt out, but that means the hand is not played at all and the dealer takes -2 points.
  • Whoever has the highest bid begins play. The suit of the first card laid is established as trump for that hand. So for example, if my dad won the bid and he laid down an Ace of clubs, clubs becomes trump for that hand.
  • Play proceeds to the left. So I would play next. If trump is led, I must follow suit with trump if I have it. Otherwise, I would throw off my lower cards that aren't worth many points.

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  • Whoever has the highest card in that round takes that trick and leads the card of the next trick. My dad would have won that first trick with his Ace of clubs since there is no higher card than the Ace of trump.
  • Suppose he next led an Ace of another suit -- hearts, let's say. You do not have to follow suit if you have trump. So even if I had a heart in my hand, I could play my Jack of clubs. Since it's trump, my Jack is more powerful than his Ace of hearts.
  • However, then my mom lays down her King of clubs, and now the trick and the Jack of clubs are hers. Since she has just taken the Jack of trump, she has just won a point (though points don't get tallied until all six cards have been played).
  • My dad would never play like this, by the way. He likes to take the first trick or two, lose the lead, and then when somebody leads an off-suit card, he'll play his Jack to take the trick and keep his Jack.

(Jack of Clubs from some weird half-site)

  • After all six cards are played, everybody reviews who has taken what to determine who has High (Ace of Clubs, which in this case my dad had), Low (the lowest clubs card played; if the Two was not out, it's whatever card is the next lowest), Jack (Jack of clubs, which in this case, my mom took), and Game.
  • In our example, my dad bid 3. We know that he lost the Jack to my mom, so he didn't get that point. He got the High card with his Ace, so he gets one point for that. But let's say he didn't take enough cards to get Game, and that I had Low. That would mean he did not get his 3 points, and he has "been set." Even though he took one point, his score is -3. My mom gets 1 point for her Jack, and I get 1 point for my Two.
  • Play continues until a player reaches 11.

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  • If a player has "shot the moon" and has taken every trick -- not just High, Low, Jack, Game, but every trick -- the player's score advances to 11. If that player had, let's say 4 points beforehand, the player's score does not advance to 15, but to 11. However, if the player had a negative score beforehand, the player gets only 11 points, which does not end the game.
  • You must bid for the game to end. For example, if you have 9 points, someone else bids, and you take 2 points, even though your score goes up to 11, the game is not over. If someone else bids, takes what they bid, and their score advances to 11 or higher, the game ends and that person is the winner, even if your score is higher.
  • These facts about the score at the end become important if you're playing for money, which we do. Here's how our stakes go:
      • 5 cents (or sometimes 10 cents) per game
      • 5 cents per set (if you've been set at any time in the game, you owe the winner an extra 5 cents)
      • 1 cent per point difference. If the winner has 11 and the loser has 3, the differential is 8, or 8 cents.
      • Double in the hole. If the loser has a negative or zero score, the differential is doubled. So if the winner has 11 and the loser has -3, the differential is 14 x 2, or 28 cents -- big money!

With these stakes, usually some amount around 25 cents changes hands.
(Image from

  • As is the case with Euchre, it's a pretty simple game and much is determined by what cards are dealt to you. If you've got nothing but 3's and Queens in your hand, you can't win very many points.
  • My dad won the first game, the second game he got set 4 times and my mom won, and the third game, my mom won again. My cards sucked.

John McLeod's Pagat pages, Pitch
setback definition, from Joan Houston Hall's Dictionary of American Regional English, page 855
Erik Arneson, Pitch - Card Game Rules
Wikipedia, Setback (game)
Wikipedia, Pitch (card game)
Play Pitch, Rules for Pitch or Setback
Classic Encyclopedia (1911
Encyclopedia Britannica), Auction Pitch
David Galt, How to Play Auction Pitch, Howstuffworks
The House of Cards, Pitch Games for Windows

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