Glossary of Basic Card Game Terms
I'm surprised by how often I sit down to play a card game with someone only to find that they have little or no experience playing card games and therefore have little or no knowledge of some of the most basic terms and tactics. Furthermore, as my young sons are growing up they are learning to play cards with me. For both of these reasons, I figured that it probably wouldn't hurt to compile a simple glossary. Hopefully you'll find this helpful.
This glossary focuses mainly on terms which I have used or heard used in trick taking games such as Bridge, Hearts, Pinochle, Mü etc. I don't pretend that it's a comprehensive list. I start with the most basic terms and work up from there so if it seems really basic then don't worry, just keep reading. I also touch briefly on etiquette in some places.
A flat rectangular object (typically made of sturdy paper and/or plastic) which has a face and a back. The backs are generally all the same making it impossible to tell one card from another by looking at the backs. The face (or front) is typically marked with a Rank and Suit.
Pack or Deck
A collection of cards. A standard Bridge deck has 52 cards. Decks also often contain two additional cards called Jokers which are used in some games.
The number of a card which typically indicates its value or strength. A standard Bridge deck of playing cards is ranked (in descending order) A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. In some games As are 1s and rank low. In some games 10 ranks above K (A 10 K Q J 9 …). A stands for Ace, K for King, Q for Queen, J for Jack. 2 is often pronounced Deuce. The King, Queen and Jack are often called "face cards" because they historically represented ranks of royalty and often bear an appropriate image. Aces are sometimes also considered face cards.
The symbol (and/or color) on a card. A standard Western Bridge deck is divided equally into four suits: ♠Spades, ♥Hearts, ♦Diamonds, and ♣Clubs with one card of each rank making up the thirteen cards in each suit. Hearts and Diamonds are typically red; Spades and Clubs are black.
The act of randomizing the order of cards in a deck. The most common is a riffle shuffle where the deck is divided into two halves which are then interleaved back together by allowing cards to fall from both halves at the same time into a single pile.
The act of choosing a new top card by randomly dividing a deck in half and placing the lower half on top of the upper half. It is generally considered good form for the dealer to allow the player to his right to cut the deck after it is shuffled but before it is dealt. Typically the player to the dealer's right pulls off the top half of the deck and the dealer places the bottom half on the top to complete the cut. The player to the dealer's right may opt to simply tap the deck, indicating that he doesn't wish to cut. Cutting ensures that the dealer can't cheat by forcing a card to remain on the top or the bottom of the deck during the shuffle. It also ensures that if the bottom card has been spotted during the shuffle, no one will know whose hand receives that card.
The act of dividing the deck into hands for each of the players. Usually done by giving the top card from the deck to each player in turn until all cards have been dealt or until each player has a proscribed number of cards (depending upon the game being played). Dealing is typically done clockwise. The player to the left of the dealer traditionally receives the first card. It is generally considered bad form to pick up your hand until it is completely dealt.
A set of cards delt to a player forms that player's hand. A standard Bridge hand is made up of 13 randomly chosen cards. The term can also refer to a complete set of tricks. In many trick taking games, scoring takes place after the entire hand (or set of tricks) has been played.
A trick is the basic unit of play in trick taking games. Each player in turn plays a single card, face up to the center of the table. The player who played the highest ranking card then "wins the trick" and all cards that were played are captured and usually placed face down in front of the victor. In most games, the number of tricks taken (and often the rank of the cards won) is used to determine the player's score. In many games, (such as Bridge) players play as teams or partnerships, with the captured tricks collected by only one partner.
The first card played to start a trick. Usually the player who won the previous trick earns the right to lead for the next trick.
Playing a card belonging to the same suit as the card that was lead. Most trick taking games require that each player follow suit whenever possible.
In most trick taking games, one suit is declared as trump. This suit is more powerful than the other suits.
Fail Suit/Outside Suit
A suit that has not been named trump.
Playing a trump card that does not follow suit. This typically wins the trick unless a subsequent player can "overruff" or, in other words, play a higher ranking trump card.
Playing a card that does not follow suit but isn't trump.
Voluntarily playing a card that is ranked lower than the card which is currently winning the trick. Usually done in an effort to save a higher card for subsequent tricks.
In some games, "no trump" may be declared for the hand in which case there is no trump suit. In a no trump hand it is impossible to ruff since there is no trump suit.
A player is said to be "void in a suit" if he has no cards in that particular suit. If a player holds trump cards then he will often wish to be void in one or more fail suits.
A suit is "long" if a player has more than the average cards in a given suit.
A suit is "short" if a player has fewer than the average cards in a given suit.
A player has a singleton if he has only a single card in a suit.
A card that is guaranteed to win a trick in its suit (unless someone can trump).
The contract indicates the goal that a player (or partnership) must achieve in order to win the hand. It's typically measured by either points or cards taken in play. If the player makes his contract then he is usually awarded some bonus. If he fails, he is usually penalized.
Bid (or Auction)
In many games, before the first trick in a hand is played there is a bidding round. Bidding serves two purposes: (1) to reveal something of each player's hand; and (2) to set a contract (or goal) for the hand. In most bidding games, one player will open with a bid and each player in turn will be given the opportunity to pass or make a counter bid (which often must be higher than the previous bid). The winner of the bid typically gets to name a trump suit and often will have won the right to make the first lead. Bidding is very important because it serves to counteract much of the luck inherent in a card game. Strong hands will tend to result in higher bids and therefore more risk for the bidder. Bidding and contracts take what otherwise would be a game of immense luck and turn it into a game of skill. For this reason, most serious card players prefer to play games such as Bridge, and Mü which have intense bidding rounds over games like Hearts and Whist which do not.
A lead back is a signal (or tell) between two partners. The partner will deliberately lead (or sometimes throw off) a losing fail card as a signal to his partner that he is now void in that suit and wishes that suit to be lead again so he may ruff. It's important to know if the other players are familiar with this tactic and to watch for it.
When a player deliberately leads trump in order to draw trump cards from the other hands. In games where players must follow suit, leading trump forces all other players to also play trump. If a player has been keeping track of how many trump cards have already been played (which he should) he may be able to drain all the trump cards from the hand, thus making his high fail suit cards good.
A technique that allows a player to win a trick with a card that isn't the highest ranking card left in a suit. A finesse takes advantage of the position of the cards. For instance, if I know that my partner holds the Ace and the Queen, and the player to my left holds the King then I will lead a card in that suit. If the player to my left plays his King then my partner plays the Ace, making his Queen good. Otherwise he plays the Queen. Either way we take two tricks. Obviously this requires some knowledge of where the cards are. Generally the location of some cards will be revealed during bidding and the location of others can be deduced during play.
The act of remembering which cards have been played and who has played them. Optimal play requires that players deduce who might hold which cards. It is particularly important to note when a player throws off or ruffs because it indicates that he's void in that suit. It's equally important to keep track of the highest ranked cards remaining in each suit so that you know when the cards you hold may become good. Keeping track of the number of trump cards left in play is also very important.