In-depth: Pinochle Pt. 1 – Bidding

Pinochle is one of the few games where I really feel I’m pretty good at it, so I thought it would be a good subject for my second in-depth look at a game. The most important thing to remember here is that when I talk about “Pinochle” I mean Pinochle. Not 4-player, not double deck, not partners, none of that crazy stuff. Pinochle. Meaning 3-player cutthroat. Just wanted to get that straight 🙂

The first decision you’ll need to make is what to bid, if anything. Everyone has slightly different rules of course; when we play the game is to 1500 and the person left of the dealer is in (or under) for 200, meaning they have to bid that much to start. The basic bidding strategy revolves around the fact that if you have three “holes” the odds of hitting one in the cat are 50/50. A hole is any meld in your hand  that is missing one card. If you have A♠ 10♠ K♠ Q♠ you just need the J♠ to make a run, so that’s one hole. A♠ A♣ A would be another hole, just needing the A to complete 100 Aces. See if you can figure out how many holes the following hand has:

A♠ A♠ 10♠ 9♠ 9♠ K 10 A♣ K♣ Q♣ J♣ AK J 9

I said try to figure it out…don’t just skip to the answer! 🙂

There are in fact three holes: the A would make 100 Aces, the 10♣ would make a run in Clubs, and the K♠ would make 80 Kings (you usually only look at the substantial melds, such as 60 Queens or higher, and not marriages). So this hand has the required three holes, and we can go ahead and bid it, because we know we have a 50/50 shot of hitting it (or a better hole) in the cat. In addition, you will occasionally get lucky and hit something you weren’t counting on. For example, in the above hand, you might catch 10 Q to make a run in Diamonds. So really, you’ve got a slightly better than 50/50 shot, since you’ll get those kinds of lucky breaks once in a while.

The next step is to figure out how much to bid. The rule of thumb is to pretend you’ve filled one of the holes (the lowest scoring one) and bid accordingly. So in the previous example hand we would just assume we have the 80 Kings. With the 80 Kings we would have a total of 120 meld after calling trump (either Spades or Clubs). If we have 120 meld, how much can we bid? In other words, how many tricks can we pick? That’s something you have to get a feel for after playing for a while. 12 or 13 tricks is about the most you can expect with 80 Kings in your hand, so that adds an additional 120 or 130 points, meaning we can bid 240 or 250, something like that.

Here’s a very rough list of approximately how many tricks particular hands can pick. It really depends on what other cards you have, what you lay down, how many trump you have, and a lot of other factors, so this is just a rough guideline:

Run – 14 to 18 tricks
100 Aces – 12 to 15 tricks
80 Kings – 10 to 12 tricks
60 Queens – 10 to 14 tricks

Queens can sometimes be better for taking tricks than Kings because the Queens themselves aren’t counters, so you’re not giving one away from your hand every time.

If you have the entire meld (no hole) you can just skip right to the chart and go from there. If you have 100 Aces with a marriage and a pinochle (140 meld) you can figure on 14 or 15 tricks and bid 280 or 290. But that example brings up another key point in bidding: the possibility of losing your meld. You have to balance the chance to take the bid and make a hand against the risk of losing your meld if you take it and you’re set. That often depends on the score and how much meld you’re risking. There’s really no hard and fast rule for that sort of thing; you just have to use your judgment and figure out if it’s worth the risk and how high you want to bid. The more you play the better you can find that balance point.

Oh, and one special case I should mention is double pinochle. If you have “three legs”, such as Q♠ Q♠ J, that’s really only half a hole. The reason is because normally there are two of each card you can catch, but in this case there’s only one (because you’ve already got the other in your hand). So if you have two holes plus three legs you don’t have that same 50/50 shot you normally would.

It’s generally good to be aggressive in games, and bidding in Pinochle is the same way. You don’t want to be reckless of course, but bidding and taking hands is generally a good thing. Most beginners don’t bid as much as they should. There is one special case where you sometimes have to curb your aggression though, and that occurs at the endgame.

Sometimes one player will be far ahead of the other two. So far ahead in fact, that the only chance the other two players have is to “leave him in” for 200, hoping he has a terrible hand and will go set. If you’re in this situation and are one of the two lagging players you may not be able to bid at all, even if you have a good hand! Check out the following example:

Ann (dealer) has 600 points
Bob has 1400 points
Chuck has 340 points

Bob is only 100 points from winning, but he’s under so he has to bid 200. Ann and Chuck have to leave him in and hope he goes set. If they bid, Bob can just coast out on his meld and whatever tricks he gets, probably on this hand but definitely on the next. So even if Ann has a run and 100 Aces (a 400 hand) she still can’t bid. She and Chuck have to pass and hope for the best. If Ann had 1100 she could bid her 400 point hand, because then she’d have enough to win. If she had 1100 and just 80 Kings she couldn’t bid because there’s no way she could get the 400 points she needs to win.

So that’s the basics of bidding. Next up some tips on how to play once you’ve gotten the bid, or are defending against another player that took it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “In-depth: Pinochle Pt. 1 – Bidding

  1. Dang.. I thought there were four holes. Then I thought I saw even more when you were explaining it. I’m smart!

    That game sounds complicated. 😐 I guess since I have such a hard time with Canasta, I’d be even dumber at Pinochle! (I only related them because of the melds…I have no idea if they are related in any other way.)

    • dantherpgman

      Well it would be hard to figure out the holes if you’ve never even played! 🙂 The whole thing would be hard to read, so thank you for giving it a go!

      Reading all this makes Pinochle sound complicated, but it’s not that bad. You already know how to play games with tricks, so you’d be fine. You’d just need Dan’s Famous Pinochle Chart and a 5 minute lesson and you’d be good to go! 🙂

  2. When I played on the railroad I learned the most reliable way to estimate the strength of my hand was “counting losers” Since you have to assume the other players will discard counters on their tricks, it’s safest to count 2 points for every 9, J, or Q, 3 points for every K. Since there are 25 counters possible (including one for last trick) the strength of the hand is 25 minus the number of losers; if the strength number plus your meld is less than your bid, it’s best to throw in the hand rather than play and go set.

    There was also a psychological element in the way we played, known as “pumping”–encouraging a bidder to overbid a hand. Of course this could backfire, either if the bidder made the bid or if the pumper got caught pumping and had to throw in a hand.

    • dantherpgman

      Yup, that’s a pretty good way to estimate your hand strength after you’ve taken the bid and know what all you’re going to battle with, great comment!

      Ha, I love trying to make someone else overbid. My grandparents were masters at that…especially against each other :p

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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