This is part one in a three-part series, part two can be found here and the third part here.
Frequent visitors to my blog may be unaware of the fact that I am part of a Facebook group, one that was created to educate (and entertain) people interested in living in France (or indeed people that already live here). The group’s membership is mainly made up of ex-pats from the UK, Australia, America and other predominantly English-speaking territories. You, my frequent visitor, will be unaware of my membership of this group because, until now, I’ve never mentioned it. So there you go. Boom! Just rocked your world with that news haven’t I?
Anyway, back to the point in hand. I decided to help these poor people out, by trying to teach them how to play Belote – a tricky task as you will soon discover.
Belote, for the uninitiated, is a popular French card game played in groups of four, subdivided into teams of two. It’s a very competitive game played throughout France, in homes among friends, and in halls as part of serious tournaments. The first prize isn’t money, or a car, or a holiday to Benidorm. No, as a rule you win a ham. So any competitive vegetarians can stop reading now.
Oh and even if you come dead last they still give you some meat (chicken).
I’m going to do my best to help them and also you, my frequent visitor, learn how to play this fantastic game. Belote is a tricky beast to master, and that’s coming from someone who’s been playing for years, but hopefully this guide will give you a solid grounding.
I will try to make this as comprehensive and user-friendly as possible, I will also do my best to make it entertaining, but not at the expense of the learning experience and – let’s face it – there really are only so many jokes you can make about a card game (even a French one) before it gets tiresome.
So, as you may or may not be aware, there are two options when it comes to learning how to play Belote:
- You can learn the way I learned and that’s to play with the natives. This will involve many hours of wine, fun, laughter and abuse as you fail again, and again to wrap your head around the rules. You will never forget the many, many occasions that you were subjected to a stream of angry French, as you caused your team to lose for the third consecutive time. The red glow that seemed to emanate from your partner’s eyes as you placed the wrong card down at the wrong time – again! – will haunt your dreams. But hey! It’s only a game right? At least that’s what you tried to explain to your partner, as his hands closed around your windpipe, and you desperately wished you had a better grasp of French or – as darkness crept into your vision, you began to faintly hear your long-deceased grandmother gently calling your name, and a bright light began to shine down on you from above – at least knew enough to say ‘Hey! It’s only a game, right?’
2. Or you can read a guide like this one…
So I will start this with the view that the person reading it has never played the game before, and wishes to play with friends who are similarly clueless as to the rules. So we will start with a breakdown of the cards, their names in French, what that ‘atout’ business is all about, and follow this with the rules, before wrapping the whole thing up with a breakdown of the scoring system.
THE CARDS, THEIR NAMES AND WHAT ‘ATOUT’ MEANS
So there may well be repetition of some things in this guide, as I will be going over the names of the cards you play with here, and then will reiterate that, again and again, further on. I cannot stress this enough – REPETITION IS A GOOD THING. This is not an easy game to master, so I’m trying to get the message across to you as best I can, by hammering it home, again and again.
Order Of Card Values If Played As Atout
Jack – the most powerful card in the game and called ‘valet’ in French.
Nine – second most powerful called (quelle surprise) ‘neuf’.
Ace – goes by ‘as’ over here (watch the spelling on that one)
Ten – simply ‘dix’.
King – is called ‘roi’
Queen – is called ‘dame’
Eight – You probably know where I’m going with this now but if not this is ‘huit’
Seven – Yes, it’s called ‘sept’.
Example – If opponent plays the 9 and you have the jack – you can take the 9 with your jack
Something to note is that if you have the king and the queen atout then this constitutes ‘Belote’ and will give you extra points (more on that in the points section later). Remember this applies even if YOU HAVE NOT CHOSEN THE ATOUT YOURSELF.
Order Of Card Values If Not Played As Atout
Example – If opponent plays 10 and you have the ace, you can take that ten with your ace – BUT ONLY IF IT IS OF THE SAME SUIT – UNLESS IS IT ATOUT AN ACE OF CLUBS WILL NOT BEAT A TEN OF HEARTS!
The suits themselves go by different names over here too, they are:
Hearts = ‘coeur’
Diamonds = ‘carreau’
Clubs = ‘trefle’
Spades = ‘pique’
So down to this atout business. As I said above, the cards follow that order only if they have been chosen as atout. Atout is effectively a trump card and can be used to take other players trump cards or – if during gameplay they place a card from a suit that you do not have a card from, then you can take that hand by ‘cutting’ their play. So for instance if someone plays the ace of hearts, and you don’t have any hearts then you can take this hand by playing something as lowly as a seven, as long as it’s atout – that’s how strong the atout is.
Atouts – where possible – must be played in ascending order e.g if the player to your left puts down the ten atout and you have a higher card – say the nine for instance – then you HAVE TO PLAY HIGHER. If you do not have a higher card e.g the player to your left places the ace atout, but all you have are the king and the eight, then you are free to choose which card you put down (this is known as ‘pee pee’ in France) – and always play your weaker hand if it is for the benefit of your opponents – your stronger card may well come in useful later on.
When playing non-atout cards these rules do not apply and you can play any cards you want. So if the player to your left plays the king of hearts, even if you have the ace of hearts you can play a lower card if you wish to do so BUT ONLY FROM THE SAME SUIT.
So that’s a bit about the values of the cards and atouts, let’s get down to some actual game-playing now…
First things first, you need the right amount of players – how many’s that? Like so many other card games four is the magic number for Belote. There are variations that can be played with just two people but that’s somewhat advanced, and thus best left for another day, and another guide.
This group of four players is then divided into two teams of two, each member of each team must sit facing their partner, they cannot sit side by side. How you organise who plays with who is entirely up to you. If you play with the same group for quite a while you will begin to see who you play best with – this may not necessarily be the person you get on best with, or sleep with for that matter. I get my best results from playing with my French father-in-law, and yet I wouldn’t kiss him if you paid me.
So assuming you have your foursome, you now need to obtain a pack of cards. From this pack of cards you need to remove the two, three, four, five, and six from every suit. You should then be left with the following cards: ace, jack, king, queen, ten, nine, eight and seven.
This is what you should have left after removing the other cards
Make a mental note that this means there will be EIGHT CARDS FOR EVERY SUIT INCLUDING THE CHOSEN ATOUT’S SUIT. This might sound patronising but keeping this simple detail in your mind can be difficult during play, but is one of the key components to success in Belote.
Shuffle the deck and then have each of the players pick out a card. Whoever has the highest card will then have first choice of whether to pick the atout or not when play commences. Once this is done put the cards back together and then split the pile in two. Pass it to a player – NOT the player who gets first dibs though – and they must then rejoin the pile in the opposite order to the way it was originally split.
You must then deal out the cards – face down so that they are not visible – to each player. There are two ways of doing this, you can either deal out three cards to each player initially, and then two – so that each player is left with a pile of five cards – or you can do the reverse: two cards then three. All players should keep their cards hidden from each other at all times – this is especially applicable to each other’s partners – cheating is frowned upon, and treated quite harshly in France.
The dealer will then place the next card face up on the table so that all players can see it. This is – potentially – the atout card.
In the game your cards would not be visible – this is simply for illustrative purposes. As you can see above, you shouldn’t take atout as diamond, however your spade hand is very strong
Starting with the player who won the card pick at the beginning, and then proceeding anti-clockwise, each player can then decide whether or not they wish to play, take the atout, and get the game rolling. If nobody wishes to take the first card offered play will go back around, starting with the first person who declined the initial card. There is then the opportunity to make any other card in your hand the atout card.
If the initial card is of no interest to any player, and nobody’s hand is deemed to be strong enough to select another suit to be atout, then each player must signal this by saying ‘deux’. If all players say ‘deux’ then the whole process starts again – the cards are split by the last person who dealt and the player sitting to their right then resplits the pack – again in the opposite way to how it was originally split – and deals out the cards. This process will repeat until someone chooses the initial card or decides they have a strong enough contender in their own hand.
So let’s say that you think you have a strong enough hand – and are prepared to take on the card that has been left by all the other players, including yourself – you elect to choose another suit and name it – simply saying hearts, diamonds, spades or clubs aloud (to be correct, and especially if you are playing with the natives, then use the French version of this, it will impress them).
Here we see that you have selected the spade as the atout card. You have announced this to the table and the remaining cards have been dealt. Three to each of the other players and two to you. You now have a very strong hand – you picked up an extra atout with the seven and you also have Belote – the king and queen atout.
In this case – or in the case of the atout being chosen being the one initially placed – you take the card and the remaining cards are dealt as follows: you (or whoever chooses the atout) receive two cards, while all other players receive three cards each. There should be no cards left in the deck whatsoever – if there are, and it happens more often than you would think, then something has gone wrong and you need to ‘reset’.
But nothing has gone wrong! The atout is selected and play has commenced. The idea now is – generally – to sniff out the other players’ atouts, and thus take out the ‘threat’ they pose to your game. I will go into more detail on the various ways you can do this in a later section, but for now we’ll stick with the basics.
So let’s say you selected the atout and you are in control of the game i.e it’s your turn to play. If you have the jack and the nine in your selection then you should play one of these – it does not matter which one because as noted earlier, these are the two most powerful cards and will ‘defeat’ all other atout. If your opponents have atout THEY MUST PLAY THEM. Ideally this initial play – let’s say of the jack – will bring you three of their atouts. So now you know there are four left – if you deduct your nine that means three. You should then play the nine and, hopefully, you will then take the remaining atouts.
It was (ideally) your turn to play first, and you have played your jack. The player on your right has followed your play and put down the ten, your partner has played the eight and your other opponent has no atouts – as you can tell by their playing of a low value card that is of a different suit. You have four atouts left in your hand – you have three that you have just won, in front of you on the table, leaving just one atout to find – unfortunately it’s a biggie – the nine (note how I have put all cards in their corresponding suits? it greatly aids gameplay).
With the table now clear of atouts you are free to carry on playing the game as you would a normal card game. Thus if you play a king of hearts you will lose it if your opponent plays a ten, or an ace of hearts. But don’t forget, normal rules are back in play and so a nine is just back to being a plain old nine and is nothing special at all. Likewise a jack can be defeated by a queen, a king, a ten and an ace and is not the all powerful card it is when it is atout.
So let’s just imagine however, that there’s still an atout in play and, worst of all, your opponents have the best one – the nine. At this early stage in your playing you may not know who has it but, with experience, you will soon know who has what, and how to get it out of them. It’s not magic they use, these wily old French people, who seem to have an uncanny ability to figure you out – no, they just have great memories.
So there’s a rogue atout out there and it isn’t yours – you now have to be wary of losing your ace, or other high value cards to these atout because – say if you play the ace of spades and one of your opponents doesn’t have anything in that suit – they will cut your play with their atout and it’s bye-bye ace of spades!
You’ve decided to flush out the remaining atout and have chosen to play the seven. You don’t need to use a higher card as there is only one remaining atout and, whether it’s in your partner’s hand or that of your opponent, IT MUST BE PLAYED – so why give away points? The player on your right plays the nine, as they have to, your partner plays the jack (Always give away your weakest card if you have to to your opponents, and so this shows that he has a very good hand if this is the weakest cad he has to play) and the remaining opponent then plays a ten (if your partner is winning a hand – and you don’t have a card in the winning suit – ALWAYS give them a high value card – unless you are saving certain cards for a better time).
The reverse is applicable too though, for instance if you start with a decent handful of atouts – let’s say five (always a nice amount) – and you end up with two spare after claiming all the rest. Then you can keep them to cut your opponents with when they play something you don’t have anything in the same suit as (always hope to cut an ace or a ten though – nothing worse than being ‘flushed out’ by a seven).
The player who took the previous hand with the nine has played hearts, your partner has followed with a king and your other opponent has played an ace. As you do not have a heart you have no option but to cut this hand with your queen – saying ‘Belote!’ while doing so. You now take this hand and control is back with you. Note the two small piles of cards in each corner, these are each team’s respective ‘winnings’.
An additional word on cutting – if your partner plays a card that you do not have something of YOU DO NOT HAVE TO CUT HIM IF HE IS WINNING (see information on ‘maitre’ further on). This is something I can’t urge you enough to remember, unless it’s tactically advantageous to you (e.g: if you have figured out that by cutting your partner’s winning hand you will claim your opponent’s (yet to be played) ace) then DO NOT DO THIS. There is further information on this in the part 2 of this guide.
If your opponent plays a card however, in a suit that you do not have anything in, then YOU HAVE TO CUT. Don’t be surprised either – if you cut the play after your partner and one of your opponents, but before your other opponent – to see your other opponent hastily shuffling his hand and laying down something of much, much lower value than, say, the ace they had originally intended on playing.
It’s your turn again and you’ve played your ace of diamonds. As there are no other atouts left in your opponent’s hands you are “maitre” – guaranteed to win. So your partner has given you the most points he can in that suit – the ten. As you can see the player on your right has no diamonds and so has given you a low-value card.
You may also hear the French referring to themselves as ‘maitre‘ or their partner or another player may ask if they are ‘maitre‘. This simply means that they are winning the hand, even if they have played something as trivial as a seven of hearts – and even if that is not atout – IF NO OTHER PLAYER HAS A CARD IN THE SAME SUIT, AND ALL ATOUT HAVE BEEN PLAYED, A CARD AS INSIGNIFICANT AS A SEVEN CAN WIN A HAND.
Taking a gamble the ten of clubs is played, followed by the seven from the opponent on your right (as they don’t know who has the ace) your partner plays the queen and, unfortunately, your other opponent plays the ace, winning the hand and taking control of play.
You should really try keep spare atouts as last resorts, once the other atouts have been ‘sniffed out’ and always try to keep one till the very end if you can as this will guarantee you win the last hand, and give you more points (more on this further down).
So here the player to your left has played the king, you have to play your eight, his partner plays the eight of clubs (showing they only have low-scoring cards left, if they had anything better this is the point they would give it as – working out from the cards that have been played – their partner is maitre here and guaranteed to win the hand) and your partner plays the seven.
One final note on atouts regards Belote – or rather if you have the cards that constitute it – the king and queen of the chosen atout suit. If you do, when you play them you must say the word ‘BELOTE!’ when you place it down, it doesn’t matter if you play the king or queen first. When you place the second one of these cards down, again whichever one it doesn’t matter, you must then say ‘RE-BELOTE!’. It’s unlikely that your friends or family will pick you up on this if you play them – and penalising your lack of vocalisation of this by refusing you the points is also highly unlikely – however in competitive environments (should you reach those dizzy heights, and potentially win the first prize of…ham!) they may be more severe. Plus the French will love hearing you say it.
The last hands are guaranteed to be yours – there are only two atout in play, and you have them. Some French players, at this point, lay the atout down on the table and the other players throw their cards in. We, however, will play the last two hands out. So this hand is yours and you regain control and retain it for the final hand…
It’s all over! As you have taken the last hand – as well as having Belote – you will get a points bonus. Ten extra points for the last hand and twenty extra points for having Belote. This may not sound like much but can often be the difference between winning and losing a game.
So that’s a general overview of how to play the game, I’m sure you’ve already got questions (and I don’t blame you) but hopefully by playing the game, and reading my other blog posts on the subject, you will be able to get stuck in.
So now one last word on the most puzzling aspect of all for some – which until recently included myself – how to tally the points…
SCORING A GAME OF BELOTE
So the values of cards are:
Jack = 20
Nine = 14
Ace = 11
Ten = 10
King = 4
Queen = 3
Seven = 0
Eight = 0
‘Belote’ – King and Queen atout held TOGETHER by any one player = 20 points
Ace = 11
Ten = 10
King = 4
Queen = 3
Jack = 2
Nine = 0
Eight = 0
Seven = 0
10 points are also awarded for ‘Dix de der‘ which is the winning of the very last hand.
WINNING – AND LOSING – SCORES
You must have 82 points to win a game – minimum.
If you chose the atout and you do not meet the 82 point minimum the other team wins and will receive 162 points (182 if they have the Belote as well). This is known as ‘Dedans‘.
If you do the minimum then the other team gets your points (162) minus yours (e.g 162 – your 82 points means they get 80 points, or if you score 92 points then 162-92 = 70 and so on).
If you/your opponents choose the atout and win every hand then you/they win 252 points (272 with Belote) this is known a ‘Capot‘. This result differs at competitive levels (or where you are playing it with the natives) where the points you are awarded are lowered to 162 points (182 with Belote).
You need 1,000 points to win the game at competitions/playing with French natives (though this can vary).
If you are playing using the online app (more on that in a later blog) then this is lowered to 501.
So there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed reading my initial guide, and didn’t find it too tasking or wearying. You may now feel free to read my other Belote guides, where I will be delving a bit deeper into Belote tips, hints, good and bad hands and how to use the online app.