Invented in 1967, Ninety-Nine first appeared in Games & Puzzles magazine in 1974, attracted an enthusiastic post-bag, and has since appeared in so many card-game books by other authors (and in other languages) as to have become, if not exactly a classic, at least a member of the card-game Establishment.
The basic idea is that every player secretly bids to win an exact number of tricks, neither more nor less. Although similar games have been developed since (and the comparable game of Oh Hell! dates from the 1930s), Ninety-Nine's more original feature is that you have to remove cards from your hand in order to make your bid, which makes life very tricky indeed.
Ninety-Nine was designed to meet the need for a skill-demanding Whist-like game for three players, but it works almost as well for four and sports quite satisfactory versions for two and five players.
NINETY-NINE FOR THREE The classic version
Over the years I have experimented with different ways of choosing the trump suit and structuring the whole game. The simplest method is described first. Others appear as variations under the main description.
37, consisting of a Joker plus 36 cards ranking A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6 in each suit.
Whoever cuts the highest cards deals first. The turn to deal and play passes always to the left. Deal 12 cards each one at a time, and the last (37th) card face up to one side.
The suit of the turn-up is the trump suit for the current deal, unless it is a Nine or the Joker, when the play is at no trump.
The Joker has no independent value but counts exactly as if it were the turn-up, both for bidding and trick-playing purposes.
To win exactly the number of tricks you bid. You bid secretly by making three discards face down, leaving nine cards to play to tricks. Your bid-cards must be selected in such a way as to represent how many of the nine tricks you undertake to win. For this purpose, the suit of each bid-card represents a specific number of tricks by means of the following code:
any diamond discarded represents 0 tricks bid
any spade discarded represents 1 trick bid
any heart discarded represents 2 tricks bid
any club discarded represents 3 tricks bid.
These representations are easily remembered because they are based on the shapes of the suit signs: a diamond is a nought with straight sides, a spade has one point, a heart has two cheeks, and a club has three bobbles, as illustrated above. Note that the ranks of the bid-cards are irrelevant to the number bid. It's only their suits that count.
Normally, bid-cards are left face down throughout the play of tricks. But:
For an additional bonus, you may offer to declare by turning your bid-cards face up at start of play, thus declaring your target and revealing more information about the lie of cards.
For a higher bonus, you may also offer to reveal. This involves not only turning your bid-cards up but also then playing with your hand of cards exposed on the table before the opening lead.
Only one player may declare or reveal in each deal. If more than one wish to declare, the leader has priority over the middle player, and either of them has priority over the dealer. Anyone offering to 'reveal' has priority over anyone only offering to 'declare', regardless of position. If two or more wish to reveal, however, then the same positional priority applies.
Dealer's left-hand neighbour leads to the first trick. You must follow suit if you can, but may play any card if you can't. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played. The winner of each trick leads to the next.
If you took exactly the number of tricks you bid, you must turn up your bid-cards to prove it. If not, you can keep them hidden. You each score 1 point for each trick you won, regardless of how many you bid. In addition, if you succeeded in winning exactly the number of tricks you bid you add a bonus related to how many players succeeded, as follows:
If all three succeeded, each adds a bonus of 10 points.
If only two succeeded, they each add a bonus of 20.
If only one player succeeded, that player adds a bonus of 30.
There is an additional bonus of 30 for 'declaring' or 60 for 'revealing'. This goes to the declarer/revealer if successful, or to each opponent if not.
The highest score that can be made in one deal is 99. This occurs when one player wins 9 tricks (9 points), is the only player to succeed (add 30), and played with cards revealed (add 60).
Play nine deals, or any higher multiple of nine, and the winner is the player with the highest score. Alternatively, a game is 100 points and the overall winner is the first to win three games.
There are three players and nine tricks. Therefore: if in doubt, bid three.
Note that the four suits differ in trick-taking potential according to to their differences in bidding value. Since the average bid is three, and the various ways of representing this are [ ], [ ] and [ ], it follows that diamonds and spades are more likely to be out in bids than hearts and clubs. Given an average distribution, clubs and hearts are therefore usually all in play and will go round at least twice without being ruffed, so their Aces and Kings are usually reliable trick-winners. Clubs are especially reliable as trumps, as it would be self-defeating to discard them in bids. At the opposite extreme, diamonds are very unreliable. The Ace is as often as not ruffed on the first diamond lead, and when diamonds are trumps there is usually at least one player who will discard three of them - especially Ace, King and Queen - for a plausible bid of zero.
Because you are aiming for an exact number, low cards are as important as probable trick-losers as high ones are as probable winners. Middle-ranking cards are unreliable in either respect, so it is usually best to discard Jacks, Tens and Nines as bid-cards and to retain Aces, Kings, Sevens and Sixes as trick-winners and losers respectively. This consideration will often lead you to the best of several possible bids.
Nevertheless, if you really cannot find a sensible way of bidding, a good ploy is to throw out three cards whose absence from play is most likely to upset everyone else, such as the top three trumps, or three Aces. You may not make your bid, but neither will anyone else, and if you should happen to win a majority of tricks, you will even gain on the deal!
If you have a middling card that may or may not win a trick, such as J, lead it at the earliest opportunity in order to clarify the situation.
A no-trumper always favours the lead player. Never declare at no trumps unless you have the opening lead, or unless you have a cast-iron bid of zero (in any position).
VARIANTS FOR THREE Optional alternatives
This is now my preferred version of play. No Joker is used. Instead, the first deal is played with diamonds as trump. (Or at no trump, if you prefer, though I don't.) Thereafter, the trump suit for each deal is determined by the number of players who succeeded in the previous deal, namely (and obviously) clubs if all three succeeded, hearts if two, spades if one, or diamonds if nobody made their contract.
At each deal there is no predetermined trump. Instead, dealer's left-hand neighbour may announce a trump suit in return for playing a declared or revealed game. If he passes, the next in turn has the same option, and so on. As before, a revelation overcalls a declaration. If nobody is prepared to make a premium bid, the trump suit remains the same as it was in the preceding deal, except in the first deal of the game, when it is no trump. (It is not advisable to allow players to bid no trump, or at least especially not the first player, as a no trump game strongly favours the leader to the first trick.)
Take your 36 playing cards from a 54-card pack including two Jokers. Shuffle the remaining 18 cards and stack them face down. Play 18 deals, at each deal turning the top card of this pile to fix trumps, or playing at no trump when a Joker appears. The winner scores 1 Game Point for each 100 scored (this usually turns out to be 3), second scores 1 GP less than 1 GP per hundred, and the third scores nothing.
No Trump variant
A problem with the no-trump game is that it too heavily favours the leader to the first trick. Neither opponent is likely to have a declarable, hand, apart from the occasional safe bid of zero. This is why the game is designed to restrict the number of no trumpers played, given that I am reluctant to dispense with them altogether. But there is another way of introducing an alternative to a trump game that does not favour the first leader, and that is to play what might be called an 'All-Trump' game (by analogy with the 'tout atout' bid of Belote aux Enchères). It works like this.
In a no trump deal, you must follow suit if you can, and may play any card if you can't. So far so normal. The difference, however, is that the trick is always taken by the highest card played, regardless of suit. If two or more cards tie for highest, the first of them beats the others. This means, in effect, that you can now 'trump in' when unable to follow suit, provided you keep back enough high cards for the purpose.
Remove the Nines from a 52-card pack and use them as trump indicators. Deal the remaining 48 out so that everyone has sixteen.
Bids of 10, 11, 12 or 13 tricks are made in the same way as bids of 0, 1, 2 or 3 respectively - that is, three diamonds represents a bid of either zero or 10, and so on. At end of play there should be no doubt as to which was intended, so there is no need to specify which it is, even when declaring or revealing. If there is any doubt, the bidder is given the benefit of it.
In the first deal the trump suit is diamonds. In subsequent deals the trump suit is determined by the total number of tricks by which all players exceeded or fell short of their bid in the previous deal, as follows: 0 = diamonds, 1 = spades, 2 hearts, 3 or more = clubs.
At end of play you must reveal your bid-cards whether you made your bid or not. Score 30 for being the only player to succeed, 20 for being one of two, or 10 if all three succeed. (Do not add 1 point per trick taken.) For failing, deduct 1 point per trick by which you exceeded or fell short of your bid.
There is a premium of 30 for declaring or 60 for revealing, which you add to or deduct from your score as the case may be. (Negative scores are possible in this version.)
Game is 100 points, plus as many more deals as may be necessary to break a tie between first and second. A rubber is won by the first player to win a previously agreed number of games.
Point Ninety-nine (Counterpoint)
In the point-trick version of the game, your more demanding aim is to capture a target number of card-points rather than a specific number of tricks. For details, see Counterpoint.
In this variation, devised by Charles Magri, each player receives 16 cards from a 48-card pack lacking Tens. The object is to play thirteen tricks in such a way as to end up with three unplayed cards representing the number of tricks you have won out of nine. Full details can be found on Magri's Clumond website. (The only reason why I've never tried this version is that I can't make up my mind whether to pronounce it clue-mond or clumm-ond!)
So called because that's the lowest score you can make in one deal (noughty-none - geddit?), Naughty Nun is so peculiar as to demand a page of its own. Click on the link to reach it.
NINETY-NINE FOR FOUR Solo and partnership versions
Four play with a 53-card pack including a Joker.
Deal 13 each and turn the 53rd card face up for trumps. If it is a Nine or a Joker play at no trump. The Joker, if not turned for trump, assumes the identity of the turned card.
Bid to win an exact number of tricks from 0 to 10 by discarding three bid cards as described above. A bid of three diamonds represents either 0 or 10 tricks, and if you make this bid you win whether you take either number.
As before, one player (only) may declare or reveal.
The bonus for success is 30 if you are the only player to succeed, 20 if you are one of two, 10 if one of three, otherwise zero, regardless of whether you all succeed or fail. As before, a declaration counts 30 and a revelation 60.
Play as for four, above, but with these differences:
When everyone has made their bid, the four sets of bid-cards are turned face up so that everyone can see who has bid how many.
No one may offer to reveal and there is no bonus for declaring.
Each side scores 1 point per trick won and a possible bonus as follows: 30 if both partners succeed. 20 if the partnership succeeds as a whole but neither succeeds individually. 10 if one partner succeeds and the other fails.
NINETY-NINE FOR FIVE Two ways of doing it
The best method is to take a 60-card Australian pack produced for the game of Five Hundred, and keep the Elevens and Twelves but throw out the two red Thirteens and the Kookaburra (Joker). If you can't get hold of one, use instead a 52-card pack expanded to 60 by the addition of two extra ranks (preferably Sevens and Eights) from another pack of identical back design and colour.
Each player is dealt 12 cards and lays three aside to represent a bid of up to nine tricks.
The contract bonus is 10 if all five succeed, 20 if four, 30 if three, 40 if two, 50 if only one. No-one may reveal, but any number of players may declare for a bonus of 50 points, or minus 50 if they fail.
Note. If you're using a 53-card pack plus duplicates, and duplicate cards are played to the same trick, the first one played outranks the second.)
NINETY-NINE FOR TWO Either with or without a dummy
From a 36-card pack (as above) deal three hands of 12 cards each face down.
Turn the top card of the dummy for trumps (or No Trump if it's a Nine). Separate the next three cards of the dummy hand and lay them aide, face down, as its 'bid'.
Each live player bids in the usual way. Either or both players may declare, but neither may reveal.
Dealer then turns the dummy face up and sorts it into suits and ranks Non-dealer leads to the first trick, waits for the second to play, then plays any legal card from dummy. If a live player wins the trick, he leads first from hand and third from dummy. If the dummy wins a trick, the person who played from it then leads first from dummy and third from hand.
At end of play, the dummy's bid-cards are turned up and both live players score as in the three-hand game. However, because the dummy rarely makes its bid exactly, consider it to have failed if it wins more tricks than bid, succeeded if it wins fewer, and declared if it made its bid exactly.
If one live player declares and fails, the other two score the bonus of 30. If both declare and fail, neither gains it but the dummy scores 60 extra.
Does the fact that you know exactly what cards your opponent has been dealt (as well as your own) make this a game of perfect information? Or is its perfection reduced by the fact that you can't be certain which three they will decide to discard before play?
Deal 16 cards each from a 33-card pack consisting of a Joker and A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7 in each suit. Turn the 33th card for trump, or, if it's a Nine or Joker, play at no trump.
Each player bids in the usual way, except that
represents either 0 or 10 tricks,
represents either 1 or 11 tricks,
or represents either 2 or 12 tricks, and
or or represents either 3 or 13 tricks.
There is no declaring or revealing.
Each player scores 1 point per trick taken, regardless of the bid. The first time you succeed, you add a bonus of 10. If you succeed on the next deal you add 20, then 30 if you succeed the third time in a row, and so on, increasing your bonus by 10 for each successive successful bid. If and when you fail, you don't get a bonus. Next time you succeed, you score a bonus of 10, and so on as before.
Game is 99 points.
POINT NINETY-NINE or "Counterpoint"
This version is a point-trick rather than a plain-trick game and thus has a totally different feel to it. For details, see Counterpoint.