Sergeant Major is a trick-taking card game that’s intended for 3 Players, and 3 Players only. The game is popular in the British armed services, particularly the Royal Air Force.
English pilots during World War 1 and 2 would have certain periods of downtime where they were not flying. During this downtime, they would often play card games in the pilot’s lounges that are commonplace on British airfields.
How to Play Sergeant Major?
Sergeant Major is a card game intended for only three Players. It cannot be played with more, or with less. This is because of the way the game is set up, with each Player’s seat order actually determining their contract, or “target” in Sergeant Major, of tricks that they must win during a given round.
Dealing and Targets
Sergeant Major is played using the standard Anglo-American 52-card deck pattern.
Players should determine the Dealer randomly, as each position at the table carries a certain number of tricks with it.
Once a Dealer is chosen, the deck will be shuffled and 16 cards dealt to each Player, in packets of 4 cards at a time.
Once each Player has their cards, they should remember their “target”:
- The Dealer must win the most amount of tricks according to the standard ruleset.
- The Dealer must win 8 tricks.
- The Eldest hand, the Player to the immediate left of the Dealer, must win 5.
- Middle hand, the Player that is to the left of the Eldest hand, and the right of the Dealer, must only win 3.
Determining Trump suit and discarding
The Dealer has the highest number of required tricks, but the Dealer is also given a powerful advantage. The Dealer is given the right first to determine the Trump suit for the round after the cards have been dealt. This is very advantageous for the Dealer, as the most common suit in their hand can be made the Trump suit.
Secondly, the Dealer chooses any 4 cards from their hand and discards them face-down. They then take the 4 remaining cards left over after the deal and add them to their hand. The game then begins, with the Elder hand leading the first trick.
A trick is simply a collection of cards, with the Player that adds the highest ranking card to that collection being given the right to “take” it. Taken tricks correlate to the target of each Player.
The Trump suit is very important, as Trump-suited cards can only be outranked by another Trump-suited card of a higher rank.
For example, if ♥ are Trump, the 2♥ will outrank a K♣, but will be beaten by a 3♥ or better. Aces are always high in Sergeant Major.
The Eldest hand is given the right to start the first trick, but subsequent tricks will be started by the winner of the previous trick. As in other trick-taking games, Players are forced to follow suit if they are able.
Following suit simply means that a Player must, if they do not wish to play a Trump card, and if they are able to do so, play a card that is the same suit as the first card played in a trick. If it does not match suit, then they cannot win the trick.
- Player 1 leads the trick with a 7♣.
- Player 2 does not have any ♣, and so is forced to play a 9♠.
- Even though 9 is greater than 7, Player 2 did not follow suit and so cannot win the trick.
Gameplay continues until 16 tricks have been played. The 16th and final trick is taken, and then Players count up the total number of tricks they won in the round. Each trick should be kept in a separate pile, so that Players can easily count the number of taken tricks at the end of the game.
Referencing targets and exchanging cards
Once scores are tallied, Players should reference their target.
Say, for example:
- The Dealer wins 6 tricks.
- The Eldest hand wins 7 tricks.
- The Middle hand won 3 tricks.
The Dealer is then considered -2, while the Eldest hand is +2.
When the next round begins, the Dealing position moves clockwise, with the old Eldest hand becoming the new Dealer.
The Players that are + from the previous round are given the right to exchange cards with the Players that were minus.
- The old Elder hand, who is now the Dealer and up 2, can choose any 2 cards from their hand and give them to the Middle hand, who was previously the Dealer and down.
- The old Dealer must, now, take their two highest ranking cards that match the suit or suits of the exchanged cards, and give them to the exchanging Player.
Players can continuously fall into a “target debt” if they consistently lose more tricks than their target. If you end round one -2, and round 2 -3, then you’ll be -5. If you can manage to go plus 2 in the next round, then you’ll be -3.
Winning the Game
The game continues until a Player is able to win 12 or more tricks in a single hand. A Player that is able to do this is instantly declared the winner.
Sergeant Major Rules (3-5-8)
- The Dealing position always determines the target. The Dealer must win 8 tricks, the Eldest hand must win 5, and the Middle hand must win three.
- Players that are unable to meet their target are penalized, being forced to give up their high-ranking cards. Players that exceed their target are rewarded, able to exchange their junk cards with Players that did not meet their target, and be given high-ranking cards of the same suit in return.
- Each taken trick should be stored in a separate pile, so as to make it easy to tally them up at the end of the game.
- Players who are caught cheating by not giving the plus-players their highest-ranking cards are penalized by immediately subtracting 5 from their up/down rating. So, a Player that was +3, and then is caught cheating, is immediately made -2.
The game is not scored in the traditional sense, as there is a single victory condition. The first Player to win 12 tricks in a single game is immediately declared the winner.
A sort of scoring is applied as follows:
- Players that exceed their target: known as plus or “Up”
- Players who do not meet their target: known as minus or “Down.”
Although a Player who is minus could theoretically win the game, a Player who is minus 4 or more cannot win. This is because their high-ranking cards are taken from their hand. With their highest-ranking cards all being taken up by other Players, it makes it difficult to come back from those losses.
The most down you are, the less likely you are to win tricks, and the less likely you are to meet your target.
Imagine the following are your 16 cards at the start of a game of Sergeant Major:
6♠ 2♦ 5♥ 2♠ 2♣ 10♠ 3♣ A♣ 6♥ 10♦ 5♦ 7♥ 7♠ A♦ J♥
This is a fairly strong starting hand, as there are 2 Aces. As long as they are following suit, Aces can only be beaten by Trump cards.
If you are the dealer in this game, it would be best to make the Trump suit of the hand either ♦ or ♠. This hand has 4 of each of those suits.
Diamonds would probably be a slightly better choice, as this hand contains an Ace♦. If ♦ becomes the Trump suit, this hand has the highest possible ranking card in the Ace♦. This means you are guaranteed to win the trick it is played in.
- Save your Trump cards for big tricks. Save them for when you cannot follow suit, or when another Player plays a Queen, King, or Ace. A sudden Trump card can completely disrupt a Player’s strategy, especially when they played a high-ranking face card in order to hopefully win the trick.
- Do not try to win the game in the first round. Although it would be wonderful if you could win 12 tricks in a single round, and it is possible, the best thing to do is try to exceed your targets in order to win an Up advantage. The more Up that a Player goes, the more likely they are to win 12 tricks. Players must give you their highest-ranking cards, giving you the increased probability of winning those tricks.
Sergeant Major Variations
There are many popular variations on Sergeant Major, however, the two most common are simple changes to the target requirements.
3-5-9 is an alteration on the standard rules, in which the Dealer must regularly win 9 tricks, rather than 8.
Furthermore, when the Dealer takes the 4 cards from the center, rather than exchanging it for 4 cards, The Dealer adds it to their hand and then discards 4 cards from their total hand. After this, the 4 discarded cards become the Dealer’s first taken trick, and are counted towards that total.
9-5-2 is another variation, in which the Eldest hand must only win 2 tricks, and the Middle hand must win 5. This is different from the standard game, as in the standard game the Middle hand has the smallest target. Furthermore, the Dealer is able to draw the 4 remaining cards before discarding them like in 3-5-9, but unlike the standard game. 9-5-2 is also scored differently from the standard game.
The first Player to go +15 wins the game in 9-5-2, rather than the first Player to win 12 tricks.