What is sheepshead, and why is it so popular in Wisconsin?

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Most know cheese and beer are synonymous with Wisconsin culture — and some might argue the game sheepshead is in those ranks as well.

Though the trump card game is lesser-known outside of the state, it's a family tradition for many Wisconsinites. Milwaukee's common council even made a proclamation in 1983 that sheepshead was the official game of the city.

And there's more than one way to play sheepshead in Wisconsin. If you tell someone you play “five-handed, picker and jack of diamonds,” they might ask if you are from Watertown or Green Bay.

How did sheepshead gain such a hold here? We looked at that question, and the game's history, for our What the Wisconsin series that answers readers' questions about our state and its people.

The history of sheepshead

There is not a clear history of when and where sheepshead, or schafkopf (its German name), was created.

According to “A Field Guide to Sheepshead” by Erica Rosch, the earliest accounts of the game are in the 1500s, in a Wendish country in what is now western Germany.

The earliest found written rules of the game date to 1896, and official modern rules were written by the Bavarian Schafkopf Association in 1989 in Munich, Germany.

According to a popular story, disgruntled peasants invented the game, giving king cards a power ranking below queens, jacks, aces and 10s.

Sheepshead tournament.
Sheepshead tournament.

Why it's called sheepshead

There are also different stories as to how it got its name.

One is that the game's score was originally kept by marking lines that eventually looked like a sheep’s head.

A different story is that sheepshead was once called das schaffkopf, meaning barrel or tub head, which is what they played the games on in southern Germany and Austria.

As Germans moved to Wisconsin, they dropped an "f" and the name became schafkopf, or sheepshead.

Wisconsin family traditions keep sheepshead tradition alive

The game has been passed down from generation to generation as children learned to play from their parents.

“My first memory playing sheepshead is at my grandma’s house with my dad, grandpa, two uncles, and my mom,” said Erich Gunther, who runs the sheepshead tent at German Fest.

Tim Wachter teaches sheepshead at German Fest, where people from all over Wisconsin and beyond come to play the game.

"There are pockets where they play it in other states, even as far down as Texas, but for the most part it's just alive here in Wisconsin," Wachter said.

Wisconsin's large German immigrant population played a role in keeping the game alive here. Rosch in her book specifically credits the large breweries founded by German immigrants as a reason why so many people played it in Milwaukee. She said master brewers would gather after the workday in a brewery rathskeller for a game of sheepshead.

"They brought a strong community spirit and a zest for competition and camaraderie characterized by their favorite game, sheepshead," Rasch wrote.

Dennis Staral has been playing for 70 years.

"The only way it got passed down is by generation by generation. I learned from my parents, they learned from their parents, they learned from their parents," Staral said. "Over the last 20 years it's been put on the internet and that helps a lot, too."

He is now working with the Nicolet Recreation Department to hold sheepshead beginner classes. He also holds one of the nation's largest sheepshead tournaments at Nicolet High School. The attendance for the 27th annual Glendale Open Sheepshead Tournament in April was around 180 players.

While he has seen a decline in players over the years — peak attendance was 290 in 2010 — he hopes that the next generation will continue to play the game.

"It's a good reason to gather with friends, and make new ones, too," he said. "It's a great game and I'd like to see it live on."

A "cheat sheet" shows the power and points of sheepshead cards on the back of the book "How to Play 'Winning' 5 Handed Sheepshead" by Robert Strupp.
A "cheat sheet" shows the power and points of sheepshead cards on the back of the book "How to Play 'Winning' 5 Handed Sheepshead" by Robert Strupp.

Milwaukee sheepshead and Wisconsin sheepshead are different

There are many versions of sheepshead around the world. And when it comes to a five-player game, there's a difference between the Milwaukee version and the game played throughout the rest of the state.

In Milwaukee, five-handed "call an ace" is the most popular version. Outside of Milwaukee, most people play "picker and jack of diamond."

Both versions use 32 cards out of the standard 52-card deck, with twos through sixes removed. And the trump suit — an established set of cards that are more powerful than others — is any diamond, jack or queen. The difference is in "call an ace" the picker calls an ace suit to find their partner. In "picker and jack of diamond" the picker and the player with the jack of diamonds are automatically partners.

How to play sheepshead

Here is how to play call an ace.

The highest trump are the queens, starting with the queen of clubs, then queen of spades, queen of hearts and queen of diamonds. The jacks are the next highest, in the same order. The ace of diamonds is the next highest trump, followed by the 10, king, 9, 8 and 7 of diamonds.

The goal for each hand for one team (the pickers, described later) is to get at least 31 points to not lose double, and 61 points out of a possible 120 to win that hand.

The point values are as follows:

  • Ace: 11 points

  • 10: 10 points

  • King: 4 points

  • Queen: 3 points

  • Jack: 2 points

  • 9, 8, 7: 0 points

Every player is dealt six cards. Two cards, called the blind, are placed face-down in the middle.

The player to the left of the dealer has the first chance to pick the blind and place it in their hand. If they pass, the next person has the chance to pick the blind.

Whoever picks the blind will then "bury" two of their cards (from their hand or the blind) that will be counted later as points in their hand. The goal is to bury cards with large point values.

The picker will then "call an ace" of an off suit (clubs, hearts or spades) that they have in their hand. The player with that ace will be their partner. Only the person holding the ace knows it before the card is played.

Once the blind is buried, the game begins as the player to the left of the dealer leads a card. The late Robert Strupp from Milwaukee, who wrote the book “How to Play ‘Winning’ 5 Handed Sheepshead,” offers these tips for leading:

  • The picker usually leads trump

  • The picker’s partner should also lead trump

  • If playing “call an ace,” the opposition should lead the called ace suit

Everyone must follow the suit of the card played. If the called suit is led, the player with the ace of that suit must play that card, even if they have other cards of the suit. If any player cannot follow suit, they typically play a trump card to try to win that trick, or round of five cards played.

The player with the highest card takes the trick. In sheepshead, trump cards (queens, jacks and diamonds) beat any other card.

Once someone takes a trick, they put those five cards face down in their pile of cards to be counted later. They also get to lead the next trick.

Once an entire hand — six tricks — is played, each team counts their cards.

What one loses depends on what their group decides. It could simply be points or poker chips. Historically, players would bring pennies to pass around the table as they lost. That has gone up to nickels, then dimes, and sometimes now quarters.

At a tournament, players play a set number of hands before a game ends, usually 10 or 15. Casual games usually end with someone calling "last hand" before dealing.

As players become more advanced, they can do more to double scores including playing “doublers” after a round where no one picks the blind, or “blitzing,” which is when someone has the two black queens and doubles the point values for that hand. Players can double the points with a “crack” or “wrap” if they are not the partner of the picker and think they can beat them. The partner can “re-crack,” doubling the points again (so quadrupling), if they think they can beat the person who called "crack" or "wrap."

Confused yet? The game has a lot of its own terminology.

For example, when someone throws an ace or 10 to their partners to give them points, it’s called “schmear.”

If no one picks the blind, players can simply move on to the next round, or they could play a “leaster,” where players try to get the least number of points while still taking a trick. Players typically determine what they're going to do before the game begins.

“Mauer" means you should have picked the blind and you didn’t.

“We always took it as calling someone ‘chicken,' " Gunther said.

If there are not five players available, it is common to play four- and three-handed versions of the game, where players are dealt more cards.

There are also six-, seven- and eight-handed versions, but in Wisconsin it is more common for players to take turns being dealt in and grabbing a beer while they are not playing, according to Strupp's book.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many points the picking team needs to win a hand and which cards the picker can bury after picking up the blind.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What is sheepshead, and why is it so popular in Wisconsin?