Learning how to play hearts (and win real money) means learning the basic rules and traditions of the game then getting real-world practice. These days, you can play hearts online for free or in real money games to practice the game.
Hearts is one of those card games that people mostly learn to play in friendly settings, and it lends itself to variation with house rules and other scoring conventions. But the fact that hearts is a casual game shouldn’t discourage you from learning to play for cash.
The ability to play real money hearts online has kept a fire burning under the game, even as gambling trends change and card gaming shrinks to a poker-sized template. This is a popular contest that lots of people know how to play, a game that rewards strategy and luck, something you can play and be casual or seriously competitive about.
Being able to play online for real money or find a local real money game, sometimes at a poker room or small gambling hall, means the game of hearts will be part of America’s gaming story for a long time.
What pulls most people in is the fact that, unlike many trick taking games, you are actually trying to avoid “winning” rounds. It’s a kind of Luciferian card contest in which the biggest possible reward comes from breaking all of the establish rules. And best of all, you can play it well enough that you can make your cousins cry.
Let’s begin our look at this classic card game with a crash course in its history.
The History of Hearts
The game we know as a family reunion staple and high school boredom prevention tactic is really just an inversion of the whist family of trick-taking card games. Sometimes called avoidance games, this subset of trick-taking contests is popular in part because of the fact that it turns traditional card gaming strategy on its ear.
Card gambling was taken seriously by the royals and hangers-on in that decadent courtly atmosphere, and games of chance and skill were pursued as both spiritual and academic practices. It’s hard to imagine the game grandma taught you over hot cocoa was once the purview of guys named Jean-Baptiste, but such is the history of gambling.
It’s not clear why one particular suit was chosen over another. A similar game is recorded in the very same edition of Hoyle’s involving jacks, and another popular saloon contest substituted diamonds. For whatever reason, the heart suit was the chosen one, at least in most Western versions of the game.
When you read the Hoyle entry, the biggest difference between our modern contest and the one described therein is the lack of the queen of spades penalty. That rule was available at the time, but in a variant known as black lady hearts. That version became so popular that Americans began referring to it simply as “hearts,” while our friends in the UK may still refer to what we play as “discard hearts.” All name controversies aside, the game is the same.
Many long-time card players got their start with hearts or the similar game spades. It has a well-worn place in the hearts of many Americans, who tend to play with large groups of friends and family, adding house rules and placing small bets to keep things interesting. You can play hearts and win real money in private games or even at poker room and casino-based tournaments.
How to Play Hearts
Hearts is played with a standard 52-card deck of playing cards. The object of the game is to have the lowest total score. The game is over when any player reaches or goes over a certain score, generally 100 points. The player with the lowest point total once any player scores over 100 points is declared the winner.
A standard game requires four players. The deal moves clockwise, and all 52 cards are dealt out face-down, 13 cards to each player.
You can play with three players by removing the two of diamonds and dealing 17 cards to each player. For a five-player game, you should remove both the two of diamonds and the 2 of clubs, dealing each player 10 cards.
Play begins with the player holding the two of clubs (for a four-player game) or the three of clubs (for a three-handed game). This player leads a card, ideally one which their opponents can’t (or are unlikely to be able to) “beat” by virtue of being of higher rank.
Each trick is taken by the player who plays the highest card of the led suit. Trick winners lead the next trick. In hearts, there is no trump suit or suit hierarchy in the traditional sense. When a trick ends, the winner collects the cards and places them face-down.
A Note on Leading
You’re allowed to lead with the queen of spades as soon as the second trick, but that’s not the case for hearts. You can’t lead with a heart until a player has legally discarded either a heart or the queen of spades. It sounds more confusing on paper than it looks on a playing surface.
In hearts, points come from the total number of heart-suited cards in a player’s hand. Each heart adds one point to a player’s total. The player who holds the queen of spades traditionally earns an additional 13-point penalty, though this rule isn’t in place for all variants.
Shooting the Moon in Hearts
An important wrinkle in these rules involves rewarding players who do the opposite of traditional game strategy. Any player who is able to capture all 13 hearts plus the queen of spades in a single hand is said to “shoot the moon,” and they earn a special reward.
In many games, that reward is a 26-point penalty for every other player in the game. In other versions, the player who shoots the moon gets to subtract 26 points from their point total. Either way, that makes shooting the moon the most powerful move in the game.
Shooting the moon is hard enough to pull off that a 26-point penalty for each of your opponents doesn’t seem like a strong enough reward. The odds are difficult for people smarter than me to quantify, but everyone seems to agree that the numbers are stacked against you.
How to Play Hearts and Win Real Money
There are three ways you can play hearts to win real money.
1. Win Money Playing Hearts in a Private Game
Amateur cash games of hearts take place every day of the year and have for generations. Is this gambling? Playing hearts for pennies against your coworkers over drinks after work is technically still playing cards for real money. Finding these games may be as easy as asking around.
As for the question of legality, the legality of playing in private card games for real money varies from state to state and country to country. Take these 5 states without legal gambling!
In Texas, for example, it’s illegal to bet anything of value on the outcome of a card game outside of specifically state-licensed settings. In Delaware, the state law just says, “all forms of gambling are prohibited in this state,” a pretty clear sign that winning money playing hearts, even in the privacy of your own home, is frowned upon.
2. Win Money Playing Hearts at a Poker Room or Casino
In areas where gambling is legal and regulated, it isn’t uncommon to find an occasional hearts-for-money situation. Some poker rooms are allowed to offer other games and do so provided there’s enough interest. And some of these games are raked, while some aren’t.
3. Win Money Playing Hearts Online
The newest addition to real money hearts games is the arrival of web-based card play. A quick browse through some of the best US online poker sites reveals it isn’t hard to find an online hearts game you can play for play-money or real cash.
As is the case with most online card games, you can even participate in Internet hearts tournament format games, and cash games are available at a few different prices, from low to high stakes.
Our Conclusions About Playing Hearts for Real Money
Hearts has a long and decidedly interesting origin story. A game originally played for obscene sums by royals and their groupies is such a standard card contest in 21st-century America that finding someone who doesn’t know how to play is much harder than forming an impromptu game. Playing hearts online means that the game will stick around even longer, a big part of our nation’s gaming past and traditional present.
If you want to learn how to play hearts, this post should get you at least part of the way to your goal. Armed with some basics about the game, you can proceed to your neighborhood game or your favorite online cardroom and get some real-world experience.
Playing hearts for real money adds a layer of excitement to the game that you may not have felt since you shot the moon against Uncle Herbert and took him for $15.