Friday, March 11, 2016

The Spanish Game of “Mus”

The Spanish game of mus (pronounced like “moose”) is thought to have originated in the Basque Country near the border of Spain and France. References to the vying game first begin to appear during the mid-18th century, although the game itself was undoubtedly played earlier. It’s also still played today in Spain and France and turns up elsewhere in Europe as well as in Central and South America.

The game of mus strikes me as being more like bridge or spades than poker, mainly because it is played by a couple of two-player teams with partners sitting opposite one another. I’ve been reading through a few different explanations of how to play mus, and there are so many interesting and complicated rules and variants it’s almost overwhelming to try to summarize them all. In fact, I’m not going to, although I’ll see if I can at least give an idea here of how the game is played while highlighting a few of its more interesting details.

The game uses a 40-card Baraja Española or Spanish deck. The four suits are pretty cool in the Spanish deck -- swords, batons, cups, and coins -- although in mus the suits have no significance. The ranks (going from highest-to-lowest) are the rey (king), the caballo (knight or horse), the sota (knave or jack), then seven down to ace (always low). (You could play mus with a regular deck of cards, then, just by discarding the eights, nines, and tens.) As the first of many complications, the three is sometimes considered equal in rank to the rey -- i.e., tied for the highest.

The game is a race to 40 points, with matches usually involving teams playing best two games out of three. I’ll explain below how teams get their points. Play starts with each player being dealt four cards, dealt counterclockwise which is also the direction of all subsequent action. The player sitting to the dealer’s right who gets to act first is called the mano.

As in draw poker, players then have a chance to discard and draw to improve their hands, but only if all four agree to do so by saying “mus” in turn. A single “no hay mus” from anyone operates as a veto, meaning no one gets to discard and draw. Players can draw again if all four agree, and again and again with the discards reshuffled if they run out of cards. But the drawing stops as soon as one player puts a halt to it. Got it?

Okay, so now each player has his or her four-card hand. Now it’s time to start the “vying.” Here’s where things get really complicated.

You know how split-pot games work in which players compete for both the “high” and the “low” halves of the pot, right? In mus hands get compared against each not just one or two ways, but four different ways. There’s the Grande (the high) and the Chica (the low), but also the Pares (meaning “pairs”) and the Juego (which means “game”).

But it isn’t like you just draw your hands, bet on them, then see who wins each of the four categories and split the pot accordingly. Rather you bet separately on each of the four different categories, then at showdown figure out who has won what. In other words you go through the betting for the Grande, then when that is done you bet on the Chica, and so on. Then everyone shows their cards.

The procedure for betting is mostly similar to the way it goes in poker. The first player to act (the mano) either bets or passes, if the mano bets, the next player can either fold, call, or raise, and so on until the last bet is called. Remember, though, that you’re playing with a partner, so you’re betting with that other person and in the end whoever has the best hand wins the pot for the whole team. A team can win, say, the Grande right away if both players on the other team fold to bets. If there’s a call, though, the showdown will settle who wins for that category.

That actually describes how the betting goes for the Grande and the Chica. For the Pares and the Juego, players first have to make a declaration about their hands -- namely to say if they have a pair or not (in the first case) and if they have a Juego or not (in the second), the latter referring to the number of points their four cards total (explained below).

There’s also a special bet called the Órdago which is essentially a kind of “all-in” in which a player stakes the outcome of the entire game on a single category. If called, the team with a winning hand wins the entire game right then and there, but if no one calls, the team with a player who said “órdago” wins that category only.

This is getting ridiculous, right? But really we’re only getting started.

The best Grande hand is the one with the highest card or cards in it. Thus any hand with a rey (king) or three beats any hand without either of those two cards. If two players have a rey, the next-highest card determines the winner. And so on.

The best Chica hand is the lowest hand, determined kind of like you do in lowball or split-pot games. Somebody holding 4-5-7-R would beat someone else holding 5-7-S-R. And 2-6-7-7 would beat 2-6-7-S.

When it comes to the Pares, having two pairs or duples is best, and if you have quads that’s considered the same as having two pairs. Next best is to have three of a kind or medias (that’s right -- two pair beats trips here). Then comes one pair or par simple. If there’s a tie, the player acting first wins (i.e., kickers don’t matter). Thus being the mano is advantageous.

Finally, the winner of the Juego is the player with the highest-ranked hand as determined by the number points the four cards are worth, with the point values being as follows:

  • rey (R), caballo (C), sota (J), and three = each worth 10 points
  • seven = 7 points
  • six = 6 points
  • five = 5 points
  • four = 4 points
  • two and ace = each worth 1 point
  • To have a “Juego” you have to have at least 31 points in your hand (thus the need for the declaration described above). But 31 is also the highest-ranked Juego hand to have, followed by 32, then 40, 37, 36, 35, 34, and 33. Got all that? (Ha!) Again, if there’s a tie, the player acting first wins.

    Also, if no one has at least 31 points and a “Juego,” you play for what is called the Punto which is simply the highest point total with 30 being the highest (and best), 29 the next-best, and so on. (Four would be the lowest you could possibly have.)

    Now I referred to the betting above. You can bet and raise and call and fold like in poker, and the team winning each category wins whatever is bet. There are lots more specifics here -- including covering what is won if no one wants to bet in a given category -- but I’m going to skip over them and just refer you to this lengthy description of the rules if you want to sort it all out. Betting is done with stones, actually, with the first team to accumulate 40 stones winning the game.

    There are lots of other variations allowed and even versions of the game for three or five players, but I’m going to skip all that, too. Let me mention one last fun element of the game -- the non-verbal signaling allowed between partners.

    There are certain facial gestures that are permitted by which players can let their partners know more about their hands. Closing your eyes means you have a bad hand. Sticking your tongue out a little bit means you have two aces. Raising your eyebrows means you have two pairs (or duples). And there are many more of these gestures -- I’m not making this up -- with special names for all of them.

    Again, you can search around online for more details about how to play mus. You can even play mus online at a few sites, although I’ve never tried it. In any event, hopefully it’s clear enough how the game could be called a precursor to poker, involving as it does a similar deck, as well as betting and the possibility of bluffing.

    Just think, though, how easy it was to learn hold’em, and how long it would take you to learn mus.

    Image: Spanish deck printed in Valencia in 1778, public domain.

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