Editor’s Note: Pawntoe4 seems to be the current top ranked player and has kindly written this guest post. Although I’m sure this particular ordering of the ranking is to be short-lived, it is very gratifying to see the responsibilities of the top spot being taken seriously.
To Wodka or not to Wodka, that is the question. As one of the major forms of skill expression in the game named after this action, choosing when to Wodka is critical to being a tidy and considerate player, leaving as few points on the table as possible. With a relatively high WEES and placing significantly more Wodkas per game than any other player, I feel moderately qualified to discuss this aspect of the game. However, for advice on when to Grand Wodka tann is the expert, and if you are part of the accredited Never Wodka Club this question has a much shorter article to answer it: Don’t.
Hands in Wodka can be sub-divided into four broad categories called Starters, Winners, Play-Ons and Greys.
Starter: A common set with a low value that requires you to start the trick to play, but is also likely to be beaten.
Winner: A common set that is likely to win the round.
Play-On: A set with a shape that is unlikely to be led by another player, but is similarly unlikely to be beaten. Will usually be played as a Starter and win the trick.
Greys: A common set of middling value that could be played on preceding low card(s). To explain some of the terminology within the above definitions, common sets are singles, doubles, triples and two consecutive pairs. Low cards tend to be lower than 9, and middling cards from 9 to Queen.
There is an art to the Wodka, but at its most basic if you have only one or two Greys with more Winners than Starters, it is often a good idea to Wodka. That’s pretty much it for how I decide, but we can go into a bit more detail with the red specials in order of how much I consider them before declaring.
3: This card is the bane of all Wodkas. If you have it in your own hand and want to Wodka, it is good for removing one Starter and thus acts as an artificial Winner. The ability of this to ruin someone else’s hand is largely wasted as you will be wanting to keep control as much as possible and the opponents will likely have a lot of cards when you want to play it, increasing the chances it fits into an existing set (or makes a more complex set or even a bomb), as well as needing to stop both opposing players going out and potentially mis-targeting the real threat to your Wodka. However, if it is against you, you can count on opponents going out of their way to burden you with an LSC late in the round when you cannot fit it into another trick or play around it properly. They can ace any trick you have to lead with an LSC and play it right after. They will also be fully aware of the value of the card you’re sitting on and can improve their own guesses about the shapes of sets you have left based on this and play around them once they gain control. If you don’t have this card, the number of Winners you need to comfortably declare a Wodka goes up by 1.
J: The pair J is one of the strongest cards in the game, simply because of its propensity to create bombs. Single Js are not bad cards and are likely to be passed to partners, and since there are 5 Js available this significantly increases the chances of a 4 or 5 J bomb. Additionally the special Queen, when paired with another Queen and getting rid of the higher end cards, can also artificially create a Jack, increasing the likelihood of a Jack bomb further. Ideally you would have seen (having passed or been passed) at least one J to lower the possibility that the enemy team has a Jack bomb, and ideally two.
8: In a worst-case scenario this card can sabotage a bomb or steal an Ace late in the round, so should be played around with care. Like the 3, this card is much better against a Wodka than in the Wodka’ing players hand, as you will want to get rid of your cards early and will find it harder to sabotage an enemy player effectively (as well as the sabotage being less important as either can go out to win). The 8 can be played around by keeping at least a card in the same suit as e.g. your Aces for as long as possible, so it is dependent on the hand how much of an issue this card could be.
Small Additional Caveats
There are a number of other things that can affect your Wodka decision but are most of the time minor compared to the basics above.
The red 9, Q and K can make strong sets, require you to play your hand in a specific way, or leave you in a tricky position later, respectively.
You ideally want your starters and winners to be the same trick type so you keep control.
There is always the risk of bombs and absurd hands to ruin your Wodka, which comes down to luck mostly.
The more exotic common shapes, being triples and two consecutive pairs, have much more variance on what counts as a winning hand as it is less likely that people will have these tricks.
Saying this, the chances that other people have the same trick shapes as you are higher than you would usually expect as a result of passing. If you keep consecutive pairs it is more likely other people have also kept consecutive pairs, and if you have been dealt a straight it is more likely other people have also. This often leads to rounds which are dominated by one of triples, consecutive pairs, or straights and don’t feature many of the other complex trick types.
After playing a fair amount, instincts develop on when to Wodka and when not to, so some apparently questionable decisions may be discounted if the player is experienced. This will be relevant below.
You may also be able to tell the strength of other player’s hands from the way they pass cards or play before you have to declare.
This can also be considered before passing to decide whether you are likely to be able to Wodka yourself and as such affects your passing to your partner.
This article is in no way applicable to any shuffle, generate or different hand size modes or to games including the green specials suit.
The Wodka Invitational
The first Wodka Invitational happened on the 20th September between the top 4 Wodka players in the world, being in order tann, Jack, myself and kobbo. Each possible partnership was played over the course of 3 games with ultimate winner being kobbo with myself and Jack as joint 2nd place. The first round was myself and Jack against kobbo and tann. With 4 Wodkas declared by myself and 2 by Jack over the course of the 6 rounds, these are good example hands to show the above considerations in practice at the highest levels of play. I’ll be colour-coding all of the sets in my post-passing hands in the first Wodka Invitational first round and giving an assessment and the outcome.
Key: Starter: Yellow Winner: White Grey: Grey Play-On: Purple
3 Starters and 3 Winners, will be left on a low card if not able to play a Starter as a Grey and the 3J is not that likely to come up (and can be beaten by triple Q). Not a Wodka hand. Jack Wodka’s and wins and I come 4th (with a bad misplay at the end, I should have come 2nd for a 4 point swing compared to what happened).
This hand is complete garbage with no redeeming features, but I managed to come first (no Wodka) because of the highly unlikely initial play. Tann started a pairs round which I played pair J on and won the trick (which is very unlikely to happen unless people are playing defensively to see whether anyone Wodka’s). I then could play 8 – Q straight demoting my 5 to give me consecutive triples. In any other order this hand easily comes 4th.
6 Starters, 6 Winners and a Grey. Despite having all the Aces and two Kings, this hand is still dodgy and I would have lost if an opponent had a bomb. I Wodka’d and came 1st through many very slow singles rounds, made sketchier as the red Ace gave me the red 8, both an LSC and likely to net me another.
3 Starters, 3 Winners and a Play-On. This hand feels very good but is vulnerable to a bomb no matter which way you play it. I opted for the most elegant approach, which was to play 8 – A straight out of the gate, demoting my 7 into a 6 to give me the immediate 2 – 6 straight with the red 3 passing my last 3. I was promptly bombed and failed to go out at all. The only quad bombs possible are 6 or Js (and I was bombed by 4Js), and there is a higher probability of an enemy blue or green straight flush since I can see none of them below J. I still think these were all still relatively unlikely, especially since I had one of the Js. The sequence trip 3 passing the 4 to my partner, followed by playing an Ace on a coming singles round, followed by my Play-On and then the demoted black 5 is still vulnerable to a bomb after the Ace or straight and leaving me with no winners to get control back, however there are the slim chances that 1) someone is a pair and triple gamer and can just go out immediately from my triple 3 starter with nothing to be done about it or 2) someone leads a 6 or 7 card straight for me to beat and go out even after getting bombed. This isn’t a particularly attractive situation anyway and it was probably best to not Wodka here. To make matters worse, my partner attempted to counter-Wodka to retrieve some points and the enemy team went out 1-2, meaning a 6-point swing. Disaster.
Here I have 3 Starters, 2 Greys and 5 Winners, clearly a hand to Wodka with. The red 9 becomes a Queen and means any pairs or triples rounds I have at least 2 winners for. This hand is very flexible, red 3 and bomb-proof and can guarantee wins with every type of common set, and even five card straights with 10 – A. I came 1st this hand.
This hand has potentially 5 Starters, 1 Grey and 3 Winners, far from a solid hand. For the reasons given above the special 3 and 8 are also much weaker while Wodka’ing yourself, but are extremely strong in support of your partner’s Wodka as you can wait and see who to disrupt. Jack Wodka’d and made it, and I came 2nd to finish a very close game 17 – 12 (which was 13 – 12 to us at the beginning of the round).
The above is a simple heuristic of how to decide which hands are worth risking a Wodka. On the rare occasions I have put enough effort in to use it and count cards (usually only needing to count to 5 as seen in the examples) I have found it to be a useful way to retroactively convince myself I didn’t do anything wrong when I fail my Wodkas. If you have any suggestions or improvements to this system, I suggest you keep them to yourself so that you can climb the ranks with your strategic advantage. I know I am.
There are have been two instances recently where I have suspiciously found myself not at the top of the rankings according to the Kangaroo API. Thankfully on the official leaderboard hosted on this very site I have added ranking integrity checks to prevent this false information from being distributed.
However if we look at ranking history we can see this questionable data that appears to confirm that there were some periods where another player actually did have a higher rank than me:
How could this be?
Is it possible that another player genuinely played better than me?
There must be another explanation…
If we delve into the winrates we see something very curious. Obviously I have the highest winrate by a significant martin, but if that’s the case how is it that some players can supposedly at times catch up or even surpass my rank?
Delving into the head to head winrates highlights the bias even more:
Let’s take the player tann as an example. Not only do I have positive winrate against this player, but I have a more positive winrate than them vs every other active player bar one.
Yet somehow on 30th June the ranking system deemed it appropriate to give this person a higher rank that me.
Looking at the change in ranking per game reveals the sabotage. Up until that date, my rank increased by an average of 13.2 per win, and dropped by 19.3 per loss. However for tann, the average increase per win was an astonishing 15.8 and the average decrease was only 14.1 per loss!
Based on these figures I need to maintain a dominant 59% winrate just to stay at my current ranking. Whereas tann needs only a meager 47%.
Clearly the developer of the Kangaroo platform has is deliberately deflating my ranking for currently unknown nefarious reasons. On the official leaderboard on this site I have added a dynamic weighting to the X axis scale in order to more accurately represent skill differentials. Hopefully in future the Kangaroo platform will be updated to remove the current bias against skilled players.