By Bill Zaferos, Special to   Published Mar 03, 2009 at 4:16 PM

Your grandparents probably played.

Maybe your parents did, too.

But are you playing sheepshead, Milwaukee's favorite card game?

Also known as schafskopf, sheepshead is like bratwurst, beer, bowling and the Brewers. It's part of Milwaukee's heritage.

Is the game dying?

"It's a game that's usually played in factory lunch rooms and church basements these days," said Dan Burkee, of Wauwatosa.

Burkee, who was recently part of a South Side sheepshead league -- yes, there are still a few sheepshead leagues and tournaments in town -- said, "You looked at who's in the room, and most of the people were in their 70s. There wasn't anybody under 50 there."

Burkee said he has been at family gatherings, "where after dinner someone grabs a cigar box full of change and says, ‘let's start a game.'" But now, he said, "the kids are more interested in video games."

Jerry Stockfisch, a former Milwaukeean now living in Madeira Beach, Fla., said the game might be fading. In any event, Stockfisch believes it's not as large a part of family tradition as it used to be.

"Sheepshead was part of our family culture," he said. "At any family gathering, whether it was a first Communion, a graduation, or somebody returning from military service, the protocol was always the same for the men: Say hi, grab a beer, and head to the sheepshead table."

Like many Milwaukeeans, sheepshead was passed down to Stockfisch from his father, Eddie, who tried to teach him from an early age to master the complexities of the game. Eventually, he got it.

"It wasn't until I was a teenager that I could grasp the math, the strategy and the element of luck," he said. "And then I understood how a tableful of people could hoot and holler and swear and slam cards and laugh hysterically over a few nickels changing hands." 

The complexities are well-known to anyone who has tried and failed to learn the game. But once most people learn it, they're hooked.

"Every hand is a game in itself, and the excitement is that no hand is ever the same twice," said Robert M. Strupp, a Milwaukeean who wrote "How to Play ‘Winning' 5 Handed Sheepshead," a seminal work on the game self-published in 1980, after several variations that date back to 1970.

Strupp estimates that there are more than 500,000 different possible hands in the game, "and almost every hand is different, depending on the cards and how they are laying, who passed and where you are sitting."

Indeed, sheepshead is a difficult game to learn. Often compared with the game of euchre, sheepshead is played usually for nickels with a 32-card deck (only 7s and up are used) divided among five players with the object to get 61 of 120 points in the deck.

But even in that description, there is a complication. Any player has a chance to pick a two-card blind depending on the strength of their hand and then choose a partner, usually another player with an ace of the same suit that is called by the picker. From that point on, the game is a three-against-two proposition between the picker, his partner, who is often unknown until the "called suit" is played, and the "good guys," or non-pickers. The non-pickers only need to get 60 points to win; the pickers must get 61.

Sheepshead is a trump game, with the queen of clubs as the highest card in the deck. A perfect hand is all four queens and the two black jacks. Known as a "grandma hand," it is rare and cannot be beaten. Points are generated by using trump or higher-ranked cards to pick up "pointers," or cards that are worth points.

Every hand is usually followed by debate, often among players on the same side, over who should have played what card when.

"Sheepshead is a chance to get together with good friends and abuse them," Burkee explained. "Sheepshead is as much a social phenomenon as it is a card game"

Or, as Strupp put it in his book: "You know a new friendship has developed or an old friendship is burning brightly when you are criticized for your approach to the game."

Stockfisch's favorite family sheepshead moment didn't even occur at a card table.
"At my dad's funeral, the immediate family was gathered around the casket, and we had placed some of his favorite objects around him," he said. "His favorite fishing pole was leaning on the casket, and there were some of our favorite photos. A longtime friend of Dad's approached sort of tentatively, like he might be intruding. But when we saw what he was up to, it was smiles all around. He had a deck of cards, and he pulled out the four queens and two black jacks, and arranged them neatly in Dad's folded hands. Dad took the ultimate sheepshead hand with him." 

So is the game dying? Strupp doesn't think so.

"Things run in cycles," Strupp said. "All of a sudden it will catch on again."