How many cards in Go Fish do you start with?

Go Fish is a classic card game that is often one of the first games taught to children. Its simple gameplay and fun matching mechanics make it appealing for kids and adults alike. When sitting down to play a game of Go Fish, one of the first questions that comes up is: how many cards does each player start with?

The Basics of Go Fish

Go Fish is played with a standard 52-card deck. The cards are ranked from low to high as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. There are 4 suits: Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades, each suit containing 13 cards.

To set up a game of Go Fish, the deck is shuffled and dealt out evenly to each player. The goal is to collect sets, which are 4 cards of the same rank, such as 4 kings or 4 fives. On a player’s turn, they choose another player to ask for a specific card rank. For example, Player 1 may ask Player 2, “Do you have any threes?”. If Player 2 does have a three, they must pass all their threes to Player 1. Now Player 1 gets to go again and ask the same or another player for a different card.

If the player who is asked does not have the rank that was requested, they respond “Go fish!” and the asking player must draw a card from the stock pile. Play continues with players asking each other for cards, collecting sets, and drawing from the stock if they get a “Go Fish” response, until all sets have been claimed.

How Many Cards Do You Get at Start?

At the beginning of a game of Go Fish, seven cards are dealt to each player. With 2-4 players, this ensures there are enough cards for everyone to draw from the stock pile while still having cards to ask other players for.

Dealing seven cards allows each player to already have a portion of potential sets at the start. Having more than five cards or so gives increased chances of having overlapping cards to trade with opponents right off the bat. Starting with fewer cards, such as only four or five each, would mean slower initial gameplay and fewer options on the first turn.

While the standard is to deal seven cards at start, some variations on Go Fish start with different numbers. For example, a shorter game could be played by dealing only five cards each. Or for a longer game, eight or more cards could be given if there are fewer players. The luck of the draw can also be reduced by dealing an equal number of cards by rank instead of purely random.

Why Seven Cards?

Starting with seven cards in Go Fish strikes a good balance for the game flow and mechanics. Here are some key reasons why seven cards works well:

  • Ensures there are enough cards to go around – With more players, you need more cards in hands to keep gameplay moving.
  • Increases chance of initial matches – More cards to check boosts likelihood of having pairs, triples etc to ask for right away.
  • Allows draws from stock pile – Having seven cards leaves room to draw from the face-down stack when needed.
  • Prevents hands from being too cluttered – Drawing 10+ cards each would make hands unwieldy and slower to manage.
  • Provides sufficient options on first turn – Starting with fewer than 5 cards limits interesting decisions on the first go.

Dealing seven cards per player hits the sweet spot, combining robust initial hands with room for drawing. This gets the game going quickly and provides active trading and matching opportunities from the very first turn.

How Other Common Card Games Start

While starting with seven cards is standard in Go Fish, other card games use different hand sizes to begin. Here’s a look at some common starting hands in classic card games:

Poker – 5 Cards

Poker is one of the most famous card games, and in most variations, each player starts with five cards. Five cards encourages betting, bluffing and strategy based on working with a limited hand. Draw poker builds on this by allowing discards and draws to improve hands as play continues.

Rummy – 10 or 7 Cards

In Rummy, players either start with seven cards, as in basic Rummy, or 10 cards, as in the popular variant Gin Rummy. Having more cards allows players to form more combinations for melds and potentially go out faster.

Hearts – 13 Cards

Hearts is a point trick game for four players. Because it relies on following suit and avoiding tricks, each player needs a full 13 card hand at the beginning to strategize around. The large hand size also ensures everyone has cards to play each round.

Spades – 13 Cards

Spades follows the same format as Hearts, with each of the four players getting 13 cards initially. With bidding and trump suits, the full 13 card hand provides necessary information to assess the hand’s strength.

Blackjack – 2 Cards

As a contrast to large starting hands, Blackjack is famous for giving just two cards to start. This allows for fast hands and games, while still providing basic play options. Draws add third or more cards as needed to get closer to 21.

Modifying Initial Hand Size

While seven cards is standard, Go Fish hand sizes can be adjusted. Reasons to modify the starting hand size include:

  • Shorter games – Reduce hands to 5 cards to speed up play.
  • Longer games – Increase to 8+ cards to force more draws and extend gameplay.
  • 2 players – 6 cards each keeps the game balanced.
  • 5+ players – 8 cards ensures enough cards in play.
  • Children learning – 4-5 cards simplifies gameplay.
  • Luck reduction – Deal equal cards by rank instead of randomly.

Adjustments to starting hands keeps Go Fish fun and engaging for players of different ages and skill levels. Just keep in mind that the right balance must be struck to allow for drawing from the stock pile.

How Many Cards are Ideal?

So how many cards should you really start with in Go Fish? Here is a recap of the ideal hand sizes:

  • 2 players – Deal 6 cards each, or 7 if playing a short game.
  • 3-4 players – Deal 7 cards each for the standard game.
  • 5-6 players – Deal 8 cards each to ensure adequate cards in play.
  • Children – Deal 4-5 cards to learn and keep gameplay simple.

While there is flexibility, for typical games with 3-4 people, starting with 7 cards balanced the gameplay. This provides each player enough cards to ask for matches, draw new cards, and have a variety of options, without having an overcrowded hand right from the beginning. Varying the starting hand cards can allow players to modify Go Fish based on their specific circumstances.

Sample Deals and Hands

To see how starting hands look in a Go Fish game, here are some example deals for 2 and 4 players:

Two Players

Player 1: Queen of Hearts, 10 of Clubs, 7 of Diamonds, 5 of Spades, 8 of Hearts, King of Clubs

Player 2: 4 of Hearts, Jack of Spades, 9 of Clubs, 6 of Diamonds, Queen of Spades, 3 of Hearts

Four Players

Player 1: Ace of Hearts, 5 of Clubs, King of Diamonds, Jack of Spades, 2 of Hearts, 6 of Clubs, 9 of Diamonds

Player 2: Queen of Spades, 7 of Hearts, 4 of Diamonds, 8 of Clubs, 10 of Spades, 3 of Diamonds, King of Hearts

Player 3: Jack of Diamonds, Queen of Clubs, 9 of Spades, 5 of Diamonds, Ace of Spades, 2 of Clubs, 7 of Spades

Player 4: King of Spades, 10 of Hearts, 6 of Spades, 3 of Clubs, 4 of Spades, 8 of Diamonds, Ace of Clubs

These example deals illustrate how starting hands are comprised of seven randomized cards in a typical four player game of Go Fish. Players immediately have various cards to ask for, matches to find, and options for deciding who to request cards from on the first turn.

Gameplay Example with 7 Cards

Here is an example of how gameplay would progress on the opening turns using the sample four player hands above:

Turn 1

Player 1 asks Player 3 for any 7s. Player 3 has no 7s and says “Go fish!”. Player 1 draws an 8 of Spades from the stock pile.

Turn 2

Player 2 asks Player 4 for any Kings. Player 4 hands over a King of Spades.

Turn 3

Player 3 asks Player 1 for any Jacks. Player 1 gives a Jack of Spades. Player 3 now has a pair of Jacks and gets to go again…

The seven card starting hands enable players to immediately find matches and request cards from opponents. This example shows how gameplay gets off to a quick start thanks to sufficient starting cards. Players need to think about strategy and which ranks to ask for right from the beginning.

Changing Starting Hands Alters Strategy

Varying the number of cards dealt at the start of Go Fish changes more than just the hand size. It also has an impact on gameplay strategy decisions. Here is how different starting hands alter opening tactics:

4 Cards

  • Very limited initial options
  • Drawing luck-dependent cards is key
  • Gameplay starts slowly
  • Sets are built up over many turns

5 Cards

  • More combinations but still restricted
  • Drawing to find pairs is important
  • Asking on first turn unlikely
  • Sets take time to build

7 Cards

  • Good chance of starting matches
  • More choices on who and what to ask for
  • Trading and matching starts immediately
  • Strategy involves managing more starting options

10 Cards

  • Almost guaranteed matches to play immediately
  • Complex starting hand management
  • Higher chance of asking successfully on first turn
  • Harder to keep track of so many cards

The examples show how hand size changes the strategic decisions available on the first turn and throughout the game. More cards provide more initial options, while fewer cards require drawing luck and slower set building.

Hand Size and Game Length

In addition to affecting strategy, the number of cards dealt at the beginning also impacts the overall game length. Guidelines for hand size based on desired game duration are:

  • Short game – 4-5 cards to speed up play.
  • Standard game – 7 cards for a good speed and options.
  • Long game – 9-10 cards to force extensive drawing and extend gameplay.

A game with 10 cards per player at the start will tend to last significantly more hands than a shorter game with only 5 cards each. More cards generally mean more overall draws from the stock pile and more finding of matches over an extended duration.

Key Takeaways

Starting hand size has a big influence in Go Fish. Here are some key conclusions:

  • The standard starting hand is 7 cards per person.
  • 7 cards provides a good mix of initial options without overcrowding hands.
  • More cards means more starting combinations and longer games.
  • Fewer cards leads to quicker games but less opening strategy.
  • Hand size directly impacts the first turn tactics and decisions.
  • Modifying starting hands lets players customize games for circumstances.

While the classic rules have each player start with 7 cards, the number can be adjusted up or down. Just keep in mind the tradeoffs in game duration, complexity and opening strategies. Understanding the effects of hand size gives insight into tweaking Go Fish for particular players and games.


Go Fish is a beloved card game for all ages that thrives on its simple but engaging gameplay. Strategizing how to best collect matching sets by asking opponents for cards is fun and satisfying. An important factor enabling this experience is the initial hand size of cards dealt to each player.

Starting with the standard 7 cards optimizes the game by providing a variety of useful combinations without being overwhelming right off the bat. This hand size gets gameplay going quickly, with trading and matching starting on the very first turn. It also balances easy management of cards with sufficient options to enable real decisions while asking opponents for needed cards.

While 7 is the accepted norm, starting hands can be increased to encourage longer games or decreased to simplify and speed up shorter games. No matter the specific hand size, Go Fish gives an enjoyable introduction to strategic card play for children while still rewarding skill and clever trades between adult players. Trying out different initial hands illustrates how small tweaks can make a major change in game duration and early play tactics.

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