High stakes card games are a feature of the typical Regency hero’s everyday life, and any house party worth the name would have devoted a room to cards. But how many of us nowadays play whist? When an author mentions the game what do you picture?
My husband comes from a family of card players. The Christmas holidays were never complete until we all sat up until 4 or 5 AM playing cards—mostly something called five hundred, which on the spectrum of complicated games lies somewhere before bridge and after whist. For the uninitiated, like me when I first started dating my husband, you had to start with whist.
So I learned to play, and so did our children before graduating on to bigger and better things. When I looked up the historical rules, I was surprised to discover that our family plays much the same game as they did during Regency times.
As I’ve just implied, whist is a forerunner of contract bridge, minus the complicated conventions, bidding, and dummy. The object of whist is for you and your partner to take more tricks than your opponents. It is played in teams of facing partners with a regular 52-card deck—known during the Regency as a French pack—using all four suits. The card values run in their usual order from 2 to ace, with ace being high.
Cards in the Regency period were made from woodcuts. Unlike modern cards, their backs where a uniform white, and they didn’t have numbers on them to denote their value. You had to surmise that from the arrangement of pips on them. Unlike our cards today, kings, queens, and jacks only faced one way; that is, they had legs rather than a body with two heads on either end. You can see some examples of period cards (and if you’re independently wealthy, consider acquiring them) here.
The game evolved in the 17th century from a forerunner called Ruff, but the standard rules as followed during the Regency were set out in Edmond Hoyle’s “A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist” in 1742. Its name derives from an obsolete term meaning quiet or attentive. A true whipster needs to pay close attention to which cards have been played.
Here are a few terms you might run across during a description of a game of whist:
Suit—One of four, as determined by the symbols on the cards: spades, hearts, diamonds, or clubs. When one suit is led, the other players are obliged to play a card from that same suit as long as their hand contains cards of that suit.
Trick—The four cards played in each round, one coming from each hand. The highest card played determines who wins the trick. There are a total of 13 possible tricks in any game.
Honor—All face cards and aces may be referred to as honors.
Singleton—When a player only holds one card of a given suit. If a player holds only two cards of a suit, this is known as a doubleton.
Lead—The first card played in a trick.
Book—The first six tricks taken by a team make up the book. Any tricks taken after a team makes book result in points.
Trump—Trump is determined at the deal. If a player is unable to follow suit, he may choose to play a trump (the word is a compression of triumph) card. A trump card automatically beats any card in another suit. If a subsequent player is also out of the led suit, he may choose to trump higher to take the trick.
Slam—A grand slam occurs when one team takes all thirteen tricks. It is worth seven points. If a team takes 12 of the 13 possible tricks, this is known as a small slam. A small slam gains the winning team 6 points.
Game—The total number of points necessary to win a game is agreed upon at the outset. Players generally decide to play to seven or nine points. So if the game is to seven, a grand slam is sufficient for a team to win in one hand.
Rubber—Teams may decide to play a rubber, that is best 2 of 3 games or best 3 of 5.
The deal: Cards are shuffled and dealt to each of four players. The very last card dealt (which goes to the dealer) is revealed. The suit of this card determines trump for that hand. On each subsequent hand, the deal moves to the left. Normally two packs of cards are used to move play along. While the dealer passes out the cards, his partner shuffles the other deck so that it’s ready for the next hand.
Play: The player to the dealer’s left has the first lead. He chooses a card from his hand, and the other players follow suit clockwise around the table. As long as a player has a card of the suit led, he must follow suit. If a player has no cards left in that suit, he may choose to play a trump or he may choose to get rid of a card in a different suit. A trump card beats any card in the suit demanded. If the player does not trump, he has essentially thrown his card away, but sometimes that’s useful to get rid of low cards.
The highest card played wins the trick, the person who played that high card has the next lead, and play continues in this fashion.
Scoring: In the Regency period, tokens resembling poker chips were used to keep score. These might be made of
cheap cardboard or elaborately decorated coin-sized bits of metal. A team scores one point for each trick taken after they make book. Since there are only 13 possible tricks and the book consists of 6 tricks, only one team may score after a given hand.
A good whist player keeps track of the number of rounds played in each suit, as well as how many of the honor cards have been played during a hand. If the cards are divided evenly among the players, the first and second rounds in a given suit are generally “safe.” That is, the danger of an opponent trumping your suit is relatively low. As more rounds of a given suit are played, the danger of being trumped rises.
Naturally, luck is also involved as the cards are not always distributed evenly. While experienced players develop a sense of when to play which card, the element of luck keeps any hand from being completely predictable.
And here’s where the stakes come in. Obviously, players might wager on the outcome of a game or rubber, but I think we can safely say that Regency folk creatively wagered on any and everything. These are people who bet on the outcome of a raindrop race, after all. So they might conceivably wager that a game might be won in so many hands. Or a given suit might be drawn as trump before the deal. Or that a team might make a slam (before or after they’ve seen their hands). If you think about it, the possibilities are endless.
And just a heads up–Keep an eye on my agent’s Twitter stream next week. She’ll be giving away copies of both A Most Scandalous Proposal and A Most Devilish Rogue (which features a two-handed version of whist). @SaraMegibow