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A Closer Look at Whist

May 2, 2010
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“You have not been long enough in Bath,” said he, “to enjoy the evening parties of the place.”

“Oh! no. The usual character of them has nothing for me. I am no card-player.”

“You were not formerly, I know. You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes.” – Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Vol. II, Ch. X (22)

Reading Jane Austen’s novels, one gets the impression that the author, like Anne Elliot, was no card player. Whist parties are generally portrayed in her novels as insipid, though closer examination shows that it was, perhaps, the company that made such parties insipid, rather than the entertainment. Whist is a fun game and rather addictive; to play it well requires a good memory, the ability to think quickly, and a knack for strategy.

The game originated in the sixteenth century and was originally called triumph, corrupted as trump; it was also called ruff-and-honors, “ruff” being a synonym for “trump.” “Ruff,” meaning a piece of clothing worn around the neck, was a synonym for “whisk,” which was perhaps later corrupted as whist. Some historians claim “whist” is used in the term for “silence”; indeed, Dr. Johnson defined whist as “a game at cards, requiring close attention and silence.” In the early 20th century, the game further evolved into the modern game of bridge. Bid whist, very similar to the game that Jane Austen’s contemporaries played, is still played in the UK and the U.S. as well.

Elinor was obliged to assist in making a whist table for the others. Marianne was of no use on these occasions, as she would never learn the game… Sense and Sensibility, Vol. II, Ch. IV (26)

Often the action around whist games in Austen’s novels involves hostesses attempting to “make up a table” for some important guest who wished to play. A whist game requires exactly four players: two teams of two players each. Teammates sit across the table from each other.

A full deck of 52 cards is used. The cards are shuffled and cut to determine the dealer. The dealer then deals all 52 cards, face down, to the four players, starting with the player sitting to his left. The last card, which is dealt to himself, is turned up; the suit of that card is the trump suit.

Play consists of tricks, which is one play of four cards, one from each player; and a rubber, which lasts until one team scores five tricks (more on scoring later).

The first trick is started by the player seated to the left of the dealer, who leads the trick by laying one of her cards on the table. Each player then lays a card on the table of the same suit. The highest card from that suit played takes the trick. The player to the left of the leader then leads the next trick (moving clockwise around the table).

If a card from the trump suit is played, that card takes the trick; however, if the player holds a card from the suit played by the leader, she is obliged to play that card. If one does not have a card from the suit played by the leader, she can play a card from the trump suit or any other suit. Once a trump suit card is played, it can only be beat by a higher number card from the trump suit.

Each team keeps track of the number of tricks won by either of its members. Once each team wins six tricks, each trick counts as one point. For instance, if a team wins eight tricks, it has two points total.

In the late seventeenth century, the style was for long whist, meaning that the rubber finished when one team acquired ten points (or sixteen total tricks). However, by the time that Jane Austen’s novels take place, short whist was much more common; only very old and cranky people would insist on playing long whist, as obviously it took much longer and required several deals of the deck to complete that many tricks. For short whist, one or two deals can be sufficient to win the rubber.

It seems that most people placed bets on whist in Austen’s novels, in which case it would be for a certain stake—perhaps a penny or sixpence—on each point, with a possible additional sum on a rubber. In some cases, it was a small amount of money—recall Mr. Collins’ explanations of how he could well afford to lose five shillings at whist—though when loo is played at Netherfield, Elizabeth Bennet suspects that they are “playing high,” or for large stakes. One of Georgette Heyer’s characters “in the habit of playing whist in the Duke of York’s company, for five pound points, with a pony (£25) on the rubber to make it worth while.” One does not like to take fiction as fact, though Heyer was certainly known to sneak bits of her scrupulous research into her stories. One suspects, however, that even Messrs. Darcy, Bingley, and Hurst did not play for quite such stakes.

Players could keep track of their points by simply writing down a total with pencil and paper, but regular players had a more elegant solution: special counters made of bone or ivory that they could easily carry in a pocket or reticule to keep track of the number of tricks won, and sometimes also the trump suit for each game.

“A pretty modest request upon my word,” he indignantly exclaimed as they walked away. “To want to nail me to a card-table for the next two hours with herself and Dr. Grant, who are always quarrelling, and that poking old woman, who knows no more of whist than of algebra. I wish my good aunt would be a little less busy!” – Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park, Vol. I, Ch. XII (12)

The game of whist seems simple enough, but playing it, one quickly realizes that one must use careful strategy to play the game to advantage. The most basic strategy is to keep track of which cards have been played, particularly the court cards. Advanced players, especially playing with other good players, can begin to figure out which cards each player holds simply by observing which cards they play and remembering which cards everyone has played.

Part of the strategy is working with your partner. If your partner plays a high card, don’t try to outdo her. If you hold a low card from that suit, play it. It helps you use up your lower cards, and since you win a trick when your partner wins, there is no point in trying to outplay her. If you can play another card, hold your high cards for when you are leading, or need to play a higher card to take a trick.

A good strategy involving trump cards: if you hold the ace of the trump suit and lead a trick early in the game, lead with the ace. Since the players have to play cards of the same suit, it forces the other players to burn their trump cards. In some cases, you can get them to play the high trump cards, in which case you know they probably don’t have a lot of trump cards and can base your own play accordingly. Again, if your partner leads with trump ace, play a low card of the trump suit if you hold one. Do not burn a high trump card if it’s not necessary.

Also, if the other team leads with a high trump card, burn a low card; don’t waste a high card if you know it will not win a trick. Remember, however, that even low trump cards can win a trick if you are last to play in a trick and can play a trump card.

Mr. Perry had been to Mrs. Goddard’s to attend a sick child, and Miss Nash had seen him, and he had told Miss Nash, that as he was coming back yesterday from Clayton Park, he had met Mr. Elton, and found to his great surprize, that Mr. Elton was actually on his road to London, and not meaning to return till the morrow, though it was the whist-club night, which he had been never known to miss before; and Mr. Perry had remonstrated with him about it, and told him how shabby it was in him, their best player, to absent himself … – Emma, Vol. I, Ch. VIII (8)

Another fictional character who plays whist is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower; like Captain Wentworth, an officer in the Royal Navy. Hornblower is a mathematical genius, which not only assists him in navigation but allows him to easily out-strategize his fellow players. This skill sometimes gets him in trouble—in one story he is accused of cheating and ends up fighting a singular duel over it—and, when he is unemployed, allows him to eke out a living. At the most basic level, Hornblower is a card counter, an activity that would get him banned from any modern casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but which in whist is a great talent. He can also analyze the other players’ moves and at any times is several steps ahead of the other players. (My enthusiasm for the Hornblower books and films led me to learn how to play whist; it is an increasingly popular activity at Hornblower fan gatherings, where whist games can go well into the night and tend to be boisterous and include a great deal of trash talk. I enjoy them tremendously.)

“It’s a mathematical certainty!”

“I think not… sir.”


You’ll have to go to the end of this clip, about 8:30, to see the whist game, and it’s really just a tiny moment, but Horatio is so OG here it’s worth it! Love that smirk!

At last year’s JASNA AGM, I was fortunate enough to see an interesting little volume in the rare book room at the library at Winterthur. Knowing that Jane Austen enthusiasts were going to visit, the librarians had laid out some old and rare volumes that they thought we would find interesting, including some exquisite hand-illustrated books on gardening and farming; however, the book that I was most enthusiastic about was a slim volume titled A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, By a Gentleman, published in 1743. Being already an enthusiast for whist, I was naturally thrilled by the little volume, expressed by much incoherent squealing and flapping of hands, and longed for more time to examine it, not to mention having a copy of my own. Imagine, then, my joy at discovering that one of the book vendors at the AGM had a reproduction of the book available for purchase! Published by Bibliolife, it is a reproduction volume, using apparently photocopies of the original publication rather than resetting the text.

The introduction states that the gentleman who published the book liked to play whist, but realized that he was not very good at it, and sought out a volume he had heard of that was being privately circulated for a guinea: 21 shillings, or a shilling more than a pound—very expensive for a book in that time. The gentleman in question felt that the book should be more widely circulated so that ordinary whist players like himself were not cheated by “sharps.”

Advice offered to beginning players includes the following:

When you lead, begin with the best Suit in your Hand; if you have a Sequence of King, Queen and Knave, or Queen, Knave and Ten, they are sure Leads, and never fail gaining the Tenace to yourself or Partner in other Suits; and begin with the highest of the Sequence, unless you have five in Number, in that case play the lowest (except in Trumps, when you must always play the highest) in order to get the Ace or King out of your Partners, or Adversary’s Hands, by which Means you make Room for your Suit.

Whist is a game that rewards the quick mind and involves a certain amount of strategy and analysis. One can imagine intelligent, analytical characters such as Mr. Bennet or Henry Tilney or even Mr. Darcy taking delight in the game, but only when played with congenial players with equally sharp minds and abilities. One can just as easily imagine such characters being thoroughly bored by playing whist with indifferent, unintelligent players, who could not even provide good conversation, which unfortunately seems the case more often than not in Austen’s novels. Of course Anne Elliot is no card player; one imagines her father and sister would not have given her much of a game, or any pleasure in their company. We can, however, assure our Gentle Readers that among congenial company, whist can be an enjoyable, entertaining, and social activity.

ETA: Found the Hoyle book at Google Books.

Sources

A Gentleman (Edmond Hoyle), A Short treatise on the Game of Whist, Bath, 1743; reproduction edition, Bibliolife, Breinigsville, PA, 2009

“Cavendish”, John Wurtle Lovell, The Laws and Principles of Whist; New York; 1880; pp. 43-64

4 Comments
  1. Allison T. permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:32 am

    Great article! Learned a lot. And I had forgotten how many references to whist JA makes in her novels.

    I’m not a bridge player, but I used to play double-deck bid euchre (in the same family) and still love the game Oh Hell! (A/K/A Oh Pshaw!) which involves similar trick-taking strategies.

  2. Sandra permalink
    May 3, 2010 1:09 pm

    I never got more sophisticated in my card-playing than War, taught to me at age five by Wanda Jo, the coolest girl in kindergarten; she had spiral curls and red cowboy boots. Perhaps I’ll make the time in Mystic this fall. But only if you promise to be verrrrry patient with me, Mags. I’m afraid that while my con-ver-say-shun may be sparkling, my card-playing will not. :D

  3. Emily Michelle permalink
    May 3, 2010 1:24 pm

    So it seems a lot like Hearts or Rook, only with fewer and slightly different rules? Awesome–I’m definitely going to plan a whist party soon.

  4. May 4, 2010 4:11 pm

    Thanks for the explanation. I’ve played similar games (do not recall what they were called now), so it’s good to know that I can easily whip out my cards next time people are over and we can play whist.

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