The Unconquered Lord of the Card Room: Whist-its history and play
Updated: Jan 14
In life, as in whist, hope nothing from the way cards may be dealt to you. Play the cards, whatever they be, to the best of your skill.
- Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Back in the early 1970s, I spent a year at Mare Island Naval Shipyard going through the Navy’s computer school. Every day at lunch, we would make a quick run to the NEX cafeteria to grab a sandwich to bring back up to the classroom where we played cards while we ate. Some of the games we played were Spades and Hearts, but we also played a similar game named “Whist”.
At the time I had no idea of the history or significance of the game of whist, or that in the colonial and early years of the United States it had been one of the most popular card games among the well-to-do and “middling” classes. I also had no idea of its popularity in England, right into the 20th century. In today’s post we will take a quick look at the history of Whist and at the original rules of the game. So, take a seat around the table, shuffle the cards, and let’s get started.
Origins in England
Whist is a descendant of the 16th-century game of trump or ruff. Whist replaced the popular variant of trump known as “Ruff and Honours”. The game, which appeared in England in the 17th Century, takes its name from the 17th-century English word whist (or wist) meaning quiet, silent, attentive, which is the root of the modern word wistful.
The earliest reference to the game of Trump, in English, occurs in a sermon by Latimer, On the Card, preached at Cambridge, in Advent, about the year 1529. He says, "The game that we play at shall be the triumph. Now turn up your trump, and cast your trump, your heart, on this”. Ruff-and-honours, if not the same game as Trump, was the same with the addition of a score for the four highest cards of the trump suit. The first description of the game is found within The Compleat Gamester (1674) by Charles Cotton.
Reference of this game can be found in English literature as early as 1621 spelling the name as “Whisk”. In 1674 Charles Cotton uses the spellings “whisk” and “whist” interchangeably. According to Daines Barrington, an English lawyer, antiquary and naturalist, whist was first played on scientific principles by a party of gentlemen who frequented the Crown Coffee House in Bedford Row, London, around 1728. Edmond Hoyle, a writer best known for his works on the rules and play of card games, and suspected to be a member of this group, began to tutor wealthy young gentlemen in the game and published A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742. After publication of Hoyle’s book, the popularity of Whist really took off in England. Little by little, the "madness" for Whist crossed the channel to arrive in France and the rest of the continent. William Payne's Maxims for Playing the Game of Whist (1778), incorporated upon Hoyle, foreshadowed the modern phase of the game. These improved updates of Hoyle were widely circulated, and translations were available on the Continent, with special study being devoted to them in Austria and France. In particular, France adopted the game with enthusiasm, and in 1839 M. Deschapelles published his "Traité de Whiste."
Whist in America
It is little wonder that whist took root here in what would become the United States. Our ancestors, particularly those in the southern colonies, gambled not only on horses but everything else as well. Virginia spawned a gambling tradition grounded in age-old British traditions. While gambling houses in London in the 17th and 18th centuries became playgrounds for the rich and famous, Virginia’s wealthy but cash-strapped planters moderated their gambling in ways that the British aristocrats often did not need to. Nevertheless, Connecticut resident Ebenezer Hazzard, who would become the first postmaster general, commented while visiting Williamsburg, Virginians were “much addicted to gambling, drinking, swearing, horse-racing, cock-fighting, and most Kinds of Dissipation.” Even our first President, George Washington was not immune to this “addiction. In 1748, Washington noted in his account book that he had won 2s/3d (2 shillings and 3 pence) from his sister in law playing at Whist.
On Saturday December 22, 1770 several gentlemen of the City of Annapolis met at the Annapolis Coffeehouse to form a club to “promote the ends of Society, and to furnish a rational amusement for the length of one Winter evening in a week.” This club was named “The Homony Club". Once the Club was formed, the members elected a President for the night and Rules for governing the club were drawn up. Rule 12 stipulates:
That the games of Whist and Bacgammon shall be allowed to be play’d before Supper for any sum, not exceeding ½ a Crown, that they shall be quitted immediately upon Supper’s being declared on the Table by the Waiter, without any money being paid or received on account of any such game then depending; nor shall any game be play’d upon any account after Supper.
In the Early Republic, the books Thomas Jefferson lovingly collected were seemingly as famous as he was. Leather-bound tomes, gathered from across Europe and Colonial America, and brought to Monticello Va. to help fulfill Jefferson’s vow to amass the whole of human knowledge, this collection, which became the basis for the Library of Congress, included Hoyle’s book on whist.
Even the White House was not immune to whist. Although intended by architect James Hoban to be the "Common Dining Room," the Green Room has served many purposes since the White House was first occupied in 1800. During James Monroe’s administration, it was used as the "Card Room" with two tables for the whist players among their guests.
Types of Whist
Long Whist was played with a standard 52-card deck, what was known as a French deck, with cards ranked in order from highest to lowest: Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, down to the deuce (or two). All cards were dealt out face down until each player has 13 cards in their hand. The last card dealt, belonging to the dealer, is dealt face up to define the trump suit. This card stays face up until the dealer plays the first “trick”. After all thirteen tricks are played, the dealer advances clockwise. Once all 13 tricks have been played, the pair collecting the most tricks scores 1 point for each trick taken above six (called ‘making book’). A game is over when a team reaches 10 points. It was often popular to play a “rubber of whist” which meant that the winners were decided by the best of three games.
Around 1800, a shorter, quicker version of whist, came into fashion. Said to have been commenced at a sitting in which Lord Peterborough lost a large sum of money, and in order to make the game quicker and allow him more chance to recoup, the score was reduced from ten points to five. The excitement and interest given to the game by this change caused its acceptance and eventually it became the most popular form. All other rules (except for “honors” remained in effect.
There is a third form of whist that legend says originated in Boston during the American Revolution. Boston Whist is a cross between English classical partnership Whist and French Quadrille. It married the basic simplicity of English Whist with the "alliance" feature of Quadrille - that is, everyone plays for themselves and any partnership formed lasts only for one deal.
The origins of Boston are shrouded in dubious legend. It is claimed that Bostonians under siege in 1775 sought to relieve their tedium and political frustrations by divorcing English Whist from fixed partnerships and stressing the solo or "independence" element - a claim supported by reference to additional bids under such names as Philadelphia, Souveraine, and Concordia. However, a survey of nineteenth-century game compilations shows most of them introduced long after the event in question. Another view credits the game to officers of the allied French fleet then lying off Marblehead.
Yet another claim is that Benjamin Franklin, who was a keen player and is even said to have invented the game, introduced it to the court of Louis XVI on a trip to Versailles in 1767 More likely than any of these romantic flights of fancy is that it developed in France and took its name and inspiration from current events in America, well before the signing of the Franco-American alliance of 1778.
Two early forms of Boston are described in the Almanach des jeux (Game Almanac) of 1783. In “le whischt bostonien” the last card is turned for trump and no other suit can be chosen. The lowest bid is a demande or "ask-leave" to win five tricks solo. To this, any other player can call "je soutiens" ("I support"), thereby allying himself with the asker and contracting to win at least eight between them. The higher bid of “indépendance” offers to win at least eight tricks playing solo. In either event there is a bonus for winning all thirteen tricks, called “la vole”. The resemblance to modern Solo Whist is remarkable.
Boston's popularity spread fast and wide throughout the west, giving rise to countless variations under a variety of names. It would be tedious to trace them all, especially as they do not all include "Boston" in the title. Boston Whist remained a primarily nineteenth century game and was largely displaced by Bridge in the early 20th Century.
Period (19th Century) rules
The following rules are “distilled” from the 1817 edition of Hoyle’s Games Improved
· Two teams of two players each.
· Teams are decided by cutting cards with the two highest and two lowest being partners.
· The person cutting the lowest card (Ace is low for purposes of the cut) is the first dealer.
· Played with a standard fifty-two card deck, French suits (Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, Spades), Ace high.
· To take as many tricks as possible, along with ‘Honors’ consisting of the Ace, King, Queen and Knave of the Trump suit.
· Dealer shuffles the cards and the player to the dealer’s right cuts the cards.
· All cards are dealt out one at a time, beginning with the player to the dealer’s left, until coming to the last card which is turned face up establish the Trump suit. This card stays on the table until the first trick is played.
· Elder player (player to the dealer’s left) leads, playing any card he wishes.
· Players must follow suit.
· If unable to follow suit at any point in the game, the player may either throw off-suit or Trump.
· Play continues around the table in a clockwise manner.
· Highest card of the starting suit for that hand played takes trick unless someone plays Trump.
· If someone plays Trump, the highest Trump takes trick.
· The winner of a trick leads the next trick.
· Play continues until all cards have been played.
· The score for the hand is then calculated, cards are gathered, and the deal passes clockwise.
· The game is played to a score of ten.
· The best of three games makes up winning a ‘Rubber’ of Whist.
· ‘Book’ is six tricks, with each trick taken after ‘book’ scoring one point. (i.e.: Team A takes nine tricks, and Team B takes four. The score would be three to none)
· Once the points for taking tricks are calculated ‘Honors’ points are scored as follows:
· ‘Honors’ consist of the Ace, King, Queen, and Knave of the Trump suit.
· A team having taken three of these, in any combination, earns two points.
· A team having taken all four earns four points.
· No points are awarded for splitting the ‘Honors’ (i.e. each team having taken two of the honors cards.)
· ‘Honors’ points are not dependent on having made ‘book’.
I hope you found this article on the history and original rules of Whist a well-timed, informative, and thought-provoking break from the current US political season. If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you post comments to let me know your thoughts on our articles, suggest new subjects for future articles, and allow us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. I also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.
Finally, if you live in Eastern Virginia or North Carolina, I would invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our efforts.
Arnaud, E. M. An Epitome of the Game of Whist, Long and Short. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1829.
Cotton, Charles. The Compleat Gamester. London: R. Cutler, 1674.
Hall Jr., William B. "The Evolution of Whist." The Sewanee Review 3.4 (1895): 457-467.
Harrower, John. "Diary of John Harrower, 1773-1776." The American Historical Review 6.1 (1900): 65-107.
Hosier, James Walter. Traveler’s Comments on Virginia Taverns, Ordinaries, and Other Accommodations from 1750 to 1812. Master's Theses. Richmond: University of Richmond, 1964.
Hoyle, Edmund. Mr. Hoyle's Games of Whist, Quadrille, Piquet, Chess, and Back-gammon Complete. London: Thomas Osborne, 1763.
Judah, Samuel. "A Journal of Travel from New York to Indiana in 1827." Indiana Magazine of History 17.4 (1921): 338-352.
Matthews, T. Advice to the Young Whist Player. Bath: Meyler & Son, 1813.
Payne, William. Maxims for Playing the Game of Whist. London: T. Payne, 1778.
Singer, Samuel Weller. Researches Into the History of Playing Cards. London: Robert Triphook, 1816.
Steiner, Bernard C., Benjamin, Beatty, John Rush et al. "Revolutionary Correspondence of D. James McHenry." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 29.1 (1905): 53-64.
The White House Museum. Green Room. n.d. 12 September 2020. <http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/floor1/green-room.htm>.
Unknown. "Journal of a French Traveler in the Colonies 1765." The American Historical Review 26.4 (1921): 726-747.
"Whist." The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ed. Horace Everett Hooper. Vol. 28. New York: The Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, 1911. 29 vols. 593-595. 15 September 2020.
Wood, Henry. Whist: Its History and Practice. London: D. Bogue, 1844.