“Whist”fully Speaking, or, What’s Whist?

Something DifferentGot a question about something you read in a book? Like what’s whist? Use the contact form in the  above tab and I will try to find an answer!

Even before Jane Austen penned her novels, Whist, and other card games have been showing up in historic romance novels. It seems like every other rake has lost a fortune at cards, or their parent has.  This trope often results in a marriage of convenience where a dowry, or a wealthy husband, covers a debt and saves the entire family.  Imagine a time with few entertainments and poor transportation.  Books were expensive, theatre and other performances were possibly miles away.   But, just about everyone probably had a deck of cards.  Look I have been snowed in for a couple of days with a ton of books, TV, movies and the internet, and I am going crazy.  I can’t even think what I would do if I were a  young, idle aristo in the nineteeth century.

English: Thomas Rowlandson, brother satirist t...
English: Thomas Rowlandson, brother satirist to Hogarth, painted his version of a gaming den in The Hazard Room. On the walls is a bouquet of gambler’s delights: boxing, horse racing, the odds of the day, and the patron saint of card games, Edmond Hoyle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Want to play  Whist?

If you’ve played Bridge, Spades, or any other Trick-taking card game, you were almost playing Whist. Can’t you imagine the green baize cloth covering the table and a glass of some libation at hand?  Imagine on…..

Several years ago I was a docent at a small historic house museum here in Maine and wrote a presentation on playing cards, in particular, Whist, for our holiday event. Much of the iformation here is gleaned from my unpublished paper and while I will not bore with references here, if you would like them I will happily email you a copy of my paper.   I have attached my bibliography below.

The Tate House Museum was built in the 1750s by  Captain George Tate who was the area Mast Agent for the Crown.  Maine was part of Massachusetts at the

time and had a pretty heavy Puritanical bent.  This meant that card playing was essentially not allowed.   But, at the holidays, which were also not allowed, it’s hard to imagine a few games were not indulged in.  So, in the Regency period of the early nineteenth century when the  morals became a trifle looser, people may have gone overboard a bit.  At mixed card parties, playing at cards was an opportunity for courtship in chaperoned company.  Whist continued to be played in society for quite some time.

Whist was a particularly popular game which seems to have found its way into the British court around 1719 when “The Compleat Gamester” was written [ostensibly] for the daughters of the Prince of Wales by Charles Cotton.  The game seems to have traveled from the lower classes up to court. According to David Parlett in his A History of Card Games (Oxford University Press, Oxford – NY, 1991, p. 202) Gaming had become so much the fashion among the “‘beau-monde’ that who in company should appear ignorant of the games in vogue would be reckoned low bred and hardly fit for conversation.” In writing my paper I learned  playing cards were actually subject to taxation from the Elizabethan period through the mid-nineteenth century!

Whist may have developed as an offshoot of one of the many ‘trick-taking’ games such as ‘Ruff and Honours’ or ‘Slamm’.   It owes its current configuration to a group of gentlemen meeting in ‘The Crown’ a fashionable London coffeehouse.  “Here, around 1728, a group of gentlemen, including Lord Folkestone, turned their attention to the humble game of Whist and began to develop its potential for serious play.”   They may have wanted a trick-taking game like Quadrille, but without the odd 40-card pack.  These gentlemen developed the partnership element and introduced scientific and principled playing of the game.  In 1786, a ‘Daines Barrington’, from the recollection of a witness tells us:  “They laid down the following rules:  to play from the strongest suit, to study your partners hand as much as your own, never to force your partner unnecessarily, and to attend to the score.”   Because of these gentlemen, partnership Whist has changed little since 1730.

If Whist owes its structure to the above-mentioned gentlemen, it owes its popularity, at least in part, to the enterprising Edmond Hoyle who “…conceived the novel plan of offering his services as a professional Whist tutor, attending persons of quality in their own homes, as did masters of music, dancing, drawing and other social graces……He also reduced his methods to writing.” Hoyle printed and officially copyrighted his manuscript:  “A short Treatise on the Game of Whist, concerning the Laws of the Game; and also some Rules whereby a Beginner may, with due Attention to them, attain to the Playing it well” in 1742.  Five editions were printed in the first year.

"The Underside of the Cards at a Game of ...
“The Underside of the Cards at a Game of Whist”, Illustration for “Les Diaboliques” by Jules Barbey d’ Aurevilly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Whist made its way into the parlours and sitting rooms of  ‘quality’ it became a “fashionable accomplishment” to be played whether or not one found it enjoyable.  In a letter from a lady to the “Rambler “magazine of May 8, 1750, she writes,

“Papa made me drudge at Whist till I was tired of it; and far from wanting a head, Mr. Hoyle, when he had given me above forty lessons, said I was one of his best scholars.” 

This young lady, clearly is not enjoying her lessons at Whist, but her father must have believed it an important enough accomplishment to make her “drudge” at it.

According to Parlett in his book, A History of Card Games, “Whist is a deceptively simple game.”  As it has been played, more or less, since the time of Hoyle, there are four players in two fixed partnerships.  All of the cards from a  standard 52-card pack are dealt out with the final card being turned up to determine the trump suit for that hand.  The trump card  belongs to the dealer and stays ‘turned-up’ until the dealer’s turn to play the first trick. (Pagat.com)

The player to the dealer’s left leads to the first trick. Any card may be led. The other players, in clockwise order, each play a card to the trick. Players must follow suit by playing a card of the same suit as the card led if they can; a player with no card of the suit led may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump in it – or if it contains no trump, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of a trick leads to the next. www.pagat.com/whist/whist.html



English: A leather Whist marker produced by th...
A leather Whist marker produced by the English cardmaker Charles Goodall by the end of the 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For scoring, some type of counter was often used, like the marker at left. Many of these were imported and made of mother-of-pearl or ivory.  The counters were usually stored in small boxes on the card table.  Each trick, over six tricks, taken by the partnership scores one point. Five points usually won the game, which might take several deals. “The number of points required for game varies. In America a target of 7 was customary. In Britain the game was 5 points up, but it was usual to play a rubber which was the best of three games – that is, the winners were the first side to win two games.”(Pagat.com)

Steph's Signature



 Bibliography for my Paper;  A Case for Cards in Stroudwater

Barry, William D., with Peabody, Frances W., TATE HOUSE Crown of the Mast Trade: National Society of Colonial Dames of America, Portland, 1982.

Foster, R. F., Foster’s Complete Hoyle: An Encyclopedia of Games: Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1937,  p. xviii.

Fowle, D, A Letter To a Gentleman on the Sin and Danger of Playing at Cards and other Games Boston, 1755.

Hargrave, Catherine P., A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming: Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1966.

Hochman, Gene: Cards and Card Games, Microsoft® Encyclopedia. 1993, www.encarta.msn.com.

Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 2: Printed by W. Stahan, London 4th edition, MDCCLXXIII, p. 1136.

Parlett, David, A History of Card Games: Oxford University Press, Oxford – NY, 1991.

Rupp, Becky, Playing Cards, The Devils Picture Book in Early American Life, Vol. XVII, No. 5, October, 1986.


Ward, Gerald P., Avarice and conviviality: Card Playing in Federal America, in The Magazine Antiques, Vol. CXLI, No. 5.

Whiting, J. R. S., “A Handful of History,” History Today, Vol. 31, July 1981, p 43.

Winterthur Museum, Recreating Yuletides Past:  Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc., Winterthur, Delaware, 1973.