A Regency Primer on How to Play Whist

How to Play Whist: Image of a playing card from Hall & Sons, early 19th century.

The Jack of Hearts. Early 19th c. playing card from Hall & Sons. Notice the face card has a single head and centered eyes compared to modern cards. The backs also would have been plain white.

Many historical romance novels feature card rooms at balls, clubs or dinner parties and gaming hells where rakes wager over the turn of a card or toss of a dice. Many games that are no longer familiar to us are rattled off: hazard, piquet, faro, and whist. Often, the games chosen have meaning for the characters playing. A man who plays hazard is a great risk taker, where a whist player is a serious strategist and has a good memory for counting cards.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the game of whist. One of my projects involves a decisive game of whist, so last summer I decided I needed to learn how to play. Luckily, there’s lots of documentation available on the basic rules and strategies for play as well as some online game venues which allow for free play (link at the end!). So now you can experience the game for yourself and know what they’re talking about the next time you read about it in the context of a Regency romance novel.

History of Whist

“That’s not according to Hoyle!” and “According to Hoyle,…” were popular phrases in my grandparents’ house. Edmond Hoyle was considered quite the expert on cards and other games in the 18th century. He wrote many pamphlets or treatises on various games such as Whist, Quadrille, Piquet, Backgammon as well as a books on probability theory and chess. In 1748, his pamphlets were collected and sold under the title of Mr. Hoyle’s Treatises of Whist, Quadrille, Piquet, Chess and Back-Gammon.

The rules of whist as published in A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742 were considered authoritative until 1864, when they were supplanted by John Loraine Baldwin’s new rules which were adopted by the Arlington and Portland clubs.

Whist remained popular through the late 19th century and acquired a rigid set of rules, etiquette and techniques that required a large amount of study to become a successful player. In the early 20th century, Bridge replaced Whist in popularity, especially in the United States, although Whist is still played in Britain at local tournaments called “Whist Drives”.

How to Play Whist

Preparation

What we think of now as a standard 52-card deck or during the Regency what was known as a French deck, is used. Cards are ranked in order from highest to lowest: Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, down to the deuce (or two).

Four players form two pairs and the partners sit opposite each other at the table. Pairs may be chosen by drawing cards: two highest against the two lowest. Players may not comment on the cards they are dealt in any way or signal their partners.

Shuffling & Dealing

Typically, two decks of cards are used to allow the dealer’s partner to shuffle one deck to have it ready for the dealer of the next hand while the dealer deals. Cards are shuffled by the player to the left of the dealer and cut by the player on his right.

All cards are dealt out face down until each player has 13 cards in their hand. The last card to be dealt, belonging to the dealer, is placed face up to indicate the trump suit. This card remains face up until the dealer plays the first “trick”. After all thirteen tricks are played, the dealer advances clockwise.

Taking Tricks

The first trick is lead by the player on the dealer’s left. He may play any card in his hand. Play continues clockwise with players following the leading suit if they if have any in their hand. If a player doesn’t possess cards in the suit lead in the trick, they may either discard any card or trump by playing a card of the trump suit. A trick is won by the highest card in the lead suit, unless a trump card was played. If multiple trumps were played the highest takes the trick.

The winner of the trick collects the 4 cards played and places them face down in a stack near him. He then leads the next trick. Only cards from the previous trick may be reviewed before the lead card of the next is played, otherwise players are expected to remember what has been played. Play continues until all 13 tricks are played and then the score is recorded.

How to Play Whist: A whist counter dating from 1820.

A whist counter dating from around 1820.

Scoring Hands & Determining the Winners

Once all 13 tricks have been played, the pair collecting the most tricks scores 1 point for each trick taken in excess of six (called ‘making book’). A game is over when a team reaches 5 points. Variations include playing to 7 or 9 points.

It was often popular to play a “rubber of whist” which meant that the winners were determined by the best of three games.

Whist Counters or Markers

How to Play Whist: Whist Tokens - with a storage tin.

Whist tokens and storage tin. Four tokens could be used to score 9 point games.

Tokens or chips were originally used to record the score, but later in the 19th century dial counters and hinged pegs (or turnups) that snapped up to keep track of the score. Cheaper versions included cardboard and leather dial types and the more elaborate more expensive varieties might include exotic woods, ivory, mother of pearl. Two of the well-known producers of whist counters or whist markerswere Goodall & Sons and De La Rue.

Basic Whist Glossary

Trump
The suit of the last card dealt in a hand that beats all others regardless of rank, cards within the trump suit rank normally against each other.
Lead
The first card played in a trick.
Trick
The 4 cards played by each participant Hand – 13 tricks, once through the deck.
Small Slam
When 12 of thirteen tricks are taken by one team.
Grand Slam
When all 13 tricks are taken by one team.
Book
The first 6 tricks taken by a pair. Points for additional tricks taken are scored only after they ‘make book’.
Game
Played to an agreed upon point total, usually 5, 7 or 9.
Rubber
The winning pair is the best of three games.

You can even hone your skills for free by playing Whist Online at Games.com. If you’re just learning, I recommend choosing single player mode, which partners you with a computer player against two other computer controlled players.

More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics including how to play Hazard can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.

11 responses to “A Regency Primer on How to Play Whist

  1. I learned to play this when I was a kid in England, but we only used one deck of cards and weren’t allowed to play for money. :)

    • That’s awesome, Kate! I think the two decks was just for convenience, not a requirement. I remember playing penny poker in college with a friend’s roommate’s pennies. Shhhh!

      Sara Ramsey, Olivia Kelly and I are looking for a 4th so we can play at Nationals! Maybe we’ll get enough people for a whist drive at the Beau Monde gathering. *grin*

  2. Thank you so very much for such a nice summary of the game! It looks like something I’d love to learn.

    • Thanks, Gillian. It’s definitely one of those games that is pretty easy to learn the basics of… but can be tricky to gain any feeling of mastery. I spent a lot of time playing against the computer last summer (link’s at the bottom of the post) and I’ve got a feel for the game, but doubt I’d be sought out as anyone’s partner. I have a lousy memory for remembering what cards have already been played and figuring out probabilities of what might come up next. Good thing the hero in that project is good at counting cards!

  3. Wow! I’d never even heard of that game… Super interesting post!

    Lisa :)

  4. My husband’s family plays whist (well, I do too now). They were always big on playing cards at the holidays, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning. Whist was considered the first game you learned as a child before graduating to more complicated games like 500 or hearts.

    We don’t play these exact rules, though. Trumps are determined ahead of time and follow the order: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs, no trump. Interesting how the Regency version didn’t allow for a round of no trump. That’s when you stand to take the most tricks if you have a long suit, because no one can stop you!

  5. Thanks for the info! I’m not a cardplayer, and when I have characters playing whist, I’ve always worried that I’m getting something wrong. I’ll keep this post handy!

  6. Thanks for writing this! I’m trying to learn how to play, but I still don’t understand how Whist’s bidding mechanism works – all of the rules I’ve encountered treat it as a non-bidding game. Would you be able to explain how it works, or how people bid at the time?

    • You’re welcome! I found the computer game helpful in learning the mechanics of the game, but there’s nothing like playing with real people to spice it up.

      The basic rules don’t include betting in any particular way. I’m sure at the time, since betting was a popular way to alleviate boredom, they managed to find ways to bet on almost any outcome: winning a game, a rubber, or even a taking a given trick or who might get dealt a particular card. Remember, there were gentleman at the time who were so bored they were betting on which raindrop would win the race down the front window at White’s. I’m sure they found plenty of ways to liven up a game with a little creativity.

      Now, Bid Whist, which is a later variation that probably led to Bridge, takes bets on who will have the most points after making book (6 pts). The rules are a bit more complicated with terms like uptown, downtown and no trumps added into the mix.

  7. Thanks for this information. I’m a Regency addict, having read about every book available. Now, I’m doing research at a much deeper level to write a Regency Novel.

    Your description of Whist reminds me strongly of Pinocle which my extended family and friends used to play for hours on end. My husband played for money in college.

    At any rate, this has got to be the same game, or Pinochle is a derivation of Whist. I like the name Whist much more than Pinochle too as the cards, when the playing gets hot are literally “whisted” away.

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