If I were a young (or not so young) lady at a ball at the nineteenth century, you can bet you’d find me dancing. But not everyone was so inclined. That’s why many hostesses also offered a card room at balls and soirees. At other times, the entire party consisted of card games. And the most likely game to be played was whist.
Whist started out as a gentleman’s game, played in clubs for money, but quickly gained popularity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ladies and gentlemen were expected to know how to play, and the better you played, the more respect you earned (although most home card parties did not feature playing for money). An outstanding whist player was a coveted partner. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were clubs just for playing whist as well as championships played in major cities. The famous Edmond Hoyle (“According to Hoyle”) even wrote instructions on how to play well.
Whist is similar to bridge or pinochle, with four players in two partnerships. Partners sit across from each other at a table. The dealer deals out all of the 52 cards; the dealer’s final card indicates which suit will be trump. Aces are the high card, two the low. Trump cards beat all cards regardless of rank.
The game proceeds in tricks, starting with the player at the dealer’s left. That player leads with any card, and play progresses clockwise. Each player must play a card in the same suit if she has it, trying to beat the card that was led. If she does not have a card in the same suit, she can play a trump card or play any other card. Either the player with the highest trump card in that trick or, if there is no trump card, the player with the highest card in that trick wins the trick (and keeps those cards in a pile) and gets to start the next one. When all thirteen tricks have been played, partners add up the cards in the tricks they took. The team with the most tricks wins one point for every tick in excess of six. The first team to five points wins the game.
Whist was not for the fainthearted. You needed to be able to remember which cards had been played in a trick to know what cards were still in someone’s hand. You needed to be able to watch your partner’s play so you could pick up tricks or not waste your high cards. Gentlemen, and some ladies for that matter, were known to be scathing of the poor partner who could not keep up. On the other hand, a lady who played well, and played at a house party where coin was exchanged for points taken, could do very well for herself.
I think I’d better stick to dancing. What about you?