After several games involving weird foreign decks, it’s only fair to come back to our roots with a game played using a regular deck of cards with the international French suits. And while we’re returning to basics, I got to thinking about how often I played Spades in high school and college. It was one of those easy trick-taking games to learn – the trump suit was right there in the game’s name.
Bid how many tricks of 13 you think you’ll take, and partners’ bids are added together. First player leads with the 2 of clubs, follow suit if you can, trumps are optional if you can’t. Score 10 points times the number of tricks you bid, plus one per extra trick (although don’t accumulate 10 of those extra points over time, or you lose 100), or -10 times your bid if you fail. Bonuses for bidding zero tricks if you pull it off, doubled if you do so without seeing your hand.
Pretty straightforward, and way too many Nil bids honed my skill at manipulating my hand for best effect. But where did it come from? Spades first gained popularity in America during the 1930s, and became known a bit worldwide as servicemen took it around with them. It didn’t become really get played much outside the US until recently, when the wide availability of play online has helped it explode in fame.
Consensus has that Spades was an offshoot of Whist, a trick-taking game in which you score one point for each trick you capture over six. Whist, on the other hand, was based on yet another game, called Ruff and Honors. The best description of this game is found in The Compleat Gamester, by Charles Cotton in 1674. Mr. Cotton was a well-known compiler of games in his day, before Hoyle’s rules gained popularity about a century later.
Interestingly, the first publication containing what would later become Hoyle’s Book of Games wasn’t claimed to be a first edition. Rather, it was a collection of various individual “treatises” on individual games that had been published several times each, so it was the 8th edition of Whist, for example. Whist, in fact, was the game with which Hoyle built his reputation. His career with games started when he would tutor members of high society on how to play Whist, and sold them copies of his notes.
But for now, let’s back up to Cotton, and the game of Ruff and Honors. This was related to another game called Ruff and Trump, described by another author – Francis Willughby. He wrote a manuscript describing it and many other games, but died before it could be published. In an odd quirk of copyright, after the unfinished book was held for posterity by the library at the University of Nottingham, some scholars published a transcription in 2003, along with various interpretive notes. Since it was technically the first publication, they hold an active copyright over a 17th century book, so I can’t go digging into the text without locating and buying a copy.
Remember when I said that finding details on historic games can be a bit tricky?
Ruff and Honors Rules
At Ruff and Honours, by some called Slamm, you have in the Pack all the Deuces, and the reason is, because four playing having dealt twelve a piece, there are four left for the Stock, the uppermost whereof is turn’d up, and that is Trumps, he that hath the Ace of that, Ruffs; that is, he takes in those four Cards, and lays out four others in their lieu; the four Honours are the Ace, King, Queen, and Knave; he that hath three Honours in his own hand, his part not having the fourth sets up Eight by Cards, that is two tricks; if he hath all four, then Sixteen, that is four tricks; it is all one if the two Partners make them three or four between them, as if one had them.
Ruff and Honors is played with a standard 52-card pack. Shuffle and deal 12 cards to each player. Next, turn over the top card of the 4 cards remaining in the deck. This determines the trump, suit for the hand. Whoever has the Ace of that suit “ruffs,” which was a mangled way of saying “ronfle,” which meant “point” in the French game of Piquet. By this time in England, it had come to be synonymous with “trump.” If the card turned up is an Ace, then the dealer “ruffs.”
The Ruff player gets a small advantage in that they get to pick up all of the last 4 cards, mix it into their hand, and then discard 4 facedown.
Play then begins with the player to the dealer’s left, who leads a card to the first trick. Players must follow suit if possible. If not, you may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led. Ace is high in this game.
After 12 tricks, a partnership scores 1 point for each trick they won above six. (9 tricks would be 3 points, for example). Each partnership also scores for holding “Honors,” which are the Ace through Jack of the trump suit. Holding three honors scores 2 points, while holding all four is worth 4 points. The game is played to 9 points. When a team is at 8 points, scorable honors held in their hand are scored immediately after the deal, ending the game.
In the 17th century, Whist was virtually the same game as Ruff and Honors. Simply remove the twos from the deck, deal 12 to each player, and the bottom card, which belonged to the dealer, determined the trump suit. The Honors are not scored, and the name of the game was apparently derived from “whisper,” as silence is to be observed during gameplay.
Cotton then goes on to describe the myriad ways that people would cheat at Whist, from signals to let your partner know what cards you held, to sanding or cutting the deck so you could deal your partner the good cards. The Compleat Gamester was as much a series of warnings against “gamesters” as it was a catalog of games. Gamesters were apparently professional gamblers and cheats, sometimes called Rooks, and he was describing the rules of the games and the common tricks, so a casual player could enjoy a game in relative safety.
Modern Whist Rules
Sometime around 1864, a gentleman by the name of John Loraine Baldwin wrote up a slightly different set of rules for Whist that were adopted by several prominent clubs. As a result, they have become the standard rules for Whist used today.
In modern Whist, the whole 52-card deck is used, and players are each dealt 13 cards. The last card, belonging to the dealer, determines trump for the hand. It remains face-up on the table as a reminder until it is the dealer’s turn to play to the first trick. Players must follow the suit led, and the trick is won by the highest trump or the highest card of the led suit. Scoring is 1 point per trick over 6 for the winning team. The game is played to 5 points.
Whist had many variations of play, including Bridge Whist, which was a direct predecessor of Contract Bridge. I had heard of the game in passing before, but never really looked into it before doing the research for this entry. Judging by all the rabbit holes it gave me to delve down, Whist was a critical influence, not just in trick-taking card games, but in card-game history in general, thanks to Edmond Hoyle’s clients and their willingness to pay for a copy of the rules to a single card game. Compared to the other trick-taking games I’ve been exploring this month, it’s pretty simplistic, but there’s no denying its influence over games that survived through today.