Colonial Games

game piece

Whist is the ancestor of Bridge, which was developed around 1896 (Morehead and Mott-Smith 1). It was popular among clergymen and gentry in England, and when it came to the American colonies, it was also popular with the elite members of society, including merchants, ministers, professionals, and college students. Although women during this period did not often play cards, women from the upper classes did play Whist. Part of the reason for its popularity was its reputation as a game for intelligent, well-bred people. Whist parties were common among the wealthy and well-educated people of New England. There would be several tables set up, and couples would move around between them, facing different teams. As Daniels said, "In almost all ways whist was the ideal game for Puritan society; quiet, contemplative, and companionable, it required skills of logic and arithmetic; it could not be readily played in a rowdy atmosphere or under the influence of alcohol; and unlike many games, whist needed no betting to make the competition exciting." Although it was possible to use Whist for gambling, it was rarely done (Daniels 179).

Boston Whist was a variation invented during the late 1700s in New England (Daniels 179). Boston Whist is more complicated than regular Whist, so I recommend playing this first. For a game similar to Whist but slightly easier, see All Fours.


The rules given here are from The Way to Play by the Diagram Group, pp. 82-83 with some further information from The Key to Hoyle's Games, pp. 149-150, and The Encyclopedia of Games ed. by Brian Burns, pp. 63-65. Whist is similar to Bridge, but with no bidding and no dummy (Burns 64). It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of the game, but it's fun and has less of a learning curve than Bridge. I also recommend that if you're new to the game or playing with first-time players you ease off on the penalties and "calling" until everyone really understands the game. Newbies are bound to make mistakes, so be kind while they learn!

Players: 4, divided into two teams of two people

Object: To win the most tricks.

The Deck: An ordinary 52 card deck (no jokers).

Other Equipment: Pencil and paper for keeping score.

Setting Up: The players typically sit at a table with team partners facing each other. If you can't quite get this arrangement where you are playing, just make sure that turns alternate between the members of each team (ex. Player 1 of Team 1, Player 1 of Team 2, Player 2 of Team 1, and Player 2 of Team 2 in order). One of the conventions of the game is to refer to the players as if they were points on a compass (North and South are a team, and East and West are another team). When team members face each other, it's easy to keep this image in mind. Even if you can't get the usual seating arrangement (such as when you're using a section of a long table instead of a short, square one), you can still refer to players by their assigned directions to keep the order of turns correct. (ex. If North is first, East comes next. Then South plays, followed by West.)

Tip: The players should agree on the scoring system for the game before they get started. There are two choices: American or English (see below). I recommend the American system for new players because it's a little simpler.

Trump Suit

The Deal: Begin by dealing all the cards in the deck evenly between the four players, 13 for each person. The deal goes in a clockwise direction, starting with the player on the dealer's left. The last card dealt (which belongs to the dealer) is placed face-up. The suit of this card becomes the "trump suit." The dealer will return this card to his hand when it is his turn to play.

Tricks: The person sitting to the left of the dealer makes the first play by choosing a card from his hand and putting it face-up on the table. This is the beginning of a "trick." If the player has a card in the same suit as the card played by the first player (which is called the "suit led" because that player is leading the trick), he must play that card (it could be the same suit as the trump suit, but it may not be). Playing a card in the suit led is called "following suit." There is a penalty for anyone who does not follow suit when they are able to. If the player doesn't have any cards in the suit led, however, he can play any card he wishes. Each player in turn also lays a card face up on the table. The four cards lying face-up on the table are the trick that the two teams of players are trying to win, and the winner is determined by the values of those cards.

Tip: If you don't have a card in the suit led, try to play one in the trump suit. The higher the value, the more likely you'll win the trick. If you don't have the trump suit, either, put down a card you won't mind discarding (The Key 149). It's best to discard low-value cards. You can get more deeply into strategy after studying the rules for winning tricks.

Whist Trick

Winning Tricks: When all of the players have placed a card face-up on the table, it's time to study the cards to determine who has won the trick. There are two rules for choosing the winner, and they must be followed in order:

  1. The winner is the one with the highest card in the trump suit, if a trump has been played (ranking from lowest to highest: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A).
  2. If no one has played a card in the trump suit, the winner is the player with the highest card in the suit played by the first player (the suit led).

Tips for Strategy: Even the lowest-value trump might win the trick if no higher trumps have been played. Having a good memory is helpful in this game. If you can remember whether or not the highest-ranking cards have already been played, you'll know how likely you are to take a trick with a lower-ranking card. (Ex. If you know that an earlier trick was won with the ace of hearts, you have a good chance of taking of taking a trick with the king of hearts if hearts is the suit led. If hearts is the trump suit, you're guaranteed to win because there are no higher-ranking cards left.)

Remember that you are playing as part of a team. If, by the cards that have already been laid down, you can see that your partner is about to win the trick, you can lay down a lesser card (if you have one), and let your partner take the trick. It will count for your team either way, and letting your partner win allows you the chance to save one of your better cards for a later trick. Although you can't talk openly with your partner about your cards, you can give each other clues with the cards that you lay down. There are conventions that you can use to give your partner hints about how good your cards are (just like in Bridge), but they can get pretty complicated. Burns mentions some of them (pp. 64-65), such as leading with a suit of which you have several cards, including some high ones, but not putting out your best cards. The suit you lead with will give your partner a hint of what to play when it's his turn to lead, and he can take the hint that you have some better cards in that suit.

Once a trick has been won, the winner gathers the trick cards and places them face-down on the table, to be counted at the end of the hand (Burns 64). The winner of the trick will lead the next trick, laying down the first card. The players continue to play a sequence of tricks until all of the cards in the players' hands have been played (13 tricks total). Each set of 13 tricks is a hand. After each hand, if no team has won under the scoring system you've chosen, the person to the left of the previous dealer becomes the dealer for the next hand (The Key 149-150).

Penalties: When a person does not follow suit even though that person has a card with the suit led in his hand, it is called "revoking." The person has a chance to avoid penalties by correcting the error before the trick is awarded to a winner. The partner of a person who may be revoking may even ask the player to double-check his hand to whether he has any cards from the leading suit. After someone has won the trick, a player from the opposing team may challenge the player he suspects of revoking (although he should do so before the next trick begins and the player leading the trick has put down the first card). If it turns out that the player has revoked, that player's team cannot win the trick, and a point penalty is assigned, depending on the scoring system the players are using.

Calling: If someone accidentally shows a card to the other players when not playing it in a trick, that card is set aside, face-up on the table. This also applies to cards that were played by accident and replaced with the proper card by the player (Burns 64). Later, a member of the opposing team will "call" on this player to play the card in another trick. The player who owns the card does not have to play it if it could cause a revoke (because it is not of the suit led and the player has a card of the suit led in his hand); it can wait until a more suitable trick.

Scoring: This is where the game gets a little complicated, which is why it's best to agree on which scoring system you want to use before the game begins. Just remember that points are given for teams, not individuals, and follow the instructions given under each system.

The American system is based on a seven-point game. There are two ways to earn points under this system:

  1. There are no points for the first six tricks won by a team during a hand. However, each trick won after that (seven and on), earns the team one point.
  2. If a player from one team revokes, two of their points are taken away and given to the opposing team.

It's possible for a team to win the game after a single hand if that team takes all of the tricks, which would earn that team seven points. Generally, it takes several hands before a team gets seven points. The deal for each hand passes clockwise around the table. If both teams have points when the game is over, the winning team's margin of victory is equal to the difference between seven and their opponents' score (7 - Losing score = Victory) (The Key 149-150).
Today, the English system is based on a five-point game. This is called English Short Whist. Before 1800, people tended to play Long Whist, which was based on a game of nine or ten points (Parlett, The Penguin Book 21). I recommend starting with the shorter version of the game. Games are also organized by "rubbers," which is the best out of three games played. A rubber might be three games long, or it might be only two if the first two games are won by the same team. There are three ways to earn points:

  1. There are no points for the first six tricks won by a team during a hand. However, each trick won after that (seven and on), earns the team 1 point.
  2. Jack, queen, king, and ace of the trump suit are called "honors." If a team ends up with all four of the honors for a game in their hands, the team earns an extra 4 points. If they end up with three of them, the team gets 2 points. Two honors aren't worth counting because the score for both teams would be the same, since the other team must have the other two honors. Score the points for tricks before the points for honors (The Key 150). When determining the final score for the game, only count honor points for the winning team. (These honor points are important when calculating the final score for a rubber, not for finding the winner of an individual game in the rubber.)
  3. There is a choice of penalties for revoking. If a player from one team revokes, three of their points may be taken away and given to the opposing team. Alternatively, the three points may be merely deducted from the revoking team's score, or the three points may be simply awarded to the team which did not revoke. If deducting points would give that team a negative score, just award the points to the opposing team and forget the deduction (Burns 64).

A game is not over until at least one trick is won during the last hand. After a game is over, extra points may be awarded to the winning team if the losing team won no points at all during the game (3 point bonus), if the losing team had only one or two points (2 point bonus), or if the losing team only three or four points (1 point bonus). The team that wins the rubber also receives 2 extra points. In a series of games, the winning team's final score is determined by subtracting the scores from all games won by their opponents from the winning score (The Key 150). After all of the points are totaled, the team with the highest overall score wins.

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