February 08, 2012

Card Game Review: Whist

Whist (unknown / 17th Century)
4 players / 8 + / 30-45 minutes

"Hey, kids, I'm going to teach you all a new card game. It's really simple. You deal out the whole deck and you work with a partner. Each round you play a card and the highest card wins that round, with one suit always beating the other three. The team that wins the most rounds earns points until one team wins a total of seven points for the game."

"Sounds easy, what's it called?"


"Whist? Why do they call it that?"

"Well, whist means 'quiet,' and a long time ago you couldn't talk during the game and it required a lot of silent strategy."

"Um, you can't talk at all? I don't think I can do that, dad."

*sigh*  "Yeah, tell me about it."

The Quick Rundown:

Whist is a classic and elegant trick-taking game played with a standard 52-card pack (13 cards ranked A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 in four suits of Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades).  For the slightly more complex variation, Bid Whist, you can throw in one or both Jokers.  In Classic Whist, you sit across the table from your partner and everyone begins with 13 cards, so that the entire deck is dealt.  The last card, which belongs to the dealer, is turned up to determine trumps - that is, which suit will supersede the other three for that hand.  Then the player to the left of the dealer begins by leading any card.  Each successive player must play a card of the same suit that is led, if they have one, otherwise they may play a trump or any other card. The highest trump card or, if no trump was played, the highest card of the suit led, wins the trick - that is, the four cards played that round.  The winner of a trick leads to the next one.  After all 13 tricks have been played, the team with the most tricks scores 1 point for each trick that they own over 6.  So, for example, a team that won 8 tricks would score 2 points.  Traditionally the first team to earn a total of 5 or 9 points wins the game.  We play to 7 points, which seems to be the popular choice in the U.S.

Replica of 17th century English deck
when Whist was on the rise.

Bid Whist is played mechanically the same, but adds some sophisticated twists.  First, only 12 cards are dealt to each player.  This will leave some left over, called the kitty.  Depending on whether you play with a Joker or two, the kitty will have 4-6 cards.  Then, instead of establishing trump randomly with the last card of the deck, players will bid on trump by first declaring how many tricks they think they can capture in excess of 6.  Hardcore Whist players will insist on a minimum bid of 3, which means you need to take a total of 9 tricks.  But for casual play, any bid from 1-7 is fine; unless another player outbids you, of course!  At the time of your bid, you will also declare whether you will name a trump suit with high cards winning tricks as normal (called uptown), or name a trump suit with low cards winning tricks (called downtown), or even play without trumps.  In uptown or downtown bids, the two Jokers (one designated big, one small) and the Ace are still the top three cards.  Downtown bids out-rank uptown bids.  In the case of a no trump bid, the Jokers essentially become worthless and the Ace is high followed by the King on down, as traditional.  The winning bidder will then name the trump suit, if declaring uptown or downtown, and can exchange cards with the kitty, keeping the unwanted cards aside which actually count as the first trick.  Play proceeds as in Classic Whist, bearing in mind that downtown and no trump bids change how tricks are won.  If the bidder's team is successful in winning the number of tricks declared more more, then they score as normal.  If they do not make their bid, they lose that number of points.  While there are many variations on scoring, generally the winning team is the first to earn 7 points, or set their opponents back a total of negative 7 points.

E for Everyone:

Charles Cotton summed up this classic, trick-taking game's family friendliness in The Compleat Gamester (1674) : "Ruff and Honors (alias Slamm) and Whist, are Games so commonly known in England, in all parts thereof, that every Child of Eight Years old, hath a competent knowledge in that recreation."  While perhaps not as commonly known today in the United States, it would be no difficult task for a child of eight years old to develop a compentent knowledge of this recreation.

Whist began life as a crude game for common folk,
but eventually gained "respectability."
As in all styles of card games, a large number of Whist variations exist.  To explore these, I recommend visiting the Whist entry on the definitive Pagat.com site.  If you have some experience with any of them, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  The two versions explained above comprise the Whist group's core concepts which will give kids and new gamers the basics.  Classic Whist familiarizes kids with the notions of card rankings, suits, trump, and partnerships which are near universal characteristics in card gaming in one combination or another.  Rules are light and play is straight-forward.  While this simplicity may offer lighter strategic fare for the gaming connoisseur, it is ideal in teaching kids and new gamers the rudiments of partnership play: analyzing your long and short suits to proper effect, when to feed your partner, what to lead and when, and remembering what's already been played.  Simple mechanics and an analytical nature combine to offer a solid first plunge into trick-taking, without drowning a child in a pool of complexity.

Bid Whist retains the majority of that classicality while adding two new common attributes of card gaming: bidding and alternate trick-taking.  In bidding games, learning both to take advantage of those "lucky" hands and risking a bold move with a less fortuitous deal is a good part of card gaming's charm.  In a plain trick-taking game like Whist, the bidding process is more elemental.  In point trick-taking games, one has to be concerned with calculating on how to capture X number of cards/points.  The plainer task of winning a set number of rounds is more manageable for new players.  Additionally, Bid Whist is a good example of illustrating that not all tricks are as they seem across the card gaming universe.  With the option of downtown bidding, the card rankings reverse in order from the traditional understanding of Ace/King and on down to Deuce.  This simple flip is a bit easier to grasp when contrasted with some unique ranking switches as in Jack-high games (like Euchre), ones with off-trumps (like Pitch), and the Ace-Ten family (like Pinochle), as well as a variety of odd combinations in many European games.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

While historians doubt its originality and it is often difficult to trace concrete roots between games, Whist nonetheless is essentially the grandfather of innumerable modern, trick-tacking games.  As so, it is a smooth introduction for children to this particular world of card games.  Without over-complicating things, Bid Whist is an effective companion to then teach them a number of additional mechanics that will apply in a variety of games so that they may explore the genre further.

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