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Rules for Whist, the Forgotten British Classic

Nowadays, Whist is one of the less familiar card games, but once upon a time it used to be the main hobby in Great Britain. This simple trick-taking game is fairly easy to learn, and you only need 4 people to play it. However, there is a surprisingly large tactical scope in it. Towards the end of the 19th century, whist used to be played by Kings, and was subject of many books exploring its scientific principles. Ironically, its role in British society would gradually diminish due to the rising popularity of its slightly more sophisticated offshoot – Bridge.
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How to Play Whist

In whist, you need to use a standard 52-card deck, removing the jokers from it. To save time, experienced players also prepare a second deck with contrasting card backs. It is shuffled while the first deck is dealt in order to save time between hands. From lowest to highest, the cards are ranked: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A.

Preparation

Ideally, you need 4 people to play whist, though there are variations for different numbers. Before the game, you need to pair up, and choose a dealer. Traditionally, this is done by drawing cards – the highest two cards are paired together, while the lowest two get to choose the seating order. At this stage, the Ace is considered the lowest ranked card. Partners must sit opposite each other.

The Deal

The deck is usually shuffled by the player on the dealer’s left, and cut by the one on the right. The dealer hands out all the cards in the deck one at a time, face down, starting from the player on the left. Each player must receive 13 cards. The last card, which should end with the dealer, is then unveiled and placed in the center so that all can see it clearly. This is the trump.

“Life is like a game of whist. I don’t enjoy the game much; but I like to play my cards well, and see what will be the end of it.”George Elliot

The Trump

All cards from the same suit as the unveiled card become trumps. Their ranks do not change, but if a trump is played, it beats any other suit. During the first trick, when it’s the dealer’s turn to play, he can retrieve the unveiled card.

Goal of the Game

Your team needs to collect as many tricks as possible. It doesn’t matter which of the partners wins the trick.

The Tricks

The player on the dealer’s left leads the first trick by playing a card from his hand. One after the other, the rest of the players must respond going clockwise. If possible, they must give a card from the same suit. If they don’t have any cards from that suit, then they are free to choose whichever card they want.

The trick is won by the highest card from the leading suit. However, if one or more trumps have been played, then the trick is won by the highest trump. This is a trick-collecting game, so after each trick, one of the partners in the winning team collects the four cards and places them before him, face down. The player who won the trick must then play the next card, leading to a new trick.

The Trump Wins the TrickHere is an example to show you how this works: we have Harry and Meghan playing against William and Kate, the trump being Clubs. Harry leads the trick by playing a Queen of Hearts. William doesn’t have any cards of the same suit, so he plays the King of Spades. This is not a trump, so even though it is a higher card than Harry’s, it does nothing because it’s from the wrong suit. Meghan is next. She has cards from the same suit, so she plays the 5 of Hearts. Thus far Harry is winning the trick, but William’s partner Kate is yet to play. She also doesn’t have any Hearts, but she does have a trump. She plays the 3 of Clubs. Because of the trump, Kate and William win the trick, and collect all four cards. Kate then begins the next trick by playing a 10 of Spades. You should however note that you are never obliged to play a trump unless it is the leading suit.

A Game of Information – Be Quiet

Whist is a team game, which means that information is very important. You need to remember which cards have already been played, and try to figure out what your partner holds. This means that you are forbidden to give any hints about the cards you hold. You shouldn’t even comment whether you have a strong or a weak hand.

For the same reason, the tricks are collected face down. Before beginning a new trick, any player can ask to review the cards from the last trick that was played – but only the last. After the first card of the new trick has been played, you can no longer look at any of the previous ones.

“In life, as in whist, hope nothing from the way cards may be dealt to you. Play the cards, whatever they be, to the best of your skill.”Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Scoring

Each player holds 13 cards, so one round of the game ends when a total of 13 tricks have been claimed. After that, each team calculates how many tricks in total they hold. The value of the cards does not matter here. The team with more tricks scores 1 point for each trick above 6.

For example, let us say that Harry and Meghan won 8 tricks, while William and Kate won 5. In this case, Harry and Meghan are the only ones to earn points, and they write down 2 points. As you can see, in one hand of whist a team can win between 1 and 7 points – though claiming all 13 tricks would require the devil’s luck! When all players are experienced, the score of a hand is rarely above 2 points.

Winning the Game

A game of Whist ends when one of the teams has reached 5 points. In British whist, you usually continue playing until one of the teams has two wins.

Variations

Whist players bored by the classical rules tend to splice up the game a little bit – in fact, this is how Bridge came to be! There are several easy ways to customize whist to your tastes.

Trump Sequence

Instead of flipping the last card to be dealt, some players prefer to change the trumps in a fixed order. For instance, the first hand can be played with Clubs as trumps, the second – with Diamonds, and so on. On the fifth deal, it is not unusual to play out the hand without any trumps at all.

Adjust the Length

5 points are usually more than enough for a compelling game of whist, but it is easy to increase the number. Americans usually play whist up to 7 points, while ‘Long Whist’ requires 9 points to win. During a tournament, it is inconvenient to have games of varying length, so there is usually a fixed number of deals on each table.

“The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind.”Edgar Allen Poe

Add Honours

In longer games, it is common practice to receive bonus points for fulfilling certain conditions. Honours are awarded if your team has managed to collect the majority of the highest four trumps – the A, K, Q and J. If your team holds four of those trumps you get an extra 4 points, while three of the four are worth 3 points. However, you should take note that tricks are counted before trumps – and the game ends at the exact moment when one of the teams reaches the target points.

An Old Game of WhistLet’s look at an example under the American system (playing up to seven points). Harry and Meghan stand at 6 points in total, and have won the hand by 7 tricks to 6 – this earns them one point. William and Kate stand at 5 points, but managed to collect all four of the highest trumps – that’s an honours worth 4 extra points. The honours would bring the total score to 9-7 in favour of William and Kate. However, the single point of Harry and Meghan is scored before the bonus points – and since they reach the threshold of 7 points, the game ends automatically in their favour!

Honours are rarely used nowadays, because they add an extra luck element to the game, and speed it up. However, in informal plays they are often a welcome addition.

Other Variants

Whist used to be so immensely popular that many variants have appeared throughout the world. Related games include:

  • Oh, Hell: before the hand begins, players bid on how many tricks they will take. If they go over or below the number, they are penalised.
  • Solo Whist: each player scores points individually, and the rules change from hand to hand. Depending on the bids that are made and accepted, there can be cases where one player faces off against the other three, or temporary alliances.
  • Catch the Ten: played with 36 cards from Six to Ace. The tens are the most valuable cards, beaten only by trump Jacks.
  • Hearts: same rules as whist, but the goal of the game is not to take tricks containing specific cards.
  • Serbian Whist: similar to Oh, hell, but each round the number of cards dealt diminishes by one.
  • Progressive Whist: the trumps are fixed at the beginning of the game, and usually remain the same throughout the evening.
  • Dummy Whist: a three-player variant with bidding, played with a dummy hand. The player who wins the auction uses the dummy hand and gets to declare the trump.
  • Norwegian Whist: a team game without trump. The goal can also be changed to winning less tricks than the other team.
  • Knock-out Whist: A game of up to seven people. There are no partnerships. A player who wins no tricks is eliminated.

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