Drawing by Marguerite Martyn for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of a session of the Women's Whist Club Congress, April 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri
Whist is a descendant of the 16th-century game of trump or ruff. Whist replaced the popular variant of trump known as ruff and honours. The game takes its name from the 17th-century whist (or wist) meaning quiet, silent, attentive, which is the root of the modern wistful.
According to Daines Barrington, whist was first played on scientific principles by a party of gentlemen who frequented the Crown Coffee House in Bedford Row, London, around 1728.Edmond Hoyle, suspected to be a member of this group, began to tutor wealthy young gentlemen in the game and published A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742. It became the standard text and rules for the game for the next hundred years.
In 1862 Henry Jones, writing under the pseudonym "Cavendish", published The Principles of Whist Stated and Explained, and Its Practice Illustrated on an Original System, by Means of Hands Played Completely Through, which became the standard text. Many subsequent ions and enlargements of this work were published using the simpler title Cavendish On Whist. By this time whist was governed by elaborate and rigid rules covering the laws of the game, etiquette and play which took time to study and master.
In the 1890s, a variant known as bridge whist became popular which eventually evolved into contract bridge. The traditional game of whist survives at social events called whist drives. There are many modern variants of whist played for fun.
A standard 52-card pack is used. The cards in each suit rank from highest to lowest: A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. Whist is played by four players, who play in two partnerships with the partners sitting opposite each other. Players draw cards to determine dealer and partners, with the two highest playing against the lowest two, who have seating rights. To comment on the cards in any way is strictly against the rules. One may not comment upon the hand one was dealt nor about one's good fortune or bad fortune. One may not signal to one's partner.
Shuffling and dealing
The cards can be shuffled by any player, though usually the player to dealer's left. The dealer has the right to shuffle last if they wish. To speed up dealing, a second pack can be shuffled by the dealer's partner during the deal and then placed to the right ready for the next hand. The cards are cut by the player on dealer's right before dealing. The dealer deals out all the cards, one at a time, face down, so that each player has thirteen cards. The final card, which belongs to the dealer, is turned face up to indicate which suit is trumps. The turned-up trump card remains face up on the table until it is the dealer's turn to play to the first trick, at which point the dealer may pick up the card and place it in their hand. The deal advances clockwise.
The player to the dealer's left leads to the first trick. He may lead any card in his hand. The other players, in clockwise order, each play a card to the trick and must follow suit by playing a card of the suit led if he has one. A player with no card of the suit led may play any card, either discarding or trumping. The trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, unless a trump is played, in which case the highest trump wins. The winner of the trick leads the next trick.
Play continues until all thirteen tricks are played, at which point the score is recorded. If no team has enough points to win the game, another hand is played.
Part of the skill involved in the game is one's ability to remember what cards have been played and reason out what cards remain. Therefore, once each trick is played, its cards are turned face down and kept in a stack of four near the player who won the trick. Before the next trick starts, a player may ask to review the cards from the last trick only. Once the lead card is played, however, no previously played cards can be reviewed by anyone.
After all tricks have been played, the side which won more tricks scores 1 point for each trick won in excess of 6. When all four players are experienced, it is unusual for the score for a single hand to be higher than two. A game is over when one team reaches a score of five. There are so-called "Hotel Rules" variations where other numbers are agreed to be played to in advance such as "American" and "Long", where the games are played to seven and nine respectively. The "Long" version is normally combined with "Honours."
In longer variations of the game, those games where the winning score is not the standard 5 points, honours are points that are claimed at the end of each hand. Honours add nothing to the play of a hand. Honours serve only as an element of luck that speeds up games, and they are often omitted. Serious players disdain honours because it greatly increases the element of chance. A team that was dealt the top four cards (A, K, Q, J) in the trump suit collect extra points. A team who holds three of the four honours between them claim 2 points, a team who holds all four honours between them claim 4 points. Tricks are scored before honours. Honours points can never be used for the last point of a game. Consider the following example: A game is being played to 9 points. The score is tied at 6. A hand is played and the winner of that hand took seven tricks and claimed honours. That team would receive 1 point for the 7th trick and only 1 point for honours. The score would then be 8 to 6.
For the opening lead, it is best to lead your strongest suit, which is usually the longest. A singleton may also be a good lead, aiming at trumping in that suit, as one's partner should normally return the suit led.
1st hand: It is usual to lead the king from a sequence of honours that includes it, including AK (the lead of an ace therefore denies the king).
2nd hand usually plays low, especially with a single honour. However, it is often correct to split honours (play the lower of two touching honours) and to cover a J or 10 when holding Qx and cover a Q when holding the ace.
3rd hand usually plays high, though play the lowest of touching honours. The finesse can be a useful technique, especially in trumps where honours cannot be trumped if they are not cashed.
Discards are usually low cards of an unwanted suit. However, when the opponents are drawing trumps a suit preference signal is given by throwing a low card of one's strongest suit.
One card at a time is given to each player by the dealer starting with the player on the dealer’s left and proceeding clockwise until the deck is fully distributed.
The player who deals the cards for a hand.
The pack of cards used for playing comprising, in the case of whist, 52 cards in four suits.
In some variations of whist, a hand is turned face up and is played from by the player seated opposite. This allows for whist to be played by three players.
The play of a lower honour even though holding a higher one, hoping that the intermediate honour is held by a player who has already played to the trick. To give an example: you hold the ace and queen of hearts. Your right-hand antagonist leads a heart, from which you infer that he holds the king of the same suit and wishes to draw the ace, in order to make his king. You however play the queen, and win the trick; still retaining your ace, ready to win again when he plays his king.
Reaching a total score agreed beforehand to be the score played up to.
The winning, by one team, of all thirteen tricks in a hand.
Thirteen tricks. (52 cards in the deck divided by four players equals thirteen cards per player.)
In some variations of whist, extra points are assigned after a game to a team if they were dealt the ace, king, queen, and jack (knave) of the trump suit.
The winning, by one team, of twelve tricks in a hand.
A suit holding containing the highest and third-highest of the suit or (the "minor tenace") second- and fourth-highest.
Four cards played one each by the players.
The suit chosen by the last-dealt card that will beat all other suits regardless of rank. When two cards are played from the trump suit, the higher card wins the trick.
List of variations
The name "whist" has become attached to a wide variety of games based on classic whist, but often with some kind of bidding added, for example:
Bid whist (a partnership game with bidding, played in the USA)
Blob (a game in which players try to predict the exact number of tricks they will take and will be 'blobbed in' if wrong. Can be played with four or five players. Six cards each, total number of tricks bid for in each hand cannot add up to six. Person to left of dealer nominates trumps or no trumps and then becomes dealer for next hand.)
Call-ace whist or Danish whist. Combines several whist variants, including Solo whist and the game esmakker in which the bidder chooses his partner by calling an ace, who becomes a blind partner, and only revealed by playing the partner ace. Is also often played with 2 or 3 jokers as automatic suit-breaking trump cards.
Catch the Ten (also known as Scotch whist) (uses only half the deck. The 10 is most valuable.)
Diminishing contract whist (a British variant, combining elements of solo whist, bid whist and knock-out whist, players compete individually, not in pairs, and after each hand has been dealt must name the number of tricks to take, scoring one point per trick and a bonus 10 for matching their contract. All 52 cards are dealt for the first hand, 48 for the second, 44 the next and so until a 13th round with just one trick. Trumps are pre-defined for each hand in sequence as: hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades, no trumps, lose all with no trumps — where you lose 10 points per trick taken and some players invariably end up in negative points — hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds. The total number of tricks bid each round cannot match the number of tricks available, so the dealer each hand must bid with this constraint in mind — sometimes this constraint is waived for the final round if players agree in advance. The winner is the player who has accumulated the most points at the end of the final round.)
Dutch Whist, similar to Diminshing Contract Whist, where up to seven players compete to win the most points by betting at the start of each round how many tricks they will win. In Dutch Whist, players start with one card in round one and go up to seven cards, then play a mid section of rounds with No Trumps (5 points per tick won), Misery (lose 5 points per trick 'won'), Blind (betting on number of tricks before cards are seen). Following the mid-section, seven further rounds are played, starting with seven cards and reducing to one. Trumps each round are pre-designated, following the pattern hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades. Scoring is based on 10 points for a correct bet, 1 point for every trick won (whether wanted or not).
Double Sar (also played in south Asia, a variation to Court Piece in which tricks are only captured when the same player wins two tricks in succession. The player then captures all the unclaimed tricks up to that point.)
Trinidadian Whist (a whist game variation with some bridge aspects played in Trinidad and Tobago; the teams are determined by whatever card the winning bidder calls for to be his partner for that round, there is no dummy and the first card played by the winning bidder is trump)
Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, [...]"
His only pastime was reading the papers and playing whist. He frequently won at this quiet game, so very appropriate to his nature;[...]"
Whist also figures extensively in C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Hornblower is featured as living off his winnings from playing whist while a half-pay Lieutenant, and famously playing whist with subordinate officers before a battle.
In Middlemarch by George Eliot, the game is referenced numerous times as an aristocratic pursuit played frequently at the Vincy residence. In particular, the clergyman Mr. Farebrother supplements his income by playing for money, a pursuit looked down upon by many of his parishioners.
In his autobiography, Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx talks about playing whist with an ex-girlfriend during a chapter on her husband's insomnia.
In The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon describes a high-stakes whist game between Jamie Fraser, "who was indeed an excellent card player. He also knew most of the possible ways of cheating at cards. However, whist was difficult, if not impossible to cheat at.", and Phylip Wylie, who had angered Fraser by making advances to his wife.
In Life of Henry Clay, Carl Schurz notes that “his fondness for card-playing, which, although in his early years he had given up games of chance, still led him to squander but too much time upon whist.”
In DC Comics' Starman series it is revealed that The Shade is a whist player, and enjoyed playing with Brian Savage (it was also noted that The Shade would regularly win at whist, while Savage would regularly win at poker).
In his autobiography, Harold Bauer: His Book, pianist Harold Bauer laments his inability to play well under pressure. "I suffered similarly whenever I played chess or whist, which excited me so terribly that I always had nightmares from the thought of how I might have played."
At the sound of that name, falling unexpectedly into this annoying affair, the Assistant Commissioner dismissed brusquely the vague remembrance of his daily whist party at his club. It was the most comforting habit of his life, in a mainly successful display of his skill without the assistance of any subordinate. He entered his club to play from five to seven, before going home to dinner, forgetting for those two hours whatever was distasteful in his life, as though the game were a beneficent drug for allaying the pangs of moral discontent.
In Mary Boykin Chesnut's Civil War Diary, whist was the most frequently played card game in her social circle while she lived in Richmond, Virginia.
In Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, the game is mentioned as a way Ajarry was sold to another slaveowner.
In All American Chump (1936) math whiz Elmer (Stuart Erwin) mentions he plays whist, and is so good that nobody in his hometown will play with him because he always wins.
In The Young Victoria when Lord Melbourne tries to provide advice to Prince Albert, the Prince tells him, "Lord Melbourne, forgive me but you seem to have confused me with a member of your club. I am not your drinking companion nor your whist partner. I am the husband of your sovereign. And as such, I will make my own decisions, and I neither seek nor invite your advice. Good evening."
In 2018's The Favourite, Abigail Hill is mentioned to have become impoverished after her father lost their fortune at whist, along with various other references throughout.