Whist is a classic English trick-taking card game which was widely played in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the rules are simple, there is scope for scientific play. Derived from the popular 17th Century trick taking game known as “Ruff and Honours,” Whist literally takes its name from the old English word whist meaning quiet, silent, attentive, which is the root of the modern wistful. which had become the dominant such game and enjoyed a loyal following for centuries. The idea of a trick-taking card game comes from the French physician and author Rabelais (1493–1553) who developed a game called “La Triomphe” where tarot (the deck commonly used for fortune telling) cards were played and highest-ranking card takes the trick.
Whist was purportedly first played by a party of gentlemen who frequented the Crown Coffee House in Bedford Row, London, around 1728. Edmond Hoyle, an English writer best known for his works on the rules and play of card games, is suspected to have been a member of this group and published his pamphlet
A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742. By the 1890s, a new variant of Whist, known as Bridge, became popular. Bridge, of course, was the social standard in mid-20th Century polite company and played around the world.
Whist is a 4-player game, where there are two fixed partners. Partners should sit facing each other and the game is played clockwise. A standard deck of playing cards is used in this game but, like in Bridge, many people prefer to have two so that the game isn’t delayed by shuffling. One deck is shuffled by the dealer’s partner while the dealer hands out the cards. Once shuffled, it is passed to next person for the deal when the hand is completed.
The shuffle is done by the player to the dealer’s left and cut by the person on the right of the dealer. The dealer deals out all the cards, one at a time, until all the players have 13 cards. The last card, which belongs to the dealer, is revealed to the players, and the suit of that card is declared the trump suit for that hand.
The person to the dealer’s left begins play by putting down any non-trump card. Then, in a clockwise direction, each player lays down one card in response. The players must play the same suit as the card that was led in the trick, if they can. If they can’t play the same suit, any card may be played. If a trump suit card is played, it beats all other non-trump card, but if no trump card is played the highest value card wins the trick. The cards are ranked from highest to lowest: A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. The winner of a trick leads to the next trick. Trump cards can only be played as the first card in a trick if the player has no other suits or a trump card has been played in a previous trick (“trumps are broken”).
When all 13 tricks of a hand have been played, the partners won collectively won the most tricks scores 1 point for each trick in excess of 6 (ie if 8 tricks are taken the score is 3). Play is continued until one team reaches 5 points and wins the game. This will normally take several deals.
The best strategy will vary depending on the cards you are dealt and how many trumps you have. As a general rule, when leading the first round, it is usually best to start with the highest card in the suit where you have the most cards. If playing second, you would usually play low as the fourth player will be in a better position to take the hand if they can. If you know you can’t win a hand, always try and play your lowest card that isn’t a trump. Try and keep an eye on what other players are playing and work out when they have no more cards of a particular suit. You are often reliant on your partner making the right moves, which adds extra uncertainty to the game.
Variations of the Game (there are many others)
- Playing as individuals rather than partners: If you have an odd number of players (or an even number and prefer it), everyone plays for themselves.
- Playing with bids: Once the cards are dealt, each player estimates how may tricks they (or they and their partner) can take then makes a bid. Only the team with the highest bid can win any points in that hand and they score points for tricks they take equal to or in excess of their bid. If the team fails to take the number of tricks they bid, then they lose points equal to their bid (regardless of how many tricks short of the bid they are).
- Dummy Whist: Play with 3 players, but deal for 4. For the fourth, the cards are placed face down and played at random or may be turned up and played by the person directly across the table (but visible to all). In some variations of Dummy Whist with bids, the partner of the team winning the bid lays down their cards and both hands are played by the partner who made the high bid.
- German Whist: A two player version of whist similar the child’s game “WAR.” Winning hand is now 14 and bids, if playing with bids, is for tricks in excess of 12.
- Spades: Played exactly like Whist but reversed like Whist but the suit of Spades is always the trump.
- Hearts: Played exactly like Whist but reversed. In Hearts, you try NOT to try not to win tricks and the team with the highest number of tricks loses points.