Whist was a very most popular card games in Georgian England, played by the gentry in all the best coffee houses in London.  It features prominently in the novels by Jane Austen and is considered fashionable in high society as a challenging strategic card game requiring good memory, sympathetic partnering and psychological acumen.

The rules of Whist were written down in Edward Hoyle in 1742. As even as early as this, methods of cheating were discussed. While Hoyle advocated fair play, Whist would often be played as a gambling game with high stakes and like in all gambling games, people cheat. Besides, cheating at whist is very easy.

Whist is played by 4 persons who play as partners and while Hoyle’s Rules strictly prohibit comment on the cards, it wasn’t uncommon for partners to secretly agree on covert means of communicating the contents of their hands or their intended play.[i] 

The Secret Language of Code of Whist

  • exclamations such as “Come, sir,” (to call a club), and
  • ” My dear sir (to call a diamond), or
  • “indeed” (diamonds), or
  • “truly” (hearts), or
  • “upon my word” (clubs), or
  • “I assure you” (spades”)

Cheating without words

Naturally, as soon as such methods became known, they were banned, but new ones were quickly invented. The most common is to kick your opponent or make a particular facial expression.  A clever partnership could easily discover the sorts of cards they had in hand, and which ought to be played first without speaking a word.  Examples of common cheating practices were:

  • Using the handkerchief during the game: sign of a good card
  • Using the Snuffbox during the game: sign of a bad card
  • An affected cough (1-4 times repeated) indicated how many face-cards (honours) were in the hand
  • Rubbing the left eye: invitation to lead trump
  • Cards thrown down with one finger and the thumb: sign intent to play a trump
  • Cards thrown down with two finger and the thumb: sign of two trumps

The Art of the Sharper

But how to cheat if you played with strangers? Sharpers didn’t rely on signs and words. They knew the art of shuffling cards, such as

  • Floating ideal cards to the top of the deck
  • Searching for ideal cards using an overhand shuffle
  • Reversing the order of the cards for a bottom deal
  • Ordering the cards to fall in your hand
  • Dealing yourself – and your partner – the best cards

To avoid cheating by shuffling card, it was advised to not to deal four cards at one time. Cards should be dealt round one and one at a time as the securest and best way. However, an accomplished sharper could still deal with this.

Yes, whist is a polite parlor game, played for amusement and jollification…  INDEED!  And it only gets better when we start playing Bridge.

[i] Lest you think this is limited to Whist or the 18th Century, I remember as a child playing Bridge (a descendent of Whist) with my grandmother who would kick her partner gently under the table when she intended to take a trick so that they would not out play her and waste a winning hand.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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