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What is Whist?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Timo Blaschke, John Lodder
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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Whist is a four-person, partner based card game that held much popularity in the 18th and 19th century. The game dominated Europe and parts of America during especially the 19th century, and you’ll note the many literary references to the game in a variety of books of the time. It’s almost impossible to get through a Jane Austen book without reading of whist parties or games that take place during Austen’s narratives.

The game of whist has many variations but in most cases it is a “trick” taking game. This means each “trick” or turn can be won by one of the players. Each win of a trick is accorded a point, and at the end of the game, the highest scoring partner team wins.

Rule of play is as follows: Partners sit opposite each other and each player is dealt 13 cards, except the dealer. The last card in the deck is turned upward and is called trumps. This means that cards of this suit can be played at any time, and normally win the round or trick, unless more than one trump card is played.

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Play begins to the left of the dealer, and proceeds in clockwise fashion. The first player places down a card, which determines the suit in which cards are being played. Each subsequent player must then place down a card of the same suit, hopefully with a higher value (Aces are high and Twos are low). If the player doesn’t have a card of the same suit, he/she can discard another card or chose to play a trump card. Highest card in the turn or highest trump card wins the round (trick). The winner of the round gets to begin the process again by starting the next round.

Game typically proceeds until all cards have been played, or sometimes until one team has scored five points. At this point, tricks won are counted and the winning team declared. In classic whist, three games (called a rubber) were often played consecutively before a final winner was declared. Betting often occurred on the outcome, though rules for betting may be more difficult to follow. The game is much easier to play when no gambling is involved.

If you’re a fan of the game, there are likeminded whist enthusiasts, especially in Europe. There are even a few websites where you can play the game against others, and some variants of the game allow you to play a solitaire form. A good place to find variants and more instructions on playing whist are books dedicated to explaining card games. If you want to play classic whist, you might consider Edmund Hoyle’s original 18th century work, A Short Treatise on The Game of Whist, explaining the subject and rules of play.

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