A MAD WHIRL OF CARD-PLAYINGby Cara King (all rights reserved)
When one imagines fortunes lost and won on the turn of the card, one is unlikely to conjure up a picture of Jane Austen. Yet Austen’s writings are quite full of card-playing, though of a more sedate and less expensive variety.
Let’s begin with Whist, the four-player gambling game that’s the ancestor of “Bridge.” Jane Austen makes it clear that the game was considered respectable, required a clear head, and was often the alternative to dancing at a country gathering.
From “Mansfield Park”: Luckily Sir Thomas was at hand. ‘What shall I do, Sir Thomas? Whist and Speculation; which will amuse me most?” Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended Speculation. He was a Whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner.
From “The Watsons”: “He says his head won’t bear Whist--but perhaps if we make a round game he may be tempted to sit down with us.”
From “Emma”: He ought to be dancing,--not classing himself with the husbands, fathers, and whist-players, who were pretending to feel an interest in the dance till their rubbers were made up.
Cribbage, on the other hand, was a game that even the empty-headed Lady Bertram could play. From “Mansfield Park”: The cards were brought, and Fanny played at cribbage with her aunt till bed-time; and as Sir Thomas was reading to himself, no sounds were heard in the room for the next two hours beyond the reckonings of the game--’And that makes thirty-one;-four in hand and eight in crib.--You are to deal, ma’am; shall I deal for you?’
The Bertrams clearly find Speculation to be a lively game where determination is the key, in Mansfield Park: for though it was impossible for Fanny not to feel herself mistress of the rules of the game in three minutes, he had yet to inspirit her play, sharpen her avarice, and harden her heart.... Miss Crawford...made a hasty finish of her dealings with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, ‘There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit.’
Austen frequently refers to “round” games, which for the most part were unpartnered card games with a varying number of players and a rotating dealer, often played at parties. Some of these could clearly be modish, at least to the snobs. From “The Watsons”: ’Speculation is the only round game at Croydon now, but I can play anything.’ [Later:] ‘What’s your game?’ cried he, as they stood round the Table. ‘Speculation I believe,’ said Elizabeth. ‘My sister recommends it, & I fancy we all like it. I know you do, Tom.’ ‘It is the only round game played at Croydon now,’ said Mrs. Robert, ‘we never think of any other.’
The above conversation continues, and we find that Vingt-un (similar to twenty-one or blackjack) may be even more chic: ’Vingt-un is the game at Osborne Castle; I have played nothing but Vingt-un of late. You would be astonished to hear the noise we make there... Lord Osborne enjoys it famously--he makes the best Dealer without exception that I ever beheld--such quickness and spirit! he lets nobody dream over their cards--I wish you could see him overdraw himself on both his own cards--it is worth anything in the World!’ ‘Dear me!’ cried Margaret, ‘why should not we play at vingt un? I think it is a much better game than Speculation. I cannot say I am very fond of Speculation.’ ... the fashions of Osborne-Castle carried it over the fashions of Croydon.
Commerce is a simple round game, not entirely unlike poker without the bluffing, but the likes of Isabella Thorpe can turn even this into an intrigue. From Northanger Abbey: They all spent the evening together at Thorpe’s. Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton.
Cassino was clearly very respectable, and simple enough to be played by the non-entity Miss De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice: Lady Catherine, Sir William, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins sat down to quadrille; and as Miss De Bourgh chose to play at cassino, the two girls had the honour of assisting Mrs. Jenkinson to make up her party. Their table was superlatively stupid.
But one needn’t be stupid to play Cassino! It’s quite an enjoyable simple card game. Here are the rules, rendered in modern English:
CASSINO, a card game for 2, 3, or 4 players
A game of skill and luck.
CARDS: regular pack of 52
CARD VALUES: Ace = 1; 2 through 10 = 2 through 10, respectively;
Face cards have no numerical value.
OBJECT: To reach 11 “game points” before your opponent(s). (N.B.: If you reach 11 before your opponent reaches 6, he has a “lurch” and the bet is doubled!)
If there are four players, cut for partners and play in teams of two.
Cut for first deal. Deal then rotates clockwise.
1) Deal 4 cards to each player face down, and 4 to the table face up. From now on, cards will be dealt as needed, 4 at a time to a player, but none to the table. The player’s “hand” consists of her first four cards (those dealt down) and any more dealt from now on. One may look at one’s hand.
2) Player left of the dealer plays first. Each player in turn plays one card from his hand. If he can “capture” card(s) with this card, he places the captured card(s) and his original card face down next to him. (These cards do not go into his hand, and he cannot look further at them.)
3) When any player runs out of cards in hand, she is dealt four more. When dealer gives a player her final four cards, dealer announces “last cards.”
4) At the end of each round (once through the deck), points for the round are counted. The player with the greatest number of points receives the number of round points he has, minus his opponent’s round points, as “game points.” [With three players, the two lowest add their points together, and these are subtracted from the highest. If their two numbers together equal or exceed the highest, no one scores.] If no player has reached 11 game points, another round is played.
When a card is played, the player has the option to capture any card of the same value on the table, or any combination that adds up to the same value. For example, if a Ten, Seven, Three, and 2 Fives are on the table, a played Ten could take all of them.
A face card may only capture (or be captured by) a card of the same rank, e.g., a Jack will only take Jacks.
- If you take every card on the table, place these in front of you in their own (face-down) stack. This is a sweep, and each sweep is worth one point (even if the sweep only consists of one card.)
- The last player to have taken a card in the round, also takes any cards remaining at the end of the round. This final sweep, however, does NOT earn a point.
Most Cards, 3
Most Spades, 1
For each Ace, 1
Ten of diamonds (Great cassino), 2
Two of spades (Little cassino), 1
For each sweep, 1
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Last updated 26 July 2005.
All text and images copyright 2005 by Cara King