It is interesting to note in connection with card games with what completeness they become things of the past directly their charm has begun to wane. A game once abandoned is never reinstated in popular favour. Novelty, not merit, is what is demanded. Who, for instance, plays cribbage nowadays? And yet, not so many years since, it was the most popular of all card games. It seems, says a writer, as if redolent of English comfort, a snug fireside, a Welsh rabbit, and a little mulled something simmering on the hob. The rival powers of chance and skill are so happily blended that, while the influence of fortune is recognized as a source of pleasing excitement, it admits at the same time of such an exertion of the mental faculties as is sufficient to interest without fatiguing the player. Surely, it would be thought, here was the perfect game, and one which would endure any changes of manners and ideas. But cribbage, like many another excellent game, has departed, never in all probability to return. Mr. Gladstone once expressed his surprise that, when the public hit upon a good thing, they never remained faithful to it. The subject of the remark was an ingenious street toy, but the words might be applied equally well to card games.

The dethronement of cribbage is a comparatively modern event. The history of card-playing is full of what are to-day mere names, but which once were household words. In the days of the Tudors nobody who desired to be in the fashion played anything but Primero. Shakespeare represents Henry VIII. playing at it with the Duke of Suffolk; and Falstaff observes in another place: “I never prospered since I foreswore Primero.” In the Sidney papers also there is an interesting account of how Lord Southampton, the patron of Shakespeare, fell out with one Ambrose Willoughby on the subject of the game. His lordship was then Squire of the Body of Queen Elizabeth, and the quarrel was occasioned by Willoughby persisting in playing Primero with Sir Walter Raleigh and a friend in the presence chamber after the Queen had retired to rest, a proceeding which Southampton refused to permit. Originally a Spanish game, primero is said to have been introduced into England by Philip of Spain after his marriage with Queen Mary.

Following Primero came Maw, described by a versifier of the period as “a game without civility and law: an odious play, and yet in Court oft seen, a saucy knave to trump both King and Queen.” Maw was the favourite game of James I. His Majesty appears to have played at cards, just as he played at affairs of State, in an indolent manner, for we read that he “lost the fairest game at Maw that ever king had for want of making the best advantage of the five-finger (i.e., the five of trumps), and playing the other helps in time.” From which allusion, added to the fact that the ace of hearts and the knave are spoken of as playing an important part in the game, Maw apparently differed but slightly from the game of Five Cards, which some years back achieved extraordinary popularity in Ireland.

Another old English Court game was Noddy, which is supposed to have been a children’s game, but was certainly nothing so innocent. “Show me a man,” says the author of a satirical poem published in 1694, “who can turn up Noddy still, and deal himself three fives, too, when he will, conclude with one-and-thirty and a pair, never fail ten in stock, and yet play fair.” These lines make it abundantly clear that Noddy was closely related to the more modern cribbage.

In the reign of Charles II. society was divided in its allegiance at first between Ombre and Basset. The latter was an Italian game, brought by Cardinal Mazarin to France, much to the detriment of the finances of His Majesty Louis XIV., who lost heavily over it. Thence it came to England through some of the French ladies of Charles’ Court. It was not long, however, before it gave place altogether to Ombre, which continued the fashionable game in England until after the expiration of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It was introduced into the country by Catherine of Portugal, the Queen of Charles II. Waller, the Court poet, has a poem on a card torn at Ombre by the Queen. Though entirely out of fashion now, it can never wholly die, for it was the game played by Belinda in “The Rape of the Lock,” where every incident of the deal is minutely described. Ombre was essentially a society game. Seymour, in his “Compleat Gambler,” published in 1739, states that the work was compiled for the use of the young princesses, the daughters of George II. It was with the introduction of Ombre that the practice of playing cards on Sunday (which so astonished and shocked Samuel Pepys) came into force in the English Court. Writing in 1667 the diarist says: “This evening, going to the Queen’s side to see the ladies, I did find the Queen, the Duchess of York, and another at cards, with the room full of ladies and great men, which I was amazed to see on a Sunday, having not believed, but contrarily flatly denied the same a little while since to my cousin.”

Quadrille succeeded Ombre, but for a curious reason did not reign as long as its predecessor. The nature of the Game of Quadrille admitted of an unfair conspiracy being established between any two persons, by means of which the rest of the players could be fleeced with ease and thoroughness. From reports of the game that have come down to the present day, the game was apparently most commonly played by ladies, who favoured one another by making signs. “The great stroke the ladies attempt,” says a writer in “The Annals of Gaming,” “is keeping the pool, when by a very easy legerdemain they can serve themselves as many fish as they please.” It is easy to imagine that hot disputes were not infrequent on the subject of the keeping of the pool. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that a game in which the means of cheating lay so ready to the hand did not enjoy a very long-lived popularity. After quadrille came whist.

Sometimes a card game, having ceased to hold attractions for the court, the nobility, and the gentry, has migrated and acquired a new name, while preserving its characteristics for the most part intact. America has on several occasions offered a home to these exiled monarchs. The game of post-and-pair at one time highly popular in the West of England is now not wholly unknown in the United States by its new name of Poker; and the American backwoodsman, when he plays his favourite Euchre, is, though he is probably unaware of the fact, engaged at a game which once won popularity in Paris and elsewhere under the title of Ecarté.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse
in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Transcriber’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; except for a few comments, nearly all of the column is adapted from a longer article, “Card-Playing and Playing-Cards,” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864.

Neil Midkiff