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Articles by Joe Andrews
The Modern Game of Euchre
BID WHIST: A New and Improved Classic Card Game
Spades: Still Growing After Sixty Years
BARBU: The Card Game that's Seven Games in One
BID WHIST: A New and Improved Classic Card Game
by Joe Andrews
For decades, bid whist has been an extremely popular card game among African-Americans, yet it has remained virtually unknown to most other card players. Now, a new website and some recent books may help this fascinating game gain the broader following it deserves.
Like bridge, bid whist involves a series of hands in which two pairs of partners bid and play their cards; partnerships earn points when they take enough tricks to fulfill their bids and lose points when they fail. Bid whist, however, has at least three appealing features that bridge lacks: a single round of bidding, which eliminates the need to learn complicated bidding rules or systems; a "kitty," which adds drama and tends to give the high bidder some spectacularly strong hands; and the option of making a "downtown" bid that reverses the ranking of the cards.
Whist is one of the original classic card games; it predates such old favorites as bridge, spades, and hearts. This wonderful pastime has its roots in two card games from the early 17th century-the English game of ruff and honors and the French game of triomphe-and is related to the obsolete games of hombre, vint, and ruff. A major claim to fame of Edmond Hoyle, whose name is synonymous with the rules of all card games ("according to Hoyle"), is his pamphlet titled "A Short Treatise on Whist" published in the early 1740s.
James Clay, the leading authority on card games in the mid 1800s, penned his "Treatise on Whist" in 1864. This extremely rare booklet, which is generally considered the first comprehensive work on the game, explored whist bidding systems, reviewed the play of the hand, and even described in detail the rare tactic known as a "Vienna coup." (The term is still used in bridge; technically, it means cashing a winner to unblock a suit and thereby establish a squeeze threat.) Whist continued to evolve, and by 1880, it was the second most popular partnership card game in the United States, surpassed only by euchre.
The game variation of today, if it has merit, may well become the standard of tomorrow. For example, in the olden whist days of our great-grandfathers, some player somewhere disliked having to turn his last card as dealer in order to determine trump-perhaps after it turned out to be his only card in the suit, even as he held seven top cards of another suit! Later, someone else with a balanced hand (such as a 4-3-3-3 suit distribution) conceived of the idea of passing the buck and "bridging" the right to name trump to his partner. A few years later, yet another player stuck without a partner in a three-player game proposed the exposed dummy hand. Thus bridge was born.
Next came straight bid whist, featuring a competitive one-round auction in which suits were not mentioned. Auction bridge (circa 1905) followed thereafter; it featured multiple rounds of bidding at progressive levels, with ranked suits and no-trump options. For nearly two decades, the new concept was tweaked and adjusted. Finally, in 1925, Harold S. Vanderbilt invented contract bridge, in which the key new rule stipulated that you could not score game unless you had bid it. He also added large premiums for bidding and making slams (contracts to take all, or all but one of the tricks). Soon another pioneer, Ely Culbertson, added the last major element to modern bridge- vulnerability, which helped to offset the advantage of the side that had already won the first game of a match. For a time the popularity of bridge, along with the creation of the game of spades (see Decem-ber 1999 GAMES), nearly eradicated whist from the card-playing populace.
In the late 1930s, the original straight whist was replaced by a version with a four-card kitty and one round of bidding. The modern bid whist game with a five- or six-card kitty and the use of one or two jokers became a fad in the late 1940s, especially on college campuses in the Midwest and South. The two-joker variation with a six-card kitty soon became the standard way to play. The African-American community promoted bid whist in a big way in the 1950s and '60s. The game was often found at rent parties, a unique concept in entertainment that often helped to defray living expenses for groups of families in many cities. Despite the continuing growth of bridge throughout the 1950s, the post-World War II popularity of spades, and the canasta craze (1949-55), bid whist's many fans and dedicated players assured the game's survival into the new millennium.
The growth of the Internet, including a Website devoted to bid whist (www.sharksinc.com) has helped to promote the game. Clubs have sprung up in many cities, and a national championship is held each year in Florida. In addition, two pamphlets and one hardcover book, geared primarily toward the novice or intermediate player, have been published in recent years. All three feature a selection of basic instructional hands. "How To Play Bid Whist" (Agee Publishing Co., 1981) by R. Wesley Agee, Esq., features an informative chapter about rules, and a very good glossary. "How to Play Bid Whist" (Zwita Productions, 1994) by Angel C. Beck, explains how the house rules of whist vary from place to place. The Official Bid Whist Road Map (Thomas Publishing Co., 1997, hardcover) by Butch Thomas, includes several delightful stories, plenty of humor, and even a challenging crossword puzzle. My own contribution, Win at Whist (Bonus Books, Inc., 2000, softcover) details all aspects of the game.
Live and online tournaments (visit www.geocities.com/livetown/ 2001.htm) have brought bid whist to a whole new generation. Straight and four-card kitty whist are also on the rebound. And the game's future looks bright, as more people from all walks of life discover a truly great traditional card game.
The version described here is the most popular form of the game, played with a standard 52-card deck and two jokers designated "Big" and "Little." (In most decks, one joker appears larger than the other; otherwise, one will need to be marked.)
The game is played by four players, who are divided into two partnerships. Partnerships may be prearranged or determined by drawing cards, with the two highest and two lowest cards matched together to form separate teams. Partners sit across the table from one another.
The deck is shuffled and dealt out completely. Each player receives 12 cards, and the remaining six cards are dealt facedown to form a kitty.
There is one round of bidding. Beginning with the player on the dealer's left and proceeding clockwise, each player in turn may either pass or make a bid. To bid, a player states a number from 3 to 7, followed by one of three descriptions: "uptown," "downtown," or "no-trump." A bid's number represents the minimum number of tricks in excess of 6 that the player is promising that his side will take during the play of the hand. Thus, a player who bids 3 hopes that he and his partner together will take at least 9 tricks. (However, the discards made after the declarer picks up the kitty will count as one of these tricks, as explained below; therefore, the declarer who bids 3 really only needs to take 8 out of 12 tricks.)
Bids of "uptown" (or "high") and "downtown" (or "low") indicate that the player will name a trump suit if he or she wins the bid. In suit contracts, jokers are considered to be part of the trump suit. If the bid is uptown, cards in the trump suit will rank from high to low as follows: Big Joker, Little Joker, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2; with a downtown bid, cards will rank: Big Joker, Little Joker, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K. Cards in other suits rank the same way as in the trump suit, except that they contain no jokers. A no-trump bid means there will be no trump suit in the hand, and that jokers are worthless (they cannot win a trick).
A bid must be higher than any previous bid; for this purpose, a no-trump bid outranks a bid of uptown or downtown, but uptown and downtown bids are of equal rank. For example, if a previous player has bid "4 downtown," a player may bid "4 no-trump" or make any kind of 5, 6, or 7 bid; however, he may not bid "4 uptown" or make any 3 bid.
The highest bidder, known as the declarer, wins the kitty. Before looking at the kitty, the declarer must either: (i) name the trump suit, if the bid was uptown or downtown; or (ii) state whether the hand will be played uptown or downtown, if the bid was no-trump. The declarer then picks up the kitty and discards any six cards to bring his hand back to 12 cards. If the bid is no-trump, any jokers in declarer's hand must be discarded. Thus, many hands end up with wildly unbalanced distribution. It's common for a declarer to end up with a very long trump suit, a sizable second suit, and very few other cards. The six discarded cards are placed facedown in front of the player, and make up the first "book," or trick taken, for the player. The opening lead is then made by the declarer. The method of play is identical to that of bridge, spades, and other similar trick-taking games. Players must follow suit if they are able (keeping in mind that jokers count as trumps in suit contracts), but may otherwise play any card. After all four players have played a card, the trick is complete and is picked up by the player who won it. The highest trump played on a trick, if any, wins the trick; if no trumps are played, the trick is won by the highest card of the suit originally led. The winner of each trick leads the first card of the next trick.
Successful bids are rewarded with their point value, and no-trump contracts score double. (For example, a bid of 5 no-trump is worth 10 points, if made). Some players reward extra tricks with points as well, so that a player who bids 3 but makes 4 (takes 10 tricks) earns 4 points instead of 3. If a team fails to make its bid, it is penalized by the amount of the bid (double for no-trump bids). Bidding 7 and taking all of the tricks, incidentally, is called a "Boston." The usual rule is that the first team to score seven points is the winner.
Also, in many circles, a team loses if its score falls to -7. My preference is to avoid negative points, and instead to award the defending side with positive points when they defeat a contract (e.g., if declarer fails to make a 3 bid, the defending side would get 3 points.) In this system, players may wish to set a higher point total for winning, such as 11 or 21 points.
This article originally appeared in Games Magazine, August 2000, and is reprinted by permission. Subscribe to Games Magazine.
Joe Andrews is the author of five books on card games and two music books, including Win at Whist (Bonus Books, 2001) and Music, Music, Music (Pro-Star Publishers, Inc., 2002). He has previously written articles for GAMES on the card games Spades, Euchre, and Bid Whist.