Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.
"As soon as a whist party was formed, and a round table threatened, I made my mother an excuse and came away, leaving just as many for their round table as there were at Mrs. Grant's."
Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, February, 1811.
There were a number of entertainment choices we take for granted that were noticeably absent in the Regency periods: television, computers, and the internet. Even good old-fashioned radio still lie many decades in the future. Of course, the fine people of the Regency had many fine ways to amuse themselves. While things obviously might vary depending on class and background, these various recreational activities ranged from very individual activities such as reading a novel or poetry (which, I suppose, could be done in groups, too) to many types of outdoor and indoor group diversions from balls (of course, those often had other social functions a well) to even things such as co-ed archery.
One popular pastime, though, that many enjoyed was playing cards. Although there were a variety of card games enjoyed during the Regency period, today I want to focus on a particularly popular one: whist.
Whist arose in the 1600s, a descendant of earlier trick-taking card games of the previous century. Although there are many variants and traditions that developed over the years,the core game itself isn't all that complex. It is played with a standard 52-card deck by four players in teams of two. The suits are ranked from highest to lowest with the ace being higher than the king. The dealer deals out cards until each player has thirteen. The final card, which goes to the dealer, is turned-up to indicate the trump suit.
The first player (usually the one to the dealer's left) can lead with any card to open the trick. Each player then plays their own card but must follow suit if possible. The entire trick is won by the by the highest trump played, or if no trump was played, the highest card. After the trick is over, the cards are turned face-down. When all thirteen tricks are played, the partners get one point for each trick won past the first six. The partnership that gets to five points first, wins.
As noted above, there are various traditions and elaborations, but that's the basic game. Not too complex in design, but the challenge comes in trying to remember and adapt to which cards have already been played, particularly between tricks. By the Regency era, it was fairly common to play whist in a set of best two out three "rubbers". These rubbers, in term, comprised three games/hands.
Early on after the development of whist, the game was something somewhat sneered at by the more respectable classes, but by the middle of the 18th-century it had become fashionable and respectable for all levels of society. Whist parties became common, and it was played in many clubs (which may or may not have been respectable).
Many people liked to spice up their whist games with a bit with gambling. As this was well before the later Victorian-era push-back against gambling, many respectable men and women felt quite comfortable with gambling, and arguably excessive gambling was even more rampant among the upper classes (and particularly, but not exclusively, younger aristocratic men). The big issue with gambling, rather than gambling itself, was more excessive gambling and not paying one's debts (e.g., the popular master of Society Beau Brummell had to flee to France over his gambling debts) Something as minor as the occasional exchange of money over the card table was really no big deal.
"On entering the drawing room she [Elizabeth] found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below with a book."
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8.
Loo is different than whist, but just as many people gambled at whist, whether at private parties or at men's clubs. Note that Elizabeth's concern here isn't that they're gambling but rather that they are playing for high stakes.
Of course, the mere existence of gambling around whist didn't mean that people couldn't just enjoy a good game of cards, as one American traveler notes:
"In the evening we joined the ladies above stairs, and tea being over, I was invited to join several of the reverend masters and professors, in, what do you think?--A disquistion concerning the Hebrew points,k the quadrature of the circle, or the possibility of perpetual motion?--No--I was invited to join them in a rubber at whist!--not a gambling match, but a pastime."
A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland, And of Two Passages Over the Atlantic in the Years 1805 and 1806, Benjamin Silliman, 1810
Incidentally, although modern trick-taking games like bridge have overshadowed whist, the game is still played today.