Playing cards

Playing cards was never my forté. The trick-taking game of 500 was THE obsession for my schoolmates, but my reputation for reneging (failing to follow suit) meant that anyone unfortunate enough to have me as their partner instantly bid misere. Unfortunately, for someone interested in historical times and pastimes, it turns out that card playing has been a major socialising force over the centuries.

Twopenny Whist (Public domain)

During colonial times, the games of choice for the ‘genteel’ included the following nightmares for me to learn.

  • Whist
  • Vingt et Un (21, the forerunner of Blackjack)
  • Écarté – a two-player game, similar to Euchre
  • Loo (Lanterloo; somewhat like All Fours), which was a trick-taking game similar to Euchre

Betting was often associated with these games, and the stress involved could easily threaten the social veneer of polite society. For example, whiling away the tedium of a lengthy voyage by playing cards could threaten friendships and pockets:

At Loo we were all very much annoyed at Gardiner’s conduct, he turned up a card whilst dealing and refused to put his Loo in. I had myself a turn over a few minutes before. He, however, chose the excuse of the wind from the skylight above blowing if over and left the table without paying. We are all determined not to play again with him till he has – and apologized to the table for his conduct.” (Marsh, 28th May 1847)*


This evening at Loo, Seymour retired from the table determining to lose no more. The night before he was in great rage because the Dr could not play, and remarked that it was a great shame that he as a winner did not give him a chance to recover his losing £6. The Dr has now declared that he will not play anymore, he says he is winner of about £5, but I think he must have won at least 10. I have lost up to today 3. Davies paid me 10/- I won from him, this being the day when he saw the Mail would be divided.” (Marsh, 9th June 1847)*

As a chronic loser in any card game, I’m not entirely sure where my sympathies lie…

* Source: Marsh, J.A.M. “Diary of John Augustus Milbourne Marsh (1819-1891): 1847 (Transcribed from Betty Harrison Family Archives, by Michael Heath-Caldwell, Brisbane 2009).”

Author: Alison Ferguson

Back in the 1970s, Alison Ferguson completed one of the first Bachelor of Arts degrees in Professional Writing and then went on to qualify as a speech pathologist, working as a clinician and academic for over thirty years. As well as writing research-based book chapters and papers for international refereed journals, Alison authored two scholarly books (published by Plural Publishing, and Palgrave Macmillan). Recently retired, Alison is pursuing her long-standing fascination with story writing in both non-fiction and fiction.

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