Back in the late 70s and early 80s when I was at high school, every lunch hour in the cafeteria I’d be surrounded by a sea of tables filled with people playing what was then “the” card game—euchre. I never joined them, because I didn’t know the rules and, being a teenager, didn’t want to look more awkward and incompetent than I already felt. But I found it fascinating to watch.
Cards were never my forte. At home, I played cribbage and gin rummy, and I could shuffle a deck with real confidence, but we were more of a board-game-playing family, so trumps, tricks, and playing with partners weren’t things that I knew how to do.
Little did I know I’d grow up to write about characters who, because of their social class and the time period they live in, inevitably find themselves, at some time or another, sitting down to play at cards. And as you’ve probably figured out by now from reading my past posts here, it’s not enough for me to simply say, “They played at cards.”
I have to know the game that they were playing, to begin with.Games went in and out of fashion.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu summed this up good-naturedly on May 27, 1749, in a letter to her daughter: “Your new fashioned game of brag was the genteel amusement when I was a girl; crimp succeeded to that, and basset and hazard employed the town when I left it to go to Constantinople. At my return, I found them all at commerce, which gave place to quadrille, and that to whist; but the rage of play has ever been the same, and will ever be so among the idle of both sexes.”
Having settled on the game, I have to learn the rules. Not because I’m obsessive when it comes to facts, but because if I’m going to write a scene where characters are playing cards, the game they’re playing will determine how they’re interacting. Are they allowed to talk while playing, for example, or is it discouraged? Is it a slow-moving game or a fast-paced one? How many players are involved?
There are old rule books to consult—like Charles Cotton’s The Compleat Gamester, which has happily been digitized so I can call it up online whenever I need it.
And there are more modern aids as well. For one of my novels my heroine needed to play piquet, and it was kind of an intricate scene so I wanted to work out the hands she’d be dealt and what cards she’d be playing, and luckily I found I computer game site that had made a little downloadable “Play Piquet” game I could use (well, okay, I’m a little obsessive…).
But it did lead to this scene, in my book A Desperate Fortune:
“Mademoiselle.” The elder of the daughters, who was close to Mary’s age, enticed her over to their table, holding up a pack of cards. “Do come and play piquet while we are waiting. Both my sister and my mother have refused me.”
Mary liked to play piquet. It was her favourite game, in fact—fast-paced and often favouring the player who possessed the better memory. But after such a long day’s journey, following so closely on the drama of the day before, and having had but little sleep since they’d been forced to flee their lodgings in the rue du Coeur Volant, she would have much preferred to sit in peace until the landlord called them to their meal. Her hesitation must have shown enough that Mr. Thomson, entering the room behind her, sought to save her by remarking in apologetic tones, “My sister only rarely plays at cards.”
It was not Mr. Thomson, though, who drew her eye. It was the tall man walking in his shadow, and aware of his unwavering regard that seemed dismissive of all cowardice, she strove again to cloak herself in courage that was not her own. She crossed the room as bidden, took her seat, arranged her skirts and squared her shoulders all at once, in imitation of the graceful Mistress Jamieson.
She said, “I make exceptions in good company.” And showed a most deliberate smile to the young woman opposite, who in delight held out the pack of cards so they could draw to see who would be first to deal.
If not entirely good company, it was at least diverting. Both the daughters and their mother kept a constant conversation going, moving from one topic to another with the flightiness of butterflies, and yet they were too friendly in their speech to be annoying. Thomson settled in an elbow-chair beside the fire and set to charm the women by appearing to be interested in anything they told him, while the Scotsman, having neither the ability nor will to charm, apparently preferred to stand. He stayed close to the doorway that stood open to the dining room, his shoulder to the doorframe in an attitude of ease. It was, so Mary reasoned, only logical that after being forced to sit so long in close confinement in the diligence, a man so tall should wish to give his limbs relief by standing, but she wished he might have found a place to do it that did not put him directly at her back. She had to fight the fleeting chills that brushed the bent back of her neck when she was looking at her cards.
There was a strategy to piquet that appealed to her and helped her keep her focus. There were cards to be discarded and exchanged, and calculations to be made from what the other player first declared in terms of what they held—how many cards of the same suit, or the same rank—that let her guess at what they had been dealt, and so make choices of her own in play that gave her the best chance to win the tricks.
In the first hand she was able to not only win the tricks she led, but steal one for an extra point. And in the second she found herself with that rare hand that had no court cards in it—a “carte blanche.”
She carefully kept her face neutral while thinking. Declaring a carte blanche would gain her an instant ten points, and would bar her opponent from later declaring a pique or repique, but it came at a cost, for to claim a carte blanche she would have to reveal her whole hand—turn the cards round, though briefly, and let her opponent see all for that moment. Which meant that the woman she played against would then have gained the advantage in play. Mary weighed both the possible gains and the risks, and deciding that one did not balance the other, she chose to say nothing, selecting two cards and exchanging them silently as though the ones she’d been dealt had been ordinary.
Her caution was rewarded as the cards she gained in her exchange turned out to be the king and queen and knave of diamonds, giving her the whole eight cards available in that suit, which allowed her to not only score well in the declarations, but to so control the play that she won nearly all the tricks, and thus the hand.
Which led to this smaller scene not too long afterwards, between MacPherson and Mary, when they were briefly alone that same evening:
But when Mary thought he would leave her he paused again; brought his gaze back to hers, and for an instant she thought she discerned something searching within it, as though he were faced with a conflict of facts he was seeking to reconcile.
“You are accomplished,” he told her, “at cards.”
Having no notion how to reply to a compliment from this inscrutable man, she could only say, “Thank you.”
“You had a carte blanche in the second hand.”
Mary thought she had some faint idea, then, where he was heading with this line of talk. And she could have explained to him what her intention had been in not claiming the carte blanche, but telling him that would in turn have revealed near as much of her mind and true self to him as claiming carte blanche would have revealed all of her cards to her gaming opponent, and Mary did not wish to be so exposed. She retreated instead, as she’d done for so long, behind that useful mask she had learned to adopt, of the pretty and witty but none too intelligent female. “How silly of me,” she said, “not to declare it. I must be more tired than I realized.”
His gaze could no longer be read, at least not by the candlelight. Giving the short nod she’d noticed he gave in the place of a bow, he said nothing further but turned and departed.
She bolted the door when he’d gone.
When I wrote those scenes, I knew exactly how to play piquet. I could have led a tutorial on how to play. I’d be hopeless at it, now.
Now, I’m grappling with quadrille, because that’s what my characters are playing in the story that I’m writing at the moment.
Quadrille is a ridiculously complicated game, and I suspect I’ll forget that more quickly than I did piquet.
But I’ll still shuffle with real confidence.
Do you have any favourite card games? Any favourite card game scenes in books? I'd love to hear about them.