Card games are a great way to spend time with family and friends. They’re even better when you get to team up. The whist card game is played by two teams of two players each with the goal of winning hands based on the value of the cards you’re dealt. Its basic rules are easy to learn, making it a perfect game for beginners, but the game is deceptively simple, and strategy is important. And while a game of classic whist passes quickly, variants of the game are easy to master and can extend play as long as everyone’s up for it. 

What Is the Whist Card Game?

Whist is a trick-taking game. (Tricks are sets of cards counted as a unit. Don’t worry: If you’re not familiar with the term, it will become clear.) The whist card game evolved from card games popular in England in the 1500s like Ruff and Honors. In the 1700s, formal rules were codified; a century later, they were revised. Over the centuries, the game has evolved, and it has inspired other trick-taking games such as contract bridge. It’s still considered the national card game of England, where whist drives are popular fundraising and social events.

How To Play

The whist card game is played by four people. It uses a standard 52-card deck, although it is traditional to play with an extra deck so that the dealer’s partner can shuffle as the dealer hands out cards from the live deck, making the game proceed more quickly. With the exception noted below, cards rank from ace high to two low.

To determine teams, each player draws a card from the deck. The players with the two highest cards play together. The player with the lowest card is the dealer. (Ace is the lowest card for determining partnerships and dealer.)

The player to the dealer’s left shuffles the deck, and the player to the dealer’s right cuts it. Starting with the player on the dealer’s left and going clockwise, the dealer hands out cards face down.

ace card

At the end, each player has 13 cards. The final card which goes to the dealer is placed face up in the middle of the table. This card is the trump card, and its suit is the trump suit.

The player to the dealer’s left lays down any card he or she chooses face up in the center of the table. Going clockwise, the other players must lie down cards that match the suit of the first card if possible (these cards “follow suit”); otherwise, they may choose a card of another suit.

On the first turn, when the play reaches the dealer, he or she may pick up the trump card and lay down a different card, or leave the card, using it as his or her play for that turn. As with the other players, the dealer must follow suit if possible.

Once the dealer has played, the winning partnership is awarded the trick. Tricks are won by the team that laid down the highest card that follows suit, unless any card in the trump suit was laid down, in which case the team that laid down the highest card in the trump suit collects the trick.

The winning team takes the cards and places them to the side face down. A player may ask to review the cards before the next hand deals, but once a new hand is on the table, tricks must remain face down.

The player who laid down the winning card now leads the next hand, placing any card he or she wishes, face-up in the center of the table. The game continues until players discard all 13 cards in their hands.

At the end of a round, partnerships count up the number of tricks they’ve won. The first six tricks are considered a “book”; they do not count toward a partnership’s points. Only tricks above six count. For example, if one partnership won five tricks, and the other won eight tricks, the score would be zero points to two.

The play continues until one partnership reaches an agreed-upon number of points. Traditionally, the game continues until one partnership reaches five points, although the players can agree to other point totals. While five points is typical in English play, American Whist goes to seven points, and Long Whist goes to nine.

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Tips, Strategies, & More

holding cards

As with any game that has a long history, whist players observe both formal rules and a system of etiquette designed to facilitate the play. Players are highly discouraged from commenting on their hands. Signaling to a partner is also forbidden.

The whist card game has several variants. For games with higher point goals, players may wish to add “honours” points: If a partnership has all the face cards from three suits between their two hands, they receive two extra points; if they have the face cards from all four suits, they receive four extra points. These points are calculated at the end of each hand, but they can’t be used to win a game. For example, in a nine-point game, a partnership has six points. They are then dealt all face cards. Their point total will now be eight points because, even though they would otherwise receive four honours points, that would bring their total up to ten and win the game.

The whist card game is highly situational; no strategy will work in every situation. There are, however, some things to keep in mind as you develop your own tactics.

If you are leading (that is, laying down the first card of a hand), choose a card from your longest suit. (A long suit means a suit in which you have many cards. In the whist card game, a suit in which you have four or more cards is long.) If you do not have the highest cards in your long suit (that is, ace, King or Queen), in early turns, lead with your low cards in that suit. This will flush out the higher cards and allow you to take subsequent tricks in it. For example, a player has the King, 10, 8, 4 and 3 of hearts. He or she may want to lead with the 3 to force the other players to lie down the ace, thus assuring that the next time that suit leads, the player will take the trick.

If you have a high sequence of cards in the same suit, such as King-Queen-Jack of hearts, lead with the highest card, unless you also have the ace, in which case lead with the ace.

king queen jack of hearts

Alternatively, you may want to lead with a singleton (a card in a suit you don’t have any other cards in). This is because if that suit leads in subsequent turns, you’ll be able to play a trump card.

If you are long in the trump suit, lead with that. This will force the other players to use their trump-suited cards early in the game, making it easier for you and your partner to win tricks using non-trumps.

If you are second to the lead (that is, you are sitting to his or her left), you should generally play a low card. This is because there are two other players, including your partner, who has yet to lie down, and you don’t want to waste a high card. The exception is if you have a high sequence, such as King-Queen-Jack, in which case you may want to play the lowest card in that sequence, regardless of whether you have other, lower cards in the suit.

If you are third to the lead and you have cards that follow suit, play the highest card you can. This will force the final player either to lose the trick or to play a high card of his or her own. If, however, you have a high sequence, such as King-Queen-Jack, play the lowest card in the sequence. If the player behind you plays a higher card, such as an ace, it will show your partner you have the cards in between.

If you are the final player, you will have the benefit of seeing everyone’s cards before you play. Just make sure you don’t unnecessarily win a trick! If your partner has already laid down the highest card in the hand, you get a chance to discard your worst card.

At all times, you want to play the lowest card you can while still winning tricks. Your play will also be vastly improved if you have a good memory. Remembering the high cards that have been played, and keeping in mind what high cards haven’t been played, will allow you to avoid losing tricks.

Conclusion

The whist card game may be an old game, but it’s just as fun to play now as it was when it was developing in the taverns of Elizabethan England. It’s a simple game to learn and a challenging game to master, but with a little effort, anyone can become a whist wiz.

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