Before Poker Existed: How to Play Whist


The first poker game was held in 1829 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was not even the same game we recognize now as it only had a deck of 20 cards.

So what did gamblers play before poker?

The most popular card game prior to poker was the game whist.

Whist gained popularity in the 1600s. The game became refined over the next century leading to the publication of Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. This book would become the definitive rulebook for the game for the following century.

If you’ve ever played a “trick game”, such as spades, the goal is to capture the cards of your opponents by laying down the highest card, the cards captured are called a trick.


Whist came about in the 16th century as a variation of the game ruff and honours. The first games of whist were played in London about 1728.

Author and card aficionado Edmond Hoyle was among the first players in the game. He made money teaching the game to the aristocracy and wealthy patrons.

He took his knowledge and wrote the definitive book on whist rules called A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742.

20 years later, a man by the name of Henry Jones, using a nom de plume of Cavendish, wrote The Principles of Whist Stated and Explained, and Its Practice Illustrated on an Original System, by Means of Hands Played Completely Through. This was the first major work on whist strategy.

Over the years, many variations of whist have popped up, including games like bridge, hearts, and spades.

At one time whist was the most popular game in casinos around Europe and America. By the 1900s, that was being replaced by a new game called poker.

How to Play Whist

Whist is a team game played with a standard 52-card deck. The teams sit across from each other. To determine the teams and the dealer, each player draws a card and players the highest 2 cards become a team. The same is true for the lowest 2 cards. The team with the lowest cards get to choose the seating.

In the game of Whist, card ranks are the same as poker, with Ace always as the high card. The card ranks from the highest to the lowest are:

A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2

When playing whist, it is usually recommended to have a 2nd deck of shuffled cards available. This allows you to quickly have another deck ready to deal.

Before the deal, the deck is shuffled. The cards are then cut by the player of the dealer’s right.

The cards are then dealt to each player, face down. The last card dealt is turned over to determine the trump card suit.

The trump card remains on the table until the dealer’s turn, at which point the dealer can use it.

Card play is done in a clockwise manner.

The player to the left of the dealer leads the first hand. The player may use any card in his or her hand. The other players must lead with a card of the same suit unless they don’t have a card of the same suit, then they can play any card in their hand.

The hand or trick is won by the highest card played unless a trump card is played. If a trump card is played, it wins the trick. If more than one trump card is played, the highest trump card wins.

The tricks are stored next to the winner of that trick face down. Before then next trick starts, a player may request to see the trick to see what cards were played. After the first card of a new trick is played, the option to see the old trick is no longer available.

The game continues until all the players’ cards are exhausted. At this point, the point score for each team is taken. If no team has enough points to win, the game continues by dealing out a newly shuffled deck of cards.

Helpful Whist Terms

Understanding any game required learning the game jargon. As with most card games, whist has its own jargon and terminology. Here are a few helpful terms to know when playing whist:

  • Deal – The cards initially distributed to each player (starting with the person to the left of the dealer) by the dealer. In whist, each player receives 13 cards. All cards are dealt clockwise at the table.
  • Dealer – The player in charge of distributing the cards for the game.
  • Deck – The 52 cards used in the game.
  • Dummy – This is done when there are only 3 players. One of the 4 hands is turned face up and is played by the person across from the hand.
  • Finesse – When a player holds 2 cards of high rank and plays the lower card to force an opponent to play a higher card to win the trick. For example, if you have an ace and a jack, you may play the jack to force an opponent to play his or her king or queen.
  • Game – A game is all the hands that are played to reach the pre-agreed upon score.
  • Grand Slam: One of the 2 teams winning all 13 tricks in hand.
  • Hand – 13 tricks that are played.
  • Honors – In certain variants of the game, extra points that are giving after gameplay to a team if they have the A, K, Q, and J of the trump suit.
  • Lead – The 1st card played in a trick.
  • Rubber – 3 games
  • Small Slam – When one team wins 12 tricks in a hand.
  • Trick – The 4 cards played by each player.
  • Trump – The highest suit in the hand that is determined by that last card dealt by the dealer.

Point Scoring

Once all the cards have been played, you can start to total the points. The points are based on team play, so the tricks for each member of a team are combined.

The points are then assigned for the team that one the most tricks. They receive 1 point for each trick they’ve won over 6. So a team that has 8 tricks would score 2 points.

In a standard game, the game ends when 1 team has scored 5 points. Other variations exist where the game is played to 7 or even 9 points. In these games, honors are usually involved.

Honors allows a team to get extra points given at the end of each hand for having the top ranking cards in a trump suit.

Rules for honors include:

  • 2 points are given to the winning team If they have 3 of the 4 top trump cards
  • 4 points are given to the winning team if they have all 4 top trump cards
  • Honors points can never be used as the last point of the game
  • Honors are only used in the American and Long versions of whist where players must score 7 or 9 points to win (instead of a standard game where only 5 points are required).

Playing Whist in a Casino

Playing whist in a casino is different than playing in a regular game. The most common variant of casino whist is 3-card whist.

In 3-card whist, the players are competing against the dealer and not each other. There’s no team. The object is to win more tricks than the dealer.

In 3 card whist, each player and the dealer receives 3 cards face down. Once betting has started, an additional card is drawn which becomes the trump cards for the game.

Gameplay works like regular whist in that play is done clockwise. It differs in that each player is playing separately. So while the dealer uses the same 3 cards for the hand against each player, in theory, each player can win a trick in the same hand. For example, if the table had 5 players and the dealer plays a non-trump deuce, if each player beats that card, they win the trick.


Before any cards are dealt, the players all make a first bet or ante to begin the game. In some casinos, any side bets that are available are made at this time as well.

Once all the cards are dealt, players look at their cards and make a “play” bet. This bet must be equal to the ante. They also have the option of folding at this point. If a player folds, the ante is lost, but side bets will stay in play until the end of the hand.

The dealer will reveal his or her cards one at a time, players will follow with a card of the same suit unless they don’t have the same suit, then they can play any card.

If a player wins all 3 tricks, the player receives a payout of 1 to 1 on the ante and 3 to 1 on the play wager.

If the player wins 2 tricks, the player receives a payout of the player receives a payout of 1 to 1 on the ante and 2 to 1 on the play wager.

If the player only wins one trick, both the ante and play bet lose.

Side Bets

The side bets at most casinos for 3-card whist are based on 3 cards poker hands. The bonus bets and odds are:

  • Straight Flush of Trumps – 100 to 1
  • Straight Flush – 30 to 1
  • Three of a Kind – 20 to 1
  • Flush (of Trumps) – 10 to 1
  • Straight – 5 to 1
  • Flush (not Trumps) – 3 to 1
  • Pair – 1 to 1


In every game on 3-card whist, a player has 2 points in the game where they must decide what to do. The 1st decision comes when the cards are dealt and he or she must decide whether to play or fold. The 2nd is the decision of which card to play for the 3 tricks.

In knowing whether to play or fold, you could determine how many trump cards you hold. This is the main factor on whether to play or fold. You also need to examine how many non-trump cards with high suits you hold. These can be just as valuable as trump cards in some cases.

This is a simple strategy that you can employ:

  • 2 trump cards – always play
  • 1 trump card – play if non-trump cards are 7 or higher
  • 3 suited cards (non-trump) – play if the total of all cards is 27 or more
  • 2 suited cards (non-trump) – play if the total of all cards is 24 or more
  • All cards different suits, no trumps – always fold

To determine card totals for the above, all numeric cards are worth face value. Jacks are worth 11. Queens are worth 12. Kings are worth 13 and Aces are worth 14.

If you’re unfamiliar with playing trick card games, here is a helpful guide to winning tricks:

When you play a card, the card must be the same suit as the first card played in the trick. If you don’t have a card of that suit, you may play a trump card or another suit, which is known as a discard card, since you can’t win with it.

Knowing this, when you have the suit in your hand, always play the lowest card that wins the trick. So if the dealer plays a jack of spades and you have a queen, king, and ace of spades, play the queen.

Remember, you can’t use a trump card if you have the lead suit in your hand.


Because whist has been around for over 300 years, many variations of the game exist. Some of the more popular whist variations include:

  • Bid whist – This is played like traditional whist in most respects except the teams bid on how many tricks they’ll win, similar to the game spades.
  • Blob whist – An individual game of whist that can be played with 3 to 7 players. Players guess the exact amount of tricks the will win. If they are wrong, they are “blobbed in” (a reference to marking out players who guess incorrectly of having a black “blob” marked on the scoring sheet). Depending on the number of players, the full deck may not be used. The game is known by other names including Blackout, Oh Hell, Elevator, and Up and Down the River among others.
  • Danish whist – In this variant, a partner is chosen by “the bidder” “calling an ace”. The partner is unknown to all in the game and is revealed in the game when the called ace is played. The game is played with 2 or 3 jokers as a way to have suit breaking trump cards.
  • Catch the 10 – Uses only 1/2 the deck and the 10 is the highest ranked card.
  • Colour whist – A whist variation where the trump color is decided by a bidding process instead of being the last card on the stack.
  • Diminishing contract whist – A solo game of whist where each hand has 4 fewer cards dealt to the players. So the first hand would be 52 cards, the 2nd, 48, etc. this is done until the players are left with only 4 cards. The winner is the person with the most points at the end.
  • Dutch whist – a game similar to diminishing In this game, up to 7 players can participate. The number of cards varies depending on the round being played. Each player gets 10 points for a correct bet and 1 point for every trick won.
  • Double Sar – A whist variant where tricks are only won when the same player wins 2 tricks in a row. All unclaimed tricks are then given to that player.
  • Dummy whist – A 3 player variant of whist where a “dummy hand” is played by a player, so 1 player is essentially playing 2 hands.
  • German whist – a 2 player variation of whist played without and bidding
  • Hearts – A variation of whist where players avoid taking tricks that have particular cards.
  • Hokm – In this variation, the person who is dealt to first makes trumps after the first 5 cards are dealt. When someone wins 7 tricks, the game is over. Bonus points are given for winning all 7 tricks or all even tricks. The game is played with 2 teams or 2 players.
  • Israeli whist – similar to blob, the players try to bid on the exact number of tricks they expect to win.
  • Jass – Played with 2 teams of 2 and the partners switch off declaring the trump suit.
  • Knock-out whist – a variation of the game where a player that doesn’t win any tricks is eliminated or “knocked out” of the game.
  • Ladder whist – a knock-out whist variation that has the object of building a hand of 7 cards.
  • Minnesota whist – This variation has no trump suits. Players can either play to win or to lose tricks.
  • Progressive whist – A variant where the trump suit is determined when play starts and stays the same throughout the game.
  • Romanian whist – A variation where the players guess the number of tricks they will win.
  • Serbian whist – Players bind on the number of tricks they will win and each round one less card is dealt to each player.
  • Vint Russian whist – A whist variant with an auction similar to the game of bridge.
  • Shelem – A partner form of whist where the players bid on the number of tricks.
  • Solo whist – a variation where players can bid to win 5, 9, or 13 tricks or to lose every trick.
  • Spades – A bidding variation of whist where spades are always the trump suit.
  • Tarneeb – a whist variant in which the player who wins the bid chooses the trump suit.
  • Trinidadian whist – the teams are decided by the card the winning bidder calls for to be his partner for that round, there is no dummy, and the 1st card played by the winning bidder is the trump
  • Who’s Your Bobby? – A variant in which the Jack of Diamonds (the “Bobby”) is the trump The player that takes the trick with it wins instantly.

Whist Clubs and Organizations

When I was in high school, one of the English teachers there had formed a whist club. The club was a place where we could go and learn the game and play each other.

This is actually common in schools across the country and internationally. More so in college than high school, but clubs on both levels exist.

But education isn’t the only venue for these clubs.

Many cities have clubs to play whist. Some have a single variant focus, and others cast a wider net and may offer several variations of the game.

In the US, most of these clubs aren’t designed to gamble, but internationally, some are. The ones in the US that allow betting are usually in jurisdictions that allow gambling, but some clubs allow gambling in areas that aren’t supposed to allow it, so if you do join one of these clubs, you do so at your peril.

There have been attempts to create national organizations in the past, including the American Whist Congress, but none of the attempts stuck and the organizations dissolved.


In the 4 centuries of its existence, whist has made a big impact on the way we play card games. Games like spades, hearts, and bridge can all be attributed to whist.

It wasn’t until the westward expansion of the United States that whist would drop in popularity and poker would gain momentum.

But while losing popularity, it hasn’t disappeared by any means. As a matter of fact, with the numerous variations, it will be around in some form for a long time.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.