Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Colonial Gaming: "Put" and the Lower Classes

"If you want to be robbed, my son, play Put in a tavern."
   Captain Crawley, The Card Players Manual (1876)
   [via David Parlett]

Put was the Poker of Colonial Virginia: a disreputable game of luck, bluffing, and wagering played in taverns by members of the lower classes. (The middle and upper classes preferred Whist and Loo). It followed the English colonists to Virginia, where it became very popular.

At first glance, the rules seem positively primitive. Three cards each are dealt to 2-4 players. Players take turns putting down cards to win tricks, with the rankings 32AKGJT987654.  I've seen no explanation why 3s and 2s are high, and have to assume it was simply some quirk of the rules dating from the game's origin in the 1600s.

High card wins each trick, regardless of suit, and there are no trumps. Each trick is worth 1 point, and game is 5 points.

This seems to make the game merely a mindless bit of trick-taking for money, but the "Put" rule is where it turns into a bluffing game. At any point, a player may say "Put" before playing the first card in a new trick. This is a shorthand version of the phrase "I put it to you that my card can beat your card." Maybe it can, maybe it can't. If the non-putter refuses the put, the putter gains a point. If the put is accepted, then the winner of the trick jumps to 5 points and wins the whole pot.

I tried a few hands of this with my son. It sounded boring and pointless, but after a couple of rounds, we started to find some definite strategies and a very interesting element of bluffing. By the end of several hands, we were finding it quite enjoyable.

It's a great game to introduce to kids to give them a taste of the taverns where the Revolutionary War was incubated. (Beer is optional.) They might also find it interesting how a game that was probably played in the time of Shakespeare migrated to the New World.

A couple of descriptions of Put can be found at Pagat. The authors of Pagat note that Charles Cotton (author of The Compleat Gamester in 1674) calls it "'the ordinary rooking [fleecing] game' of every place, and devotes much of his chapter on it to describing various common methods of cheating by marking the cards, introducing cards from another pack, and so on. He also explains 'The High Game,' in which the cards were stacked so as to deal the victim a three and two twos while the dealer dealt himself a two and two threes. The non-dealer would put, and perhaps agree some extra wager on the game, which the dealer would then see and win. Cotton remarks that you cannot get away with this more than once against the same player"


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