How to Play the Card Game: Whist

Updated on January 26, 2018
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Marianne comes from Scotland and has always loved to play card games with her family and friends.

Whist is a classic and simple card game my Granny taught me to play as a child. However, it was most popular and highly fashionable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Around 1900, Bridge took over in popularity from Whist, but it remains a popular and easy social game.

Here are some basic instructions, tactics and variations.

What You Will Need

  • 1 standard pack of cards

(If you want to play traditionally and speed rounds up use 2 packs of cards - shuffle the second at the same time as the first is dealt and put to the side, to save time between rounds)

  • 4 players: players should sit in a square with the 2 players opposite each other playing on the same team.

Dealing

Chose the player to be the first dealer by cutting cards.

The dealer must distribute the cards one at a time to each player. When the dealer gets to the last card they should turn it upwards on the table. The suit of this card is the trump. The dealer should leave it on the table until it is their turn to play, at which point they can pick it up.

How to Play Whist

The player to the left leads the first play by playing the first hand of the trick.

The trick is won by the highest trump in it. Or, if it contains no trump, by the highest card of the suit led. Aces are high.

The winner of a trick leads the next play.

Keep going until all the tricks are played.

The Winner

The winner is the partnership who wins the most tricks. Each partnership scores 1 point for each trick they have won over 6.

The game ends after one partnership wins 5 points. (Or another amount of points you have agreed at the start.)

"The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind"

— Edgar Allan Poe - 1841

Tactics of Whist

The best strategy will vary depending on the cards you are dealt and how many trumps you have.

As a general rule:

  • When leading the first round, it is usually best to start with the highest card in the suit where you have the most cards
  • If playing second you would usually play low, as the fourth player will be in a better position to take the hand if they can
  • If you know you can't win a hand, always try and play your lowest card that isn't a trump
  • Try and keep an eye on what other players are playing and work out when they have no more cards of a particular suit.

If you want to play Whist seriously, there have been many books written about strategy which look at tactics scientifically and mathematically. As Whist was really popular in the nineteenth century, there are many books on Whist tactics from that time freely available. For example, Robert Foster's Whist Manual from 1891.

However, Whist is also a game you can enjoy casually. One of the fun parts is trying to work out the best tactics and odds as you play.

You are often reliant on your partner making the right moves, which adds extra uncertainty to the game. If there are arguments over who should be partners, you can also cut the decks to choose this. E.g. the players who cut the highest cards become partners.

Die Kartenrunde by August Knoop, 1894.
Die Kartenrunde by August Knoop, 1894. | Source

Variations of the game

There are many variations of Whist.

Here are a few examples of variations:

  • If you have an odd number of players (or an even number and prefer it), everyone plays for themselves
  • Play with fewer cards: remove the cards numbered 1-5 from the pack
  • Play with bids: once the cards are dealt each player makes a bid for how many tricks they will win. The partnership only scores points if they make their bids. There are various ways you can make this more complicated. For example, in a version called "Oh, Hell" you lose points if you take too many or too few tricks.
  • Honours Whist: as normal whist, but if a partnership holds all the honours cards (Ace, King, Queens, Jacks) at the end they get an extra 4 points. If they have 3 out 4 honours, they get an extra 2 points)
  • Dummy Whist: play with 3 players, but deal for 4. For the fourth, the cards are placed face down and played at random.
  • Hearts: like Whist but reversed. You need to try not to win tricks (as in the game that used to come as standard on Microsoft Windows)
  • Spades: like Whist but the suit of Spades is always the trump
  • Knockout Whist: in this game, everyone plays for themselves. Each player is dealt 7 cards for each round, and at the end if any player has won no tricks they are eliminated. Play continues until one player is left victorious.

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