The Decline Of Whist by Charles Lever

Story type: Essay

What is the reason of the decline of Whist? Why is it that every year we find fewer players, and less proficiency in those who play? It is a far graver question than it may seem at first blush, and demands an amount of investigation much deeper than I am able to give it here.

Of course I am prepared to hear that people nowadays are too accomplished and too intellectual to be obliged to descend for their pastime to a mere game at cards; that higher topics engage and higher interests occupy them; that they read and reflect more than their fathers and grandfathers did; and that they would look down with disdain upon an intellectual combat where the gladiators might be the last surviving veterans of a bygone century.

Now, if the conversational tone of our time were pre-eminently brilliant–if people were wiser, wittier, more amusing, and more instructive than formerly–if we lived in an age of really good talkers,–I might assent to the force of this explanation; but what is the truth? Ours is, of all the times recorded by history, the dullest and dreariest: rare as whist-players are, pleasant people are still rarer. It is not merely that the power of entertaining is gone, but so has the ambition. Nobody tries to please, and the success is admirable! It is fashionable to be stupid, and we are the most modish people in the universe. It is absurd, then, in a society whose interchange of thought is expressed in monosyllables, and a certain haw-haw dreariness pervades all intercourse, to say that people are above Whist. Why, they are below Push-pin!

It would be sufficient to point to the age when Whist was most in vogue, to show that it flavoured a society second to none in agreeability; and who were the players? The most eminent divines, the greatest ministers, the most profound jurists, the most subtle diplomatists. What an influence a game so abounding in intellectual teaching must have exercised on the society where it prevailed, can scarcely be computed. Blackstone has a very remarkable passage on the great social effect produced upon the Romans by their popular games; and he goes so far as to say that society imbibes a vast amount of those conventionalities which form its laws, from an Tin-conscious imitation of the rules which govern its pastimes. Take our own time, and I ask with confidence, should we find such want of purpose as our public men exhibit, such uncertainty, such feebleness, and such defective allegiance to party, in a whist-playing age? Would men be so ready as we see them to renounce their principles, if they bore fresh in their mind all the obloquy that follows “a revoke”? Would they misquote their statistics in face of the shame that attends on “a false score”? Would they be so ready to assert what they know they must retract, if they had a recent recollection of being called on “to take down the honours”?

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Think, then, of the varied lessons–moral as well as mental–that the game instils; the caution, the reserve, the patient attention, the memory, the deep calculation of probabilities, embracing all the rules of evidence, the calm self-reliance, and the vigorous daring that shows when what seems even rashness may be the safest of all expedients. Imagine the daily practice of these gifts and faculties, and tell me, if you can, that he who exercises them can cease to employ them in his everyday life. You might as well assert that the practice of gymnastics neither develops the muscle nor increases strength.

I cannot believe a great public man to have attained a fall development of his power if he has not been a whist-player; and for a leader of the House, it is an absolute necessity. Take a glance for a moment at what goes on in Parliament in this non-whist age, and mark the consequences. Look in at an ordinary sitting of the House, and see how damaging to his party that unhappy man is, who will ask a question to-day which this day week would be unanswerable. What is that but “playing his card out of time”? See that other who rises to know if something be true; the unlucky “something” being the key-note to his party’s politics which he has thus disclosed. What is this but “showing his hand”? Hear that dreary blunderer, who has unwittingly contradicted what his chief has just asserted–“trumping,” as it were, “his partner’s trick.” Or that still more fatal wretch, who, rising at a wrong moment, has taken “the lead out of the hand” that could have won the game. I boldly ask, would there be one–even one–of these solecisms committed in an age when Whist was cultivated, and men were brought up in the knowledge and practice of the odd trick?

Look at the cleverness with which Lord Palmerston “forces the hand” of the Opposition. Watch the rapidity with which Lord Derby pounces upon the card Lord Russell has let drop, and “calls on him to play it.” And in the face of all this you will see scores of these bland whiskered creatures Leech gives us in ‘Punch,’ who, if asked, “Can they play?” answer with a contemptuous ha-ha laugh, “I rather think not.”

To the real player, besides, Whist was never so engrossing as to exclude occasional remark; and some of the smartest and wittiest of Talleyrand’s sayings were uttered at the card-table. Imagine, then, the inestimable advantage to the young man entering life, to be privileged to sit down in that little chosen coterie, where sages dropped words of wisdom, and brilliant men let fall those gems of wit that actually light up an era. By what other agency–through what fortuitous combination of events other than the game–could he hope to enjoy such companionship? How could he be thrown not merely into their society, but their actual intimacy?

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It would be easy for me to illustrate the inestimable benefits of this situation, if we possessed what, to the scandal of our age, we do not possess–any statistics of Whist. Newspapers record the oldest inhabitant or the biggest gooseberry, but tell us nothing biographical of those who have illustrated the resources and extended the boundaries of this glorious game. We even look in vain for any mention of Whist in the lives of some of its first proficients. Take Cavour, for instance. Not one of his biographers has recorded his passion for Whist, and yet he was a good player: too venturous, perhaps–too dashing–but splendid with “a strong hand!” During all the sittings of the Paris Congress he played every night at the Jockey Club, and won very largely–some say above twenty thousand pounds.

The late Prince Metternich played well, but not brilliantly. It was a patient, cautious, back-game, and never fully developed till the last card was played. He grew easily tired too, and very seldom could sit out more than twelve or fourteen rubbers; unlike Talleyrand, who always arose from table, after perhaps twelve hours’ play, fresher and brighter than when he began. Lord Melbourne played well, but had moments of distraction, when he suffered the smaller interests of politics to interfere with his combinations. I single him out, however, as a graceful compliment to a party who have numbered few good players in their ranks; for certainly the Tories could quote folly ten to one whisters against the Whigs. The Whigs are too superficial, too crotchety, and too self-opinionated to be whist-players; and, worse than all, too distrustful. A Whig could never trust his partner–he could not for a moment disabuse himself of the notion that his colleague meant to outwit him. A Whig, too, would invariably try to win by something not perfectly legitimate; and, last of all, he would be incessantly appealing to the bystanders, and asking if he had not, even if egregiously beaten, played better than his opponents.

The late Cabinet of Lord Derby contained some good players. Two of the Secretaries of State were actually fine players, and one of them adds Whist to accomplishments which would have made their possessor an Admirable Crichton, if genius had not elevated him into a far loftier category than Crichtons belong to. Rechberg plays well, and likes his game; but he is in Whist, as are all Germans, a thorough pedant. I remember an incident of his whist-life sufficiently amusing in its way, though, in relation, the reader loses what to myself is certainly the whole pungency of the story: I mean the character and nature of the person who imparted the anecdote to me, and who is about the most perfect specimen of that self-possession, which we call coolness, the age we live in can boast of.

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I own that, in a very varied and somewhat extensive experience of men in many countries, I never met with one who so completely fulfilled all the requisites of temper, manner, face, courage, and self-reliance, which make of a human being the most unabashable and unemotional creature that walks the earth.

I tell the story as nearly as I can as he related it to me. “I used to play a good deal with Rechberg,” said he, “and took pleasure in worrying him, for he was a great purist in his play, and was outraged with anything that could not be sustained by an authority. In fact, each game was followed by a discussion of full half an hour, to the intense mortification of the other players, though very amusing to me, and offering me large opportunity to irritate and plague the Austrian.

“One evening, after a number of these discussions, in which Rechberg had displayed an even unusual warmth and irritability, I found myself opposed to him in a game, the interest of which had drawn around us a large assembly of spectators–what the French designate as la galerie. Towards the conclusion of the game it was my turn to lead, and I played a card which so astounded the Austrian Minister, that he laid down his cards upon the table and stared fixedly at me.

“‘In all my experience of Whist,’ said he, deliberately, ‘I never saw the equal of that.’

“‘Of what?’ asked!

“‘Of the card you have just played,’ rejoined he. ‘It is not merely that such play violates every principle of the game, but it actually stultifies all your own combinations.’

“‘I think differently, Count,’ said I. ‘I maintain that it is good play, and I abide by it.’

“‘Let us decide it by a wager,’ said he.

“‘In what way?’

“‘Thus: We shall leave the question to the galerie. You shall allege what you deem to be the reasons for your play, and they shall decide if they accept them as valid.’

“‘I agree. What will you bet?’

“‘Ten napoleons–twenty, fifty, five hundred if you like!’ cried he, warmly.

“‘I shall say ten. You don’t like losing, and I don’t want to punish you too heavily.’

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“‘There is the jury, sir,’ said he, haughtily; ‘make your case.’

“‘The wager is this,’ said I, ‘that, to win, I shall satisfy these gentlemen that for the card I played I had a sufficient and good reason.’


“‘My reason was this, then–I looked into your hand!’

“I pocketed his ten napoleons, but they were the last I won of him. Indeed, it took a month before he got over the shock.”

It would be interesting if we had, which unhappily we have not, any statistical returns to show what classes and professions have produced the best whist-players. In my own experience I have found civilians the superiors of the military.

Diplomatists I should rank first; their game was not alone finer and more subtle, but they showed a recuperative power in their play which others rarely possessed: they extricated themselves well out of difficulties, and always made their losses as small as possible. Where they broke down was when they were linked with a bad partner: they invariably played on a level which he could never attain to, and in this way cross purposes and misunderstandings were certain to ensue.

Lawyers, as a class, play well; but their great fault is, they play too much for the galerie. The habit of appealing to the jury jags and blurs the finer edge of their faculties, and they are more prone to canvass the suffrages of the surrounders than to address themselves to the actual issue. For this reason, Equity practitioners are superior to the men in the courts below.

Physicians are seldom first-rate players–they are always behind their age in Whist, and rarely, if ever, know any of the fine points which Frenchmen have introduced into the game. Their play, too, is timid–they regard trumps as powerful stimulants, and only administer them in drop-doses. They seldom look at the game as a great whole, but play on, card after card, deeming each trick they turn as a patient disposed of, and not in any way connected with what has preceded or is to follow it.

Divines are in Whist pretty much where geology was in the time of the first Georges; still I have met with a bishop and a stray archdeacon or two who could hold their own. I am speaking here of the Establishment, because in Catholic countries the higher clergy are very often good players. Antonelli, for instance, might sit down at the Portland or the Turf; and even my old friend G. P. would find that his Eminence was his match.

Soldiers are sorry performers, for mess-play is invariably bad; but sailors are infinitely worse. They have but one notion, which is to play out all the best cards as fast as they can, and then appeal to their partner to score as many tricks as they have–an inhuman performance, which I have no doubt has cost many apoplexies.

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On the whole, Frenchmen are better players than we are. Their game is less easily divined, and all their intimations (invites) more subtle and more refined. The Emperor plays well. In England he played a great deal at the late Lord Eglinton’s, though he was never the equal of that accomplished Earl, whose mastery of all games, especially those of address, was perfection.

The Irish have a few brilliant players–one of them is on the bench; but the Scotch are the most winning of all British whisters. The Americans are rarely first-rate, but they have a large number of good second-class players. Even with them, however, Whist is on the decline; and Euchre and Poker, and a score more of other similar abominations, have usurped the place of the king of games. What is to be done to arrest the progress of this indifferentism?–how are we to awaken men out of the stupor of this apathy? Have they never heard of the terrible warning of Talleyrand to his friend who could not play, as he said, “Have you reflected on the miserable old age that awaits you?” How much of human nature that would otherwise be unprofitable can be made available by Whist! What scores of tiresome old twaddlers are there who can still serve their country as whisters! what feeble intelligences that can flicker out into a passing brightness at the sight of the “turned trump”!

Think of this, and think what is to become of us when the old, the feeble, the tiresome, and the interminable will all be thrown broadcast over society without an object or an occupation. Imagine what Bores will be let loose upon the world, and fancy how feeble will be all efforts of wit or pleasantry to season a mass of such incapables! Think, I say, think of this. It is a peril that has been long threatening–even from that time when old Lord Hertford, baffled and discouraged by the invariable reply, “I regret, my Lord, that I cannot play Whist,” exclaimed, “I really believe that the day is not distant when no gentleman can have a vice that requires more than two people!”

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