The Decline and Fall of Whist


Sleep Aid


It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: a chapter from The Decline and Fall of Whist, an 1884 book by John Petch Hewby.

Though Mathews (circa A.D. 1800) in two short sentences laid down the true and only principle of discarding: “If weak in trumps, keep guard on your adversaries’ suits; if strong, throw away from them,” fifty years afterwards it was discovered by the “little school” that “the old system of discarding was just this—when not able to follow suit, let your first discard be from your weakest suit.” Rough on poor Mathews! but the absent are always wrong.

However, by a process of evolution, to the first step of which no exception can be taken, we are next told—(a) “When you see from the fall of the cards that there is no probability of bringing in your own or your partner’s long suit discard originally from your best protected suit.” “You must play a defensive game.”—Cavendish. 

Then, as the evolution proceeds, and we come to (b), we catch the first glimpse of the woody fibre, “for the sake of a short and easily remembered rule,” it is the fashion to say, “discard originally from your strong suit when the adversaries lead trumps, but this aphorism does not truly express the conditions.” (It does not indeed; far from it! for the adversaries may lead trumps and the strength may turn out on the other side; and why, under any circumstances, currency should be given to an erroneous fashion is a question I have repeatedly asked in vain), and here the pupils rush in, with that zeal which outruns discretion, overpower the master and cut the Gordian Knot with (cstrongest. Fourthly, I am informed whenever I take my walks abroad in Whist circles, (d) that with trumps declared against me I must not only discard from my strongest suit, but by that discard point out to my partner—and I presume my adversaries—the suit I wish led, and we are all on our backs on the wood pavement.

Is this a defensive game? Surely it is pedantry run mad! Why am I, in these frightful circumstances, fighting for dear life, and breathing with the greatest difficulty, to disclose my vital parts to a powerful and remorseless enemy? Where am I to get a suit from that I wish led? Why am I to be debarred from using my common sense—if I have any—and holding on to everything in obedience to my old friend Mathews and Cavendish on Whist, for both of whom I have the highest respect? If by good luck I do hold a very strong suit, I used to be able to point out that fact by discarding the head of it; now I am told “you must not do that; it is not the game”—whatever the game may be; “it shows the adversary too much;” so that I am in this absurd dilemma—if I have a really strong suit, I am to keep it dark; if I have a suit in which I hope to make a trick by remaining very quiet, I am to invite my partner to put me under the harrow by making me third player. O tempora! O mores!

Bad in itself, and ensnaring to others, this outrageous latter-day discard is cowardly to a degree; for while it does no particular injury to the player with a strong hand, it knocks down and jumps upon the weak vessel.

What am I to do with a suit in which I hold absolutely nothing, say the two, three, four and five? Did the doctrinaires never hear of such a suit? One would imagine not. Am I to discard from king, queen and another, or from knave to four, in order to keep four cards like that? How about retaining every card of a powerful suit, regardless where the trumps may be, knowing that unless it can be brought in somehow or other, the game is gone? When I am compelled to discard from a weak five suit, is that an order to my partner to lead in a singly or doubly guarded king?

If these difficulties—and there are numbers of others—only occurred to me, with my natural modesty, I should consider myself the victim of some congenital defect; but this is not the case; far from it. The confusion on this head alone is awful, and what do the authorities teach us? I have already quoted Mathews and Cavendish on Whist; the second edition of Clay does not mention the forced discard, but it is mentioned in the last new and improved edition with a vengeance: here I learn to my horror and amazement that “the discard from the strongest suit * * * is admirably explained and developed in the ‘Laws and Principles of Whist,’ by Cavendish.”

Now this statement, which was made in 1881, is puzzling. I have already pointed out that the “laws and principles of Whist” by Cavendish neither explain nor develope anything of the kind, admirably or otherwise, before and after that date, Cavendish in The Field has contradicted it in toto. His latest utterance, on which I can lay my hand, is this. “The aphorism—discard from your strong suit to an adverse trump lead is very imperfect”—as any aphorism, attempting to lay down a fixed law for such an intricate subject, is bound to be—“and misleading, and often gives rise to misunderstandings between partners as to the true character of the discard. A player should carefully consider the aspect of the game at the time the discard is made. With no indication to guide him, he may assume his partner’s first discard to be a protective one, if the adversaries have led, or called for trumps; but if, notwithstanding an adverse lead, he can place the command of trumps with his partner, or must so place it in order to save the game, he should assume the reverse.” Here, though somewhat verbose and obscure, he recognizes that the subject bristles all over with difficulty.

Now let us return for a moment to the improved Clay. “The discard from the strongest rests upon, and upon the very reasonable argument, that the partner is directed to lead the suit indicated by the discard.” That a protective discard is a direction to my partner to make me third player in the suit may seem reasonable to the modern doctrinaire, but it is not the view ordinarily taken of it; then having produced his highly objectionable animal in puris naturalibus, the Editor winds up by thanking Cavendish for his imprimatur.

This way madness lies! What Cavendish? how many Cavendishes are there? there is certainly a Cavendish on Whist, and there is a Cavendish in The Field; that makes two, on this point pretty much of one mind. Is there a third, who appears for one brief moment, without father, mother, or descent, mysterious as Melchizedek, just to contradict both his namesakes, and then disappears for ever in the ewigkeit? This conundrum is too much for me; I give it up…

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