5 APRIL 1879, Page 10


MR. W. POLE, a well-known authority on Whist, has fired rather a heavy shot through this month's Fortnightly into the English Whist Clubs. He ventures to deprecate the practice of using a conventional signal as a call for trumps, as not only injurious to the game itself, which is an intellectual game mainly from the demand it makes on the faculty of observation, but as tending to increase the facilities for cheating. We do not think he makes much of his case as regards this particular convention, but he expresses incidentally and too timidly a view which deserves far more attention than it has lately re- ceived, or is likely to receive. He intends, or we misunderstand him, to warn players as well as to discuss play.

As all whist-players know, an innovation was introduced into Whist about forty years ago which has ever since been regarded as of the highest importance and advantage. It was settled among the best players that if a player " discarded" or threw away a high card and then a low card of the same suit, that, being clearly an unaccountable and noticeable way of play- ing, should be considered a signal to his partner to lead trumps, and the partner who, having trumps, did not then lead them, should be considered an inferior player, ignorant of the " lan- guage of the game." The innovation, which was not, of course, an innovation in the rules, but only in the "language" of whist, was so acceptable to first-rate players and habitual players, that it has ever since maintained its ground among them, and is only rejected by persons who play seldom, or who are conscious of having an imperfect whist memory, and are, therefore, intolerant of any additions to what we may call the gram- matical complications of the game. It is distinctly approved and mentioned as legal by both " Cavendish " and Mr. Clay. Mr. Pole, however, now attacks it, as being the only conventional signal used in whist which is pre-arranged between two partners, as being purely arbitrary, and as being calculated to give an unfair advantage to highly-observant players, as against neo- phytes or careless persons. He does not precisely see why, if a pre-arranged signal, like the call for trumps, is to be allowed, a kick under the table is forbidden, or any other mode of collusion between partners. He adiits that the rule is recognised, but contends, first, that the players ought not to need signals ; and secondly, that " the intro- duction of arbitrary pre-arranged signals between partners is a dangerous precedent ; it might possibly be the thin edge of a wedge of unforeseen length and power. Who can tell where such signals would stop ? We have seen that they have already began to multiply, and where is the line to be drawn ? If they become common, there would seem no reason why they should he confined to their present form. Mr. Clay draws a distinction between indications by the cards themselves and indications by the manner of playing them ; but this is hardly tenable. When a player says to his partner, If, holding two useless cards, I throw away the highest first, I want you to lead trumps,' what is the essential difference between this and his saying, 'If, in playing two cards, I throw the first sharply on the table, and lay the second down softly, I want you to do sa- and-so? ' And what would the noble game of Whist then come to ? Yet the signal for trumps is an introduction of the principle." We confess that as regards the unfairness of the role, we can see no force in Mr. Pole's argument. The rule, which, he says, is pre-arranged between two partners, and therefore unfair, is in usual cases pre-arranged among all four players, and there- fore legitimate. They all know the signal, they all agree that it may be used, and they all, therefore, are playing fairly, and the same conditions granted, would be playing fairly if they asked for trumps in an audible voice. There is no more cheating in the matter than there is in remembering that you should return, later on in the game, your partner's first lead, or in recollecting that if your partner leads trumps, you should, if you are alive, and have any, lead them back to him again. The one convention is as " arbitrary " as the other, and almost as widely known. The signal is not patent, like a kick under the table, only to your partner, but to all the players, and we may add, owing to that fact, is very often distinctly injurious to the signaller's chances. Nor can we think the superiority it gives to the observant player at all unjust. It does not, as Mr. Clay showed, give any superiority to the highly skilled player, who would know without it when to lead trumps, and who, through its use, loses some of the benefit of his skill ; and if men will play carelessly they must suffer, whatever the rules we make. John cannot fairly be asked to play carelessly because Tom never will count the tramps out, and that is what Mr. Pole's argument about the increased pres- sure on careless players really involves. If Tom would observe attentively, he would see the signal just as readily as John ; and if he will not pay attention, he must be beaten, as in every other game, chess itself included. Mr. Pole would not, we suppose, argue that because John habitually guarded his queen, or habitually remembered that two knights have three times and not twice the force of one, or habitually attended to " Philidor's secret," and retained the mastery of the four central squares, therefore he was playing unfairly The call for trumps is no more unfair than the practice—unknown, by the way, in Asia —of castling the king, being equally known and equally open to both adversaries before they sit down to play.

But nevertheless there is an idea in Mr. Pole's article which any one who reads a little between the lines can recognise, and in which, if we read it rightly, we most heartily concur. It may happen that two players who know the conventional signal sit down to play against two who do not know it, and in that case, and that case only, they are taking an advantage which, though, not illegal, is in a degree unfair. They may, as Mr. Pole hints, mention to each other that they use the call for trumps, and in any case they will in a hand or two recognise each other's knowledge; and thenceforward they are not partners, but confederates, communicating on a most important point of play by a private signal,—that is, a signal unknown to their opponents. The case cannot very often occur, but when it does, we do not see any argument by which it can be defended. It is an undue advantage taken of ignorance, as much as if the partners arranged that a kick under the table should be a call for a particular suit. It is not superiority of skill, but knowledge of a cypher, legalised, no doubt, by the practice of good players, but not universally known or understood, and as objectionable as any other secret agreement for displaying the contents of a hand to a partner. It is the beginning of " confederacy," an offence for which whist, perhaps, of all popular games of cards, offers the greatest scope. There is no delusion more prevalent or more injurious to young men than the notion that whist, being in so great a degree a game of skill, is one in which cheating is never to be feared. In no game is confederacy so easy. The slightest definite advantage will give the balance of points to the players who possess it, and a slight definite advantage can be secured by any pair unscrupulous enough to take it, almost with- out the possibility of detection. An agreement to hold trumps in a particular part of the hand, or to hold the hand loosely or tightly, according to the number of trumps, or to hold the honours slightly sloped, or to discard alternately from.the highest or lowest suit, or to communicate by attitude any other informa- tion, would almost infallibly give the victory to the players making it, and in many cases could never be detected. There is no need of marked cards, or of Theodore Hook's quaint suggestion that " Come, sir," should call a club, and " My dear sir " a dia- mond, or of dealing oneself honours—the regular sharper's trick—for a much smaller advantage, a little information communicated, by a change of attitude, prearranged for the swindle, is quite sufficient to secure the plunder to the rogues. The temptation to resort to such a prac- tice, where the stakes run high, must, to men who are rogues at heart, be very great ; and stakes at whist begin to run very high indeed. It is not difficult with guinea points and five pounds on the rubber, to lose seventy or eighty pounds in an evening ; and quite easy, by raising the stakes, to make whist as dangerous and enticing a kind of gambling as any game which does not involve, like brag or unlimited loo, an indefinite increase of stake. The temptation to cheat, of course, is developed in exact proportion to the magnitude of the stake, and cheating at whist is so easy, if only two players agree, that it requires as much as any game of cards, and more than many games, to be carefully guarded against excuses for collusion. So far Mr. Pole is thoroughly in the right, and we hope his paper may help to induce honourable men playing for any appreciable stakes always to mention whether they do or do not answer the call for trumps.

We wish Mr. Pole had gone further, and condemned with just severity the practice, which only too many players condone, of playing for the booty, and choosing inferior players to play with at high points. It occurs even at whist—a game in which bad players bore their opponents to suffocation—and must occur pretty frequently, or so many boys and careless men would not so frequently lose so much. The " pull " in favour of good players is said, indeed, not to be very great; but that idea is naturally one which very good players foster, and their calculation is based upon an erroneous assumption. There is a point of whist knowledge at which a second-class player has a fair chance against a first-rate one, the difference being only about five per cent. ; but there is also a point of ignorance, or carelessness, or unfounded self- confidence, at which the inferior player has, as against good players, no chance at all. Very fair players exist who are not safe players at any time, who cannot, that is, resist the tempta- tion to run a great risk for the sake of a dramatic coup at the end. Men who have learned whist by playing without stakes almost invariably make this blunder, and it is the unconquerable temp- tation of female players, and of boys who think they are going to teach old hands how to play. Many more cannot play decently if the run of the cards is against them, getting gradually irritated under defeat, as old chess-players do, and running useless risks in order to soothe their own wounded amour propre ; while at least one-half mankind cannot play at all, after an extra glass of wine. The fine edge of the whist memory is gone. For first-class players to play with such people for the sake of high stakes is, if not exactly swindling, at least not honourable ; and to lie in wait for them, deliberately preferring them for opponents, is disgraceful conduct. It is common enough, we fear, particularly in towns outside London where a habit of play happens to have sprung up, and any refine- ment of whist tending to make it easier should be summarily frowned down. Hundreds of lads would not gamble who would play whist for very high figures, and Mr. Pole is, we believe, in a very decorous and gentlemanly way, pointing, under cover of a question as to the fairness of the call for trumps, at an evil which, if it were to spread, would very soon revive the old horror of card-playing in any shape.