An enormous number of card games have been invented over the centuries. Only a few major games and families of games can be mentioned here. Different card games are available for any reasonable number of players.
Packs of cards
The standard Anglo-American (bridge) pack of cards consists of 52 cards. Most actual packs sold include 1 or more often 2 extra cards called jokers, which are used in some games, but in most are not used in the formal structure of the game, being simply available in practice to replace lost or damaged cards. The cards are in 4 suits, which in English are known as spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs (symbolized by ♠, ♥, ♦, ♣ on Anglo-American and French cards). In Anglo-American and French cards spades and clubs are black, hearts and diamonds are red. Each suit comprises 13 cards. These consist of 3 court cards, known in English as king, queen and jack or knave, and 10 numbered cards from 1 to 10, though the card numbered 1 is labelled A and called the ace. In most games it is not treated as a numbered card at all.
Continental European packs have a variety of names for suits and ranks, but they also usually have fewer cards. French and German packs usually have 32 cards, omitting all numbers from 2 to 6 for French cards, or 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 for German ones (the distinction is unimportant, as the 2 in German packs is treated like the ace in others). Swiss packs are similar to German ones, but with the addition of 6s, for a total of 36 cards. Spanish and Italian packs have 40 cards, omitting 8 to 10.
There are also a variety of more specialized packs used for particular games.
The cards in a pack have identical backs, enabling a game to distinguish between cards a player is entitled to know the identity of and those they are not.
Some games involve two or more packs shuffled together.
Introduction of cards to Europe
Playing cards are first recorded in Europe in the 1360s. They arrived from Egypt, where a 52-card pack equivalent to that described above was already in use. They spread widely over the next few decades. The earliest description of a pack dates from 1377, and is of a 52-card pack equivalent to that described above.
According to Hoyle?
In the 18th century, Edmond Hoyle wrote treatises on four card games (whist, piquet, quadrille and brag) and two other games (backgammon and chess), which he later reissued as a compendium. These treatises consisted of advice on playing the games, not descriptions of the rules, but over time it became a widespread practice to call a collection of descriptions of rules of card games, and sometimes others, by the name of Hoyle, which was not restricted by copyright. There is a widespread belief that whatever particular Hoyle one is familiar with gives the "official" rules of games, and many such books in fact make such claims, though their rules often differ. In fact most games have no "official" rules, and are subject to numerous variations between different playing circles.
The turn to play can be either clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the nationality of the game. Normally, the cards are shuffled before each deal, with every player entitled to shuffle, but the dealer last. The pack is then cut, usually by the player before dealer. Dealer deals the cards, or some of them, singly or in batches, as specified by the rules of a particular game. Dealing normally follows the order of turn to play, with dealer last.
Classifications of games
Classification is complicated by the fact that many games combine elements from different types. The mechanism of play can be classified as follows:
- pure gambling games in which there is no actual play of the cards at all, merely betting on them
- games involving removing cards from one's hand and replacing them
- from other players' hands
- from a spare hand
- from the main pack
- games involving playing one's cards into various forms of combinations on the playing surface
- games involving the play of tricks
Scoring objectives may be classified as follows:
- holding the best cards in a gambling game (or bluffing the other players that one has, in poker)
- avoiding holding or taking certain cards
- getting rid of one's cards
- forming various combinations of cards
- capturing cards, particularly in tricks
Most Western card games involve trick taking. Its importance varies. In many games it is the sole object. At the other extreme, some games give it a comparatively minor role. Many games balance it with combinations.
Usually, the player to lead to a trick may play any card remaining in their hand. Each player in turn plays one card, usually subject to restrictions on choice, and the trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, unless a card of a suit designated as trumps is played, in which case the highest trump wins. (Whether there is such a suit depends on the game, and sometimes varies withi a game. The cards in the trick are now out of play and the winner leads to the next trick.
The rules about following to a trick vary:
- some games allow one to play any card
- in the All Fours family of games, one may freely either follow suit (play a card of the suit led) or trump, but may only play a third suit when having no remaining cards in the suit led
- most Western games require following suit if possible, but allow a free choice if one has none remaining in that suit
- in some games, one must follow suit if possible, otherwise trump if possible
- in some games, the rule in 4 is supplemented by a rule requiring one to play a higher card of the suit led, or trumps, or both, depending on the game, than any so far played to the trick
Trick taking games can be classified by the objective in taking tricks, i.e. the scoring system:
- simply counting the number of tricks
- scoring for various cards taken in tricks
- avoiding either of the above (negative scoring)
- pontoon/blackjack/21: in which the object is to get cards totalling as near 21 as possible without exceeding it; one starts with 2, & can ask for more, at the risk of going over; originated in France in the middle of the 18th century
- poker, originating in early 19th century America: players can raise the stakes in the hope that others drop out; if not, there are rules determing the best 5-card hand; there are numerous variants in these rules and other procedures; the usual practice in the USA is for dealer to announce the rules for that deal
In the 1960's, blackjack became the most popular of casino games after computer-based systems were developed which gave an edge to the player, so-called Card counting techniques. Various mathematicians and gamblers including Edward Thorp and Les Golden have refined these systems.
Blackjack in the Media
Never Split Tens!, a novel based on the life of pioneering Blackjack card counting theorist Edward O. Thorp, by gambling writer Les Golden of Oak Park, Illinois, was published in 2017 by Springer. It includes numerous examples of card counting using Thorp’s systems in simulated casino play including changing bet sizes, group card counting, camouflage techniques, and entering play when the deck is favorable to the player.
This game, also known simply as crib, originated in England in the 17th century, and remains popular there. It involves the players alternately playing from their hands to the table and keeping a running total of the cards played. It is one of the few games where the ace still counts as 1. Points are scored for reaching a total of 15 or 31, or being the last able to play without going over 31. Players also score for combinations in their hands, and dealer scores also for the crib, cards discarded by both players before the start of play.
The cassino family
The original Italian spelling is casino, but cassino is commoner in English. Scopa/scopone/escoba are variants of this family. These games involve playing cards onto the table. In certain circumstances one captures some or all of the cards on the table, and scors for them.
The rummy family
This includes a wide variety of games, including
- simple family types of rummy
- gin rummy, usually played for money
- canasta, a more intellectually sophisticated game
The general practice is for players to take turns drawing a card from the pack, usually without seeing it beforehand, and then discarding a card. Scores can be made for combinations, for putting all one's cards down in them (going out), and/or negatively for uncombined cards left over when someone else goes out, depending on the individual game.
The family appeared in the late 19th century, but its exact origins are uncertain. It has been variously derived from Mexico, poker and Ma-Jong.
Patience or solitaire
Card games for one player are known as patience in Britain and solitaire in America. The term "solitaire" in Britain refers to a quite different game, known in America as peg solitaire. There are an enormous variety of such games, or puzzles.
Archaic trick games
The oldest surviving card game is Karnöffel, Kaiserspiel or Kaiserjass, first recorded in 1426 and still played in remote Swiss valleys. It is played by four players in partnerships, originally using a 48-card pack (omitting aces). Nowadays 9s and 8s are also omitted, making a 40-card pack. Each player has 5 cards and the objective is to capture the majority of tricks. There is a trump suit, but not in the usual sense. Instead, different trumps have different powers.
In truc (French), there is no trump suit. Players are not required to follow suit, and do not lose out by failing to do so, as the trick is won by the highest card regardless of suit. If there are equal highest cards the trick does not count. In the Hispanic versions truque/truco, very popular in Uruguay and Argentina, some trumps are added to the simpler original French form.
In piquet, widely regarded as the best card game for two players, which originated in France around 1500, the players are dealt 12 cards each from a 32-card pack (hence usually called a piquet pack in English). After discarding some cards and drawing replacements from the remaining 8 cards, they score for various combinations held in their hands, and for playing their cards in tricks. There is no trump suit.
The five-card family
These generally involve each player being dealt 5 cards, with the next card taurned face up to decide the trump suit. They include
- écarté, 19th century French: a popular upper-class gambling game for some time
- spoil five, also known as forty-five
- the euchre subfamily: the Joker was invented for the original game of euchre (hence its name), probably in the 1850s, and counts as the top trump; a derivative called five hundred is very popular in Australia
- nap, or more fully Napoleon
The solo family
In these games the players bid for the right to choose the trump suit. They bid to take a certain number of tricks, usually alone, but sometimes with a partner. The family includes
- hombre (Spanish) or ombre (English), originating in 16th century Spain for four players; by the middle of the next century this had gone out of fashion in favour of renegado for three and cinquillo for five; the three-player version was introduced to England under the name ombre, but was then superseded by the four-player one, under the name of quadrille; in Spain the three-player version was later named tresillo, but eventually died out around the Civil War; it survives in Denmark
- Boston whist, now extinct
- solo whist, or, more briefly and more accurately, just solo (unfortunately, there are a number of other games called solo in different languages): 19th century British
The whist-bridge family
Whist appears in the 17th century, in England. Its basic rules are simple. Four players, with the players sitting opposite each other being partners, receive 13 cards each from a 52-card pack. Dealer's last card is turned face up to determine the trump suit. The player on dealer's left leads to the first trick, with play proceeding clockwise. Players must follow suit if possible; otherwise they may play any card. Scoring is by number of tricks. There are also scores for holding high trumps. The game remains popular in England.
In the original game of bridge (sometimes called bridge-whist, or Russian whist), originated in the late 19th century and long obsolete, dealer nominated trumps, or else decided to play without a trump suit. After the opening lead, by the player on dealer's left, dealer's partner's hand is placed face up on the table, as dummy, and dealer chooses the cards to be played from it.
Auction bridge appeared around 1900. As its name suggests, players bid for the right to name trumps, undertaking to take a certain number of tricks, with penalty scores for failure.
Contract bridge allows certain scores for making large numbers of tricks only if they are actually bid. Its basic scoring table was devised by the American Harold S. Vanderbilt in 1925/6, and has undergone only comparatively minor changes since then. It is organized on a worldwide basis, with official codes of laws, championships and so on. It is usually just called bridge.
In Italy in the 1430s, packs were first produced with an extra suit to serve as trumps. This suit had 22 cards as against 14 in the other suits, with an extra court card, the knight, ranking between queen and jack, making a 78-card pack. Games using these packs have been played from then to now. (The use of tarot cards, or any other sort of playing cards, for fortune telling is much more recent: the earliest reference traced dates from 1781.) Scoring is by certain cards captured in tricks rather than the tricks themselves.
Other archaic card-scoring games
Some other archaic games also score by capturing certain cards. They are all played with smaller packs than the 52-card bridge pack. The oldest, trappola, was invented, probably in Venice, about 1500. Others include tressette, calabresella and the all fours subfamily. The "four" referred to in that name are high, low, jack and game: the top and bottom trumps in play, the jack of trumps and the largest total of scoring values from cards taken.
Mainstream card-scoring games
Many games use the following scoring table:
- ace 11 points
- ten 10 points
- king 4 points
- queen 3 points
- jack 2 points
An important game of this family is skat, widely regarded as the best card game for three players, which originated in Germany around 1810. It is played with a 32-card pack, 10 going to each player and 2 to the skat. In play, cards usually rank in the order A 10 K Q 9 8 7, with the four jacks counting as the highest, or sometimes the only, trumps, depending on a complicated system of bidding. Scoring takes into account multipliers, which, as the name suggests, multiply the score, positive or negative. These multipliers include matadors, the number of top trumps in continuous sequence (beginning with the four jacks) held by the winner of the bidding, or occasionally not held.
A subfamily of games with the above scoring table also include scores for holding both king and queen of trumps. In these games, most of the cards are left in the pack, and players draw replacement cards after each trick.
In klaberjass and the closely related game of belote, which appeared in France around the First World War and is very popular there, trumps rank J 9 A 10 K Q 8 7 while other suits rank as in skat.
In bezique, however, the above score table has been reduced. The main point of winning tricks is to gain the right to score for combinations in one's hand, such as marriages. Many of these combinations score much more than the card points, and the latter are simplified to 10 for each ace or ten, and in some forms of bezique omitted altogether. It originated in France in the early 19th century. The closely related game of pinochle is popular in America.
Games where the object is to avoid taking tricks or certain cards vary according to what is to be avoided:
- in the game of hearts, the object is to avoid capturing hearts (late 19th century)
- in polignac, jacks
- in slobberhannes, the first and last tricks and the queen of clubs
- in bassadewitz, scoring points as in the table above
- in black Maria, hearts and the queen of spades (and sometimes the ace and king too)
- Golden, Les (2010). “Countering the Casino Countering of Counters: The Golden Diagram to the Rescue,” Bluff Europe, June, p. 84-85
- Golden, Les (2011). “Trust Me: An Undetectable Winning System For Blackjack! ,” Bluff Europe, March, p. 94-95
- Golden, Leslie M. (2011). “An Analysis of the Disadvantage to Players of Multiple Decks in the Game of 21.” The Mathematical Scientist, 32, 2, p. 57-69
- Golden, Les (2011). “Stepping Out With My Baby: The Stepwise Betting Strategy,” Bluff Europe, April, p. 92-93