|Loo fish: the Poker chip of Colonial America|
Young George Washington’s losses for an evening of Loo in 1749 totaled five shillings—an average expenditure from a sum that he periodically devoted to cards, theater tickets, and other amusements.
Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play
While Put was the favored gambling game of the lower classes, the Colonial gentry preferred to lose their money at Loo. Although George Washington’s later account books only tally his losses “at Cards,” his early account books actually mention Loo by name. For the years 1772-1774, as Revolution was brewing, he recorded £78.5 lost and £72.2.6 won at the card table, and we can assume these totals were probably from playing Loo. (This was a large amount of money, by the way: several years salary for some at the time.)
Loo is a tricky game to write about because there are two fairly distinct versions, and myriad variants and alternate descriptions. It emerged on the scene in England around the time of the Restoration (late 17th century), and had its origin in France.
From England, it followed the Colonists to the New World, and took hold among the upper classes in colonies where the Anglican English influence was dominant. (Card games didn’t take root in Puritan English colonies, and Dutch, French, Spanish, and German regions had their own games.)
By the middle of the 18th century, the game was so popular that special tables were designed. These tables were round and often included small depressions or grooves for holding the betting chits, which were made of ivory or mother-of-pearl. These chits were often shaped like fish, and thus the depressions came to be known as “fish ponds.” They were the precursor of the poker table, and no decent home would be without one. Some types of early card tables are still called “loo tables,” even if they don’t include the indentations.
When it comes to trying to convey a set of rules, Loo is a moving target. Fiddly details rapidly pile on and confuse the issue. This is made more difficult by the infinitely multiplying variants and additional rules that cling to this game like lampreys.
There are two main versions, a 3-card and a 5-card, and I will describe them both. It’s hard to say which of the two was dominant in Colonial America, but given the size of monetary losses recorded in association with Loo, they probably played 3-card Unlimited Loo, which is a more uncompromising gambling game.
Both games are trick-taking games with a betting element, and have several particulars in common. Some kind of betting pool is formed at the center of the table, and people are dealt cards. After looking at their hands, players can continue or fold. If they continue, they must win at least one trick. The pool is split among the winners, and the losers (people who take no tricks) must form the pot for the next round.
A looser is said to be “loo’d,” which is short for Lanterloo, the actual name of the game. “Lanterloo” is a kind of baby gibberish/lullaby sung to small children, akin to the “lully, lullay” refrain from “The Coventry Carol.” Most likely, it was meant derisively in the context of the game, particularly since a person who was repeatedly loo’d could find himself deep in the hole after only a few hands.
Sources: Parlett, David: Oxford Guide to Card Games. Carson, Jane, Colonial Virginians at Play.