“The game, too, was my favorite écarté!”
Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson” (1839)
Card games have been such a popular pastime for so long that it’s not at all unusual to come across references to specific games in literature, such as Ombre in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, or Speculation in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic doppleganger tale “William Wilson,” a major plot point turns on a card game in which the narrator is caught cheating. The characters are playing a French game called Ecarté, and although it’s no longer popular, it was a common gambling and casino game in the 19th century. Observers, as well as players, often bet on the outcome.
There is no solid evidence that Poe was a serious gambler. Biographies usually only mention a single period of his life, when he was in school and near-penniless, when he turned to gambling to supplement his income. That he was able to do this shows he had some skill with cards, but of the many sins (both real and imaginary) laid at the feet of Poe, card-sharping was not one of them.
Nonetheless, he showed a ready familiarity with certain cheating techniques, as William Wilson explains when he is exposed during a game of Ecarté:
In the lining of my sleeve were found all the court cards essential in ecarte, and, in the pockets of my wrapper, a number of packs, facsimiles of those used at our sittings, with the single exception that mine were of the species called, technically, arrondees [rounded]; the honours being slightly convex at the ends, the lower cards slightly convex at the sides. In this disposition, the dupe who cuts, as customary, at the length of the pack, will invariably find that he cuts his antagonist an honor; while the gambler, cutting at the breadth, will, as certainly, cut nothing for his victim which may count in the records of the game
But the literary pedigree of Ecarté doesn’t end with there. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle contain at least 9 references to écarté in various stories and novels.
In Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Watson remarks: “Mortimer had stayed to dinner, and he and the baronet played écarté afterwards.”
Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories are full of Ecarté references. For example, in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard
, the narrator says: “I took up the cards from the table where Morat had left them, and I tried to work out a few combinations at écarté. But I could not remember which were trumps, and I threw them under the table in despair.” (This passage doesn’t really make sense.)
And that’s not even the end of it. A quick keyword search of just the books on my Kindle show écarté popping up multiple times in the writing of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Andrew Lang, J.S. Le Fanu, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, W.M. Thackery, and Mark Twain.
In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers filmed a short which shows two Frenchmen playing a five-card trick-taking game. Given the time period and the fact that it’s a two-handed game, they are probably playing Ecarté. This is interesting for a simple reason: it’s the first time a card game appeared in a motion picture. You can see the clip as part of the Lumiere compilation here
. It begins at the 3:40 mark.
One of the fascinating things about the clip is the speed with which the old men play. The onlooker doesn’t even finish pouring the drinks before the game is over. This speed is what made it a popular game for people to watch and wager upon.
How to Play Ecarté
Ecarté is a simple trick taking game with a unique scoring mechanic. It’s related to Euchre, and descended from the French game Triomphe.
The game is played with 32-card deck, with all the cards from 2 to 6 stripped. (This is your basic Piquet
The rankings are K, Q, J, A, 10, 8, 9, 7.
The cards are shuffled and dealt 5 to a player. The standard deal is in packets of either 3 + 2, or 2 + 3, but any agreed-upon deal is fine. Stock is placed between the players
One card is turned face-up as Trump. If the card is a King, the dealer immediately scores 1 point.
Non-dealer can request an exchange of a certain number of cards. The dealer may refuse this request. If the dealer refuses the card exchange, then he commits himself to making 3 tricks and play commences. The non-dealer may come back with another request to exchange a different number of cards, with the same conditions: if the dealer refuses, he must earn 3 tricks.
If the dealer accepts the card exchange, the player discards the agreed-upon number of cards and draws replacements. Dealer must discard and replace at least 1 card.
Play is straight trick taking, with high-card or high-trump winning.
If either player holds the King of trumps, he may show it and score a point before playing the first trick.
Players score 1 point for taking 3 or 4 tricks, and 2 points for taking all 5 (this is called a vole).
However, if the dealer refused the exchange and then failed to win 3 or more tricks, the non-dealer does not score his own tricks. Instead, he earns 2 points automatically.
Play continues to 5 points. If the loser only scores 1 or 2 points, the pot is doubled. If he scores no points, the pot is tripled.