The Oxford Guide to Card Games 
by David Parlett.
Oxford, 361 pp., £15, October 1990, 0 19 214165 1
Show More
Show More

Excitement was aroused by the announcement, last September, of a double discovery: the actual rules, on a cuneiform tablet, of a board game thought to date from 3300 BC, of which only some surviving boards had previously been known, and a living individual from a Jewish community in Cochin who had herself played that very game before she migrated to Israel, and could recall the rules in accordance with which she had then played it. Academics gathered at the British Museum to confer about board games of the ancient world.

These things are as they should be: but they contrast strongly with the ambiguous attitude of scholars and others to games as a subject of study. There is a simple mental association between games and frivolity. Games are for play; work is serious, play is frivolous: therefore any attention given to games is frivolous. No one reasons like this: but it is not unusual to be unconsciously influenced by this train of thought into maintaining an unreasoning prejudice. Games of the ancient world qualify as worthy of scholars’ attention because they are of the ancient world: but research councils and academies would be likely to look askance at anyone proposing to waste his time and their money on research into the origins and history of games of the modern world. For some board games, they might be persuaded: everyone knows that chess, at least, is a serious subject that escapes the stigma of frivolity attached to other games. But card games! Card games, the prejudice has it, are inescapably, irremediably frivolous.

An amusing manifestation of this reflex occurred some years ago. A remarkable discovery had been made of a complete French hand-painted pack of cards of about 1470. This was sold at auction in London to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. An article in the Illustrated London News described the auction; after discussing wardrobes, or some item of the kind, the author, turning to the playing-cards, wrote: ‘To turn now from the serious to the ridiculous ...’

This does not mean that no research is carried out into the history of card games. On the contrary, a scattered band of enthusiasts, of whom the author of this book is one, most of them unconnected with learned institutions, assiduously pursue this study. It demands a battery of methods: fieldwork – the observation of local games in play and the interviewing of the players; the scrutiny of literary sources; the examination of archives of a variety of kinds. A moment’s thought reveals that such investigations are of at least as much interest as investigations into any other aspect of popular culture: that games – their invention as well as their skilful play – manifest human creativity quite as much as do styles of dress, for example, or popular music and dance, and occupy as salient a place in human life. The neglect of the subject by established academia does not deprive it of investigators: it merely denies them the support, in the form of research grants and subventions to journals and conferences, that students of other subjects regard as their indispensable right. Their findings are then ignored by those who pride themselves on being serious scholars, with the result that, on the rare occasions when the latter choose to touch on the subject, they are liable to commit themselves, with an air of authority, to manifest falsehoods, indeed to howlers.

Parlett’s book is of a quite new kind. As he says in the first sentence of his Introduction, it ‘is not a book of card games but a book about them’. It takes a good deal of space to set out the rules of a game clearly enough to enable anyone previously ignorant of it to play it, and, referring to about eight hundred games in the course of the book, Parlett does not attempt this: instead, he contents himself with conveying, in varying detail, the essentials of each one. His purpose is to give a conspectus of the history of Western card games (those of Asia are omitted). Although Parlett himself has carried out research in the field, his book does not purport to be a work of scholarship, comparable to, say, H.J.R. Murray’s History of Board Games other than Chess: it is a survey, which the author has taken great trouble to make as accurate as possible, but which does not aim to include every qualification and every detail. The subject is one that must interest and entertain every card-player, whose enjoyment of his favourite games can only be enhanced by a knowledge of where and when they originated and how they evolved. But the Oxford Guide to Card Games will be of great value to experts too, assembling as it does a mass of information and laying it out according to a well-thought-out scheme.

The book is a triumph of compression. Card games are exceedingly diverse and exceedingly numerous; and they often undergo an exceedingly rapid evolution. It is therefore an extraordinary achievement to have covered the ground in so short a space. Each chapter, after the first six introductory ones, deals with a group of card games linked by a similar mechanism of play, though not necessarily by a common ancestry; and the origins and evolution of each game are indicated, so far as research – Parlett’s own, or that of others – has established them. The predominance in Western card play of trick-taking games is reflected by the fact that nine of the 16 chapters devoted to this central part of the hook concern different types of such games. But Parlett has been entirely even-handed, and devotes a chapter to what he rightly calls ‘the most primitive games’ – pure games of chance such as Baccara which do not admit the application of skill and from which the casinos of the world have extracted so much money. He even devotes one to Patience games.

I greatly welcome the fact that he did not choose, as the writer of such a book might be tempted to do, to omit games played with the Tarot pack: this would have been an error, since the history of those games is intertwined with that of those played with more ordinary forms of playing-card pack, on which they have at several times had an influence. My own belief, which Parlett brushes somewhat cavalierly aside, is that, apart from the manifest borrowing of particular features, such as the bonus for winning the last trick with the lowest trump, the original invention of Tarot cards had a decisive influence on the entire history of European card play, in that it was from them that the idea of trumps was introduced into the previously existing trick-taking games. It could have been wished, indeed, that Parlett had covered Tarot games in somewhat greater detail: but he was under great pressure from constraints of space.

An interesting first chapter makes fundamental observations about the social status of games, distinguishing between folk games, played in innumerable variations from locality to locality, and formal games, with official codes of rules and organised national or international tournaments. These general remarks, having once been made, are not repeated in the later chapters devoted to particular games, so that the drama of some of their history is lost unless the reader keeps firmly in mind what he has learned in Chapter One. Thus the excellent sketch of the ancestry of Bridge is concluded by a brief paragraph declining to repeat the well-known story of ‘how Culbertson came to convert all the world and his wife to Contract Bridge’. This has to be set against the information reported in Chapter One from a 1981 survey that the game was then played by only 8 per cent of British card-players. What the Bridge enthusiasts accomplished is not best measured by the number of those they have induced to play the game, but by their success in falsely persuading almost everyone that theirs is the only card game worth serious intellectual attention. In this role, it has been no threat to folk games devoid of pretensions, but a menace to other games requiring great strategic skill. Parlett ignores commercial motivation: the Canasta craze was encouraged by playing-card manufacturers because the game required two packs (with the same backs) with two Jokers each, previous packs having contained only a single Joker. Doubtless similar motives would prompt them to promote the playing of Tarot games, if the card-making industry were not virtually dead in Britain.

The need for compression has compelled Parlett to avoid repeating himself when such repetition would have been helpful: the book, though extremely readable and written with a very light touch, needs, therefore, to be read with close attention. It is, nevertheless, a notable achievement and supplies, compendiously, information not generally available at all, and, when available elsewhere, usually mixed with misinformation. Everyone who enjoys playing cards will enjoy reading this book; even the scholars, when they have occasion to mention card play, will be able, by taking a surreptitious glance at it, to avoid the blunders they are accustomed to make.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences