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10th August 1942: Two ladies play whist in London, 1942 (Pic: R. J. Salmon/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
10th August 1942: Two ladies play whist in London, 1942 (Pic: R. J. Salmon/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
10th August 1942: Two ladies play whist in London, 1942 (Pic: R. J. Salmon/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Warning: thanks in part to the eternal popularity of proper gambler’s games, and the rise of the tablet computer as an alternative to sitting around a table playing cards with your nearest and dearest, some of these games are not even all that common in Britain any more. But they were once—and should be again.

Scabby Queen
Also known as Old Maid, this is a game in which one card is effectively cursed, and it’s your job to try and convince the other players to take it off you, so you don’t end the game holding it.

Whether using a specially made Old Maid deck or a normal 52-card pack, the idea is that every card has a potential pair, except for one. In Scabby Queen, one of the black queens (most commonly the queen of clubs) must be removed before play starts, then all of the rest of the cards are dealed out into equal piles.

Players first sift through their hands for pairs both in color and number, so the two of hearts and the two of diamonds, the ace of spades and the ace of clubs and so on. These are placed in a pile in the center. Then, starting with the dealer, each player offers his hand face down to the person on his or her left. They pick a card and see if it matches one of theirs. If it does, they discard the pair and offer their hand to the next player. If they get the queen, they would be wise not to mention it.

Thus play continues until there is one player left with the queen. They have lost. In the past, there would then be a further element in which the deck would be presented to the loser to cut the deck. If they pick a red card—say the four of hearts—they would receive four smacks on the back of the hand with the deck. If a black card—six of clubs—the deck would be scraped down the knuckles six times, until the skin tears. Hence the term “scabby queen.” Thankfully, this version is relatively rare these days.

Happy Families
Essentially, this is Go Fish but with Victorian sensibilities, and it requires a special deck for the full effect. The idea is that each player tries to collect all four of the members of a particular family by asking a player to hand over a specific card. If the asked player doesn’t have the card, it’s their turn to ask someone else. If they do have the card, they hand it over and the asking player takes another turn.

Happy Families has a wonderful pedigree, having been invented by John Jaques II of the venerable old games company Jaques of London, who is credited with inventing ludo, tiddlywinks AND snakes and ladders (which is effectively chutes and ladders for thrillseekers). The families are all presented using the same format, so Mr. Bun the Baker will be joined by Mrs. Bun, the Baker’s Wife, Master Bun, the Baker’s Son, and Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter.

Other common patriarchs from happy families include:

Mr. Bud, the Florist, Mr. Chalk, the Teacher, Mr. Chip, the Carpenter, Mr. Chop, the Butcher, Mr. Constable, the Policeman, Mr. Green, the Grocer, Mr. Pipe, the Plumber, Mr. Stamp, the Postman and Mr. Trim, the Tailor. There is no Mr. Froth the Barista.

Fun fact: the original Happy Families cards were drawn by Sir John Tenniel, who went on to illustrate Alice in Wonderland.

This game is based on the 16th century favorite Ruff and Honors, a trick-taking game for four players, played using a standard 52-card pack, aces are high. Players pair off, then the pairs cut to deal. Each player gets thirteen cards, with the dealer taking the last card and placing it face up. This card determines which suit is trumps. Now we’re ready to play.

The player to the left of the dealer puts down any card. The player to the left of them must put down a card of the same suit if they can, and so on around the table until all players have put down one card. The player with the highest number wins. If they don’t have a card of the right suit, they can play either a card in the trump suit (in which case highest trump wins) or any card (in which case they lose).

Then play commences again, thirteen rounds (or tricks) in all. The team that has won the most tricks scores one point for every trick over six. And the game begins again, until one team has scored five points over all, and then they’ve won.

Stop the Bus
Also known by the colorful name Bastard, this is a variation on the game Thirty-One, in which players swap cards and then suddenly stop and reckon up a winner. Using a 52-card deck, each player begins with three cards and three chips or tokens. Three cards are played face up in the center, and players take their turn by taking either one or three of the cards and replacing them with the corresponding number from their own hand. Having taken then turn, a player can call “Stop the Bus,” which gives everyone else just one more turn before all hands are revealed.

Three of a kind beats everything, then a running flush, then a run, then a flush, then a pair with a high card. Pairs are ranked against one another by the highest card, or highest pair, then middle card, then low. The player with the poorest hand gives up one chip, and play recommences until there is a player with only one chip left. They win.

The rules of this particular game are slightly more complicated. In fact, for a full summary, you’ll probably be better off having a look at David Parlett’s website about historic card games. Gleek was another hugely popular game from the 16th century onwards, but this time for three players. It’s another game in which there are arrangements of cards that score well—particularly a flush, a gleek (three of a kind) or mournival (four of a kind). Also, in Gleek there is no place for either the twos or threes of each hand, these are removed and the rest of the scoring starts ace high, down to four.

It has the reputation of a gambler’s game to such a strong degree that Edmund Gayton even added the following humorous anecdote to his Festivous notes on the History and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote, from 1768:

“A lady once requested a gentleman to play at Gleek, was refused, but civilly, and upon three reasons, the first whereof, Madam, said the gentleman, is, I have no money. Her ladyship knew that was so material and sufficient, that she desired him to keep the other two reasons to himself.”

See also: Cribbage and Euchre, two games that are slightly better known in America, but only just.

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By Fraser McAlpine