Sometimes in Spanish bars you see a group of elderly gentlemen enthusiastically playing a game of cards called truc – it seems to involve a lot of triumphalism and theatrical posturing, and apparently is very similar to the English game called “Put”. In Catalonia they play it as a foursome but with partners (as in Bridge) and this gives rise to some intriguing signals between players on the same side. Apparently:
Closing one eye: means you hold a three.
Pouting your lips: means you hold a two.
Showing the tip of your tongue: means you have an Ace.
Obviously it helps if you can give these signals to your playing partner without being observed by the other two players! It also means that if a Catalonian winks, blows you a kiss and then sticks his tongue out at you, it is best not to call the Police until you have checked what game he is playing….
Truc seems to be a bit more complicated than the old English game of Put, but it is clear that they share a common ancestry – no doubt sailors brought it back from abroad. There are records of Put being played in England as far back as the 16th Century.
I had not come across Put until I saw this Thomas Rowlandson/George Woodward collaboration, published by Ackermann in August 1799 and appearing on the Lewis Walpole Library site. It is called “A game at Put in a country alehouse”. The yokel on the left says “Zome-how – I donna half like the looks o-thee!” while holding a pair of fives and an ace. Across the table his companion looks shell-shocked at a hand containing a royal card and two aces (?) and announces “I put.”
So, how was Put played and what is it all about? It was certainly a very popular game in taverns in the 18th Century, even though (or rather, because) it relied relatively little upon skill or memory, but rather a lot on “brass neck” and bluffing. No suits to worry about, no counting of cards already turned up: just you pitting your wits against your opponent (usually only two people played, but it could be three or four), armed with just three cards for each deal.
The first thing to remember was that it wasn’t “aces high” – or even low. The sequence in the 52-card pack was (high) 3-2-A-K-Q-J-T-9-8-7-6-5-4 (low) – the same as in truc. Three cards were dealt to each player, and the non-dealer would lead off. His opponent would try and win the trick by playing a higher card. Remember: there were no trump cards and no suits to follow.
The game was won by the first player to score 5 points over as many deals as necessary. Where both players played cards of equal value, that trick was tied and the player who led had to do so again. A player who won two tricks, or one trick when both the others were tied, won the hand, and scored one point. If the players each won a trick and the other trick was tied, the hand was deemed to be a draw and no points were scored – this was called “trick and tie”.
What makes the game interesting, and gives it a quality similar to Brag, is that players try and ‘con’ their opponent by talking up their hand. Either player, when about to lead a card, may do one of three things:
1. He can throw his hand in, thus conceding the deal and giving a point to the opponent.
2. Lead a card without saying anything. His opponent must then play.
3. Say “Put”, which is short for “I put it to you that you should throw your cards in while you have the chance.” If the opponent follows this advice, the deal ends and the putter scores 1 point. If not, it is a case of ‘put and see’ and the putter leads and the other must play.
What this means is that a player with a weak hand may still win, by asserting the strength of his hand and hoping that his opponent will cave in. It led to much histrionics and double bluffing.
The game was mentioned in a book by Charles Cotton called The Compleat Gamester, (London, 1674). Cotton was an intriguing person – a close friend of Isaac Walton and a contributor to his Compleat Angler, published in 1653. His Compleat Gamester was considered the “standard” English-language reference work on the playing of games – especially games where betting was a popular feature, and including billiards, card games, dice, horse racing and cock fighting. His authorship of the book was not disclosed at the time it was first published, although it was acknowledged in some of the later editions. Poor Cotton died bankrupt in 1687 and is buried in St James Church Piccadilly.
Various later editions of The Gamester appeared in the 18th Century. According to Cotton, Put was an extremely disreputable game. He called it “the ordinary rooking game of every place” and much of his chapter on Put is devoted to a description of various common types of cheating. This might be done by marking the cards, or introducing cards from another pack, etc. He also explained “The High Game”, in which the cards were stacked so as to deal the victim a three and two twos, while the dealer dealt himself a two and two threes. The non-dealer would fancy his chances and call ”Put” and perhaps agree some extra wager on the side, which the dealer would then “see” and win. Cotton remarked that you were unlikely to get away with this more than once against the same player!