Guide to The Rules of Whist

You’d be forgiven if you were to say that you had never heard of the game Whist before. But in the 19th century, Whist was not only the card game of the choice for most people in Britain but the leisure activity of choice. Requiring only four players, the rules of this trick-taking game are quite simple, though when it comes down to being good at it, there is much more at play than just luck. A game once favored by even the monarchy, as the years rolled on it would decline in popularity, overtaken by it’s more complex cousin, Bridge. Considering a game? Well first, you need to understand the rules...
An illustration of a game of whist.
Published on: 13 August 2019

To play this game, which at one time was far more popular than blackjack, begin with a standard 52-card deck and minus the jokers. If you prefer to speed the game up, it is not unheard of to have another deck on hand with different card backs to be shuffled while the other deck is dealt. Cards are ranked from lowest to highest with an Ace high.

Pairing Your Players

For a traditional game of Whist, it is necessary to have four players playing, although there are other versions that offer alternatives in player numbers. Separate yourselves into two pairs, and select one dealer. Choose pairs by having each player draw a card from the deck at random. The highest two cards are paired as a team while the lower two cards are the other. Note: contrary to the above depiction of card ranks, the Ace is the lowest card in this scenario. Partners then must sit opposite one another.

Deal the Deck

After the deck is shuffled by the player on the dealer’s left, it is to be cut by the player on the dealer’s right. The dealer then deals each player’s hand one at a time, starting from the left and working around until each player but the dealer has 13 cards. The final card, which would be landing on the dealer to make their 13th card, is instead revealed and placed in the center for all to see. This is the trump card and will be left to the side, unplayed for each round.

Trump Cards Explained

Every card that is held that shares the same suit as the card in the center becomes a trump card. This does not mean that its rank is lowered, but if it is a played it beats, or ‘trumps’, every other suit. While the first trick is played, the dealer is allowed to retrieve the unveiled card in the center when it’s his turn.

Overall Objective

Whist is a trick-taking game with the goal to take more tricks than your opponents. A trick is created by players playing their cards into the center and the highest card wins the trick. Players tricks are counted between their teams.

Tricks Explained

The player on the dealer’s left side begins the trick by playing any card from his hand. This card will set the suit that the other players have to match. If they can play a higher card of the same suit that an opponent has played, they should. If they do not have cards from that suit, they can play any card from another suit that they want.

A trick is won by the player who plays the highest card in the leading suit. However, if a trump is played, this then makes the trump suit the leading suit of that trick and the highest trump wins. Once the round is over and the trick is won, the winning player must collect all four cards into a facedown group and that is counted as one trick. Whoever won the trick is then to play the first card of the new trick, and the game is played until all of the cards have been collected.

So, for example…

A game of whist.

Donald and Melania are on Team One and they are playing against Hillary and Bill on Team Two. The trump has been set to a clubs. As Bill dealt, Donald leads the trick by playing a Jack of Diamonds. Hillary has a Queen of Diamonds so plays that. Although Melania has diamond cards, none will beat Hillary so she chooses to play her Jack of Clubs, which is a trump card. Bill now has to play a higher trump card to beat Melania, but he doesn’t have one, so he instead chooses to play the lower trump card, the 8 of Clubs. Melania is the winner of the trick, so she collects all four cards and leaves them to her side face down. Melania is then to lead the next round.

Remember What Was Played

Although it seems quite simple, there are definitely some basic things to remember while playing to have a better chance of winning. For one, although it is a team game, you have no idea what your teammate holds and what they could potentially win with. It’s important to remember not just what your opponent has played but what your teammate has played to get a better indication of what they may be holding. Communication about your cards to your teammate or opponents is prohibited, including any comments on the strength of your hand. This is why the tricks are collected face down – it makes it harder to remember what cards are still alive. The only exception is at the beginning of a new trick, when any player can ask to see the cards from the last trick that was played. Once the first card of the new trick has been played, this is no longer allowed.

How to Score

The game ends when all the tricks have been collected, which will be a total of 13 tricks. Once that has been done, both teams are to count their ticks and whoever has more, wins the round. The value of cards is of no importance. The winning team is the team with more tricks. When scoring, they get 1 point for every trick above 6 ticks. So, if the winning team were to win over their opponents with 8 tricks, they would deduct 6 and be left with two points.

This means that theoretically, a team can score between 1-7 per game, but it is more likely that teams will win 1-3 points per round. A game ends when one of the teams as reached five points. In a traditional sitting of Whist, the overall match will be finished when one team has won two games – that is, two games of winning five points.

Alternative Gameplay

It’s not uncommon for Whist players who want to shake things up a little to alter a few of the rules and methods of gameplay. This is, after all, how the game of Bridge was first conceived. Below are a number of suggested variations to spice up your rounds.

Drag It Out

For most people, a race to 5 points tends to offer enough of a challenge to keep the game moving along. In saying that, there is no reason at all that you can’t increase the number of points needed to win. A game of “Long Whist,” stipulates 9 points for a win, while Americans are noted to play Whist up to 7 points. However, during a bona fide tournament, it is unlikely that games will vary in length with every round.

Bonus Points

A really fun way to add more twists to longer games of Whist is to add opportunities for bonus points if players meet certain conditions. One example of this is that you can be rewarded if by the end of the round your team has collected three or four of the Ace, King, Queen, and Jack of the trumps in your tricks. You then are to be rewarded by either three or four bonus points depending on how many you have. In spite of this, it’s worth noting that tricks are counted before trumps, and the game is over the moment when one of the teams reaches the set amount of points. Some believe that the element of luck that getting bonus points adds undercuts the skill that goes into standard gameplay and so they prefer to play without bonus points. Despite this, it does speed up the game somewhat and can make for a more casual experience.

Cycling Trumps

Rather than having the final card dealt at the beginning of each round be the decider of which card will be the trump, some players prefer to cycle designated trumps for different hands. For example, you might start with Diamonds for trumps, then Clubs and so on. On the fifth hand, it is not uncommon for players to then choose to go without trumps at all. A game that included all these variations is possible and could look a little something like this:

As fans of all-American gameplay, Donald and the Gang choose to play up to 7 points. As the game progresses, Hillary and Bill manage to get 6 points whilst Donald and Melania sit on 6 points too. The final round is won by Hillary and Bill who score one point. However, in Donald and Melania’s tricks are the four highest trumps which with honors rules would give them four points. Who would win? Well, as tricks are counted before points, Hillary and Bill’s one point would take them to 7 first and the game would be over, their team winning despite Donald and Melania’s 10 points!

More Alternatives to Whist Gameplay

If you needed any more indication of how popular the game of Whist actually was in its heyday, read the myriad of ways that it was played all over the world.

  • Solo Whist – Every player is their own agent. Each player scores individually, yet players can change rules at the end of every hand. This allows them to make alliances with others for each round and can be played with 3-7 players.
  • Hearts – Standard rules apply, although the game is altered so that the objective is to lose tricks containing specific cards or trumps.
  • Norwegian Whist – the standard game of Whist excluding trumps. Some versions include trying to win fewer tricks than other teams so that those with the highest points lose.
  • Three-Handed Whist – Three players are dealt thirteen cards. One “widow” hand is dealt but set aside, and players may have the choice to use a widow card instead of the hand that was dealt to them.
  • Two Player Whist – Norwegian Whist but played with two players having 26 cards playing two cards per round.
  • Oh, Hell – Before the hand is played, players make bets on how many tricks they will take. If they go above or below that number, they are penalized one point for each trick off.
  • Serbian Whist – The same as Oh, Hell, but each round sees one card taken from every hand dealt.
  • Knock-out Whist – Whist played with 7 people all playing as individuals without teams. The player who finishes each round with no tricks is eliminated.
  • Progressive Whist – Trumps are decided at the beginning of the game and stay the same for the duration of all gameplay.
  • Dummy Whist – A three player Whist where players bid on their cards, like Oh, Hell, where the winner chooses the trump and plays a dummy hand.
  • Catch the Ten – Play with only 36 cards between 6 and Aces. 10s are the most valuable, only beaten by trump jacks.

Tips and Tricks

With rules as simple as this, it might seem as though there’s not much use in trying to figure out a way to win – surely it all comes down to who you’re paired with and the luck of the draw, right? Think again, because there are a number of things to keep in mind while playing to help you come out victorious.

Firstly, don’t rely on winning with your higher cards and throw them down too early. The trick to winning is to make your lower cards win for you in the earlier round and remember what your teammate has played. If for example, the club has been played and it is the trump suit, you want to make sure that the third person playing is putting down their best. If you aren’t playing the trump suit and you are opening the round, lead with the lowest from your strongest suit to clear out your worse cards.

As the third player will play high, you want to make sure that you or your teammate are playing their best if victory looks possible and the other isn’t already winning. Additionally, if you don’t have the suit in the center and you’re considering playing a trump, don’t do it unless your opponent could easily overtrump you. And the last tip but not the least – have fun! If you want some more tips and tricks of popular games, why not check out our slots tips and baccarat tips pages for help.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Need Four Players?

Not at all! Both Two-Player Whist and Three-Handed Whist are great alternatives to the classic four-player version. See details for both games above.

What Is the Difference Between Whist and Bridge?

Although Bridge is an offshoot of Whist, there are enough differences between the two to distinguish them both as two separate games. They are similar in that they are both trick-taking games, but other than that, Bridge operates on a much more sophisticated level. Bridge also lends itself a lot more to the luck of the draw. A couple of big differences between the two are that in Bridge, the dealer’s teammate doesn’t play the hand with him. At first lead, he holds a revealed dummy hand which is to be chosen from and played by the dealer. As well as this, the trump suit is not chosen by the randomness of it being the last card dealt but rather it is selected by the dealer or his partner.

What Is the Bid Whist Game?

Not only is a game of Bid Whist played with the standard 52-card deck, but it also includes the two jokers. The jokers are assigned two different roles; the Big Joker and the Little Joker. Like standard Whist the game is played with two teams of two who sit on the opposite of each other. Players are to keep playing until they score 7 or more points, which they earn by not just earning tricks (called books in Bid Whist) but also by bids. When the cards are dealt, each player is to receive a hand of 12 cards with six being lain faced down in the center to form a ‘kitty.’ The first four cards must be dealt to players as must the last four, but other than those the kitty can be made from any six cards from the rest of the deck.

The player on the left of the dealer starts the round by placing a bid, and the bid goes around while each player following must bid higher than the previous person – that is, they must bid on how many books they will have at the end of the game. Players can choose to pass their turn if they wish. The highest bidder names the trump suit of the game, then they add all 6 cards from the center of the table to their hand and discard the least valuable to them. In naming the trump suit, the bidder leads the first card and other players follow suit, playing trump cards or cards from other suits if they cannot play trumps. The winner of each book leads the next hand. If a player leads with a joker, the following player can follow with any card and consequently set the suit for that hand.

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