Most card games fall into two main groups.  First, the games in which certain cards are “trumps” (a corruption of the word “triumph”) and players can make “tricks.”  (A trick is a collective term for the cards usually  four played and won in one round.) This group includes the contract bridge and whist series of games.  Second, the games in which “melding” (making specific combinations of cards) is a basic principle.  These are rummy games, which include all forms of texas holdem poker.  There are a number of games that combine the ideas of melding and trick making.  And in a few games the object is to lose tricks.

Games of the rummy series appear to be the oldest, but one has to remember that the Tarot pack had trump cards, so games involving the making of tricks may have preceded rummy games.  There was a Persian rummy game of the 14th century called âs-nâs,  which has been adapted by every nation without altering the structural basis of dealing a hand of five cards to each of four players.  (Poker and gin rummy are the Western world’s most popular variants of âs-nâs .)  Columbus’s seamen took the game of cards from the Old World to the New (whether or not they flung their game overboard in order to change their luck) and one of them gives an account of it in a journal he kept for his wife:

“After the Hail Mary at nightfall those not at watch played at cards,the card game having been showed them by sailors from Cathay… It is a game in which skill adapts to chance, each player having five cards only and these to be matched in every respect to the coat [court] cards and the as [ace].” It seems very likely that the sailors from Cathay (Cathay was the name given to the whole of the oriental empire, not just to Marco Polo’s China) had taught Columbus’s men âs-nâs.  There are certainly several references to the popularity of this game in 14th century Persian literature.
After the 14th and 15th centuries, references to the names of games (but not rules ) crop up quite frequently.  Primero (or primiera) was a 16th century Italian card game, and Charles IX of France played gimlet, a French version of it, during the period of his remorse after the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572 (“At Gilet this day I lost my purse, but at Saint-Barthélemy I lost my soul”).  Both the French ambigu  and the English brag introduced the element of bluffing (i.e., betting heavily to make it seem that your hand is stronger than it is, so as to frighten your opponents and make them concede the hand before the cards are shown); but it’s doubtful if either of these games was played before the 18th century.  Brelan (or bouillotte)  was a 15th century French game of the rummy kind, in which hands of three, not five, take a cards were dealt.

Of the games combining the characteristics of melding and trick making, piquet is the best known.  (Kalabriasz, a game from central Europe, is probably older; bezique and pinochle belong to the same family but are considerably later.) The suggestion (quite common in early histories of gambling) that piquet is named after its inventor is absurd.  The name is derived from pique,  meaning to prick or nettle your opponent, and is exactly the same word that gave the name to the French suit of Pikes (Spades).

The trick-losing games come in varying degrees of difficulty.  Black Maria  is perhaps the most complex: Each of the three players has 17 cards (the two of Clubs is omitted from the pack) and at the beginning of the game passes three of them to the player on his right, collecting three from the player on his left.  play poker then proceeds by making tricks, but the object is not to win those tricks that contain penalty cards.  The penalty cards are all the Hearts, (each of which counts one point against the trick winner), and the ace, king, and queen of Spades, which count seven, ten, and 13 points respectively.  Greek hearts (which is sometimes shortened to hearts) and slobberhannes are slightly simpler variations on the trick-losing theme.

The games in which trick making was of principal importance seem to have been the last to arrive.  One catches glimpses of details of whist-like games in the 16th century.  Triumph, ruff, ombre, and honors were all built round the idea of trumping, and are all developments of ronfa, an early 16th –century Italian game in which the leading player could decide to his own advantage which should be the superior or trump suit in play.  (A card from the trump suit will win a trick from any card of any other suit in play.  (A card from the trump suit will win a trick from any card of any other suit.)  Ronfa, like ombre, was usually a game for two.  The Spanish adapted it for three and called it renegade.

Ombre was the French version and became very popular in the smart set.  Descartes, who began gambling when he was 17, gave up ombre after losing for 15 nights in succession and discovering  that he was more interested in the mathematical probabilities that had caused his losses than the losses themselves.  And the playwright Rotrou, who wrote execrable poetry to earn money to pay gambling debts, won 400 louis at ombre one night and put the money in a bag and gave it to Corneille, his fellow playwright , to look after for him.  corneille immediately sallied forth with the firm intention of turning it into 1000 louis.  But the inevitable happened and he returned the empty bag with a note: “Vous n’avez pas l’ombre d’une change.”
Ruff, honors (sometimes called slam), and whist were the earliest English variants of the trick-making games, and were all hugely popular by the middle of the 17th century.  Ruff and honors (and later ombre) faded out, but whist – which got its name from the exclamation “Whist!” (“Hush!”) demanding silence for concentration –kept its popularity until the end of the 19th century.  It was partly maintained by the boosting power of A Short Treatise on Whist by the English lawyer Edmond Hoyle, whose name as a card expert is well known even today (though not a word of his original writings remains in rule books).  More complex rules for dominoes were later foisted upon it by one Henry Jones, who called himself Cavendish and wrote innumerable treatises (Cavendish on Whist)superseding Hoyle’s and making increasing demands on the wits of those who played the game.   In a more simplified form, whist today is largely played at social gathering in England and North America ( a “whist drive” is often used to raise money for churches or women’s clubs); it can no longer be called an important gambling game.

Biritsch was a version of whist played in Russia, where it rivaled faro in popularity in the early part of the 19th century.  The main difference was that in British the trump suit was decided by the dealer instead of by chance as in whist, where the suit of the last card to be dealt was trumps.  Also the dealer’s partner became “dummy” and declared (i.e., exposed his hand) after the first trick had been made.  And there was a points system of scoring that allowed doubling, tripling, and quadrupling of stakes.  Biritsch appears to have come to western Europe via Turkey; General Menshikov, the Russian ambassador in Constantinople immediately prior to the Crimean war, remarks in one of his dispatches that his only relaxation for 15 days had been a game of British, which he lost because of “the overwhelming forces of chance.”

At all events, British quickly gained European ground.  It reached England in 1894, and the Portland Club of London claims to have been the first to use the name “bridge” (a corruption of the original Russian name), which is today used internationally.  Bridge has gone through several changes on its way to the now firmly established “contract” form.  The “auction” form appeared in the  Whist Club of New York in 1908.  Instead of allowing the dealer to nominate trumps, auction made the suit the subject of competitive bidding.  But a variation called plafond, popularized by the French expert Pierre Ballenger was quickly taken up in Europe and America and became contract bridge.  Contract has superseded auction in most clubs, but auction is still played privately, especially by players who prefer not to endure the marathon of skill that is a good game of contract.  (As if contract weren’t difficult enough with the standard pack of cards, a fifth suit called “Royals,” symbolized by a crown, was added in 1938. By 1939 it had vanished.)

Bitter conflict between the British, American, and French bridge authorities waged over the rules from 1925 to 1948; and at least two socialites came to public blows (Westminster Gazette headline: “Fisticuffers Confound Culbertson”) over the Culbertson “conventions.”  (Culbertson was one of the world’s acknowledged bridge experts, and the one to whom modern players owe most for the development of the rules that are now internationally accepted.) Today  contract bridge holds its top popularity among the games in which great skill is combined with a relatively small element of chance- which by no means implies that gambling on bridge is equally small.  An Australian club owner.  I know estimated that Melbourne and Sydney turn over the equivalent of $ 300,000 nightly at the bridge tables.  And an American authority has estimated that about $ 1,000,000,000 are bet annually on bridge in the U.S.A.
Piquet, pinochle, kalabriasz, bezique, and cribbage are also tests of Gamed game people play of skill in which players make tricks, meld, and claim points for their successes.  The skill in all these games lies in memorizing the cards played, sensing the speed of the game, making the right decisions on the declaring of winning card hands, and reckoning the scores and sacrifices it is best to make at the appropriate times.  Piquet has kept its aristocratic and French terminology.  In the  version for two players, the complete of six deals is a “partie,” the players are “younger hand” (who deals) and “elder hand” (who discards), and the scoring sequences of cards are Tierce, Quart, Quaint, Sixiéme, and Huitième.

Pinochle (the word is a corruption of the French binocle: binocular) is especially popular nowadays in Switzerland (where it originated) and in America (where it was taken by 19th century emigrants).  But it has a very small following elsewhere under that name.  It is played (usually by two, three, or four players) with  a 48-card pack and the scoring and betting is by points; the combination of the queen of Spades and the jack of Diamonds is called “pinochle” and is worth 40 points. Bezique is the more widely played version of pinochle, with a big following in Britain, parts of the Commonwealth, and France.  It requires 64 cards and is usually played by two players.  Like pinochle, it is a game of considerable skill, and, though played for money, makes its principal appeal to those wishing to exercise their poker brains with figures.  Again, tricks and melds score varying numbers of points and the first player to score a predetermined number wins.