Playing Cards in Jane Austen’s England, Pleasant Pastime, as Well as Gambling

… the undeniably romantic allure of the richly decorated gaming clubs or the reckless gambling of dynastic fortunes [which] rather trump[s] the dingy and dull penny games played against street walls or in alehouses. (Arthur Pitt, MA dissertation, A Study Of Gamblers And Gaming Culture In London, c. 1780-1844)


The idea of playing cards is one often explored in Regency Era-based books and novels. What type of games? Were these purely for passing time in pleasurable company? Or were they more for those, like Mr. George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who attempted to win his fortune? Or foolishly lose one’s inheritance? We hear mention of playing cards after suffer within families and playing cards at balls, a separate room set aside for those who wish to indulge in sometime more sedate than dancing a country dance. Card parties were a common way to while away an evening. Whether as a small group in a private home, or as an alternative to dancing at an assembly or ball, they were an acceptable pastime for anyone in any station. 

First, let us address the playing of cards outside the home. Many who indulged in this activity were serious gamesters, often times placing their families in ruin and “putting a period to his existence.” Naturally, such is not to say all men lost their fortunes, nor does the idea of “gaming hells” eliminate the fact that men (and some women) regularly bet on cock fights, bear baiting, horse races, fisticuffs, etc. Moreover, it was not necessary for the gentleman to go to a “gaming hell” to place his bet, for every gentleman’s club (White’s Brooks’s, Boodle’s, Watier’s, etc.) had a card room, and as mentioned above, every ball and house party hosted a game room. In those, the player could have reasonable hopes of an honest game of cards. The gaming hells were not so reputable as that. There, “Captain Sharps” often won huge fortunes. 

[For more on Gentlemen Clubs in the Regency England, visit this post on Historical Hussies.]

Charles James Fox from Historical and Posthumous Memoirs of Wraxall 1884 1a.jpg Supposedly, Charles James Fox, Whig MP and leader of the Opposition to William Pitt the Younger’s Tory government, and close personal friend of George, Prince of Wales and Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and his brother lost large sums even at supposedly staid places like Brooks’s. Please note that some accounts of Fox’s losses refer to his doing so at Almack’s. However, we must remember that Brooks’s, at one time was called “Almack’s,” in the late 18th century. So the place where Fox lost a large fortune was the gentleman’s club Almack’s, later called Brooks’s. (Absolutely confusing for those of us who are trying to keep our facts straight!!!) [The establishment most of us read about in Regency romances— Almack’s—was where couples met in the “Marriage Mart” [although this idea appears to be more of a early Victorian concept than Regency]. It was run by the four Patronesses and was later called Willis’s Rooms. 

However, I will say that Almack’s was not as staid as Heyer and most Regency romances make out: it was not just a “marriage mart,” but also a club where the wheelers and dealers of Parliament made political alliances, etc., and where one could meet everyone of importance on a Wednesday night.  So I expect there was some significant money lost and won at our Almack’s, too, upon occasion. Almack’s also sometimes served as a gambling house that rented  out rooms for private events and the assembly.

So, what card games were popular during the Regency? 

Whist was very popular. If you know something of “Contract Bridge,” you likely will recognize whist as a precursor of that game. The game requires four players (2 sets of partners). A trump suit is chosen and tricks are won. 

When the card tables were placed, he had an opportunity of obliging her in return, by sitting down to whist.

“I know little of the game, at present,” said he, “but I shall be glad to improve myself, for in my situation of life –” Mrs. Philips was very thankful for his compliance, but could not wait for his reason.

Mr. Wickham did not play at whist, and with ready delight was he received at the other table between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first there seemed danger of Lydia’s engrossing him entirely for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of lottery tickets, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes, to have attention for any one in particular. Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him… – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 16

Piquet is another popular Regency card game. Piquet is not easy to master for a strong memory of which cards have been played is important. Moreover, the game has a complicated scoring system and possibilities of huge bonus points. Skill and strategy are necessary to play well. I imagine Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, working as partners, would be hard to beat in this game. 

Here, however, the kindness of Mrs. Jennings interposed most acceptably; for to send the Colonel away while his love was in so much uneasiness on her sister’s account would be to deprive them both, she thought, of every comfort; and, therefore, telling him at once that his stay at Cleveland was necessary to herself that she should want him to play at piquet of an evening… – Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 43 

In the five-card version of loo, a permanent high trump is selected, called “Pam.” The players play for tricks. However, “at the beginning of the hand, they may choose to play, fold, or pick up and play an extra hand dealt, called a ‘miss.’ A player who wins no tricks  is ‘looed.'” [Gambling in Regency England]

What we called “Twenty-One” was called “Vingt-et-un” during the Regency. The idea is to earn 21 points or reach a higher number than the dealer. Going over 21 points means a person loses that hand. 

Vingt-un is the game at Osborne Castle. I have played nothing but vingt-un of late. You would be astonished to hear the noise we make there — the fine old lofty drawing-room rings again. Lady Osborne sometimes declares she cannot hear herself speak. Lord Osborne enjoys it famously, and he makes the best dealer without exception that I ever beheld, — such quickness and spirit, he lets nobody dream over their cards. I wish you could see him overdraw himself on both his own cards. It is worth anything in the world!” – The Watsons

In Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter, the family has a gambling house where Faro [or Pharoah – or Basset] was played. It was a game with a bank that people played against the house. They had a bouncer and usually had people learned of the game and its location by word-of-mouth, because it was illegal to have a Faro bank. In other words, faro is not really a card game, but a game of chance using cards. Nowadays, it is played at a green baize table displaying pictures of playing cards. However, during the Regency, the dealer takes cards from a special wooden box and lays them face up on the table. One suit of the cards is pasted to the table in numerical order, and players place their bets by putting what they want to stake on one or more cards. Various rules decide whether a card drawn from the box wins for a player with a stake on the same number, or loses. Basically though, the player bets on whether a certain card will be dealt from the wooden box.

In the late 1700s, fashionable ladies set up Faro banks in their homes, but this practice fell out of favor by the Regency. That did not mean it stopped completely. Some ladies supplemented their income by ‘holding the bank’ in private card parties held in their houses. As long as they retained the appearance of merely being a hostess, and not in business, such a venture would dent their reputation but might not ruin it.

Hazard, another game often mentioned, is not a card game at all but a dice game. The player must roll a certain number on the dice. There is some strategy involved in which numbers the player selects to roll, but Hazard is essentially a game of chance.

The Jane Austen Centre provides us these instructions for the game of “Commerce.” 

“Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton. – Northanger Abbey, Chapter 11

How to Play Commerce:  Deck: 52 card deck with Aces high; Players: 3 to 12: Object: To finish with the best hand

Highest: 3 of a kind, called a Tricon 
Next: 3 Cards of a suit and sequence 
Last: The greatest pip-value of 2 or 3 cards of the same suit, counting Acesa s 11, Court Cards as 10 and others at numerical value. If equal, a 3 card flush beats a 2 card one. If still equal, the tied player nearest in turn after the dealer wins.

Preliminaries: Each player contributes to the pot. The dealer deals 3 cards to each player.

English playing cards from about 1750Play: The player to the left of the dealer bids to buy or trade. To buy, she gives a chip to the dealer for a card from the deck and discards a card which is placed at the bottom of the deck. To trade, she offers to pass a card to the player on her left in exchange for one given to her. If the player agrees to trade, the exchange is made without looking at the cards being received. No chip is paid. If a player does not buy or trade on the first opportunity, she cannot do it during the remaining play of the hand. If she buys or trades, she may buy or trade on a later turn. Trading can only occur to the left. Play continues with each in turn having the opportunity to buy or trade until a player ‘knocks.’ A player knocks when she is content with her hand. All hands must then be shown and the winner determined.”

Instructions for the Game of Whist from the Jane Austen Centre

“Whist and speculation; which will amuse me most?”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 25

“Deck: 52 card deck; Players: 4 players, as partners (2 and 2); Object: To take tricks and score the most points
Preliminaries:All 52 cards are dealt facedown except for the final card, which is turned up to establish the trump suit.

“Whist was one of the first card games to use the trump-suit concept. It developed in the 18th century from the French game of triomphe, which began in the 16th century. This game was replaced at the end of the 19th century by bridge and is very similar to hearts. When playing, the dealer adds that card to his hand when it is his turn to play. The player to his left starts play by leading a card and the other players follow suit, if possible. The trick is won by the highest card of the suit or by a trump card played form a hand with no cards in the suit that was led. The winner of each trick leads next. Six tricks are called a book and each additional trick counts as one point. The first partnership to score seven points wins.”

In the evening it was found, according to the predetermination of Mrs Grant and her sister, that after making up the whist-table there would remain sufficient for a round game, and everybody being as perfectly complying and without a choice as on such occasions they always are, speculation was decided on almost as soon as whist; and Lady Bertram soon found herself in the critical situation of being applied to for her own choice between the games, and being required either to draw a card for whist or not. – Mansfield Park, Chapter 25


Instructions for the Game of Loo

“On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below with a book.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8

Instructions on How to Win at Speculation

“What shall I do, Sir Thomas? Whist and speculation; which will amuse me most?”

Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended speculation. He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner. – Mansfield Park, Chapter 25 

Instruction on How to Play Quadrille

Lady Catherine, Sir William, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins sat down to quadrille; and as Miss De Bourgh chose to play at cassino, the two girls had the honour of assisting Mrs. Jenkinson to make up her party. Their table was superlatively stupid. Scarcely a syllable was uttered that did not relate to the game, except when Mrs. Jenkinson expressed her fears of Miss De Bourgh’s being too hot or too cold, or having too much or too little light. A great deal more passed at the other table, Lady Catherine was generally speaking — stating the mistakes of the three others, or relating some anecdote of herself. Mr. Collins was employed in agreeing to every thing her Ladyship said, thanking her for every fish he won, and apologising if he thought he won too many. Sir William did not say much. He was storing his memory with anecdotes and noble names. – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29

How to Play Casino 

After some time spent in saying little or doing less, Lady Middleton sat down to cassino; and as Marianne was not in spirits for moving about, she and Elinor luckily succeeding to chairs, placed themselves at no great distance from the table. – Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28

Other Sources: 

This blog post on Jane Austen’s World has a list of further links at the end.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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