Monday, August 22, 2011

The Nature of Gaming Literature (part 1)

Obviously, I've looked at a lot of books on gaming. For this essay, I want to jump above the minutia of cancels or the effect of copyright law on Hoyle's body of work and discuss gaming literature more abstractly. The goal, however, will tie back to Hoyle, by showing in what ways Hoyle's work broke new ground.
When I see a discussion of, say, whist in a book, I mentally place it into one or more of these categories: (1) existential; (2) rules; (3) remedies; (4) strategy; (4a) partnership agreement (5) cheating. This is my model and my definitions--others may differ and I'd be eager to hear other points of view. Let me discuss each in turn.


Existential writing, my term, does little more than document a game's existence. While this may sound trivial, it is actually important historically to learn both when a game was introduced and who played it. For example, the long list (please do click through!) of games played by Rabelais's Gargantua tells us something of the games that were known in the 1530s. The references to whist in Jane Austen indicate that it was a society game in the early 19th century. Cavendish makes much use of existential sources in his historical treatments of whist and piquet.

Existential sources can also date the vocabulary of a game. For example what contract bridge players called a "cross-ruff" was known to Hoyle as a "see-saw," a term that in bridge means something completely different.


By rules, I mean detailed instruction about how to play the game legally. For example, the rules of whist are trivial, given concisely on the wonderful website Knowing only what is written in those half dozen short paragraphs, you could begin to play whist immediately. You would play poorly, of course, but legally. I find it fascinating that these rules are nowhere clearly expressed in any whist book I know! All the writers from Hoyle to Cavendish and beyond assume the reader knows the mechanics of the game, a thought made explicit by Cotton in The Compleat Gametser, noting that "every child almost of eight years old has a competent knowledge" of whist.

Seymour's Court Gamester, (1718, with a later edition available for download) is a rare exception, providing rules for the games of ombre and piquet. Is there any earlier example in English of a set of rules for a game?


It is easy to violate the rules of a game inadvertently. The dealer can give the wrong number of cards to a player or expose a card while dealing. A player may show his cards to a partner or opponent, may play out of turn, or may fail to follow suit. In backgammon, a player may move the incorrect number of pips, or play a checker forgetting that he has another on the bar. These irregularities happen with sufficient frequency, that the over time a set of remedies has evolved to restore equity.

I particularly like the chapter title Seymour uses to describe the remedies at Piquet: "Of the Accidents which happen at this Game, and the Penalties which attend them." (page 84). Hoyle's Laws of Whist are really such remedies:
I: If any person plays out of his turn, it is in the option of either of his adversaries to call the card so played, at any time in that deal, provided it does not make him revoke; or if either of the adverse party is to lead, he may desire his partner to name the suit he chooses to have him lead, and when a suit is then named, the partner must play it if he has it. (Laws of Whist)
It is interesting to realize that today, when playing games on a computer, violations cannot happen and remedies are unnecessary. A well-designed program will not permit an irregularity!

More on Strategy, Partnership Agreement and Cheating in the next essay.

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