Monday, August 29, 2011

The Humours of Whist, a satire of Hoyle

On this day, August 29, Edmond Hoyle died at the age of 97. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Hoyle had countless imitators. But to me, nothing flatters more than satire—it requires familiarity with and affection for the target. Most of all, effective satire demands a target larger than life. Thus, I choose to commemorate the life of Hoyle with a discussion of a contemporary satire of Hoyle, his book, and the passion for gaming that makes both immortal.

Hoyle published A Short Treatise on Whist in November 1742 and sold it privately to his students. The first commercial edition to reach a wider audience was a piracy, published in mid-February 1743, followed by an authorized "second" edition in March 1743. I discuss the details of the piracy and the efforts to combat the pirates in my article "Pirates, Autographs, and a Bankruptcy: A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist by Edmond Hoyle, Gentleman." It was originally published in Script & Print, 34 no. 3 (2010): 133-61 and is available for download here.

(click to enlarge)

In early May 1743, the anonymous play The Humours of Whist (freely available for download here) was published, obviously satirizing Hoyle and the contemporary mania for gaming. Less obviously, the play satirizes the battle between the pirates and the publisher. I'll focus on a few of the aspects of the play that satirize Hoyle and will discuss those that touch on the publication history in a future essay.

The long title of the play is The Humours of Whist. A Dramatic Satire, as Acted every Day at White's and other Coffee-Houses and Assemblies.  The play was never performed—but all the behavior being satirized must have been evident every day at the coffee houses where gaming took place.

The sixty page play makes numerous references to Hoyle and launches a number of barbs. I'll select just a few examples. Hoyle opens Whist with an offer to his readers:
[The author] has also framed an artificial memory, which does not take off your attention from your game; and if required he is ready to communicate it, upon payment of one guinea. And also he will explain any cases in the book, upon payment of one guinea more. (1-2)
The advertisement that opens Humours mockingly seeks additional payments:
The author begs leave to acquaint the polite world, that on the payment of so small a price as five pieces, he is ready to wait upon any nobleman, lady, gentleman, or others, in order to give a more particular explanation of the characters displayed in the following scenes. (3)
In the play, Professor Whiston is Hoyle and, like Hoyle, is a whist tutor who has just written a treatise on the game. The comic hero is Sir Calculation Puzzle, "a passionate admirer of whist, who imagines himself a good player, yet always loses." (p8) Lord Slim, a student of Whiston's, asks Puzzle, "How do you like the last edition of his treatise with the appendix, Sir Calculation? I mean that sign'd with his name." (p15) Here, Slim shows awareness of Hoyle's autograph used to distinguish the genuine editions from the piracies.

Puzzle replies:
O Gad, my Lord, there never was so excellent a book printed. I'm quite in raptures with it.—I will eat with it—sleep with it—go to court with it—go to Parliament with it—go to church with it.—I pronounce it the gospel of whist-players; and the Laws of the Game ought to be wrote in golden letters, and hung up in coffee-houses, as much as the ten commandments in the parish churches. (p15)
[Aside: Note the reference to the separately published Laws of Whist which I discuss here.]

The cardsharp Lurchum complains to his compatriot Lurchum that the book will put the sharpers out of business:
Thou knowest we have the honour to be admitted into the best company, which neither our birth or fortunes entitle us to, merely for our reputation as good whist players...But if this damn'd book of the professor's answers, as he pretends, to put players more upon a par, what will avail our superior skill in the game? We are undone to all intents and purposes...We must bid adieu to White's, George's, Brown's, and all the polite assemblies about town...(p10)
Fortunately for the sharpers, Whiston's material was too difficult for Sir Calculation Puzzle, who was unable to understand, remember, or apply the book's calculations. He describes a hand at whist against Lurchum: 
We were nine all. The adverse party had 3, and we 4 tricks. All the trumps were out. I had queen and two small clubs, with the lead. Let me see—it was about 222 and 3 halves to 'gad, I forgot how many—that my partner had the ace and king—let me recollect—ay—that he had one only was about 31 to 26—that he had not both of them 17 to 2,—and that he had not one, or both, or neither, some 25 to 32.—So I, according to the judgment of the game, led a club, my partner takes it with the king. Then it was exactly 481 for us to 222 against them. He returns the same suit; I win it with my queen, and return it again; but the devil take that Lurchum, by passing his ace twice, he took the trick, and having 2 more clubs and a 13th card, I—gad all was over.—But they both allow'd I play'd admiraby well for all that. (p13)
Humours also criticizes a particular bit of Hoyle's advice on technical grounds. Hoyle writes:
If you have ace, king, and four small trumps, begin with a small one, because it is an equal wager that your partner has a better trump than the last player; if so, you have three rounds of trumps; if not, you cannot fetch out all the trumps. (p15)
In the midst of a discussion about the value of whist to society, Lord Rally notes "And I fancy too with ace, king, and four trumps, I should be able to fetch the trumps out, tho' you asserted ever so roundly the contrary." The professor replies "Your Lordship has laid your finger on the only errata in my book."

There is no shortage of amusing passages to discuss. In the historical discussion in his 10th edition of his Laws and Principles on Whist, Cavendish chooses some of the same ones as I did, including others as well. The point is, I think, that the readers of The Humours of Whist must have been intimately familiar with Hoyle's Whist  to appreciate the satire, and the anonymous writer even more so to create it.

Long live Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769)!

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