Monday, March 25, 2013

Information Whist

A bookseller once asked me an odd question. Knowing of my interest in books on the game of whist and knowing that whist had pretty much died out, he asked what was my newest book on the game. The answer is a small pamphlet called Information Whist, published in my home town of San Francisco.

Sloan, Information Whist

The work is an eight-page pamphlet with stiff covers and text printed on the inside rear cover as a ninth page. The author is W. A Sloan and the book is published at 4024 Eighteenth Street, San Francisco, Calif. More information about the author and the address appears below. I wish there were a colophon telling who printed the book.

From everything I can tell, mine is the only surviving copy of this work. It's not listed in WorldCat or any of the catalogues of California libraries. None of the whist collectors I know seem to have a copy. I purchased it more than 20 years ago at a second hand book shop. It was tucked in the back of the most common whist book of all, a late reprint of Cavendish on Whist, first published in 1862, a work I discuss in the essay "The Successors to Hoyle (part 1)". The bookseller was delighted to let me have both for five dollars.

The title page contains a rather silly verse, foreshadowing the Rhyming Rules for Whist, discussed below:
All whist players for the prize aspire
And fight for all tricks that they require.
From this little book take your advice
Then your partner's sure to treat you nice.
In the pre-Google days, I went to the San Francisco Public Library and looked through old telephone books and city directories trying to identify the author and learn when the book was written. I found that his full name is Wolsey A. Sloan, and he moved to 18th Street about 1920 with his wife Lucy P. Sloan. He was employed as a boilermaker in the early 1920s and became a rent collector for the real estate firm of Umbsen, Kerner, and Eisert. He died in 1946 and Lucy lived at the same address until 1960. So the pamphlet dates between 1920 and 1946.

With Google, and his unusual first name, it is not hard to learn more about the Sloans. The site gives details for both Wolsey and Lucy. Wolsey was born December 4, 1861 in Ohio and died May 20, 1947 in Alameda, just across the Bay from San Francisco. Lucy was a California girl, born in July 21, 1860. She died in San Francisco on August 8, 1960. The two are buried together in the Golden Gate National Cemetery, sharing a gravestone with his details on one side and hers on the other.

Wolsey was an army private, serving in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. His first person account of serving with Troop H, Fourth U. S. Cavalry, appeared in the July 30, 1935 issue of Winners of the West, a periodical issued by the National Indian War Veterans Association. It was reprinted in Indian War Veterans, Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898, edited by Jerome A. Greene (New York: Savas Beatie, 2007).

The Chicago Blue Book of 1895 shows Wolsey and Lucy living together at 607 Chestnut Street, the same address as Mrs. C. E. Sloan, presumably his mother. A 1910 census shows him living in Washington State.

4024 Eighteenth Street is in the Castro District of San Francisco, just a block and a half from the famous Castro Theatre, built in 1922 just after the Sloans moved to 18th Street. Pictures of the duplex appear below. The Sloans would no doubt be shocked to learn that the property is worth seven figures today!

4024 18th Street duplex
Detail of 4024 18th Street

The pamphlet itself consolidates useful strategies for playing whist. What is most interesting, in my opinion, is the Rhyming Rules of Whist on pages 8-9, pictured below. The rhyme begins:
If you desire the game of Whist to know
From these set rules it simple precepts flow,
Treat your hand as to your partners bound.
Both combine as one, or both confound.
Sloan's Rhyming Rules

As awkward as the rhyme is, it is not original! Rhyming rules for whist date back to the British whist expert William Pole. He published his Rhyming Rules, printed on a card, entitled Pocket Precepts in 1864. Pole's rules, pictured below, begin quite similarly:
If you the modern game of Whist would know
From this great principle its precepts flow:
Treat your own hand as to your partner's joined,
And play, not one alone, but both combined.
Pole's Rhyming Rules for Whist

Sloan's debt to Pole is obvious, but what I find interesting are the few substantive changes. For example both recommend the same honor leads. For example, Pole: "In this, with ace and king, lead king then ace." Sloan: "Holding Ace and King lead King, then Ace." The two carry on similarly for leads from KQ, AQJ, Axxxx and QJT. Otherwise, Pole says, "In other cases, you the lowest lead" while Sloan says "In other cases the fourth best lead."

The change in partnership agreement from lowest to fourth best occurred in the 1870s was recommended by Nicolas Trist of New Orleans and Henry Jones ("Cavendish") of London. The changes came to be known as American Leads in honor of Mr. Trist and were widely adopted by serious whist players. Sloan, then, did more than just plagiarize Pole, he updated Pole's rhymes to current practice.

I've devoted this long entry to a late and rather unimportant book on whist. I do so first because its rarity might be of interest to other whist collectors. More than that, perhaps a grandchild of the Sloans will find this essay through Google and get in touch so that I can learn more about how it came to be written!