Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Whist and its Masters

updated August 3, 2020 with information from the second Foster letter

This meandering essay will discuss an 18c article and a series of 19c articles on whist strategy. The earlier article has been quoted without attribution so many times, that I want to acknowledge the original source. The later series is, I think, unknown to today's scholars of whist.
Let's begin with an entry in Jessel's 1905 bibliography1 of gaming books:
560. FOSTER, ROBERT FREDERIC. - Whist and its Masters. In The Monthly Illustrator, Sept. 1896 to March 1897, inclusive. I. The Old School. II. The New School. III. The Signalling School. IV. The Scientific School. V. The Number-Showing School. VI. The Duplicate School.VII. The Private Convention School. (Butler, p. 43. These papers are about to be reprinted in book form.)
Let's unpack the entry a bit. Whenever Jessel had not seen a book he included in his bibliography, he was careful to note how he learned of it. Here, the parenthetical item "Butler, p. 43" means that he saw the book listed in William Butler's outstanding work, The Whist Reference Book (1898)2. The book is arranged as an encyclopedia and on pages 42-3 is an article called "Articles on Whist". The entry of interest is:
"Whist and its Masters," by R. Frederick Foster, Monthly Illustrator, Sept. 1896 to March 1897, inclusive. I. The Old School. II. The New School. III. The Signalling School. IV. The Scientific School. V. The Number-Showing School. VI. The Duplicate School.VII. The Private Convention School. 
So Jessel did no more than copy Butler.

As much time as I spent with Jessel, I had never paid much attention to this entry. Certainly if the papers had been reprinted in book form, I would have run across them at one time or another. Why did Jessel think they were going to be reprinted?

I visited the Jessel collection at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford in 2018, As I looked at a lot of books and a lot of Jessel's handwritten notes about his collection, I discovered that dozens of his books included letters from the author which Jessel had pasted in the front of their books. I looked at as many of these letters as I could find and got a sense of how Jessel collected, and how he put together his bibliography. The most frequent correspondent was Foster and the earliest letter I found was in an edition of Foster's Complete Hoyle (1897), shelf mark Jessel e.443.

Foster wrote the letter on November 16, 1903 apparently responding to a request from Jessel that he list all the books he had written on card games. Foster mentions 20 titles and their publishers, but also describes "Whist and its Masters":
"Whist and Its Masters" was a series of articles, ten I think, published in a magazine called "Home & Country" I had arranged to have them appear in book form, but the publishers failed, and it fell through. These articles were a complete history of the strategy of the game, showing how it developed and enlarged, and the articles were illustrated by photos of all the men who had taken a leading part in advocating certain conventions. Some persons thought these articles the best things I ever wrote on Whist, I have no copies of them."
A later letter by Foster said that plan to publish the book was revived. The letter, dated January 1, 1905, is pasted in Foster's Practical Poker, shelf mark Jessel f.425. It is on the letterhead of The Sun, a New York daily newspaper to which Foster contributed columns on card games. "We [presumably The Sun] are going to reprint the 'Whist and Its Masters' and I shall be pleased to send you a copy for your library. How I sigh for that library!"

These letters intrigued me! I originally began to collect books on whist to understand the history of whist strategy. As I got more into Hoyle and its publishing history, that desire waned. There is not a lot of literature on the progression of whist strategy. William Pole's The Evolution of Whist (1897), here, does a creditable job, as does Butler's Whist Reference Book.

The revived plan must have failed as well--there is no hint that the book was ever published. So I needed to locate the original articles. I turned to ILL, that is inter-library loan, an experience both frustrating and rewarding in this instance. The frustration was that I did not have good bibliographical information about the articles. Butler and Jessel were wrong, the periodical is, as Foster indicated, Home and Country; its publisher is The Monthly Illustrator Publishing Co. of New York. The dates were wrong as well. The first article appeared in August 1896, the final article, number nine (not ten, as Foster recalled) appeared in April 1897.

ILL was able to provide digital copies of six of the nine articles. Surprisingly, I found a seventh on eBay for about $20. And, I have leads on the final two, but can't really pursue them until libraries reopen after the Covid-19 sheltering. Here is a complete list:
  • I. The Old School, 13:1, 15-21, August 1896
  • II. The New School 13:2, 89-94, September 1896
  • III. The Signalling School, 13:3, 153-7, October 1896
  • IV. The Scientific School, 13:4, 211-15, November 1896. 
  • V. The Number-Showing School, 13:5, 295-9, December 1896
  • VI. The Duplicate School, 13:6, 376-9, January 1897
  • VII. The Private Convention School, 14:1, 11-16, February 1897
  • VIII. The Common-Sense School, 14:2, 109-14, March 1897
  • IX The School of the Future, 14:3, 205-9, April 1897
I'm left to wonder who thought the articles were the best writing on whist Foster had done. Perhaps Foster himself?

Below is the cover for the issue I found on eBay. 

Home and Country
February, 1897

And here, a couple of pages from the Foster article, "The Private Convention School."

The articles are quite good, if one overlooks some overly-flowery prose. I'd like to focus on the first article as it is the one to focus on Hoyle and before. Before? Haven't I always claimed that Hoyle was the first to write on the strategy of card play? Foster writes:
The first attempts to reduce the practice of whist to a science appear to have been made by a coterie of players who met at the Crown Coffee-House, in Bedford Row, London, early in the last [18th] century, and of whom the first Viscount Folkestone is the best known. Unfortunately, they left no authentic record of the results of their investigations, and we have it on hearsay evidence only that they followed the general principles of "playing from the strongest suit (not the longest), studying the partner's hand, and playing to the score." (16)
The anecdote about Lord Folkestone and the Crown Coffee-House appears throughout the literature of whist. It is rare that any reference is supplied. Where did the story come from?

The source is an article by Daines Barrington in Archaeologia called "Observations on the Antiquity of Card-playing in England," a paper read before the Society of Antiquaries on February 23, 1786. Barrington traces the origin of playing cards and, at the end of the paper, he discusses the most popular card games: primero, ombre, quadrille, trumps, swabbers, and lastly whist.

Of whist, Barrington writes:
...[W]hisk seems never to have been played upon principles till about fifty years ago, when it was much studied by a set of gentlemen who frequented the Crown coffee-house in Bedford Row. (145)
A footnote begins below and continues on the next page:
I have this information from a gentleman who is now eighty-six years of age. The first lord Folkstone was another of this set. They laid down the following rules: To play from the strongest suit, to study your partner's hand as much as your own, never to force your partner unnecessarily, and to attend to the score. (145-6)

Barrington (145)

Barrington (146)

Two comments. First, I stand by my claim that Hoyle was the first to write about the strategy of whist. The Crown Coffee House group may have been the first to form principles of play, but they did not write or publish on the game. Second, one sees the suggestion that Hoyle may have been part of the group at the coffee house. That is certainly not true. Hoyle was a household name in 1786 when Barrington's piece was written. Had Hoyle been part of the group, Barrington's "gentleman friend" would have told Barrington; Barrington would have added Hoyle's name alongside that of Lord Folkstone.

I'm delighted to have tracked down (most of) the series of articles by Foster. They are well-written and informative. If you manage to locate a copy, be aware of a caution Butler made about Foster's writing in the Whist Reference Book:
[Foster] is also a frequent contributor to other publications, his recent series of articles (1896-'97) in the Monthly Illustrator, ...containing much valuable and interesting material, although tinctured with his likes and dislikes, which are very strong. (184)

1A Bibliography of Works in English on Playing Cards and Gaming. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1905. Available for download.  
2Available for download. If you happen to click through to the Google copy, be sure to check out the smile-inducing pages 16 and 17.