WHAT GAME WAS AFOOT IN "THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE"?

By Leslie S. Klinger and Timothy Bourke

"It is the first Saturday night for seven-and-twenty years that I have not had my rubber,"
complains Mr. Merryweather to Sherlock Holmes in REDH. After an explanation of why Holmes so incommoded Merryweather, the Master replies, "I had brought a pack of cards in my pocket, and I thought that, as we were a partie carree, you might have your rubber after all." To what card game do Holmes and Merryweather refer?

Whist was the card game (at least the card game requiring four players) for several hundred years. The earliest works touching on whist are Charles Cotton's Compleat Gamester (1674) and Richard Seymour's Court Gamester (ca. ). It was not until 1728 that the rules of the game were formalized. The first important work on whist was by the legendary Edward Hoyle, his Short Treatise on the Game of Whist (1742). The laws of whist showed little change between 1728 and 1850, the only significant revisions being those promulgated by two London clubs in 1760. These rules remained fairly unchanged until "Caelebs" (E. A. Carlyon) published Laws and Practice, a code that the Portland Club (of London) adopted in 1863.

At its simplest, whist is played as follows: Partners sit opposite each other. The privilege of dealing rotates around the table. The dealer deals out all 52 cards, 13 to a player. The last card dealt is exposed and establishes the "trump" suit. After exposure, the card is added to the dealer's hand. The player to the left of the dealer commences by playing a card ("leading out"). Players play clockwise in turn. Each player must play a card of the same suit as that lead out; if the player has no cards of that suit, the player may play any card. The collection of one card from each player (that is, four cards played in rotation) is called a "trick." A trick is won by the player playing the highest card of the suit lead, unless a card from the trump suit has been played, in which case the trick is won by the player playing the highest card of the trump suit. The winner of the trick then leads out to the next trick. When all thirteen tricks have been played, the team with the majority of the tricks scores one point for each trick over six tricks. The match is won by the team with the highest accumulation of points. A "rubber" bonus may be awarded to the team winning two out of three games (a "rubber").

Although it flourished in England, by the 1890's, whist was deeply rooted in American soil as well. Numerous American authors published prominent works, including Fisher Ames, R. F. Foster, C. D. P. Hamilton, and Milton Work. 1890 also saw the founding of the American Whist league. Its annual conferences, starting in 1890, gave new vigor to what, for the average player, had become perhaps too much a rule-driven and so somewhat moribund game.

Perhaps this lack of dynamism in the British game prompted John Collinson in 1886 to publish a small pamphlet called Biritch or Russian Whist. This booklet introduced in print the new concepts of playing with one hand exposed (a "dummy"), permitting the declaration of no trump suit (called "Biritch"), and the concept of doubling and redoubling (contre and sur contre), that is, the opponents doubling the stakes for a particular hand.

The Collinson book, while important, had little practical impact on Whist in the short term. Within ten years, however, a slight variation of "Biritch," called "Bridge Whist," would vanquish "King Whist." The origins of this "new" game are obscure, but it was apparently played for some time, some unsubstantiated reports suggesting as early as the 1850's. Only Archibald Dunn, in The Bridge Book, claims that prior to 1886, he played a variant of "Biritch" in Smyrana--without no trump or doubling--but with the features of the dealer having the option of naming trumps and the exposure of the cards of the partner of the dealer as a "dummy" after the opening lead.

Another unresolved mystery is the origin of the word "Bridge." There is no word like "Biritch" in Russian, and the mystery of why the game became known as Bridge remains. The game was introduced to the New York Whist Club by Henry I. Barbery as "Bridge Whist." Whether this was because or in spite of a pamphlet written by Barbery is unknown--no such work survives.

The change to "bridge whist" did not gather force until 1894, when Lord Brougham, after a period abroad, played whist at his club. He committed the (deliberate?) error of not turning over the card to set the trump suit at whist. When challenged, Brougham reportedly said, "Oh! I thought I was playing Bridge." The other members of his table asked him to teach them the game. Almost within a few weeks, Whist was said to be dead in the gentlemen's clubs of London.

"Bridge whist" was played by the dealer naming a trump suit or passing the option to partner. Once either notrump or a trump was named and any doubles made, the player on the left of the dealer lead, and the dealer's partner's hand was exposed as a "dummy." Play continued as in whist, except that the dealer made the plays for both his or her own hand and for the "dummy." Scoring was similar but the value of tricks varied with the denomination of the trump suit, no trumps being the highest at 12 points per trick (over six), hearts 8, diamonds 6, clubs 4, and spades 2. Rewards for "rubber" bonuses, and other honors, did not count toward a game, which was set at 30 points.

The enthusiasm for "Bridge Whist" produced volumes of new literature and new authors. However, the reign of "Bridge Whist" was short, perhaps a dozen years or so. In 1904, "John Doe" (K. R. Rowe") suggested changes to the game which were termed "Auction Bridge," and from 1905 on, most books on Bridge Whist included a chapter on this variation. Bridge Whist struggled on for a few years, but by 1908, when prominent Bridge Whist authors R. F. Foster and William Dalton published books on Auction Bridge, it was clear that the tide had turned. By 1910 Auction Bridge had become the dominant version of the game, and Bridge Whist joined Whist as a game of the past.

Tantalizingly, the red-letter dates of the revolution in the game of Whist coincide with the active career of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. What role he played in encouraging and developing Auction Bridge remains unknown. However, enjoyable as the reports of Alfred Sheinwold,(1) George S. Gooden(2) and Frank Thomas(3) of the Master's triumphs at the bridge table, those reports are all of games of Contract Bridge, a game not played by anyone until its invention in 1925 by Harold Vanderbilt. While it is pleasant to imagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson enjoying the game in retirement, any notion that they engaged in the game prior to 1925 must be firmly rejected.

All of the major chronologists of the Canon place REDH between 1887 and 1890, with the great majority inclining to the latter date.(4) From the history of Whist and its progeny, then, it is clear that Mr. Merryweather could only have been referring to a 27-year history of playing Whist. Others have argued at length that Holmes was undoubtedly a card-player of some sort,(5) and from Holmes's suggestion of readiness for a game with Merryweather, it is evident that Holmes and Watson too (and indeed Peter Jones) must have been familiar with Whist.

The dramatic appearance of John Clay and his accomplice in the vaults of the City and Suburban Bank, while vindicating a nice piece of work by Sherlock Holmes, must be a great disappointment to card-playing students of the Canon. With the need for darkness, lost was a precious opportunity to observe the Master's skills at Whist. Did Holmes know the Collinson work on "Biritch," and was he about to initiate the banker--clearly a creature of habit--into the refinements of the game? We can only imagine.

1. See, e.g., "Sherlock Holmes Revisited," Popular Bridge, 2, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1968), 45.

2. See, e.g., "Sherlock Holmes Discovers Bridge," Popular Bridge, 1, No. 3 (Nov.-Dec. 1967), 39, 41-43.

3. See, e.g., Thomas, Frank, and Gooden, George S., Sherlock Holmes., Bridge Detective. Los Angeles: Frank Thomas (1973).

4. See Peck, Andrew Jay, and Klinger, Leslie S., "The Date Being--?": A Compendium of Chronological Data, at .

5. See, e.g., L. A. Morrow's "The Game Is.....," Baker Street Journal, 7, No. 1 (Jan. 1957), 32-39. Morrow traces the numerous references to cards which appear in Holmes's statements throughout the Canon. Without foundation, however, he states, "It is too bad that the game left Watson cold." At 37. It is apparent from Holmes's expectation of a card game in REDH, to the extent of him actually bringing a deck of playing cards with him, must mean that Watson (as well as Peter Jones) played Whist, for while it is an easy game to learn, no one can enjoy playing with beginners. See also Keefauver, Brad, "Holmes and Cards," WheelWrightings, 8, No. 2 (Sep. 1985), 17-20. In "The Game That Was Afoot--Five Card Stud?," WheelWrightings, 3, No. 1 (May 1980), 8-9, Keefauver explores the possibility that Holmes was a semi-professional poker player.