Ecarte – game from Arthur Conan Doyle’s books (and not only)

I like to point out presence of games in the literature. I already described whist, noble game loved by Phileas Fogg from the Jules Verne’s novel. Today, I would like to present you the game of ecarte, which occurs in books about Sherlock Holmes … and not only there.

Ecarte is a card game for two players, today almost forgotten. It is closely related to game of euchre popular in US. Some sources say that ecarte is another name of euchre but it’s not true.

Ecarte was quite popular in the XIX century, but similar games existed earlier in XVIII century. There are few variants of the game, and in addition those variants had different names. Ecarte is not a well-codified mental sport, so it is difficult to trace how it was developed.

We can meet this game in many books and this is a sign of past popularity of Ecarte. Game is mentioned in the famous novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Ecarte also occurs in another work of this writer – “The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard”.

Moreover mentions about ecarte can be found in “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club” by Charles Dickens, in “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas and in the “Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins.

Among the first movies of the Lumière brothers there was a movie showing a card game (see image on the top of the article). Probably actors were playing ecarte.

These are not all the cultural references to ecarte, only the most interesting. Perhaps now you are curious how to play this game. Let’s get to the point and let’s explain the rules.

Cards to play ecarte

To play ecarte you need a 32-card deck from aces to sevens (so-called piquet deck).

Game mechanics

Ecarte is a game for two players.

Cards rank

There is a card rank in ecarte and its rather unusual. The highest card is king, next cards are: Queen, Jack, Ace, Ten, nine, eight, seven (in short: K, Q, J, A, 10, 9, 8, 7 – from highest to lowest).

There is no suit rank but there is a trump suit determined before the play of each hand.

Cards dealing

At start players cut to determine who will be first dealer. In successive dealings, the players are dealers alternately.

The dealer deals five cards to each player. Traditionally he deals  three cards to the non-dealer, then three cards for himself, two cards to non-dealer, and two cards for himself. Then eleventh card is revealed. This card determines the trump suit.

Declaration and exchange

When cards are dealt, the non-dealer may declare “I play” or “I propose”. If he or she says “I play”, the play can begin. If he says “I propose” this means he wants to exchange cards.

In response to the proposition of exchange the dealer may agree to exchange (by saying “OK” or “please exchange”), or may not agree (by saying “no” or “play please”).

If the dealer agrees to exchange, both players need to exchange from one to five cards. There is an obligation to exchange at least one card. Exchanged cards are discarded and the dealer should deal the same number of fresh cards from the pack.

If the dealer does not agree to the exchange, the play begins.

Note: When exchange is done, everything starts from the beginning so the non-dealer again says “I play” or “I propose”. The dealer again can agree or not. Cards can be exchanged several times before the start of the game.

Note II: If cards were exchanged several times and there’s no fresh cards in the pack, the dealer should shuffle previously discarded cards to create a new pack.

The Play

The play starts when the non-dealer will say “I play”, or when the dealer will order him to play.

Ecarte is a trick taking game. One player lays a card on a table and the second plays his own cards. Those two cards form a trick. The trick is won by the player who played the highest card in the led suit. The exception is when someone played card in the trump suit. Then the trick is won by the player who has played the highest card in the trump suit.

If a player can win the trick then they must do so.

Players must follow suit by playing a card of the led suit. Only when player has no card of the suit led, he (or she) may play any card. It is not possible to play trump card if you have a card of the suit led. You always have to follow suit if possible. Only when you have no card of the suit led, you can play trump.

Non-dealer leads to the first trick. The winner of the previous trick leads the next trick.

Aim of the game and scoring

The aim of the game in each hand is to take as many tricks as possible. There are five tricks in total so you have to take at least three tricks to win a hand. Players can earn one point or more for one won hand.

  • If the non-dealer said “I play” and he won at least three tricks, he wins 1 point. If he didn’t won at least three tricks, the dealer gets 2 points.
  • If the non dealer said “I propose” and dealer ordered him to play, the dealer gets 1 point for winning three tricks. If dealer was not able to win at least three tricks, the non-dealer gets 2 points.
  • If cards were exchenged (once or more), the player who won three or four tricks gets 1 point.
  • For winning all five tricks player always gets 2 points.

There is additional 1 point for the king of trumps. If eleventh card determining trump suit  is a king, the dealer gets one point. If any player has a king of trumps in hand, he may announce it and then he gets 1 point. The king of trumps must be announced before the play if you want to get the point.

In total it is possible to win 3 points in one hand (two for the game and one for the king of trumps).

Player who scores 5 points wins the game.

London rules

I mentioned that Ecarte was not as as well codified. Actually it’s true, but at the beginning of the XX century London clubs  adopted a set of special rules. These are some examples

  • Each player has a right to shuffle cards. The dealer has the right to shuffle last.
  • The player who cuts the highest Écarté card deals, and has choice of cards and seats. A player exposing more than one card when cutting for deal must cut again.
  • The dealer can select selected the order in which he will distribute the cards, but must not change this orderd during the game.
  • If the dealer turn up more than one card, the non-dealer may choose which of the exposed cards shall be the trump, or may claim a fresh deal.
  • If the dealer expose any of non-dealer cards, the non-dealer may claim a fresh deal.

Thats only few of many “London rules”. As you can see, they do not change anything in the basic rules of the game. This is a kind of “code of conduct” for possible conflict situations. Personally, I advise to simplify this rules in the following manner. If someone dealt too many cards or unveiled too much, you shoud repeat the hand.

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