The great 18th-century card game known as Boston Whist is a cross between English classical partnership Whist and French Quadrille. It married the basic simplicity of English Whist with the "alliance" feature of Quadrille - that is, everyone plays for themselves and any partnership that may be formed lasts only for one deal. What makes it a great game is that many of its direct descendants became the national trick-taking games of their various countries, notably Préférance in Russia, Vira in Sweden, and - almost, but not quite - Solo Whist in England.
Boston is usually, but misleadingly, represented as a variation of classical partnership Whist made by abandoning the fixed-partnership principle. It is better regarded as a solo or alliance game created by grafting the simpler mechanics of Whist on to the structural stock of Quadrille. Whist provided the 52-card pack, with natural ranking from Ace high to Two low throughout, uncomplicated by the existence of top-trump matadors with special powers, and possibly the trump turn-up. These are all superficialities. The essence of the game is its solo/alliance nature and varied range of bids, in which respect Boston retains rather the thrill of Quadrille than the twist of Whist.
The origins of Boston are shrouded in dubious legend. It is claimed that Bostonians under siege in 1775 sought to relieve their tedium and political frustrations by divorcing English Whist from fixed partnerships and stressing the solo or "independence" element - a claim supported by reference to additional bids under such names as Philadelphia, Souveraine, and Concordia. A survey of nineteenth-century game compendia, however, shows that most of them were introduced long after the event in question. Another view credits the game to officers of the allied French fleet then lying off Marblehead. Two little islands in the harbour are known as Little Misery and Big Misery, by which, it is said, the bids of petite misére and grande misère were inspired; but these, too, prove under examination to be later additions. Yet another claim is that Benjamin Franklin, who was a keen player and is even said to have invented the game, introduced it to the court of Louis XVI on a trip to Versailles in 1767.11 More likely than any of these romantic flights of fancy is that it developed in France and took its name and inspiration from current events in America, to which it had become a welcome export before the signing of the Franco-American alliance of 1778. (In this connection it is perhaps only an attractive red herring to note that Trappola cards were known in parts of Europe as "Boston-Karten", from the suit of bastoni, or clubs.)
Two early forms of Boston are described in the Almanach des jeux of 1783. In le whischt bostonien the last card is turned for trump and no other suit can be nominated. The lowest bid is a demande or "ask-leave" to win five tricks solo. To this, any other player can call "je soutiens" ("I support"), thereby allying himself with the asker and contracting to win at least eight between them. The higher bid of indépendance offers to win at least eight tricks playing solo. In either event there is a bonus for winning all thirteen tricks, formerly called la vole but now le chelem, from English "slam". (Resemblances to modern English Solo, or Solo Whist, are remarkable.) The other variety, Mariland [sic], is more elaborate. All bids are solos, the lowest being for four tricks in any suit. Each can be overcalled by bidding a higher number of tricks or the same number in a better suit. For this purpose a better suit is that of preference, previously determined by turning the last card of the deal, and best of all is surpréférence, which for the whole session remains the suit turned for preference on the first deal.
An apparent compound of Mariland and original Boston appeared around 1800 under the name Boston de Nantes. This also has two preferred suits (belle for permanent, petite for each deal); in addition, the club Jack is a permanent top trump, known as the carte de Boston, or simply "Boston". It also has bids of "proposal", which may be accepted by another player, and solo, for playing alone.
The ultimate game of this family, Boston de Fontainebleau (c. 1810),14 carries the principle of suit preference to its logical conclusion by specifying a fixed and permanent hierarchy, namely (from low to high): spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts - a sequence which reappears in a variety of nineteenth-century Whist-derivatives including Cayenne, Vint, Bid-Whist, and the earliest form of Bridge. It also extends the range of bidding possibilities by recapitulating features from the Hombre-Quadrille tradition, with no fewer than sixteen bids:
Cinq levées (= Mariland's demande): declare trumps, take five tricks alone, or, if accepted, eight with ally;
Six levées: six alone or ten with ally;
Petite misère: all discard one, lose all twelve tricks at no trump;
Sept levées: seven alone or eleven with ally;
Piccolissimo: at no trump, win exactly one trick;
Indépendance: eight alone or twelve with ally;
Grande misère: no trump, take none of thirteen tricks;
Neuf levées: nine-trick solo;
Misère des quatre as: the soloist has four Aces but offers to lose every trick at no trump (being, however, allowed to renege once in the first ten played);
Dix levées: ten-trick solo;
Petite misère sur table: as before, but with soloist's hand revealed;
Onze levées: eleven-trick solo;
Grande misère sur table: as before, but with soloist's hand revealed;
Douze levées: twelve-trick solo;
Boston seul: take all thirteen tricks;
Boston sur table: the same, with cards revealed.
The bids increased in pay-off value, each being further augmented by the holding of three or four honours, by the entrumpment of a preferred suit, and by overtricks. About the only thing it does not include is a positive no-trump bid, whose first appearance is traced by Thierry Depaulis to about 1818 in Boston de Lorient under the bid-name quatre couleurs.
Boston's popularity spread fast and wide throughout the west, giving rise to countless variations under a variety of names. It would be tedious to trace them all, especially as they do not all include "Boston" in the title. Boston remained essentially a nineteenth-century game, and was largely trampled under the march of Bridge. Its importance lay in the two invaluable legacies it left to all serious trick-taking games of the future: (1) the evolution of a permanent suit hierarchy from the idea of suit preference, and (2) that of using bids to vary the objective of the game as well as the conditions of play.