A game of cards that the better sort of people play three together at...
Vanbrugh, The Provok'd Husband (1727)
A game for card gourmets and snobs...
Klaus Grupp, Kartenspiele (1975)
Ombre (pronounced "omber", rarely "umber") is the English version of the French game l'Hombre, itself equivalent to the Spanish game once known as Hombre. Hombre is the Spanish for "man" and denotes the highest bidder or lone player. Towards the end of the seventeenth century l'Hombre/Ombre became the greatest card game of the western world. It remained so until well into the nineteenth, when in England it found itself whittled away by Whist and ultimately buried by Bridge. It survived longer in Germany, as Lomber, and to this day is still played in Denmark as l'Hombre. The greatness of the game lies first and foremost in its introduction of the then novel concept of bidding to name a trump suit, in contrast to the age-old custom of turning the last card for trump and having to abide by it.
Ombre was once thought to have entered England with the return of king and cavaliers from foreign parts in 1660. So thought the antiquary Daines Barrington1 on the grounds that it was probably introduced by Catherine of Bragança, whom Charles II married in 1662, "as [court poet Edmund] Waller hath a poem On a card torn at Ombre by the Queen". But a political tract of 1660 metaphorically entitled The Royal Game of Ombre 2 presupposes that it must have been well enough known by then for its allusions to be recognised. And in 1662 an account of "The Noble Spanish Games of l'Ombre" appears in the second edition of John Cotgrave's Wits Interprter, later plagiarised in Cotton's Compleat Gamester of 1674. In fact, it rapidly became so popular in high society that by the end of that year Parliament had proposed to pass an Act against the playing of Ombre, or at least to limit the stakes to £5, a proposition "received with ridicule"3. In 1665 Pepys remarked "If [my Lord Treasurer] can have his £8000 per annum and a game at l'ombre he is well." In 1665 there appeared an anonymous publication entitled The Royal Game of Ombre Written At the Request of divers Honourable Persons, of which the text is available as part of the online Gutenberg project.
Ombre is well known in English literature from Pope's description of a game played by Belinda, the heroine of The Rape of the Lock, which provides an authentic card-by-card account of the play of the hands. (See below.) The reference is of further interest for confirming that Ombre, like its successor Quadrille (and, indeed, Bridge), was especially popular with women. Less salubriously, it plays a significant role in Magdalen King-Hall's Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945).
But the Ombre bubble, like that of the South Sea, was not to last. Though still accounted "a royal game" in Seymour's Court Gamester, published in 1719 "for the use of the young princesses", Ombre was already being challenged in both England and France by its French four-player development Quadrille. Hoyle's 1745 treatise on Quadrille ignores Ombre, which Daines Barrington declares "almost forgotten"; and its absence from scores of nineteenth-century pseudo-Hoyles makes Lord Aldenham's privately printed treatise4 of 1874 read like the work of a lovable old eccentric.
The following description
(1906) is based almost entirely on Lord Aldenham's Treatise, though I do not follow his practice of employing Spanish terminology (spadillo, malillo, codillo, etc) rather than the equivalent French (spadille, manille, codille, etc), as French was more usual in English play.
I think it worth pointing out that a principal point of interest of the game lies in the relationship between the three players in any one deal. The aim of the solo player, Ombre, is to win an individual majority of the nine tricks played - that is at least five, or a "dominant four" (4-3-2). Ombre loses a simple game or puesta if any two players win four each, or all three win three each (4-4-1, 3-3-3). If however, one of Ombre's opponents wins five or more, or a dominant four, then Ombre suffers the greater loss of codille, and whoever delivers codille gains from both players. (Spanish codillo means that part of the arm between elbow and shoulder, so we might say that Ombre is elbowed or strong-armed out.) While the opponents' primary aim is, therefore, to beat Ombre, each one's second aim is either to deliver codillo or to prevent their temporary ally from doing so by ensuring that their tricks ar divided 3-2 or 4-1 between them. As Aldenham puts it, "The great art in this game is judiciously to distribute among your adversaries the tricks which you cannot yourself win" - a point that applies equally to the soloist. It is this emphasis on the division of tricks that makes the game so fascinating.
Three or four, but only three are active at a time. All play for themselves in the long run, but a temporary alliances between two is formed at each deal. The turn to deal, the dealing itself, and all the play of tricks, rotate from left to right. In each deal the dealer's right-hand neighbour is the "eldest" and dealer the "youngest" hand.
40, consisting of AKQJ765432 in each suit. (Omit ranks 10, 9, 8.)
A small dish to hold the Pool,
"One of those three-sided tables" (detail; from Seymour 1719) and a set of counters. These (says Aldenham) "should be of various shapes - round, oblong, and long (or fish-shaped), these last counting, if you please, as one point each, the oblong as five, and the round, ten; but it is better, as the points at stake are often many in number, to have rounds of two sizes, the larger, which used to be called cents, counting as twenty, and the small ones, which used to be called milles, counting as ten. The numerical value, however, of the counters may be settled by agreement between the players. It is convenient to have counters of several different colours, as yeliow, red, green, and brown, so that each player may have his own colour, and may know clearly at the end of the game which of them he has to redeem. Thus a regular Ombre-box has four trays within it, each with its several coloured counters; one dozen apiece, let us say, of the twenties, tens and fives, and a score  of ones; and in the middle the pool-dish".
An additional requirement - although, says Aldenham, "such an adjunct is of course not essential - is one of those three-sided tables (such as one sees sometimes in old houses) with pits in them to hold the counters. One of them appears in the frontispiece, which is taken from Seymour's Compleat Gamester".
"If there is but one lady playing, it is her place to deal; if but one gentleman, it is his: but if three gentlemen are playing, or three ladies, the cards are to be dealt round, one by one, and the first king deals." The dealer places five fish [basic units] in the pool-dish, deals nine cards to each player in three batches of three from right to left, and finally places the last 13 cards face down on the table to form the stock.
Rank of cards
The ranking order of cards varies as between red and black suits, and as between trumps and plain suits.
The top three trumps are called Matadors and always consist of:
- Ace, called spadille
- The nominally lowest trump (black 2, red 7), called manille
- Ace, called basto.
In a red trump suit the fourth highest is its Ace, called punto, but it is not a matador. Matadors have
special privileges in the play of tricks, as will be explained later.
The trick-taking power of cards,from highest to lowest in each suit, is as follows:
- in black trumps: spadille, manille (2), basto, K Q J 7 6 5 4 3
- in non-trump black suits: K Q J 7 6 5 4 3 2
- in red trumps: spadille, manille (7), basto, punto (A), K Q J 2 3 4 5 6
- in non-trump red suits: K Q J 2 3 4 5 6 7
Whoever bids highest becomes Ombre, the soloist. The four possible bids, from lowest to highest, are:
- "Play" (Juego): an offer to win an individual majority of tricks after announcing a trump suit of one's choice and exchanging some cards with the stock.
- Voltereta: an offer to do so after turning the top card of the stock, accepting its suit as trump, and exchanging some cards with the stock.
- Solo: an offer to play in a freely-announced suit but with the hand as dealt - that is, without any exchange of cards.
- Diamonds (Oros): solo, but specifically with diamonds as trump.
Each in turn,
A bid of voltereta, using Spanish
cards (from Aldenham's Treatise) beginning with Eldest hand, announces either "Play" or "Pass". Once you have passed you may not come in again, and if everyone passes the pool is increased, the hands are thrown in, and the turn to deal passes to the right. If one player says Play and the others pass, that player becomes Ombre and may announce any of the four possible games.
A simple "Play" can be overcalled by the announcement "I bid higher" (juego más), which is an offer to play one of the higher-ranking games. As is customary in such games, a higher bid overcalls a lower one, and if two players wish to make the same bid the elder of them has priority.
Unless playing solo, Ombre now makes as many discards from the hand as desired, and replaces them with the same number
drawn from the top of the stock. It is usual to keep all one's trumps and Kings and discard the rest. The discards are placed
face down "on the pool-dish" and may not thereafter be consulted. "The Ombre having completed his own
discard [says Aldenham], his right-hand adversary settles with his friend which shall have the first choice of the
remaining cards of the stock, either discarding at once himseif (as is his right) if he be so minded, or indicating
that he fields the right to his companion (to take it or leave it as he may think best); and this he will gladly do if
his own hand be such as not to promise him at least two or even three tricks certain; for by so doing he will give his
companion more chance of beating the common enemy. Or he may have a very good hand, and need to discard but few, and may
not with to draw attention to it. Whichever, then, first discards, throws out and exchanges as many cards as he pleases
[...]; and the other takes of those that remain as many or as few as seems good to him, taking none at all if he likes.
(Footnote: If any remain in the Stock, some authorities say that he may see them if he chooses; but if he sees them,
so must the other players also. No one may look at his discard after taking in.)"
In a bid of solo, all 13 undealt cards are available to the opponents to draw from, but whoever draws first must not take more than eight.
Eldest leads first. Players must follow suit if possible (except when reneging - see below), otherwise may play any card. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played, and the winner of each trick leads to the next.
If a trump is led and you hold a matador, you are not obliged to play it, even if you have no lower trumps. Instead, you may "renege" by playing from another suit. However, if a matador higher than yours is led, you may not renege, but must play it if you have no lower trump. For example, if spadille is led, and you hold manille or basto, you must furnish it. Similarly, manille forces the play of basto if there is no alternative. Spadille itself, being the highest matador, cannot be forced. Note that forcing applies only if the higher matador is led to the trick, not if it is played second.
Winning by 5 tricks or 4-3-2 is a sacada: Ombre takes the contents of the pool, plus five fish from
each opponent, plus any of the "extras" as specified below.
Losing by 4-4-1 or 3-3-3 is a puesta - Ombre is said to be "bested" or "beasted" , and must pay into the pool an amount equal to what is already there, plus 5 fish for each opponent (i.e. 10 if three are playing, 15 if four).
Losing when one opponent wins 5 tricks or a dominant 4 is a codille. As puesta, except that payment is made not into the pool but to the opponent who delivered the blow.
The following additional payments may be applied to a win:
Primeras For winning the first five tricks straight off, Ombre receives 6 fish from each opponent instead of five.
Estuches (honours) If as Ombre you originally held the top three trumps (matadors), you may receive an additional payment of three fish, plus another for each successive trump below them also held. For example, having held three matadors and the King, Queen of trumps, the payment is five. (A limit of five is usually imposed, even if all nine trumps were held.) Conversely, the same payment is made if Ombre originally lacked the three matadors, plus one fish extra for each successive trump also lacking - though this, of course, will rarely amount to much. If this practice is observed, the payments are exacted as penalties for a loss, whether by puesta or codille.
Voltereta For a successful voltereta, Ombre receives 7 fish from each opponent, or, for losing it, pays a like amount into the pool.
Solo For a successful solo, Ombre receives 8 fish from each opponent, or, for losing it, pays a like amount into the pool.
The vole (winning all nine tricks)
If, as Ombre, you win the first five tricks straight off, the game is over; but if you then lead to the sixth, you have "challenged for the vole", and are obliged to win the remnaining four. (You can, indeed challenge for the vole during the auction, thereby necessarily playing a solo and outbidding anyone else who bids solo. But if someone else is strong enough for a solo, you are unlikely to make the vole, and there is no advantage to be gained from challenging it during the auction when you might as well wait until you've won primeras.) If you do challenge, and then lose a trick, the deal ends and you will have lost it. The payment for a vole, won or lost, is 30 fish from or to each opponent instead of the basic five. These payments, if observed, also apply as penalties if Ombre loses, whether by puesta or codille.
If, Ombre, you feel you cannot win - whether because you find you have overbid your hand, or because you have drawn useless cards from the stock - you may offer to "surrender", provided the fourth trick has not yet been initiated. If your opponents accept your surrender, they must show their cards to prove that neither of them has revoked. You are thereby bested, and pay as though you had played and lost by puesta. Either opponent, however, may "forbid" the surrender. In this case you place your payment to one side to await the outcome of the play, for the player who forbade you must then take on the role of Ombre and win five tricks, or a dominant four, as if they had won the auction in the first place. If the new Ombre wins, your surrender is annulled and you take back your puesta, as you have now lost by codille and must pay accordingly. If the defender (the new Ombre) is bested, there are of course two puestas to be paid. These are called twins and are to be played for together. The defender, incidentally, is not allowed to surrender but must play the game out.
[Aldenham verbatim:] A beste, or puesta, is "reserved" when to avoid increasing the Pool, and so making the stake too high, he who has lost it puts it not into the pool, but apart. This may occur several times; and the pool having been once won, the several puestas are then successively placed in it and played for, in their order, not of time but of magnitude, the largest first. It is usual to determine at the beginning of the game how large the pool shall be suffered to grow before the puestas are reserved; but in case of no previous agreement, the reservation is at the option of the loser of the puesta.
The following are not a regular part of the game but may have been encountered as optional extras.
Forced spadille If everyone passes, whoever holds A (if anyone) is obliged to play.
Gascarille If everyone passes, one player may undertake the game by making eight discards, drawing replacements from the stock, and nominating trumps. This counts for an extra 3 fish won or lost.
Countervole (contrabola) If everyone passes, one player may offer to play countervole, which is an undertaking to lose every trick (misère) after nominating a trump suit (of which he must hold at least one), and without anyone exchanging cards through the stock. This counts as a basic game (5 fish), and play ceases if and when one trick is taken by Ombre, who thereby loses a puesta.
Favor We have already seen that a solo can be outbid by a solo in diamonds. Favor is a preference accorded to diamonds in a lower game, so that a simple bid of Juego can be overcalled by a bid of Favor, being the same but with diamonds as trump. It can be outbid by a voltereta or solo, but may then be raised from a simple game to a diamond solo.
In Alexander Pope's mock epic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712-1717), his heroine Belinda plays Ombre with Sir Anonym and "The Baron". The latter is conspiring to steal a lock of her hair - or perhaps more of a tress, since the acknowledged effect would be to mar her beauty. The course of the game is described in sufficient detail to enable a reconstruction to be made, and Lord Aldenham does so, with a perceptive analysis of the play and the probable outcome of possible alternatives. The cards are dealt thus:
The Baron: Q-J-5-3, 4-2, 5, K-7
Sir Anonym: 6-4, 7-6-5, J-2-3-6, -
Belinda, holding spadille and three Kings, has a promising game in spades (the Two is manille) and calls "I play". The Baron, though well off in spades and holding manille in clubs and diamonds, considers overcalling with Voltereta, but dare not for fear of turning a heart. Too weak for a heart solo, he passes, as does Sir Anonym. Then Belinda: "Let spades be trumps", she cried, and trumps they were". She discards her four low non-trumps, and after the draw has the following hand to play:
Spadille (A), manille (2), basto (A), K, K-Q, 5-4
in opposition to:
The Baron: K-J-7-5-3,
Sir Anonym: 6-4, J, 6, J-2-3-4-6
The Baron has an apparently excellent defensive hand, with five of the eleven trumps, and contemplates delivering codille by making his spade King, three top diamonds, and heart Ace. The play is exciting, with the eighth trick ending in a real cliffhanger. The rotation of play is Belinda - Baron - Anonym, and "x" denotes any card legally furnished by Sir Anonym, whose hand is worthless.
1. Belinda: spadille, 3, 4
2. Belinda: manille, 5, 6 (2-0-0)
3. Belinda: basto, 7, x (3-0-0)
4. Belinda: K, J, x (4-0-0)
5. Belinda: K, Q, x (4-1-0)
6. Baron: K, x, 5 (4-2-0)
7. Baron: Q, x, 4 (4-3-0)
8. Baron: J, x, Q (4-4-0)
9. Baron: A, x, K (5-4-0)
"Belinda must now be getting anxious" says Aldenham at the end of trick four: "She has made her four certain tricks; but to win the game she must either make another trick, or dexterously divide the five remaining tricks between her opponents. Gladly would Sir Anonym help her (by taking one trick himself) to effect this division and take refuge in a puesta, but he is powerless. The Baron has the eleventh trump, and, she fears, may be able to take whichever King she leads; and then, if he holds the King of Diamonds and no card of her remaining King's suit, her fate is sealed." But she is saved at the last minute by her King of hearts.
The ancestor of Hombre can be traced back to sixteenth-century Spain as a four-player game. Under the title Triumphus Hispanicus - that is, the Spanish version of the widespread card game Triumph - it is mentioned and partly described by the philosopher Juan-Luis Vives (1493-1540) in one of his Latin Dialogues first published in 1539. It was played with a 48-card pack, with nine cards each, a stock of twelve and a trump turn-up. There are no matadors, but if the turn-up is an Ace or a face it reverts to the dealer. "Spanish Trump" bears resemblances both to Triomphe or "French Ruff', and to Cotton's "English Ruff-and-Honours, alias Slamm" (52 cards, 12 each, 4-card stock, trump turn-up, and "ruff" or "rob the pack").
Early in the 17th century the pack was reduced to 40 by omitting also Nines and Eights, and the game was known as Hombre, meaning "man", and designating the lone player. (The term seems also to have had religious connotations - perhaps suggesting "Son of Man".) By mid-century it was played by only three active players and was called Renegado, meaning "traitor". (Why? My theory is that it designates the fourth player, who was regarded as having withdrawn from play though still taking part in the proceeds. Like most three-player games derived from those for four, Hombre was usually played with four at a table, each in turn acting as dealer and sitting out they hand to which they deal.) More significantly, however, no card was turned for trump: instead, any player who undertook to win five or more tricks alone in a trump suit of their own choice became the hombre - or, if no one did so voluntarily, that role was enforced upon wheoever held spadillo, the Ace of spades. At the same time, Hombre also branched off into Quintillo, a version for five in which all were dealt eight cards and there was no stock to draw from.
Renegado is first described in 1663 (Madrid), four-hand Hombre in 1669 (Saragossa), and five-hand Cinquillo some twenty years later. The author of the four-hand description - an improbable "Dr Franco-Furt' - claims to have based his text on a now-lost treatise published at Barcelona in 1631. It certainly appears consistent with such details as may be gleaned from a variety of earlier sources, including Lope de Vega (1618, 1625), and, also in 1625, a remarkably detailed auto sacramental, or mystery play, in which Christ and the World play against Death and the Devil. The players, in fixed partnerships, are dealt nine cards each, the last four forming a face-down stock of which the top is turned for trump. A player declares himself hombre in the turned suit by inviting whoever has the trump Ace to "rob', i.e. to exchange an unwanted card for the trump turn-up. Partners keep their tricks separately, the object of hombre's partner being to ensure (in his own interests) that hombre wins an individual majority of them. Although this game includes top-trump matadors, either "Franco-Furt" in 1669, or his source of 1631, disdainfully observes that ill-bred folk still play without them, implying that they are of fairly recent origin.
Around the middle of the 17th century Renegado spread to France, Italy, and England, in its three-handed form but under its original four-handed title. 1674 sees the first French account of the game, Le Jeu de l'Hombre generally attributed to de Méré, in a text which found itself reprinted, plagiarised, and translated throughout Europe for many years to come. De Méré confirms the Spanish origin and remarks that its popularity in Paris is assured, Maria Theresa being clearly smitten by the new game, even if Louis XIV finds it tedious.
Why was the game that swept seventeenth-century Europe under the name l'Hombre not the four-handed original but its three-handed adaptation, Renegado? Dummett6 ascribes the latter's success to its introduction of an entirely novel and captivating feature: that of bidding for the right to name the suit, an evolutionary step which he places on a par with that of the invention of trumps two centuries earlier. Hitherto, players could only either accept or refuse the turned suit. Now, they were required to assess the hand before deciding whether and what to entrump, a requirement that opened up new realms of skill and judgement.
At first, the purpose of bidding was to choose between variable conditions under which the soloist was to achieve the invariable objective of winning most tricks. A player could only overcall or outbid another by making the conditions more difficult for themselves. l'Hombre-players were quick to explore this idea by ingeniously extending the range of conditions to choose from. In gascarille, described by Seymour in 1719 as a bid admitted when all have passed, the soloist discards all but one from the hand, draws eight replacements from stock, and then announces trumps. Variations on this theme, including the retention of two cards or none, reappear throughout European card literature under a variety of names.7 In tourné, voltereta, vuelta, or English "whim" (Seymour, 1719), the soloist turns the top card of stock and accepts its suit as trump.
Later, the concept was expanded to vary the objective of play, as well as or instead of the conditions. Players could then overcall by offering to take a greater number of tricks, or to perform special feats such as taking none at all, or exactly one. Best known is the bid of devole, contrabola, or "countervole', an undertaking to lose every trick, and the original of misère in Solo Whist and null in Skat. Its first recorded appearance is traced by Dummett to the 1757 edition of Das Neue königliche l'Hombre.8
All these variations led, of course, to the development of new and distinctive games, leaving three-handed l'Hombre soon to fall out of favour, at least in France and England. It retained, however, a patchy following in Germany throughout the nineteenth century and in the Netherlands until perhaps the Second World War, and is still played in Denmark. In Spain itself, Renegado survived under the name Tresillo (emphasizing three-handedness, cf. Italian Terziglio), until perhaps the Civil War. In Portugal it survived into the twentieth century under the name Voltarete. Da Silva, in Tratado do jôgo do Boston (1942), explains that it reached Portugal in 1780-90, when the Spanish game was currently known as Tresillo de voltereta ("somersault"), following the introduction of the tourné contract. Latin Americans from Mexico to Patagonia played it throughout the nineteenth century under the names Tresillo and Rocambor. It has since been displaced by Spanish Solo, a hybrid of Tresillo and the point-trick game of Malilla.
One of the greater legacies of l'Hombre was the grafting of its principles onto the classic 18th-century game of Whist to produce the variant known as Boston [Whist], not to mention the utterly bizarre but fascinating Swedish game of Vira - a three-hand game played with the full 52-card pack instead of 40, 13 being dealt to each player, and with a host of peculiar bids. Boston Whist, for its part, was the principal ancestor of Bridge-Whist and Auction and Contract Bridge.
1 Hon. Daines Barrington, "On the Antiquity of Card-playing in England",
Archaeologia, vii, 1786. (Return)
2 No longer extant, but mentioned by Chatto in Facts and Speculations on the History of Playing-Cards 1848, p. 145, and others. (Return)
3 Edwin S. Taylor (from Boiteau d'Ambly) The History of Playing Cards (1865), p. 394.(Return)
4 Hon. Alban George Henry Gibbs, later 2nd Baron Aldenham (1846-1936), The Game of Ombre (London, privately printed, 1874, 3rd edition (expanded) 1902). (Return)
5 Thierry Depaulis, "Un peu de lumiére sur l'Hombre", in Journal of the International Playing-0Card Society, xv. 4 and xvi. i and 2 (May, Aug., Nov. 1987). (Return)