This classic game of relatively great antiquity, though still one of the most skill-rewarding card games for two, is now played only by aficionados and connoisseurs. Originating around 1500, its decline from about the end of World War One may be ascribed to the popularity of Gin Rummy and other lowbrow games that are easier to learn and faster to play.
Its name is pronounced "P.K." in French, more or less, and usually so in English, though here it is also pronounced "picket" - and occasionally so spelt - with the stress on either syllable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I prefer to rhyme it with "ticket".
Henry ("Cavendish") Jones, in his Treatise on Piquet, suggested a possible derivation of the name from French pique, designating the spade suit, perhaps because it may originally have denoted the most characteristic game played with French-suited cards as distinct from those played with cards of other national suit systems. On this point, however, games researcher Thierry Depaulis tells me:
I don't think so. Piquet comes from the main feature of the scoring: pic or pique. Since "pique", "repique" (as well as "capote") occur in Spanish earlier than in French (already in the 16th century), I now think that Fr. piquet could be derived from Spanish pique (also more or less pronounced as "P.K.").
As Cavendish recognised, Spain does indeed play a significant part in the early history of the game, though the exact role and history of the equivalent Spanish game of Los Cientos is sadly deficient in written evidence. More below.
Although the rules look complicated, the basic idea is very simple. Each player receives 12 cards from a 32-card pack ranking AKQJ10987 in each suit - for example:
Elder hand (top), Younger hand (bottom), stock (right)
They discard some of their cards and draw replacements from the undealt stock of eight. The purpose of this is to improve the hand, so that it will (a) produce and score for certain card combinations and (b) subsequently win a majority of twelve tricks played at no trump. Points are scored throughout, and the winner is either the first to reach 100 points, or, in a later version called Rubicon Piquet, the player with the higher score after six deals.
What gives this great game its intellectual bite is that it is virtually one of perfect information. The fact that you can identify all your own discards and replacements means that you can also deduce all the cards that have similarly been available to your opponent. You may not know directly which ones he has discarded, but, since no combination can be scored without being identified, you can often also deduce all the essentials of the hand you are playing tricks against. Because each player knows all the cards of which the adversary's twelve are a selection, and because almost everything declared must be shown before it can be scored, each one often enters the play knowing most of the other's hand, and can complete that knowledge within the space of a few tricks. One of the subtleties of the Rubicon variety is sinking - that is, refraining from declaring (and therefore scoring) the whole or part of a combination actually held, in order not to release information that might enable the other to score 10 for cards or 40 for capot.
Another noteworthy feature is its fundamental inter-player asymmetry. Elder hand (non-dealer) has several inbuilt advantages over Younger, requiring the two players to assess their hands differently and to follow different strategies depending on which of them dealt. Elder's five-card exchange improves his chances of making combinations compared with younger's three, and having the first lead usually enables him to bring home all the cards in his point suit. Between experienced players, Elder can normally expect to score about twice as many points as Younger. A similar asymmetry also characterises that equally illustrious two-hander, Cribbage, its English counterpart (though completely unrelated).
Piquet has always
"Husband, shall we play at Saunt?" been regarded as the national game of France, even as an emblem of French patriotism. As Chatto puts it:
It would seem that the French consider the invention of Piquet as a national point of honour, and that the native author who should call it into question would render himself liable to a suspicion of incivism.
Stories invented to account for its origin and significance range from the picturesque to the ludicrous. You can safely ignore anything referring to the French mathematician Picquet, or a ballet performed at the court of a French king, or Père Daniel's Mémoire sur l'origine du jeu de piquet (1720). Later clerics who enquired into its origins include the Abbé Bullet, a Celtic scholar who delighted in deriving every unexplained technical term in the game (and a few explained ones) from Celtic roots, and Père Menestrier, who relates suit symbols to social stratification. Court cards, he says, represent the nobility, hearts the ecclesiastics, their place being in the c(h)œur, (= choir). Pikes (spades) represent the nobility, carreaux (paving-tiles, i.e. diamonds) the bourgeoisie, and trefoils (clover, i.e. clubs) the peasantry.
Piquet is known from the early 16th century, but for most of that century under the name Cent, from its target score of 100 points. It appears as such in the celebrated list of games played by Gargantua, the literary giant created by Rabelais in 1534, and in England is referenced two years earlier under the spelling Saunt. Of Cent in this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says:
"Called cent, because 100 was the game" (Nares). If so, the word is, originally, the same as cent n.1, but probably taken independently from some Romanic lang[uage]. Juego de los cientos, i.e. "hundred-game", is the Spanish name of piquet [...] 1.  An old game at cards, said to have been of Spanish origin, and to have resembled piquet, with one hundred as the point that won the game. (See Nares, and Singer Hist. Playing Cards 267.)
Nares denotes Robert Nares, the author of Nares' Glossary (1822), once described as "indispensable to readers of Elizabethan literature". Singer references Samuel Weller Singer, author of Researches into the History of Playing-Cards (1816), who calls upon the game of Cientos and adds
As this game was of Spanish original, and has some appearance of having resembled Piquet [...] may not the French have adopted it, with some alterations, merely changing its name?
Cavendish wanders even further off the track by commenting:
Singer assumes that the game originated in Spain. It is more probable that Cientos was a modified Italian game, possibly Ronfa, with a change of name.
All of which is very interesting, but, since everyone seems to be copying everyone else, does not, to my mind, greatly support, let alone strengthen, the argument for a Spanish origin. Certainly Los Cientos occurs in Spanish literature of the 16th century, but precious little is known about it. As Depaulis says:
What is frustrating is that no early Spanish dictionary (Covarrubias 1611; Autoridades 1729) has a word on the rules and on the number of cards used. Covarrubias says that todo lo conosco [everyone knows it]; Autoridades ignores it (!). The 1780 edition of the Dictionary of the Real Academia has at last a description that says that, from a common pack (i.e. of 40 cards), one takes out the threes and the sixes, so making 32, keeping the 7s, 5s, 4s and 2s... The point values are also strange.
According to Singer, the Spanish poet Moreto, quoted by Pellier in his notes on Don Quixote, mentions this game and primero in the following lines:
Y si à otro juego tè metes
A los Cientos te dan sietes
Y a la Primera figuras.
The Gargantuan roll-call also includes "Picquet", but much further down the list, in the section on action games rather than in the opening section devoted to card games. Only towards the end of the 16th century does this name start being applied to Cent/Saunt, its first French occurrence being in 1595 in the compound form Picquet-Capot , possibly to distinguish it from some other game such as that mentioned by Rabelais.
Yet a third entry in Rabelais' list, namely Ronfle, may have contributed to Piquet. Like "capot", ronfle is a prominent feature of the game, namely that now referred to as the "point", that is, the suit in which one holds the highest total card-point value. The English derivative of "ronfle" is "ruff". Although this now means to win a plain-suit lead by playing a trump, its earlier meaning was to discard unwanted cards and draw replacements with a view to forming point-scoring combinations - equivalent to the draw in Draw Poker. This name is particularly interesting, as it occurs as an entry in a French list of card games as early as 1454. (Not 1414 as per Dummett p.182.) It seems very probably equivalent to its contemporary, the Italian game of Ronfa, in which players vied or bragged as to who held the highest-valued flush.
Could Piquet go back to the 15th century? The very fact that it is a trick-taking game without trumps tantalisingly suggests such a possibility, since the idea of designating one suit as trump did not arise much before the end of that period. Nevertheless, several other features suggest that it cannot be much older than about 1500. For example:
- The earliest version was played with a 36-card pack, which did not come into general use until about that time.
- Aces outrank Kings. This promotion also dates from the end of the 15th century, though it is interesting (and confusing) to note that the closely related game of Impériale ranks Ace intermediately, between Jack and Ten, as if caught in the process of migrating from low to high position.
- The valuation of cards at Ace 11, courts 10, and numerals at face value, is not recorded before 1500.
To reconcile these contradictions I can only speculate that a similar game was played in the 15th century with all 52 cards, but did not realise its full potential until the pack was reduced to thirty-six. Whether or not such an ancestor can be identified with Ronfle remains an open question.
An encyclopedic book of games containing instructions on how to play them seems such an obvious necessity of everyday life that it is hard to believe there was ever a card-playing time when no such thing existed, so it is mildly surprising to find that such things did not appear in Europe until the mid-seventeenth century, some 300 years after the appearance of cards themselves. Before that, true folk games were played by truly illiterate folk, while those of the literate classes were simply picked up like any other social accomplishment.
The first such book in English was Cotton's The Compleat Gamester (1674), much of which its author plagiarised from a chapter in the second edition of Cotgrave's Wits Interpreter (1662) entitled "Games and Sports now used at this day among the gentry of England", covering l'Ombre (that "noble Spanish game"), Picket ("ingenious"), Gleek ("noble and delightful"), Cribbidge ("gentile" [sic]), and "the Princely Game of Chesse".
Both publications were preceded by (and plagiarised from) exemplars published in France, notably Denis La Marinière's La maison académique, a "general collection of games", with instructions in Piquet, Hoc, Tric-Trac, Billiards, and the Royal Game of Goose, published at Paris in 1654. Subsequent editions - at least five by 1700, and retitled La maison des jeux académique, later l'Académie des Jeux - considerably expand the text and form a tradition lasting well into the 19th century.
Piquet not only holds pride of place in most of these publications, but may be seen to have initiated them, for all were preceded by individual treatises on the game. La Maison Académique itself incorporated the text of Le Ieu du Picquet (Paris, 1631), republished as Le Royal Ieu du Piquet plaisant et recreatif (Rouen, 1647); and Cotgrave's description of Piquet is in fact based on an anonymous translation of the latter entitled "The royal and delightfull game of Piquet" (1651).
The oldest known game description, however, comes not from a French but from a German text written about 1620 by Prince August D. J. von Braunschweig-Lüneburg under the pen-name Gustavus Selenus, perhaps better known for his treatise on Chess. (See Manfred Zollinger, Der Fürst und das Kartenspiel: Piquet-Regeln, in "The Playing-Card", 31-3 (Nov/Dec 2002), pp 104-112.)
The following essential features of the game, though probably varying in minor details from place to place, accord with French descriptions following shortly afterwards:
- It was played with 36 cards, including sixes. A deal of 12 each left a stock of twelve, of which Elder could draw from one to eight cards and Younger up to as many as remained.
- The scoring of points for leading to a trick and for capturing the lead applied at this time only to tricks containing aces, courts and tens (we might call them honours). You scored nothing for leading a lower numeral, or for gaining the lead by capturing one with another; nor did you score an additional point for the last trick if it contained no honour.
- The score for point was not 1 per card but 1 for every 10 card-points constituting the point, minus 1 if the point total ended in 4 or less. For example, a five-card point scored 5 if it totalled from 45 (e.g. 7-8-J-Q-K) to 51 (10-J-Q-K-A), but 4 if from only 40 (e.g. 6-7-8-9.10) to 44 (e.g. 6-7-J-Q-K).
When the 36-card pack was shortened to 32 (around 1700), points ending in 2 and 3 became impossible. A point of five - the commonest number - would, therefore, hardly ever be worth less than 45, and would virtually never be "good" if it did, rendering a score of 4 so rare and anomalous as to be easily forgotten. Many players must have been led to automatically assume that the score was actually 1 per card, so it would be hardly surprising if the change to that more rational system should have occurred almost without thought, and accepted unquestioningly by all but a few die-hard pedants.
In his Treatise on Piquet (9th edition, 1896), on which I draw extensively below, Cavendish traces the progress of Piquet in England by expanding on literary references to the game recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest of these are in fact to its earlier title Cent, also spelt Saint, Saunt, etc, and sometimes inexplicably preceded by "Mount-".
The first known reference is in a tract of 1532 ascribed to Gilbert Walker:
After the table was removed, in came one of the waiters with a fair silver bowl, full of dice and cards... Then each man choose his game... Because I alleged ignorance [of dice]... we fell to Saunt, five games a crown.
As Cavendish points out, this looks as though the stake was on the old-fashioned partie, best of five games. Another early reference is to be met with in Turberville's Book of Faulconrie (1575):
At coses or at Saunt to sit,
Or set their rest at prime
(Prime = Primero.) In the Book of Howshold Charges and other Paiments laid out by the L[ord] North and his Commandement (Nichol's "Progresses of Queen Elizabeth"), there are several entries of the kind "Lost at Saint, xv.s[hillings]" (1578, May 15 to 17).
In 1577, Lord Northbrooke writes in A Treatise, wherein Dicing, Dancing, Vaine Plaies or Enterludes are reprooved:
What is a man now a daies if he knows not... To plaie... at Cardes, Dice, &c., Post, Cente, Gleke or such other games?
In Minsheu's Pleasant and delightfull Dialogues, Spanish and English (1599) the game is also called Mount Sant. In the third Dialogue between "five gentlemen friendes", Rodricke, Sir Lorenzo and Mendoza converse thus:
R. Here are the cards. What shall we play at? [...]
L. At Mount Sant.
M. It makes my head to be in a swoune to be alwaies Counting.
Thomas Heywood's play A Woman kilde with Kindnesse (pre-1604) contains the line "Husband, shall we play at Saint?"; and in Gervas Markham's Famous or Noble Curtezan (1609) occurs:
Were it Mount-cent, primero, or at chesse,
I wan with most, and lost still with the lesse.
Brewer's Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and five Senses(1607) has "As for Memory, he's a false hearted fellow, he always deceives them; they respect not him, except it be to play a Game at Chests, Primero, Saunt, Maw, or such like.". More extensively, a game of "Mount-Saint" depicted in Machin's The Dumb Knight (1608) mingles technical terminology with the language of love:
Queen: Come, my Lord, take your place, here are cards, and here are my crowns.
Phylocles: And here are mine; at what game will your Majesty play?
Q. At Mount-Saint.
P. A royal game, and worthy of the name / And meetest even for Saints to exercise; / Sure it was of a woman's first invention.
Q. It is not Saint, but Cent, taken from hundreds.
P. True, for 'mongst millions hardly is found one saint.
Q. Indeed you may allow a double game. But come, lift for the dealing: it is my chance to deal.
P. An action most, most proper to your sex. [...]
Q. What are you, my Lord?
P. Your Highness' servant but misfortune's slave.
Q. Your game, I mean.
P. Nothing in show, yet somewhat in account; Madam, I am blank.
Q. You are a double game, and I am no less. There's an hundred, and all cards made but one knave. [...] What's your game now?
P. Four king's [sic], as I imagine.
Q. Nay, I have two, yet one doth me little good.
P. Indeed, mine are two queens, and one I'll throw away. [...] Can you decard, madam?
Q. Hardly, but I must do hurt.
Here (says Cavendish) the mention of showing, of the blank (carte blanche), of double games (counted in the old fashioned partie), of four kings, of throwing away, and of the decard (discard) prove conclusively the likeness of the two games.
In 1621 Taylor's Motto enumerates among the games at which the prodigal "flings his money free with carelessnesse... Ruffe, Slam, Trump, Nody, Whisk, Hole, Sant, New Cut."
Cent was occasionally called "Hundred" in the 17th century (the OED gives two citations). The first reference to Piquet as such comes from J. Hall, Horae Vacivae (1646) just five years before the appearance of "The Royall and Delightful Game of Piquet" mentioned above:
For Cardes... a mans fancy would be sum'd up in cribbidge; Glecke requires a vigilant memory; Maw a pregnant agility; Picket [printed Pichet] a various invention.
Thereafter Piquet is the usual name and occurs regularly, often with pride of place, in subsequent editions and spin-offs of Cotton's Compleat Gamester.
Cavendish explains the switch from Cent to Piquet thus:
From the time of the marriage of Mary with Philip of Spain (1554), the English equivalent of the Spanish name of the game was in vogue. In 1625, Charles I married the daughter of Henry IV of France. When a French Princess came on the scene the French name, Piquet, was contemporaneously substituted for the Spanish name.
Piquet remained the foremost game for two throughout the 18th century, eclipsing even Cribbage, which had gone down-market since the days when "good King" Charles (II) would complain of having ill luck at the game with Harry Bennet. Edmond Hoyle, following the success of his Short Treatise on Whist in 1743, turned his attention similarly to Piquet in the following year. One of the principal centres of card-play in general and Piquet in particular was at Bath, where heavy sums were won and lost, as well by the bystanders as the players.
It is equally prominent in the 19th century, with references in minor as well as major authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. It was towards the end of the century that the older game of Piquet au Cent, or Hundred Up Piquet, was replaced by the new structure designated Rubicon Piquet. Official and authoritative rules for Rubicon were drafted by Cavendish and others in 1873, being commissioned, endorsed and published by the Portland and Turf Clubs of London. These rules continue to be regarded as standard to this day, and the game remains in all substantial anthologies, despite its fall from favour between the two world wars.
Click here for Rules of Piquet