|Historic card games||
Origins and history of
|© 2005-2012 by David Parlett|
By the "history" of a game we can mean either (1) its origins and evolution, that is, everything that led up to its first appearance under its usual name, and (2) its practice and progress thereafter. This article is mainly about the origins and evolution of Euchre. For the rules of play, click here.
A new game is mostly a novel combination or bundle of existing game elements or "ludemes" : rarely does it embody or incorporate an entirely novel one. Any survey of the provenance and evolution of a game therefore amounts to those of a number of existing ludemes and the way in which they first came together in a distinctive combination under its own name. I therefore start with a brief description of the game sufficient to establish its constituent ludemes, which I will then examine individually.
Euchre is a plain-trick game played with a short pack of 32, 28 or 24 cards ranking AKQJ109... except in trumps, of which the highest is the Jack or "Right Bower" and second highest is the other Jack of the same colour, or "Left Bower", followed by AKQ109... It is most commonly played by four sitting crosswise in fixed partnerships, but is also playable by other numbers. Each player is dealt five cards in batches of two and three, the undealt cards are stacked face down, and the topmost of them is turned to establish a suit of preference. A round of bidding establishes who will undertake to accept the turned suit as trump and win at least three of the five tricks played, for the point, and, if possible, all five, for the march. If the turned suit is accepted, the dealer can "rob" - that is, take the turn-up in exchange for an unwanted card. If no one accepts it, there is another round of bidding to achieve the same aim using the bidder's nominated suit as trump, in which case there is no robbing. Tricks are played as at Whist or Bridge. (You must follow suit if you can but may otherwise play any card. The trick is taken by the highest trump if any are played, otherwise by the highest of the suit led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.)
Provenance, origin and etymology
Euchre was played and so called (though variously spelt) in early 19th-century America, according to reminiscences published in 1844, where "Uker" is the subject of an incident described by Joe Cowell  as taking place on a steamboat trip from Louisville to New Orleans in 1829. Its first description occurs in an American Hoyle of 1845  and the first book entirely devoted to it in 1850 .
On linguistic grounds alone there can be no doubt as to its origin in the Alsatian game of Juckerspiel as brought to America by German immigrants. Given that the J is pronounced as a consonantal Y, the spelling "Uker" is a reasonable phonetic representation of "Jucker" for non-German speakers, while the relatively bizarre "Euchre" looks suspiciously like a subsequent refinement made by somebody with a church background influenced by the word "Eucharist". The suggestion that "Euchre" derives in some way from a corruption of "Ecarté"  strikes me as both etymologically and genealogically ludicrous.
In a dissertation published in Strassburg in 1908, Heinrich Rausch  describes Juckerspiel as widespread in Alsace and mentions its appearance in a contemporary Alsatian dictionary, which, although Rausch does not say so, in turn refers to a Strassburg document of 1856 . He notes that the two trump Jacks are called "Bauern" (= farmers) and the winning of all five tricks "marsch". The word bower clearly derives from Bauer and march from "marsch".
Rausch does not explain the meaning or etymology of Jucker. It hardly seems helpful to note that jucken means to itch, or that Jucker happens to be a not uncommon surname in Alsace and Switzerland. I'd like to think (but have been unable to verify) that it may be an Alsatian dialectal variant of Junker, in which case the attachment of this term to the Jacks in their capacity as top trumps may have been made in order to reflect a consequent rise in their social status from farmers (Bauern) to landlords (Junkers or Juckers). More reliably, if obscurely, Jucker means a draught- or carriage-horse, being cognate with High German Joch and English yoke . Could the two top Jacks have been seen as metaphorically yoked together and drawing the other trumps behind them?
In more or less chronological order, the raw materials of Euchre may be tracked as follows.
Five-trick games go back to the earliest period of European card games. The most prominent is Karnöffel , recorded as played in various German states and cities as early as 1426. Although no longer played in its original form or under its original name, studies of its surviving descendants (Kaiserspiel, etc) show that it was a four-player partnership game in which the aim was to win at least three of the five tricks played. There was no trump suit as such, and the ranking order of cards appears to have been deliberately erratic, with certain cards of a certain "elected" suit, or suit of preference (ancestral to trumps), given socially satirical names and exercising highly selective powers of capture. Karnöffel itself, basically meaning "hernia", was a pejorative term for a cardinal (perhaps equivalent to "a pain in the arse"?), and applied to the most powerful card in the pack, namely the Unter (equivalent to valet, knave, or Jack) of the elected suit. Other characters included the Pope, the Devil, and the Kaiser. A modern descendant of the game surviving in Switzerland, in the Nidwalden canton, is still called Kaiserspiel.
A later ancestor is Triomphe, an ancient French five-trick game listed but not described by Rabelais among the games of Gargantua (1534), by which time the concept of trumps was well established. Trumps may be regarded as the product of two antecedents, one being the partial or quasi-trumps represented by the "elected" suit of Karnöffel, the other being the introduction, in Italy, of a fifth suit of individually illustrated, allegorical cards called trionfi ("triumphs", whence "trumps") effected perhaps as early as the 1420s. It seems probable that towards the end of the 15th century the attractiveness and greater interest of an all-powerful suit led to the neater and cheaper solution of turning a card to establish which of the ordinary suits should be invested with the power of trumps for the purpose of that particular deal. (An alternative would have been to fix on one of the suits as permanent trump, a practice that occurs but rarely in card-game history.) Dummett convincingly argues  that it was the transfer of the concept and name of trionfi to ordinary cards that led to the replacement of that term in the original pack by the mysterious word tarocchi around the turn of the 15th-16th centuries. The characteristic game of this type was calle Triomphe in France (as by Rabelais), Trump in England (sermon by Archbishop Latimer, 1529), and later, in England, Ruff. The original meaning of "ruff" was, apparently, "rob" - that is, to take in one or more undealt cards in exchange for unwanted discards.
English Trump, or Ruff, is the ancestor of Whist, being originally played with the full 52-card pack, of which 12 each were dealt, leaving the dealer to rob from the undealt stock of four. Triomphe, on the other hand - or " French Ruff" as the English called it  - was a five-card, five-trick game partnership game without bidding, in which Charles Cotton, author of The Compleat Gamester, remarks in 1674: "To win two tricks signifies nothing, to win three or four signifies one, but to win five is the winning of five" - in other words, the aim is to win at least the point (three tricks) and at best the march (all five). An interesting feature of Triomphe is that the ranking order of cards is KQJA10987..., indicating an unbroken tradition going back to a time, perhaps the late 15th century, when the Ace had begun its promotion from lowest position but had not yet reached its highest position ahead of the King. In La maison académique (Paris, 1659), Triomphe is apologetically described as so well known as to be hardly worth mentioning. It is played by four with a 52-card pack and does not include bidding, but does include "robbing", in that the holder of the Ace of trumps, or the dealer upon turning it up, may piller, literally "pillage", by exchanging any unwanted card for the turn-up, and may keep doing so for as many successive cards beneath it as may also belong to that suit.
Triomphe was not always played in partnerships. In La maison académique 1777 (Amsterdam), it is a round game (defined below) for three to seven players, with five the best number, using the shortened pack of 32 cards, or 36 when six or seven took part. The penultimate card is turned for trump, and the last card is known as la curieuse: if everyone passes, the curieuse is turned up and there is another round of bidding to play with its suit as trump. The bidder wins by taking either three tricks, or, if no one else does so, the first two in succession. This version exhibits "strict" rules of trick-play (follow suit if possible, otherwise trump and overtrump if possible, otherwise play any card), as in Ecarté. The latter, a high-class club and casino game popular in France from about 1840, is essentially two-player Triomphe with extended "pillaging" and, as such, probably goes back to the early 17th century, perhaps further.
The adoption of bidding into Triomphe occurred during the 17th century to produce a game called at first l'Homme ("Man") and subsequently la Bête (German Labet, Dutch LaBate, English "Beast"). The former title shows its origin to lie with the 16th-century Spanish game of Hombre (English and French Ombre). Anyone who undertook to win three tricks thereby became "the Man" or lone bidder. He could be challenged by the announcement "Contre", and in the event of failure was then no longer a "man" (homme) but a "beast" (bête), and, being beasted, had to pay a double stake or "bête," whence the name of the game.
A round game is one playable by any number of players, each for himself and without partnerships. Several varieties of five-trick round games are recorded from the 17th century onwards, forming a widespread but loose-knit group of European gambling and drinking games.
Other members of this group range from Spanish Julepe to Czech Pêt Navíc to Sweden's Norrlandsknack. More aberrant are Swedish Femkort, "Five-Cards", where there is no trump and the aim is simply to win the last trick, and the German Mauscheln (Danish Mausel), a four-hand, four-card game with trump turn-up where, if no one will bid two tricks, the eldest must win at least two and the others at least one each.
Some of these games exhibit features that may have had some bearing on the development of Euchre. Loo or Lanterloo (French Lanterlu, "a cooing refrain used in lullabies", Dutch Lanterluy, Labate) comes with optional extras, of which the three most significant are
In France, the game is also called Pamphile, and the eponymous Jack is not only the top trump but also serves as a wild card to convert a four-card into a five-card flush, or "mouche" (a later name for much the same game). Cotton describes a form of Loo with flushes but without Pam - perhaps by oversight, as the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 1685 reference to "Pam at Lanterloo". Chatto (Facts and Speculations, p. 138) quotes a Dutch pamphlet of about 1648, entitled Het herstelde Verkeerbert verbetet in een Lanterluy-spel, containing a dialogue equating Labate with Lanterluy :
Vlaming: What kind of game is that, father Jems? I don't know if I've ever read about it, but I know about everything you have ever mentioned.
Euchre is by definition a game of promoted Jacks - indeed, as far as the English-speaking world is concerned, the game of promoted Jacks. We have already seen that the earliest known European card game raises the nominally lowest court to highest position and gives it a name which is also the name of the game, Karnöffel. Similarly, the 17th-century game of Loo elevates J to highest position and names it Pam. But this does not justify us in drawing a uniquely prominent line of descent from Karnöffel to Euchre via Pamphile. A more accurate, and fascinating, survey of the historical development must take into account the peculiar role of the Jack as a trickster figure - part knave, part fool - popping up in a wide variety of card games, often bearing a personal name which is sometimes also the name of the game. For example:
(The Wikipedia entry on "Jack" leaves a lot to be desired.)
Jack games in Germany
We have noted that French Triomphe became la Bête when it came to incorporate bidding, and that in la Bête one could counter-bid "contre" against the actual bidder. Bête reached German-speaking regions under the name Labet. A later variety of Labet, known as Kontraspiel and first recorded in 1810 (so presumably decades older), is distinguished by the specific promotion of the Unters of acorns and leaves as permanent top trumps. It would be interesting to know whether this feature represents an expansion of the J top trump in Pamphile, or an equivalent of the spadille and basto (Aces of clubs and swords) in Ombre, or of the similarly equivalent Obers (Queens) of German Solo, itself an 18th-century derivative of Quadrille, which in turn was a four-player expansion of Ombre.
In this connection it may be worth digressing into other German developments of high-powered Jacks, most notably Skat. In this game all four Jacks are promoted to permanent top position, and in a particular order, namely acorns > leaves > hearts > bells (clubs > spades > hearts > diamonds). The ludeme of a suit hierarchy for bidding purposes first appears in the 18th century and is particularly associated with Boston Whist. It may, however, have originated in the game of Preference, since this is what the name of the game implies, and naming a game after its most innovative characteristic is a primary ground rule of ludic nomenclature.
On the not unlikely assumption that clubs and acorns have always been regarded as equivalent, we might imagine a line of development that goes:
What spoils this theory is the fact that the four top Jacks of Skat represents not a doubling of the two-Jack situation but a halving of the situation in its immediate ancestor Schafkopf, in which the four Obers (or Queens) were promoted, in the same suit order, to a higher position than the Unters or Jacks. On this topic, I wrote as follows in The Oxford Guide to Card Games (1990) and have had no occasion for further revision:
Because Schafkopf is not described before 1811, and then appears in various forms, its pre-nineteenth-century origins are obscure. A possible clue to them may be sought in the name "Wenzel", which some derive from Scharwenzel - an intensive form of Latin serviens, and meaning an excessively devoted servant, perhaps "lickspittle". Now a 32-card game is recorded in Germany in 1715 under the name Scharwentzeln, and later in the Netherlands as Scharwensleven, variously spelt. The name, and perhaps the game it refers to, survives (at least in books) as Skærvindsel, a Danish 36-card game played by four in fixed partnerships. Though not a point-trick game, its trump suit is headed by seven "matadors", namely Q - trump-7 - Q - J - J - J - J, followed by A-K-(Q)-10-9-8-(7)-6. If this bears obvious material resemblances to Schafkopf, its plain-trick nature and trump Seven feature (compare German Solo) make it an equally obvious derivative of Ombre. Perhaps, then, Schafkopf represents the trick-point embellishment of an Ombre-derivative with a distinctive promotion of the Unters (Jacks) to the role of "excessively devoted servants" to the original three Matadors or top trumps.
This presentation, of course, assumes that the German expansion of Jack power started with the conversion of J to acorn-Unter, and thus accords priority to countries using the French suit system. Possibly the reverse was the case, and the promotion of J was borrowed from a prior German promotion of acorn-Unter; but I have no evidence for this and think it unlikely.
The Euchre situation of variable top Jacks - that is, of Right and Left Bowers rather than specifically of acorns and leaves - is not unique to Juckerspiel but occurs also in other German card games of its time, notably:
I conclude that Euchre derives from the Alsatian game of Jucker and that Jucker derives ultimately from Triomphe or French Ruff, probably via Bête. It is definitively characterised by the promotion of two Jacks to topmost position as Right and Left Bowers, a feature variously represented or paralleled in late 18th-early 19th century west German games such as Réunion, Bester Bube and Kontraspiel. The promotion of Jacks apparently developed during the 18th century, perhaps as an extension of the promotion of J in Loo and Pamphile, perhaps also influenced by the special status of black Aces (or Aces of swords and clubs) in Ombre.
This article was first published in "The Playing-Card" (Journal of the International Playing-Card Society) Volume 35, No 4 (April-June 2007) pp. 255-261. It arose out of email correspondence with Natty Bumppo and John McLeod, both of whom I thank for their input.
Since writing it I have been independently contacted by Philip R Neill of Richmond, Virginia, who is researching the early history of Euchre in America and has evidence to suggest that it was being played there as early as the second decade of the 19th century.