y Parlett's Historic Card Games: Loo  
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LOO

A mild or bitter game of scant renown

  © 2005-2008 by David Parlett  
 
Loo was a trivial and once disreputable trick-taking game for five or more players. It was equally popular as a gambling game, when it could get quite vicious, or as a mild domestic pastime, such as it appears in the novels of Jane Austen. Its twofold personality extends equally to its form, there being two closely related games of the same name, one being played with three cards and the other with five. Both reached England from France probably with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Loo, under various spellings, is short for Lanterloo, which in turn (under equally various spellings) is from the French lenturlu, a meaningless refrain used in lullabies, equivalent to 'lullay, lulloo'. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a modern use of it from Auden and Kallman's The Rake's Progress (1951):

The sun is bright, the grass is green:
   Lanterloo, lanterloo.
The King is courting his young Queen.
   Lanterloo, my lady.
The basic idea in both games is that a pool is formed and each player is dealt three (or five) cards. Having seen their hand, they can either abandon it free of charge, or elect to play, thereby undertaking to win at least one trick for one third (or one fifth) of the pool. Any player failing to do so is 'looed' and adds an amount to the pool, which is carried forward and further increased. In Limited Loo this amount is small and fixed. In Unlimited Loo it is the amount currently in the pool, which enables it to reach astronomic proportions in a short space of time, often resulting in the sort of spectacular ruins that gave the game such a bad reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The OED offers several citations, none of any great interest, with the possible exception of a couplet from Pope's Rape of the Lock (iii., 62) -

Ev'n mighty Pam, that Kings and Queens o'erthrew
And mow'd down armies in the fights of Lu.

The name Pam, denoting the clubJ in its capacity as permanent top trump in Five-Card Loo, represents a medieval comic-erotic character called Pamphilus (or Pamphile, in French), described by Eric Partridge as 'an old bawd'. (From it derives also 'pamphlet', originally a printed sheet containing a story about him. These educational interpolations come free of charge.) In the French game, lenterlu denotes a five-card flush containing Pamphile. An earlier form of the game, lacking Pam, was played under the name Mouche.

Some players took the game surprisingly seriously. The pseudonymous "Captain Crawley" (the anti-hero of Vanity Fair) went so far as to write a book entitled "Whist, Loo and Cribbage", which plays havoc with my library filing system, as they are three entirely disparate games.

 
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  THREE-CARD LOO
Description by David Parlett based on that of "Captain Crawley" (c.1870)
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Players
Up to 17 can play, but Crawley recommends five, six or seven.
Equipment
The cards are 52, ranking AKQJ1098765432 in each suit. Everyone starts with an equal number of chips or counters.
Deal
Whoever cuts the lowest card (Ace low) deals first. The turn to deal and play passes always to the left. The dealer stakes three to the pool. A three-chip pool is a 'single'. When it contains more, left over from the previous deal, it is a 'double'. Deal to each player, and to a spare hand called 'Miss', three cards one at a time. Stack the rest face down and turn the next for trump.
Object
To win at least one trick. A player who takes part and wins none is 'looed', and has to increase the pool.
Announcements
Each in turn announces whether they will play or throw their hand in. Anyone offering to play may exchange their hand for Miss, sight unseen, but may not then drop out or change it back. Only the first player to claim this privilege, starting from the dealer's left-hand neighbour, may exercise it.
  • If all pass, the dealer wins the pool.
  • If one exchanges and the others all pass, the exchanger wins the pool.
  • If just one player before the dealer plays, and does so without exchanging, the dealer may not pass but has a choice of play. He may either play for himself (with or without exchanging), or elect to 'defend Miss'. In this case he still plays, but neither wins nor loses anything. Only the other player wins from or loses to the pool, according to the result.
Play
Eldest hand leads to the first trick, and must lead the trump Ace if held, or the trump King if the turn-up is an Ace. If not, he must still lead a trump if he has more than one, and it must be his highest if he is playing against only one opponent. You must follow suit and head the trick if you can; if unable to follow you must trump and overtrump if you can; and only otherwise may you discard as you please. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played. The winner of each trick leads to the next, and must lead a trump if held.
Pay-off
Each trick taken earns its winner one third of the pool. A player who is looed pays three to the pool, which is then carried forward as a 'double'.
Optional rules
When the pool is a single, nobody may pass. In Unlimited Loo, one who is looed (a looee? a loonie? or even - in French - a Louis d'or) pays the amount the pool contained at the start of that deal. This is where it starts to mount up.
 
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FIVE-CARD LOO
Description by David Parlett based on common sources
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Players
From five to ten. Each should be equipped with an equal number of chips or counters.
Cards
52, ranking AKQJ1098765432 in each suit. The clubJ, known as Pam, always belongs to the trump suit and beats every card in the pack, including the Ace of trumps.
Deal
Whoever cuts the lowest card (Ace low) deals first. The turn to deal and play passes always to the left. The dealer stakes five to the pool. Deal five cards to each player, in batches of three then two (or two then three), stack the rest face down, and turn the next for trump.
Object
To win at least one trick. A player who takes part and wins none is 'looed', and has to increase the pool.
Flush
A flush is five cards of the same suit, or four of a suit plus Pam. The best flush is four of a suit plus Pam, followed by a flush in trumps, then by the plain-suit flush containing the highest top card or cards. Whoever holds the best flush (if any), whether before or after exchanging cards, 'looes the board' immediately - that is, he is deemed to win all five tricks without play, and is appropriately paid by anyone who does not himself hold either Pam or a flush.
Bidding
Each in turn announces whether he will pass or play. To play implies an undertaking to win at least one trick. (Optional rule: No one may pass if clubs are trump.) Each active player may make any number of discards and is then dealt the same number of replacements from the top of the stock (excluding the turn-up).
Play
Eldest leads to the first trick. If the trump Ace is led (now or subsequently) its leader may say "Pam be civil," whereupon the holder of clubJ may not play it unless holding no other trump. You must follow suit and head the trick if you can; if unable to follow you must trump and overtrump if you can; and only otherwise may you discard as you please. The trick is taken by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played. The winner of each trick leads to the next, and must lead a trump if possible. If Pam is led you must play a trump if you can.
Pay-off
Each trick won earns one fifth of the pool. Anyone who fails to win a trick must pay an agreed stake to the pool.
 
  LOO : Notes  
  1. Eldest hand is the dealer's left-hand neighbour. (Return 1)

2. To head the trick is to play a higher card of the suit led than any so far played to the trick. Combined with the requirement to trump if unable to follow suit, this means in effect that you must win the trick if you legally can. (Return 2)

 
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