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Historic card games Parachute down


The five-fingered game of the Gaels

club Five club Jack heart Ace
  © 2012 by David Parlett  
  Maw is the oldest form of Ireland's national card game Twenty-Five and its Canadian equivalent Forty-Five, together with the chronologically intermediate forms Five Cards and Spoil Five.

Like Cribbage, the English national card game, it has changed relatively little in 400 years. The basic idea, though now slightly modified, is that five tricks are played and the aim is either to win three of them oneself or to "spoil" the distribution by preventing anyone else from doing so. If no one succeeds, the pool is carried forward to the next deal and increased. This makes it an ideal game for five, which may explain why the Irish for "trick", cúig, is in fact the word for "five".

The most distinctive features of Maw / Spoil Five suggest a common origin with the old Spanish game of Ombre. In particular:

  • cards rank upside down in two suits,
  • three cards are wrenched from their normal positions to act as the top three trumps,
  • these three cannot be forced out by the play of lower trumps, and
  • whoever holds the Ace of trumps may 'rob' the pack (see game description).
In this case the top three trumps are the Five of trumps, the Jack of trumps, and the Ace of hearts. The top trump is traditionally designated the "five-finger", which is an older name for several plants including the cinquefoil and the oxlip (Note1).
  References to Maw in English literature are so numerous from about 1550 to 1650 that we need only take note of the most informative. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation is the line -
At ale howse too sitt at mack or at mall...

from William Forrest's The pleasant poesye of princely practice (1548). Mack is an unidentified card game, and Mall may suggest an etymology for Maw, though it is hard to see how it relates to the game. One 17th-century reference spells it "Mayo", possibly influenced by the Irish county of that name (which means, if anything, "sharp plain"), though it may just be intended to represent a pronunciation rhyming with "cow". "Maw" also means the stomach of an animal such as a ruminant, and many references include the phrase "heaving at the maw" as a presumably jocular equivalent of "playing at maw" - just as, for example, we might say "Wielding the Poker" or "Crossing at the Bridge".

In 1576 it is characterised by Arthur Hall, in An Account of a Quarrel, as

A playe at cardes grown out of the country, from the meanest, into credit at court with the greatest

- a comment on its rise in social status similar to that enjoyed by Whist in the 18th century. Its appearance at the English court may have been due to Mary, Queen of Scots, there being a close cultural relationship between the two Gaelic-speaking nations. (The original "Scots" were Irish invaders.)

From this period we are fortunate in having a copy of The Groom-porters lawes at Mawe, the Groom Porter being the officer responsible for everything to do with games and gaming at the royal court (Note 2).

Although the Laws deal only with the irregularities and penalties of the game and do not provide an adequate description of how it is actually played, it is clear from their content and terminology that the essential features of Spoil Five and Twenty-Five are already in existence, such as the card called "five-finger", the position of the Ace of hearts, and the practice of "robbing the pack" by whoever holds the Ace of trumps.

In 1593 somebody called Rich wrote Greene's Newes from Heaven & Hell to the Reader, which includes the helpful information that -

Although the knave of trumpes be the seconde carde at Mawe, yet the five-finger may commaunde both him and all the rest of the pack.

Maw became the chief game of the English court with the accession of James I (James VI of Scotland) in 1603. Weldon's Court and Character of King James refers to "the king's card-holder" at Maw, provoking Chatto to remark -

His Majesty appears to have played at cards just as he played with affairs of State - in an indolent manner, requiring in both cases someone to hold his cards, if not to prompt him what to play.

In satirical vein, an engraving of 1626 depicts James at Maw with the kings of Denmark and Sweden. The caption includes these lines: -

Denmarke being bold
Deales freely round; and the first card he showes
Is the five finger, which, being turn'd up, goes
Cold to the Muncke's heart; the next Denmarke sees
Is the ace of hearts
The Muncke could shew him nothing but the Knave.

- which suggest that the Jack of trumps and Ace of hearts, then as now the second and third highest trumps respectively, had temporarily changed places. Half a century later the Knave had apparently sunk even further, for the game described in Cotton's chapter on "Five Cards" in The Compleat Gamester is introduced as:

An Irish game, much play'd in that Kingdom. The five fingers (alias, five of trumps) is the best Card in the pack; the Ace of Hearts is next to that, and the next is the Ace of trumps, then the Knave.
  Later developments  
  Maw was one of many card games that died out in England during the Puritanical Commonwealth period. The accession of Charles II in 1660, accompanied by his wandering court, introduced a fresh wave of games originating in Holland and other continental countries. Not until the 19th century does it reappear in English-language Hoyles - on both sides of the Atlantic, but now under the title "Spoil Five".

The game seems always to have existed in two versions. One is the round game in which the aim is either to win three tricks or to "spoil" by preventing anyone from doing so; the other is the game for two players or partnerships, where one side is bound to win three tricks so there is no possibility of spoiling. The Groom Porter's Laws seem to imply the partnership game, and Cotton specifically says "There are but two can play at it". It may have been under the influence of the two-sided version that the spoiling feature has been dropped from the modern game of Forty-Five, being replaced by that of scoring five points for each trick won.

With it has also gone the feature by which a player who won the first three tricks could either cease play and take the pool, or undertake to win all five by leading to the fourth. Success resulted in extra rewards, failure in loss of the pool supposedly won - a sort of "double or quits" procedure. Leading to the fourth was known as "jinking". In the modern game each won trick scores five points, and "jinking", if mentioned at all, denotes the actual winning of five tricks rather than the bidding of it.

  "The worst card in the pack"?  
  It recently occurred to me that Maw or Five Cards may lie behind an old tradition (mentioned by Cotton and others) by which the Ace of diamonds is reckoned the worst card in the pack. Since the black Aces are high in their suits, and the Ace of hearts is always a top trump, this leaves the Ace of diamonds, when not trump, not only lowest of all the Aces but lower even than the Deuce of its own suit. Gurney Benham, though not mentioning Maw, throws further light on this tradition by quoting from William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830), as follows:
It's the worst ace and the poorest card in the pack and is called the Earl of Cork because he's the poorest nobleman in Ireland.

To which, however, Benham wryly adds "This does not appear to be correct as regards the Earls of Cork".

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2. Rules: rewritten by David Parlett from those by "Baxter-Wray" in
Pole (ed): The Handbook of Games (1891)
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Any number up to ten, best for four or five, as then about half the cards are in play.

Fifty-two. There is always a trump suit, and three or four cards are always the highest trumps, namely (from the top down):

1. Five of trumps ("Five fingers")
2. Jack of trumps
3. Ace of hearts (heartA)
4. Ace of trumps (if other than hearts)

The others rank from high to low according to colour:

in heart and diamond : K Q [J] 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 [A] ("high in red")
in spadeand clubs : K Q [J] [A] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ("low in black")

The bracketed cards occupy those positions only when they are not among the four top trumps.

The pool
A pool is made up by each player contributing two or three coins or counters for the purpose, the dealer paying an additional stake.

To win three tricks, and thus the pool, or to ensure that no one else wins more than two. In this case the game is said to be "spoilt", and the pool is carried forward.

Deal cards round till someone gets a Jack. That player deals first and the turn to deal then passes to the left, as does all the play. Shuffle the cards, have them cut by your right-hand neighbour, and deal three cards to each player followed by two more - or two first and then three, so long as everyone gets five. Stack the rest face down and turn the top card for trump.

If you misdeal, or deal out of turn, or expose a card, you lose your turn of dealing and it passes to your left. Alternatively, it may be agreed that you have the option of dealing again after paying a second dealer's stake into the pool. The deal is an advantage, so in case of any fault it will generally be found best to pay the penalty and deal again.

Robbing the pack
If you have been dealt the Ace of trumps, you are entitled to "rob the pack" by taking the trump turn-up in exchange for any unwanted card from your hand, which you return face down to the bottom of the stock. You must do this when about to play to the first trick, and before showing your first card, otherwise you not only forfeit the privilege but also are prohibited from winning the pool in that round, no matter how many tricks you win. The same penalty applies to any player who robs the turn-up card without holding the ace.

If the Ace of trumps itself is turned, it is for the dealer to place one of his own cards on the table face downwards in front of him, which card must not be exposed at any time during the progress of the hand. He doesn't take the Ace into his own hand till the others have played to the first trick, but when it comes to his turn he adds it to his hand, or he may at once use it. He must, however, throw out the card with which he intends to rob the Ace before the first card of the round is played, and reasonable time must be allowed to do so. The turn-up suit remains trump throughout the hand.

Some schools discountenance the idea of robbing, and may agree that its exercise should be either optional or prohibited.

Dealer's left-hand neighbour leads to the first trick. The rules of following are:
  • If you can't follow suit, you may play as you please.
  • If you can follow suit, you may either do so or play a trump, whichever you prefer, but you may not discard from another plain suit.
  • If trumps are led you must follow suit if you can - unless the only one you hold is one of the top three trumps (Five, Jack or heartAce) and is higher than the one led. In this case, you may "renege" by discarding from another suit. In other words, you are never forced to play the Five, nor the Jack unless the Five is led, nor the heartA unless the Five or Jack is led, and even then only if you hold no lower trump (Note 3).

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 you win the first three tricks you may cease play and sweep the pool. Alternatively, you may lead to the fourth, thereby undertaking to win all five. If successful, you will have "jinked it", and will receive from each player your original stake in addition to the amount in the pool. If not, you lose all claim on the pool, which is carried forward to the next deal.

If the pool is won, a new one is formed at the start of the next deal, each player and the dealer making the initial contribution agreed upon. If not, the pool is carried forward and each player except the dealer adds one coin or counter to it. The dealer pays the sum agreed for the deal each time, no matter whether the the previous round saw the pool won or the game spoilt.

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3. Variations
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Family game
Baxter-Wray writes: "A very good game may he played by allowing the cards to retain their ordinary sequence. As this avoids confusion, it is more suitable for family play."

Two-trick win
With more than five players it may be agreed that the pool goes to anyone who wins two tricks, otherwise there may be too long a run of spoils. Alternatively, an even number of players can form partnerships of two each.

This variation is also recorded by Cotton and others, and applies to the two-hand game: If the non-dealer is dissatisfied with his cards, he may ask the dealer to "five" it. If the dealer agrees, he turns the trump turn-up down and turns the next card or cards until one appears that differs in suit from the first. The second suit must be entrumped in place of the first and may not be changed again.
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4. Notes
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1. For the curious partiality of Irish folklore to the number five, see Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, Celtic Heritage, (London 1961), Chapter IX "Numbers", especially pp.189-192. (Return 1).

2. The Groom Porter's Laws appear in Ancient Ballads and Broadsides published in England in the sixteenth Century... as preserved in the Library of Henry Huth, London, 1867. There is a copy in the Bodleian Library. Here is a link to a transcript of the original text. I am indebted to Thierry Depaulis for communicating this discovery. (Return 2).

3. "Baxter-Wray" confusingly adds: "If the ace of hearts is led, and another suit is trumps, it does not necessitate all the players following suit, even though the ace of hearts is always reckoned as a trump. The lead in this case is considered as made from a plain suit, and the rules governing them are enforced." This baffled me until I read this simpler version in The American Hoyle of 1882: "If the Ace of Hearts is led when Hearts are not trumps, a player holding no trumps need not play a Heart". It is only mentioned at all to remind those not paying attention that heartA is always a trump, and not a heart unless hearts are trump. (Return 3).

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