The Georgian Card Game of Tontine

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet spent a few nights at Netherfield Park so she could nurse her ill sister, Jane. The first evening, after Jane had finally fallen asleep, Elizabeth ventured downstairs to join Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, his sister Caroline, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst.

Mr. Darcy, Caroline Bingley, and Charles Bingley play a game of loo at Netherfield in the 1985 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below, with a book. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.
“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”

There was a new card game just beginning to make the rounds in 1797, the same year in which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. In their October issue that year Sporting Magazine took great delight in publishing the rules of the game of Tontine, writing:

The rules we here give for playing this game are entirely new; nothing of this having yet been published for the game it is almost unknown in London, except in the polite circles of Fashion.

If you’re a writer (or reader) of Regency era fiction or romance, and you’d like to give your characters a new game to play besides Whist, Loo, Piquet or Lottery Tickets, Tontine may be the game you’re looking for.

Here are the rules:

Tontine may be played by twelve or fifteen persons; but the more the merrier.

It is played with an entire pack of fifty-two cards. Before they begin, every one is to take a stake, consisting of twelve, fifteen, or twenty counters more or less; each of them they value as they please; and at the beginning of the party, each player puts three counters in the box, which is on the middle of the table; then he is to deal, being cut to him by his left hand, turns up a card from the stock, or each player, according to his rank, and gives at the same time one to himself.

The player whose card turned up is a king, draws three counters from the box, for his own profit; if it is a queen he draws two, and for a knave one; he that has a ten, neither draws or pays any thing.

He that has an ace, gives one counter to his left hand neighbour; he that has a deuce gives two to his second left hand neighbour, and he that has a three, gives three to his third left hand neighbour, as his second left-hand neighbour; and he that has a three gives three to his third left hand neighbour

As for him that has a four, he puts two of his counters into the box; a five puts one there; a six two; a seven one; an eight two; and a nine one; observing to pay, and to be paid, exactly what is due.

Then he who is on the right of the first dealer, takes up the cards and deals; and this deal is played in the same manner as the first; and each player deals in his turn.

They who have lost all their counters are dead; but they do not die without hope, seeing that any of them may revive again, by the assistance of an ace, which may be in the hand of his right hand neighbour, for which he receives a counter, or by means of two, which may be in the hand of his second right hand neighbour, for which he receives two counters; or by a three in the hand of his third right hand neighbour, for which he receives three counters.

The player who has a single counter only, has the same right to play as he that has ten or twelve; and if he should lose two or three counters that deal, he can only pay what he has got, and has his discharge.

The deceased players have no cards before them, nor do they deal, though it comes to their turn, unless they are lucky enough to come to life again, then they plan again, just as if they had never died.

Mr. Collins (left) plays a game of whist with Mrs. Philips (right) in the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

He who outlives all the rest, by having counters left, when theirs are gone, wins the parly, and enjoys what the others have deposited.

If you’d like to read the original text as it appeared in Sporting Magazine, click here to view a scanned version of the article.

Now that you have the rules down, are you (or the Regency characters you create) ready to give the game a try? Gather some friends, round up some counters, deal the cards, and good luck!

 

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