Historic Card Games described by David Parlett



The five-fingered game of the Gaels

Origin and history of Maw, Spoil Five, Twenty-Five, and Forty-Five

Top cards
Top trumps in Maw and its descendants

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", c?ig, 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:

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 (Note?1).

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.

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".

uplink downlink SPOIL FIVE
Based on Baxter-Wray in Pole (ed): The Handbook of Games (1891)
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 spade and 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 forfeit your turn to deal 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: 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 previous round saw the pool won or the game spoilt.
uplink downlink VARIATIONS
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.
uplink downlink MAW - THE GROOM PORTER'S LAWS
How to play coreectly at James Stuart's court

The following text is of a late 16th-century set of Laws for the game of Maw as controlled by the Groom Porter, the officer responsible for everything to do with games and gaming at the royal court (in this case of James I of England, aka James VI of Scotland). These Laws deal only with the irregularities and penalties of the game and do not adequately describe how it was played, but it is clear from their content and terminology that the essential features of Spoil Five, and of its modern version the Irish national game of Twenty-Five, were already in existence. They include 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. 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. This text reproduces, as far as possible, the orthography and typography of the original.

Note. The long S's may not come out (or may appear as question marks) unless your browser supports Unicode Character Set UTF-8.

The Groome-porters lawes at Mawe,
to be obserued in fulfilling the due orders of the game

1. If you chaunge hands, it is the lo??e of the ?et.
2. If you renounce, it is the lo??e of the ?et.
3. If you leade when your mate ?houlde, it is the lo??e of that game and vied cardes.
4. If you lo?e dealing, it is the lo??e of fower cardes; but if the lo?er of the dealing deale not againe, you aquite the fower, and no gain to either of both parties.
5. If you looke either upon the a?ked carde or the bottome carde, it is the lo??e of that game and vied cardes, in whom the fault is found.
6. If you roub (not hauing the ace) you lo?e fower and al the vied cardes, although you lay downe the ?ame carde which you tooke vp.
7. If you make out the carde when your mate rubbeth, it is the lo??e of fower, for the roubber mu?t make out the carde him?elf.
8. If you turne vp the ace of hartes, you gaine fower thereby.
9. If you turne vp the ace of hartes, and thereby make either partie above xxvj points, the contrary part mu?t haue liuings; but if the contrary part bee xxv, by means whereof liuings ?ets them out, then is he who turned vp the ace of hartes to make for the ?et, ?o that he make not one game nor the fir?t tricke, without the con?ent of both parties.
10. The partie that a?keth a carde may not vie any carde before the fir?t tricke be played.
11. You may not vie it after your carde is led, but the contrary part may.
12. Three cardes cro??ed, no carde by any meanes giuen backe.
13. Neither partie may giue backe his owne vied carde, though none be cro??ed.
14. You may not a?ke a carde to ?et the contrary parte or your ?elfe at liuings or out.
15. Prouided alwaies that, if the contrary partie bee xxiij or aboue, by rea?on that fower ?ets the other partie behind the liuings, it ?halbe [sic] lawfull for the partie which is behind to a?ke a carde, although the carde ?o a?ked put the other to liuings.
16. Prouided al?o that, if you meane to lead a helpe, you may vie it vpon your owne a?ked carde, ?o as it be done before the helpe be out of your hand; the contrary part may pledge you a carde after he ?eeth your helpe vpon the boord, ?o as it be done before his owne carde be played.


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 (see above) 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. I am grateful 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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