One downside of the technological age is that it has consigned so many traditional games and pastimes to obsolescence. Playing cards, however, have proved remarkably resilient. While cards as a concept go back hundreds of years and probably originate in China, the 52-card deck with which we are all familiar today first appeared in the late 1400s in Europe. Playing cards gradually spread around the western world and as they did so, different, but loosely related, games evolved in different ways.
Nowhere was this more the case than in Australia. Colonists brought packs of cards with them from England in the early 1800s and it was not until the 1860s that the first playing card manufacturer started production in Australia. This was a Melbourne-based company called C Troedel and Co, owned by Charles Troedel, a renowned lithographer for whom the manufacture of playing cards was just a small sideline. Troedel’s shop and factory burned down in 1904 shortly before his death two years later.
By the mid 20th century, Australian playing card manufacture was at its peak, with a dozen or more different brands available on the shelves every day. Today, things have gone full circle, and cards are mostly imported, primarily from China.
So much for the cards themselves. Let’s next take a look at the games Australians like to play with them.
Five Hundred – Australia’s national game
This variation of Euchre was actually invented in the USA sometime in the 19th century. However, it is in Australia that the game achieved widespread popularity, to the extent that it became known as the country’s national card game.
Five hundred is played by four players in two teams of two, a little like bridge. It is played with a deck of 43 cards. This comprises a regular 52-card deck with the twos, threes and black fours removed and a joker added.
Gameplay follows the same basic principles as contract whist, with players first bidding how many tricks they are going to win. However, there are additional nuances in the way that trumps behave and in the role of the joker. You can read up on the full rules of 500 here.
Kuns – an Aboriginal game from the Northern Territory
Cards might have arrived in Australia with the settlers, but they were soon adopted by native Australians, who came up with games of their own. One that has stood the test of time is Kuns, also known as Bayb Kad.
It is played using a 40-card deck, by removing all picture cards from a standard deck. Each player is dealt five cards and the best hand wins. In order to be eligible, three of the cards must add up to a multiple of 10. If this condition is not satisfied, the hand scores nothing. If the condition is satisfied, the hand is valued on the last digit of the sum of the other two cards. The best score is if this is also a multiple of 10. Otherwise, the highest value wins. It’s a fast and furious game, and the biggest surprise is that nobody has thought of adapting it as a casino game!
Five card draw – the classic poker variation
Poker is popular the world over. The high profile of the World Series of Poker has inspired thousands to take up the game, and the internet has made it easy to learn in relatively safe surroundings, without the need to face off against other players until you are ready. That’s as much the case in Australia as it is anywhere, and the top rated poker sites in Australia offer a wide variation of online poker games to players of every skill level, from absolute beginners to bracelet-winning pros.
The most popular version of poker worldwide is Texas Holdem, and this game has its fair share of players in Australia, too. However, Australians also have a lot of love for five card draw. If you have ever played video poker, this is essentially the same game.
The only difference is that when you play against other players instead of the computer, there are rounds of betting. Typically, players first place and ante bet, then the first round of betting is when they receive their 5-card hand. They can then have as many cards as they wish re-dealt, and there is a final round of betting before the reveal.
This negative-scoring game is conceptually the same as Hearts, the card game made famous by Stephen King in his collection of novellas Hearts in Atlantis. It is best played with four people, as it uses the entire deck of cards. However, it can be adapted for three or five players by removing thee two of clubs and/or diamonds.
Once the cards have been distributed, each player can choose three to pass to another player. Vary between passing left, right or across so you do not always get the same player’s discards. Players may not pass the Queen of Spades – or Rickety Kate as she is known. Whoever has the 2 of clubs leads (or the 3 of clubs if the 2 is out of play), and players must play the same suit if they can. If not, they can judiciously discard other suits. The objective is to avoid winning hearts or the Queen of Spades.
Scoring systems vary, but most popular is hearts at face value from 2-13 for the King, 15 for the Ace of Hearts and 25 for Rickety Kate. When someone hits an agreed score, the player with the lowest score wins.
A high-risk but high-return strategy is to “shoot for the moon” – win all the hearts and Rickety Kate in a single hand and your score gets reset to zero.