Date redacted: Nov. 30th, 1995
Redactor: Justin du Coeur
Other players: John de Caversham initially, then Pryder, Eowyn, Alexander Listkeeper, and Mandisa Washington.
Sources: The game was primarily reconstructed from Charles Cotton's The Complete Gamester, 1674, London. We worked from the 1970 transcription published by the Imprint Society of Barre, MA. Game V is a detailed (and sometimes cryptic) description of Picket. It appears that Cotton plagiarized liberally from John Cotgrave's Wit's Interpreter, 1662, London. Many entire sentences are lifted directly from Cotgrave into Cotton. However, my current copy of Cotgrave is a poor-quality photocopy of the microfilm, and was too difficult to work from, so we primarily used Cotton, referring to Cotgrave occasionally.
We also made occasional use of the Introduction to Period Card Games by Earl Dafydd ap Gwystl; I don't know which edition of this collection I have, or its date. This is a looseleaf collection of descriptions of period card games, drawn from various sources. Dafydd's description of Picket, or Cent, is taken from the Oxford Guide to Card Games, by David Parlett. Unfortunately, the Oxford Guide (and, hence, Dafydd's description) is based on the 18th-century rules, which differ in a number of particulars from Cotton. Therefore, we used this book to clarify obscure passages from Cotton, but relied on the period sources whenever there were apparent rules discrepancies.
This game ranges somewhere between Old and Really Old. Although it was still popular in Cotton's time, there are ample 16th-century references to it; we will (optimistically) assume that the 17th century rules are reasonably close to the 16th-century ones. Parlett dates the game back to the early 16th century; however Catherine Hargrave (in A History of Playing Cards, Dover, 1966, pg. 41) writes, on the origins of the French suits:
There are other painted cards of the early fifteenth century which first show the suit signs of Coeurs, Carreaux, Tréfles, and Piques which are characteristic of the French cards of to-day. The suit signs of the old tarots had been Cups, Swords, Coins, and Batons; the French suit signs are supposed to have been introduced by a famous knight, Étienne Vignoles, or Lahire, as he is called. He is said to have invented the game of piquet, which was the game of knights and chivalry, in contrast to the old game which had come out of the East, which had its inception in chess, the game of war...
So it seems that there is at least legendary evidence for the game dating back to the 15th century. Regardless, it is clearly well within period.
This game is played with a 36-card deck; remove the 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s from a conventional 52-card deck. (Parlett and Dafydd describe the game with a 32-card deck, leaving out the 6s as well, and indeed Cotton refers to this practice in a footnote. It appears that, in Cotton's time, they were just switching from the 36-card deck to the 32-card one.)
Cards have fairly typical point values:
A game, or Set, is usually played to 100 points (hence, the game is apparently also known as "Cent" according to Dafydd); however, Cotton says that this can vary. Since we had Cribbage boards handy for scoring, we chose to play to 121. Note that this does (fractionally) affect the game-play, due to the scoring -- if you succeed in repiquing your opponent in a 100-point game, it is an almost certain win, but is not quite as certain in a larger game.
To start, the dealer shuffles, and opponent cuts the deck. (Cotton is explicit about this, btw.) Deal out 12 cards to each player, in sets of 2, 3, or 4 cards at a time. Again, Cotton is explicit --
.. delivering what Number he pleaseth at a time, so that he exceed not four nor deal under two...Leave the remaining 12 cards in the middle, as the "Stock".
Now, there are a series of opportunities to score points. In each, the Elder (that is, non-dealer) goes first, and declares how well he fares for this category. Younger (the dealer) can then either accept that claim, or better it. The better shows the cards that make up the claim, and takes the appropriate score. Cotton isn't quite consistent in his description of these processes; we have interpreted this general principle, as it seems reasonably consistent with what he says, and makes it all easy to remember. We played it that, if both players tie evenly, no one scores. Again, this isn't absolutely clear in Cotton (in some cases, he just doesn't talk about ties), but it seems a good rule of thumb for keeping things consistent.
Blank: The first step is to declare "Blank", if any. You are "blank" if you have no court cards in your hand. This is vanishingly rare -- I don't believe it happened to anyone all night. As above, if both players are blank, neither scores. Blank is worth ten points, and requires showing the entire hand.
Draw: (This isn't a scoring opportunity; it just happens here.) Elder may now discard up to eight cards from his hand, and refresh them from the Stock. After this, if he drew less than eight, he may examine (but not alter) the remaining cards up to eight. (In other words, if you draw five, you may look at the next three.) Then Younger discards and draws. We played that Younger may only draw up to eight, but this is not clear from Cotton. Younger may choose to flip up the remaining cards in the Stock, for both to see.
Note that Elder has some real advantages here. He can always take up to eight, whereas Younger may only have as few as four left to draw. Also, he may have some clue about what cards Younger has, whereas Younger can only find out what remained in the Stock. Cotton is explicit that Elder has an advantage, and we found it to be true, although not overwhelming.
Ruff: Next, choose your strongest single suit, counting by the point system described earlier (so, for example, an A-K-10-8 of Hearts is 39); Elder bids first, and Younger may try to top it. Show the cards that win the Ruff. Score one-tenth the number of points shown in the Ruff, rounding up. (So a Ruff of 40 is worth four points, as is one of 35, but 34 is worth three points.) This phase is called "Point" in the modern game, and is scored differently.
Sequence: Next, choose your longest run (or "straight", in poker terminology). Again, Elder goes first, declaring the number of cards in his run, and Younger can top it. If there is a tie, it goes to the run with the higher top card; if it is still tied, we decided that both lose. (Note that tied runs of nine are automatically total ties, and are very aggravating.) The winner then gets to score all sequences in his hand. We discussed whether you were allowed to count cards in multiple sequences, but decided against it -- the potential scores are just too insanely high. Therefore, we decided that you can only count each card in one sequence (and must show all sequences you are counting).
Score sequences as follows:
Ternary: Next, find threes of a kind (Ternaries) or, if you have them, fours of a kind (Quatorzes). Only cards of ten or higher count -- sixes through nines are worthless. As with Sequence, this is winner-take-all -- the person holding the highest set may score all of the sets in his hand, and the loser doesn't score any. Cotton does not make it clear that threes and fours are counted in the same phase, or that a four of a kind beats any three of a kind, but these are both elements of the modern game and seem to make sense, so we went with them.
Score three points for each Ternary, and 14 for each Quatorze.
Tricks: At this point, it turns into a conventional trick-taking game. Elder leads initially. You must follow suit if possible. If a trick involves one or two cards that are ten or higher, the winner of the trick takes one point for each such card. (Cotton is rather cryptic on this point; this is our best interpretation. Note that the modern scoring rules are somewhat different.) Winner of the final trick gets one point, or two points if he wins with a ten. At the end of the tricks, the player who took the most tricks takes ten points. Cotton is not clear about what happens if tricks tie; we decided that neither player gets any points. If one player has won all of the tricks, it is called "Capet", and he gets forty points instead of ten.
Pique & Repique: If one player in a hand manages to get thirty points before the other player has scored anything, it is called a "Pique" (or "Picy" in Cotton), and he gets an extra thirty points. Moreover, if he manages to do this before they begin playing tricks, this is a "Repique" ("Repicy" in Cotton) instead, and he gets sixty points. This is typically an automatic win. (Note that Cotton is a little cryptic on this, and can be read as meaning that Repique gets an extra ninety points. This seems excessive, so we have stuck with the modern scoring, which is powerful enough.)
Note that wins are immediate -- you do not finish out the winning hand, but declare the victory as soon as it is pegged. This has some effect on strategy in endgame.
Cotton's description of Picket finishes with a long collection of Rules for playing the game:
He that hath four Aces, Kings, Queens, &c. dealt him and after he hath discarded one of the four reckons the other three, and the other say to him it is good; he is bound to tell the other, if he ask him what Ace, King, Queen, &c. he wants.
Interesting game, with the hardest draw strategies I've ever seen. Pretty much anything you do is likely to foul up at least one scoring phase. It is pretty unusual to wind up losing all of the phases; presumably, this is why repique is so powerful. Given that sequence does not appear to require sequence-in-suit, and that it scores pretty high, this seems to usually be the best hand to chase, but it is notably fraught with danger of screwing up everything else. Straight flushes are devastating, but uncommon.
As with all good games, this one has a certain amount of balance. It rewards the careful eye, since winning any phase requires showing what cards you had to win it. Therefore, if you lose the early phases, you can often make up lost ground through careful strategy in the tricks. I am given to understand that this is similar to Pinocle strategy, although I don't know that game.
Picket looks horribly complex when you start out, but it's pretty easy to pick up, and becomes smooth sailing after that. We played a number of games, and found it complex enough to be interesting, while not so complex as to be frustrating. It's easy to see why the game was popular for so long.
Since the above account is so long and detailed, I provide a concise summary of the game. You can't learn from this summary, but it should make a good reference sheet.
Summary of each hand: