Game Report: Primero

Class: Cards

Type: Vying

Number of Players: 4 probably best; works for 2 through 6ish

Reconstructed from primary and tertiary sources

Date redacted: October 13, 2002; updated October 28, 2002; updated October 26, 2003

Redactor: Justin du Coeur

Known Primary Sources:

I am a bit embarassed to say that, at this point, I've really only dug properly into the first three.  I've done some looking into the latter five (which Thierry Depaulis was kind enough to provide), but my Italian and French are weak enough that I can't say I've done them anything remotely resembling justice.  This should all be considered extremely preliminary until I've rectified that.

Prior Reconstructions: I am aware of the following well-known reconstructions:

There are a couple of other descriptions on the Web, but without any supporting information that I can find.  As of this writing, I have begun some serious re-evaluation based on some of Whittaker's ideas, but they have not yet been incorporated into the main text here.  See the appendix below for some initial opinions.

Reconstruction: Italian Primero

Broadly speaking, Primero can be thought of as the period equivalent of Poker -- it is a vying game with a number of different hand types, where bluffing is a crucial component. You should not carry this connection too far, though: last I've heard, there does not appear to be any lineal connection between the games, and there are some very important differences. But broadly speaking, players who like Poker tend to also like Primero.

It is widely agreed that Primero was well-known around Europe during the 16th century; references are common in at least Spain, France, England and Italy. However, it also appears that the game varied considerably from place to place. Finding that the above primary sources appear to contradict each other in some critical ways, I am therefore breaking this into two distinct reconstructions: Italian Primero and English Primero. While both descriptions draw from all of the sources, the Italian description is based mainly on Cardano, and the English mainly on Minsheu and Florio.


The game is played with a standard deck of cards, with the eights, nines and tens discarded, making a forty card deck.

There is not a common pot in this game; when you make a bet, you place the money in front of you, but do not place it into a common pool in the center. This makes it easier to manage some aspects of the game.

Card Values

The cards have the following values: So the 2-5 have 10 added to their value; 6 and 7 are trebled; aces are work 16 and coats are worth 10. It takes a little practice to get used to this, but it becomes intuitive after a while.

Hand Types

Italian Primero has five hand types. In ascending order from least to greatest (and using the original Latin names given by Cardano), they are:


To begin with, choose a dealer. This was probably done by cutting the deck ("lifting"); the lowest card probably dealt. The dealer shuffles the cards, and deals two cards to each player, face-down.

Phase 1: Begin to go around, beginning with the first player to receive cards. On his turn, each player may do any of the following:

The rule about getting around to the last player deserves a clarifying example. Say you have players A, B, C and D. A Passes; B Vies; C and D both Pass. A now must See the bet, even if he doesn't have much of a hand. After this, play continues around the table. B Passes (and does not have to discard, since he has already Vied the pot). C and D must now make up their minds: C Folds, and D Sees. The pot now being right, Phase 1 ends.

If a player runs out of money, he may go "all in", in Poker parlance. Once all of his money has been placed in front of him, he no longer bets, but may continue to See any further Vies and Revies without putting in any further money. If he winds up winning the hand, he collects an amount from each other player equal to the amount that he bet. The remainder goes to the second-highest hand.

Once the hand has been Vied, and everyone has either Seen the current bet or Folded, move on to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Deal two more cards to each player. Begin going around as before, but with some tweaks. Specifically:

Again, play continues until the hand has been Vied and everyone has either Seen or Folded. At this point, everyone shows their hands. The winner is the remaining player with the highest point value in the bid hand type. You must at least equal the bid in order to win. If you have a hand type greater than the bid, you lose, unless you fit one of the exceptions above. (Note that this means that a bad draw can blow your hand -- if the bid is, eg, numerus, and you draw to a fluxus, you lose.) If no one can win, the money remains in the center for the next hand. In case of ties, the eldest hand wins. You must show all of your cards, to demonstrate that you do not have a higher hand type that cannot win under these circumstances. Winner collects all the money on the table.

Variation: Losing Primero

Cardano mentions a variation, in which you are trying to get the lowest hand rather than the highest. He implies that the game is otherwise identical, and is not very common.

Reconstruction: English Primero

This version is based on the same sources, but with a different emphasis. In this case, I am using Minsheu and Florio as the main focus when there is contradiction between them and Cardano, but otherwise assuming that the game is probably similar to the Italian version. In general, this reconstruction will refer back to the Italian version, so you should read that first.

The Equipment, Hand Types and Card Values are probably the same as in Italian Primero, above. In this English version, I suspect that you do bet into a common pot, unlike the Italian version.


Before starting, settle on a Stake (the amount for each bet) and a Rest (the final bet). Conventionally, the Rest is thrice the Stake. Choose a dealer by lifting for it -- the lowest card by point value deals. The dealer shuffles the cards, and deals two cards face-down to each player.

Phase 1: Begin to go around, starting with the first player to receive cards (the eldest). This works similarly as in Italian Primero, but the options are slightly different:

As in the Italian game, a player can go "all in" when he runs out of money, and vie for only the part of the pot that he can match.

Note the differences from Italian Primero:

As in the Italian game, once the pot has been Vied and everyone has either Seen or Folded, move on to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Deal two more cards to each player. Continue to go around as in Phase 1, but with the following differences:

If someone Rests, then go around until everyone has either Rested or Folded. At this point, everyone left shows their hands. The highest hand wins. Since there is no bidding, there is no concept of understating your hand.


Given the complexity of the game (and the length of this writeup), I've written a one-page cheat sheet in Word format, covering both versions of the game. It's very terse, but should suffice as a reminder.


Primero is one of the most important games of the 16th century, but also one of the trickiest to reconstruct. While we have several sources, they are all rather ambiguous, and reconstructions vary wildly. So as to not add too badly to the babble, I present here the reasoning underlying this reconstruction. It is presented roughly in the order that concept appear above, but is rather loosely ordered. Hopefully it isn't too confusing. The intent is that other reconstructors can see where I am coming from, and draw their own conclusions.

To start with, I should emphasize that neither of these reconstructions is anything like settled. The sources are highly ambiguous and tricky to interpret, and there may well be non-English sources of which I am unaware. This is my current best guess of what they are talking about, and are subject to change, especially if new information comes to my attention.

This reconstruction owes a good deal to the previous ones, especially those of Suzuki and Harbinger. I've thought carefully about each of those, and adopted the ideas that I found supportable from the evidence.

Italian vs. English Primero: The decision to give two entirely separate reconstructions is unusual; the other authors have only given one, even when they are using multiple sources to understand the game. It is driven by my conclusion that the two games really are quite different. If nothing else, the Italian game clearly features bidding, and the English game clearly does not. This changes the complexion of the game dramatically enough that it is best to assume that there will be other knock-on effects. And indeed: treating the games separately has tended to clarify each game by providing mutual contrasts.

Number of Players: Some reconstructions say that the game is for four or more players, but Florio is clearly describing a two-player game. The upper limit is not clear; you don't want to run out of cards easily, but otherwise there is flexibility. I would guess that six is the most before you start needing to reshuffle the discards.

Hand Types: Parlett gives only three hand types: the Primero, Fifty-Five and Flush. I assume that this is based on the practice of the modern descendant games. But it is clear in Florio that one can win with a simple point (that is, a Numerus in Cardano's lexicon), and I see no reason to omit Chorus simply because it isn't mentioned in the English sources. It would be a fairly rare hand, so it is unsurprising that these dialogues would omit it.

Lifting for Deal: This is explicit in the Dialogues. It is not clear how one chooses the Dealer in the other sources, but since lifting for deal is quite common in period, I am guessing that it was probably the norm. It is not strictly obvious that the deal goes to the lowest card by point value (it could, for example, be going to the highest card by conventional rank), but that is my interpretation of what is going on in the Dialogues.

Note that the Dialogues may also imply that the highest card becomes the eldest. I haven't bothered with that tweak, but it sounds like what is happening in the Dialogues. It is not clear whether the players then switched seats, or if the Dealer needed to remember the deal order.

Stake and Rest: It is quite clear in both of the English sources that there are separate concepts of "Stake" and "Rest"; it is conspicuous that in both cases, the Rest is thrice the Stake, so I am assuming that this was an ordinary convention. It is clear in these sources that the Rest is played at the end. However, there is no intimation of any such concept in Cardano, so I am assuming that the betting in the Italian game is more free-form.

Cards two and two: Most reconstructions have the Dealer send out all four cards more or less at once, interpreting Cardano as intending simply that you deal two to each player, and then immediately deal two more. I am siding with Harbinger on this one, to instead take Cardano literally: you have two completely separate deals of two cards each. This seems a reasonable interpretation of Cardano's comment that "the cards are dealt around twice". (And is clearly the interpretation that Dr. Gould drew as well, from his footnotes on the translation.) It also fits with the Dialogues, where the dealer says, "One, two, three, foure: one, two, three, foure." Given that there are four players, this comes out as just the right number of cards for two cards each around to four players. And it explains Cardano's obsession with the mean values for a good score in each hand type -- he is explaining how to calculate what to bid, given a two-card opening hand.

Vying and Drawing: It is quite unclear whether you are allowed or supposed to discard and draw when you Vie or See. Cardano implies that it is required when you Vie numerus or supremus. After some discussion and experimentation, I have chosen to allow it as a general rule -- in practice, it makes the game more interesting, and I see no good reason to disallow it.

First-round Bidding: Harbinger does not have the players bidding in the first round, only betting. I believe that there is bidding, again due to the discussion in Cardano, where he appears to be discussing what is appropriate to bid with only two cards.

Understating: This is a point of some controversy. Some reconstructions (such as Harbinger) decide firmly that you cannot understate your hand. I take a softer line than that, on two grounds. First, Florio has a sort of understating bluff: A. claims to have a 40, but actually has a 54. If I am correct that there is no real bidding here, then this is simply table-talk, but the idea is established.

More important than that is the degree of circumlocution that Cardano indulges in on this subject. He states explicitly that certain kinds of understating are permitted: "It is not permissible to count diverse bids as more than the greatest of these, but supremus can be considered as primero when another has bid primero. Also chorus can always be concealed for primero and for fluxus when another has announced it." And there is no hint that you cannot understate your point value. Hence, I interpret the process as bidding, where you must win with the specified hand type or lower except for the given (fairly rare) exceptions.

Can Only Pass Once After Vie: This is supported very loosely by Cardano's comment that "they change cards once". It's more there as a common-sense rule: otherwise, the players who don't have anything can just continue to pass and pass, delaying the game and not contributing any money. This seems a bit implausible, so I have interpolated my best guess. But it's just a guess.

Last Player Must See: This one is actually unambiguous in both cases. The Dialogues explicitly have the last player saying, "I must of force see it". And Cardano says, "If anyone places a wager from the beginning, then if someone accepts it, the others are absolved. If no one does, then the last player from him who places is compelled to stake."

Withdraw Half When Folding: Okay, this one is odd, and no other reconstruction has it. But it is the only interpretation I have come up with for Cardano's long digression about how much one should remove under certain circumstances. I believe he is describing the amount that would be fair to remove when you Fold under certain bid conditions. Note that, while he is describing a relatively complex scheme for what would be fair, he implies that this is not what normally happens -- that you usually withdraw half.

This is somewhat buttressed by the English concept of the Rest. The two systems, while different, are actually analogous: in both games, you have to bet a good deal extra in order to stick around for the showdown. In England, this is direct: you have to toss in a large extra bet in order to see the final round. In Italy it's a bit less so: if you decide to go away without seeing the cards, you can take some back. The effect is similar, however.

"Refusing"?: Harbinger's reconstruction has a concept that the other players may explicitly refuse an overly high bet, and can thereby argue the original vie down. I'm not seeing any explicit support for that concept in the sources I have, so I have left it out.

Showing Cards?: Harbinger also says that you show two cards when you declare your bid at the beginning of the second phase. I suspect this is an interpretation of Cardano's discussion of what cards have to be shown under certain circumstances. However, I disagree with the interpretation. I believe that Cardano is instead saying that, during the showdown when cards are revealed, you cannot just show that you have the declared hand -- you must also show that you do not have an illegal higher hand. For example, he says that, if you win with Supremus, you must show the remaining card to demonstrate that you do not have Fluxus. The implication is that you do not necessarily have to show all your cards when you win: I specify that you do mainly because it is simpler, and easier to remember as a rule of thumb.

"All in": The term is taken from Poker terminology, but the concept is, I believe, in both versions.

In the Dialogues, there is a fairly mysterious sequence of dialogue. L. has Fluxus, which clearly should win the whole pot. However, O. declares that his Supremus wins out over M.'s Primero. I believe this is clarified by L.'s earlier comment that, "I cannot give it over". This is L. saying that he cannot match the Rest, even though he intends to remain in the hand. When it comes out, he wins some of it (saying, "I flush whereby I draw"), but O. wins M.'s Rest, since L. couldn't match it.

Cardano is somewhat clearer on this point. He says, "if one has too little and the others more, then those who so wish can contend separately beyond that which is least. And even though that third player should win, still they contend for the remainder just as if they were playing along among themselves." This describes the all-in concept pretty well.

Swigging: The notion that you toss in your cards and redeal if no one Vies in the second round comes mainly from Florio, where S. offers A. the option of swigging, and insists that he either do that or lay his Rest. Cardano instead states explicitly, "If no one bets, they are compelled to exchange one or two cards according to their judgement." So I am assuming that this is a difference between the English and Italian games. See Florio's 1598 Italian-English dictionary for another reference to swigging: "to heape vp, to swigge the cardes".

Vies Without Resting:: In the English game, I posit that there may be multiple rounds of Vying and Seeing before someone actually calls for the Rest (and thus, the showdown). This is strictly a guess, based on the vague evidence. In practice, it seems to work satisfactorily.

Must Match the Bid To Win: Cardano doesn't clearly say anywhere that you have to make the bid value to win. In practice, though, this seems necessary -- otherwise, bidding point values is essentially pointless. Similarly, if you could win with a lesser hand type than the bid, you could simply bid chorus and reduce the game to essentially the English variant, where highest hand wins. The rule that the money remains on the table if no one makes the bid is my own assumption, as the obvious way to deal with the fairly unusual situation.

Drawing to Lose: The idea that you might draw a card, get a better hand, and then lose (in the Italian game) is, obviously, a little controversial. But it seems the logical outgrowth of the rest of the rules as I've figured them so far, and it does provide a rather interesting twist. It also might explain the rule that you must draw during a bid of numerus or supremus -- it gives the other players a chance to make you blow your hand. In this, it adds a slightly blackjack-like element.

Appendix:  The Whittaker Reconstruction

Recently (August, 2003) David Whittaker came out with a new reconstruction of both the Elizabethan and Italian versions of the game, which has enough depth to be worth careful comparison to mine.  As of this writing, I'm still chewing it over, figuring out what I agree with and what I don't.  The following are working notes on what I currently think about the various differences between our reconstructions.  All of this is highly preliminary, needing at least a deep re-reading of Cardano before I have any confidence in it.  Essentially, it's my reactions after reading through his version and doing an initial comparison with Cardano, Minsheu and Florio, but before I've had a chance to fully playtest and digest.

Fare a Salvare:  This is Whittaker's interpretation of what Cardano is talking about in his long digression on how to split the pot.  On the one hand, I find it almost preposterously messy; on the other, it seems like a plausible literal reading of Cardano, at least at first blush.  It is likely a better guess than mine, so I am tentatively withdrawing the rule allowing players in Italian Primero to take back half their bets.  I'm going to avoid teaching Fare a Salvare until I understand it better, though.

Proportion of Stake to Rest:  I had originally said that the rest is usually thrice the stake; Whittaker defines it more loosely.  In retrospect, he is correct: I simply didn't read carefully the first time through.

"Rest" as a Raise Limit:  Whittaker's interpretation of the term "rest" is a raise limit -- essentially, he has it as the most you can bet in a single round, whereas I have it as the least.  While I find the textual evidence rather ambiguous, I suspect that this version will play better; it's equivalent to a common concept in Poker, and I grasp how it works.  Since I've found my version to play rather strangely, I'm going to tentatively adopt Whittaker's interpretation here.  Among other things, it clarifies how the timing on the second round of play works.  In my previous version, you potentially had multiple rounds of vying and seeing, until someone bet the rest; this turns out to be weirdly nondeterministic, and people found it confusing.  If we interpret it as a raise limit instead, it means that each round goes until someone vies, and everyone else either matches or drops, exactly the same as in conventional Poker.

Swigg == Folding:  In my reconstruction of English Primero, I had a somewhat complex concept of "swigging", based on Florio and a period dictionary: I had said that, if no one bet in the second round, everyone has to toss their cards in.  Whittaker simply interprets "swigg" as a different word for "fold".  In retrospect, I think he's probably right -- my rule is pointlessly complex, and I don't think there's good textual evidence for it.  I simply overinterpreted Florio.

Seeing in the Second Round:  Whittaker explicitly excuses the requirement for the last player to see the bet in the second round.  I've been leaning the same way myself -- I'm only requiring this match in the first round.  I very much like the Lyon version (that the last player only has to see half the bet), but I suspect it's a later refinement, so I'm going to steer clear of it unless I find earlier evidence.

Ante:  Now onto the disagreements.  Whittaker interprets the "stake" as an ante, and I disagree -- I think the stake is simply the minimum bet/raise.  I find no textual reason to expect an ante in this game; moreover, I believe that the requirement for someone to see in the first round as the moral equivalent of the ante, and don't see any reason why that rule would exist if there is an ante.  I think the game simply works differently from Poker.  In Poker, the person who bets gets one stake from each other player if they all fold; in Primero, he simply gets one extra stake.

Only Draw If All Pass:  Whittaker only allows players to draw cards if everyone passes.  I'm tentatively inclined to disagree.  I don't think the textual support for this is strong, and I think it weakens the game considerably, by removing useful options.  For the moment, I'm still inclined to draw immediately upon passing.

Draw Four If Reenter:  His version of English Primero allows a player to pass and then re-enter (more or less the same way I do), but requires that the re-entering player must discard his entire hand, and draw four new cards, regardless of how many he discarded.  I don't agree with either part of this.  I can see the line in Minsheu that he's basing it on, but I don't agree about the timing of the game -- I think this has happened after the players have all been dealt up to four cards, and I think he's voluntarily drawing a fresh hand.  Whittaker's rule seems to introduce strange complexities to the game, as well, since one player now has more cards than everyone else.  I think it's unlikely.

All In:  In the English game, he has a simpler version of the All In rule, where a player can only get his own money back.  I don't think the textual evidence for this is strong, and I don't think it works in practice -- if you can't win some money, you're basically toast.  So I continue to think that the Italian version (which is essentially the Poker concept of All In) is probably correct for the English game as well.

Max Draw of Two:  In the English game's second round, he only allows a discard and draw of up to two cards.  I don't find strong textual evidence for this limit; moreover, I think that Minsheu is showing a draw of four.  So while I agree about this limit in the Italian game, I don't in the English.

Rest in Italian:  He gives a rest -- a raise limit -- in the Italian game.  I don't see any textual evidence for this, so I'm inclined to disagree tentatively.

Four Cards in Italian:  He has the Italian game usually starting with four cards dealt out.  I don't agree, as described in the notes above.  I'm not convinced by the argument that the various bidding restrictions are irrelevant with only two cards -- I think they are intentionally irrelevant until you have four cards, and once you do have four cards, the game is structured to force honesty.  (By forcing discards at points that will hurt cheaters.)

Stating Value:  An important difference between Whittaker's reconstruction of the Italian game and mine is that he only has players state their hand type when they bet, rather than a point value.  While I'll grant that the text is ambiguous, I certainly think there's some support for the idea of stating a point value in Cardano -- in particular, when he talks about whether to draw (page 24 of the translation), he explicitly says that you should do so if you have a lower Numerus.  This implies to me that you have to know what the other player has bid.  Moreover, I think it's a much stronger game if you are stating point values, because it provides a far richer bidding environment.  If you are required to be honest about your hand type (most of the time), but allowed to understate your point value, then there is a fair opportunity for back-and-forth bidding.  This results in far more raising, and a more exciting game.  So absent clear reason to believe otherwise, I am continuing to believe that you are supposed to bid both a hand type and point value.  (Also, Whittaker's argument for why the invite doesn't need a bid falls apart if you are bidding, and can raise by, point values as well as hand type.)

Forced Draw:  He says that, during the showdown, underbidders are required to draw a new card.  I don't agree with this interpretation.  I believe that, when Cardano talks about understaters being required to draw, he is stating that, if you bid Numerus or Supremus, you must immediately draw at least one card.  This makes a measure of intuitive sense -- it can only improve your hand -- and sorts out cheaters immediately.  This seems a simpler and more consistent interpretation.

Overbidding:  As a rules variant, Whittaker permits overbidding.  The text here is very ambiguous, but I think Cardano is instead talking about how to bet on two cards.  During the two-card round, you're essentially allowed to bid whatever you like, and he spends a fair while discussing the probabilities involved, and what bids are smart.  This is classic bidding: stating not what you have, but what you hope to get.  Later:  After playtesting, I find that overbidding is a fairly serious problem in Cardano.  The situation that arose was typically that one person had the bid at Primero something; someone else is trying for Fluxus but doesn't have it yet, but decides to jump the bid to Fluxus something.  Play goes around to the showdown, and you find that no one has made the bid.  This is too easy to do if there is no penalty or prevention.  One possibility: if you bid a four-card hand (Primero, Fluxus or Chorus), you can not draw when you vie?  That might make some sense...