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Palace Personalities - Bezique, an Imperial Pastime


When one reads the last diaries of both Nicholas II and Alexandra, we see that they played Bezique, a late Victorian card game, frequently, and for hours at a time.

The next obvious question, was, of course, what sort of game was Bezique and how was it played?



An antique Bezique box of the period.


The intrepid Nick Nicholson has asked himself these questions, and sought out the original period rules for Bezique. As a result, he has decided to challenge himself to learn the rules, and master the game of Bezique, all the while keeping a diary of his progress to share with us here. The rules for the game appear below on this page, and as one might suspect, are rather complicated.


February 29:
In a sunny classroom in the Spring of 1985, my European History teacher summed up the last hours of the Romanovs by reading a quote from the diary of Alexandra Feodorovna:
"Played Bezique with Nicholas. to bed. 15 degrees"
My teacher deliberately used the quote to demeaning effect. The Romanovs, she implied, sat around their rooms in Siberia playing cards on the night before their assassination by a Bolshevik firing squad. It was yet another example of a distant and effete class destroyed by the pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure.

As I grew older, and studied both the period and the family, I realized that image could not be father from the truth. The card game of Bezique, a favorite in Europe since the eighteenth century, was a game Nicholas and Alexandra played with each other and with their children at virtually every opportunity. Political arguments aside, no one can deny that Nicholas and Alexandra were a loving couple to one another, and were excellent and attentive parents to their grounded and intelligent children. In a time where television and shopping malls occupy most children and teenagers it is interesting to note that the imperial family enjoyed each other, enjoyed playing games and reading together, and particularly enjoyed the card game Bezique.

It really is not until the family's captivity, however, first at the Alexander Palace, and later on in Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg, that Bezique becomes the Empress' primary activity while spending one-on-one time with the members of her family. Increasingly unwell from a heart malady, the Empress had card games virtually every day. She would play after tea with Olga Alexandrovna, or another one of her children. If the children were otherwise engaged, she played at other games with Mlle. Schneider (particularly Chicane or Picquet.) The Empress also refers to playing Patience (which is like solitaire) when she was ill or left alone. The only times when the Empress did not play cards was during the height of the Great Lent, during the family's move from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg, and on Great Feast Days (though she did play on Sundays frequently!)

In "The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra," the wonderful annotated version of the Empress' last journal from 1918 (Yale University Press, 1997), Alexandra Feodorovna began her new year with a game of Bezique with Nicholas after dinner. It is interesting to note that almost without exception, the Empress played cards twice a day, once with one of her children or a member of her household after tea, and again after dinner with her husband. In her diary, she frequently writes "tea. Bezique as usual with Olga" (7/20 Feb. 1918, p. 44). When the Empress used the term "as usual" in her diary, it generally means that that was a daily occurrence. When Olga was unavailable, we know that AF also played with Maria (30 April/13May, 1918), Anastasia (3/16 January, 1918), and that she frequently played "cards" with Alexei (30 Jan/12 Feb, 1918), though never specifically mentions playing Bezique with him. Tatiana is never mentioned as playing cards with the Empress, but AF does mention playing "bridge with the girls" (10/23 June, 1918). Generally speaking, when the Empress played cards after tea, Tatiana frequently read aloud while the others played.

But what is Bezique? I couldn't find any information on it for some time. I have a lot of friends who are inveterate card players, but they are Gin, Bridge, and Poker types. Bezique meant nothing to them.

I first contacted a store here in New York called "The Compleat Strategist" which specializes in games. They had never heard of Bezique.

"I think it's like Mah Jong" said one annoyed sales clerk, before turning to sell X-Box games to a 'real client.'

I then tried another New York store, specializing in cards.

"It uses a Whist deck," I was told. "But with bigger cards, and a lot of missing cards from the deck."

"Do you sell Bezique decks?" I asked.

"No way," I was told. "Nobody plays Bezique anymore."

Finally, I did what we all do. I turned to the internet. I found dozens of online games sites, where computer versions of Bezique can be played for fun, but more often, for money. At long last, I found the rules for several versions of Bezique, and discovered that it was the favorite game of many people from Napoleon to Winston Churchill, who apparently said that winning the Second World War was easier than playing an end game of Bezique.

Looking at the rules of these various types, I presume (but am not sure) that Nicholas and Alexandra played the old-fashioned two-person version of this game, known as "Le Jeu Royale de Bezique." A Bezique deck has only 32 cards in it, the two, three, four, five, and sixes removed from each suit. Bezique is traditionally played with two players, and two decks. There are versions where two players play with as many as six decks (VERY difficult).

Alexandra's love of Bezique is interesting and telling. Bezique is a game played with multiple decks. There are many more cards and many more possibilities to create pairings and point-heavy combinations than in games such as poker, bridge, or whist. The game involves luck, as well as advance strategy. Because of this, the pace is long, but quickens at the end. There is plenty of time during the game to talk to someone, to rest while your partner thinks, and to get caught up in the intimate spirit of the game. In Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg, Bezique was, I believe, an ideal distraction from the everyday reality of incarceration.

I have decided to attempt to learn Bezique. It is extremely complicated, and I'll keep you all apprised of my progress. I am hopeless at cards, but this should end up being fun... would Alexandra Feodorovna have played it every day otherwise?


March 26: So, I tried to play Bezique.

First, I looked all over New York for a bezique set, and as I mentioned earlier, it was impossible to find. Eventually, I decided to take regular decks (you'll need one deck for every person playing), and to remove the 2,3,4,5, and 6 cards. I gave a copy of the rules to a friend who is an inveterate card player. He was intrigued, and approached some other friends to give it a try. We decided to convene the first meeting of "Bezique Freaks".

Our first game was last week. The four of us gathered around a card table in a suitably Edwardian building in New York City to attempt to resurrect the game of Bezique in the US. We had high hopes and noble ambitions, but were quickly frustrated.

We immediately ran into difficulty thanks to our rules, which were obviously translated from French by someone who hadn't quite mastered English.

They were riddled with inconsistencies and a marked lack of clarity. We decided to play "open handed" so that we could see what cards each player had, and to try to figure out the strategies.

We dealt the cards. First, three cards to each player, then two cards to each player, then three cards to each player, thus leaving each player with eight cards.

The next card turned over from the deck, according to the rules, would be the trump card.

Queen of Spades. (For those of you familiar with either Pushkin or Opera, this is already a bad sign.)

Now -- the first problem. The rules do not say whether the Queen of Spades itself is the trump card, or if the whole suite of spades is "trump." I am not an expert card player at all. (What on earth is a trump card?). Needless to say, there were repeated consultations, bickering, and questions which took us far from the topic of Bezique.

The infighting began. Two guys were interested in figuring it out, no matter how long it took. Two of us were more interested in Chinese food. We turned on the computer to see if we could locate more coherent rules online, and downloading set of rules after set of rules, we determined quickly that there are more ways to attempt to explain how to play bezique than there are ways to play it.

After the disastrous first game (PS, the Chinese food and martinis were delicious.) I decided to do what every smart person eventually does. I went to Ebay.

There were a variety of sets. I decided that until I could play the game properly, I was not entitled to a silver-mounted rosewood box, ivory markers and monogrammed cards.

I manage to win a tiny little Bezique set from 1933, and it arrived from England yesterday. It has two little leather-bound markers, and a very pert deck of cards showing a tranquil village scene on the back. Inside, there is a tiny rule book, on which I hang my hopes of ever learning to play this game. It opens with a letter from Major A.P. Le M. Sinkinson, OBE. The introduction is as follows:

"In presenting this little handbook on Bezique, the publishers feel that there are many people who would like to learn how to play the game correctly without having either to face its dry and unexceptional Code of Laws or else to wade through a heavy and confused treatise. It is to such that the following pages are dedicated. To those who would make a toil of a pleasure we make no appeal; but those who regard a game of cards as a recreation rather than as a bitter science should find the following pages helpful and interesting."

I think Major Sinkinson has my number. More to come.

This game is played with packs of thirty-two cards only - the two, three, four, five and six, of each suit being omitted from a full pack.

1. THE GAME - The game is played with two packs of cards shuffled well together. It consists of 1000, 1500 or 2000 points, according to whatever arrangements the players make before cutting for deal.
Two-handed Bezique may be played with four or six packs, nine cards being dealt to each player; the game in this case is 2000 up, and triple Bezique, scoring 1500, may be declared.

2. CUTTING - In cutting for deal, the lowest card wins, ace counting lowest, and the ten lower than the knave. The players cut for deal every game.

3. THE DEAL - The cards being cut to the dealer, each player should receive eight cards, in parcels of three, two, and three alternately.
Should too few cards be dealt, the number may be made up from the pack, or the non-dealer may claim a new deal if he has not looked at his cards.
If the non-dealer receives too many cards, he must not draw again until he holds only seven cards. When the dealer gives himself more than eight cards, the non-dealer withdraws the excess and returns them to the pack, unless the dealer has looked at his cards, in which case his opponent adds 100 to his score. When a card is exposed in dealing, the non-dealer may claim a new deal.

4. TRUMP CARDS - The seventeenth card having been turned up becomes the trump. If this is the seven spot, the dealer counts ten. The cards are placed on the table between the players, a little to the right of the dealer, and the pack placed partly over it.
A trump takes any card of another suit.
The game is frequently played by trumps not ranking highest except in the last eight tricks.

5. THE LEAD - The non- dealer leads.
In two-handed Bezique there is no penalty for leading out of turn, and if the opposite player plays before the error is noticed, it cannot then be rectified, but in the three or four-handed game, the card so led must be left on the table, and may be played, but it cannot be used for a declaration. If, however, any player follows the lead, there is then no penalty and the game goes on.

6. THE PLAY - The higher card, whether of the same suit or not, takes the trick, when a trump is not played - the ace ranking highest, the ten next, and then the king, queen, knave, nine etc. When two cards of equal value are played the first wins.
Some rules require the winning card to be of the same suit as that led, unless trumped.
After each trick is taken, an additional card must be drawn from the top of the pack by each player - the taker of the last trick to draw first, and so on till all the pack is distributed, including the trump card.
Players are not obliged to follow suit or trump until all the cards have been drawn from the pack.
TrIcks are of no value, except for the aces and tens they may contain.
Tricks should not be looked at till the end of the deal, except by mutual consent.
When a player plays without drawing, he must draw two cards next time, and his opponent scores ten, if he has not drawn a card himself.
When a player draws two cards instead of one, his opponent may decide which card is to be returned to the pack - it should not be placed at the top, but towards the middle of the pack.
A player discovering his opponent holding more than eight cards, while he only holds eight, adds 100 to his score. Should both have more than their proper number there is no penalty, but each must play without drawing.

7. A DECLARATION - Immediately after taking a trick, and then only, a player has the privilege of making a declaration; but he must do so, and score it, before drawing another cards. Only one declaration can be made after each trick. This is varied by allowing the winner of the twenty-fourth trick to declare ALL he has in his hand.
If in making a declaration, a player puts down a wrong card or cards, either in addition to or in the place of any card or cards of that declaration, he shall not be allowed to score until he has taken another trick. Moreover, he must resume the cards, subject to their being called for as 'faced' cards.

8. EXCHANGE - The seven of trumps may be exchanged for the trump card, and for this exchange ten is scored. A player can only make this exchange immediately after he has taken a trick, but he may make a declaration at the same time, the card exchanged not being used in such declaration.
Whenever the seven of trumps is played, except the last eight tricks, the player scores ten for it, no matter whether he wins the trick or not.
A variation from this rule allows the seven of trumps to score only when it takes a trick, otherwise it scores ten to the captor.

9. LAST EIGHT TRICKS - When all the cards are drawn from the pack, the players take up their cards, having eight apiece. No more declarations can be made, and the play proceeds as at Whist, except that the ten ranks higher than the king. In the last eight tricks a player is obliged to follow suit, and he must win the trick if possible, either by playing a higher card, or, if he has not a card of the same suit, by playing a trump.
A player who revokes in the last eight tricks, or omits to take when he can, forfeits the eight tricks to his opponent.
Another penalty for this deprives the offender of the right to count his aces and tens.

10. LAST TRICK - The last trick is the thirty-second, for which the winner scores ten.
Making the last trick the twenty-fourth - the next before the last eight tricks, may vary the game. It is an unimportant point, but one that should be agreed upon before the game is commenced.

11. ACES AND TENS - After the last eight tricks are played, each player examined his cards, and for each ace and ten that he holds he scores ten.

12. TIE - The non-dealer scores aces and tens first; and in case of a tie, the player scoring the highest number of points, less the aces and tens in the last deal, wins the game. If still a tie, the taker of the last trick wins.

13. FACED CARDS - All cards played in error are liable to be called for as 'faced' cards at any period of the game, except during the last eight tricks.

14. FORFEITS - In counting forfeits a player may either add the points to his own score or deduct them from the score of his opponent.

A declaration is the exhibition on the table of any card or combination of cards, as follows:
'Bezique' is the queen of spades and knave of diamonds.
A variation provides that when the trump is either spades or diamonds, Beziques' may be queen of clubs and knave of hearts
Bezique having been declared may be again used to form Double Brzique.
'Double Bezique' is two queens of spades and two knaves of diamonds. All four cards must be visible on the table together.
'Sequence' is ace, ten, king, queen and knave of trumps.
'Royal Marriage' is the king and queen of trumps.
'Common Marriage' is the king and queen of any suit, except trumps. 'Four aces' are the aces of any suit or suits.
'Four kings' are the kings of any suit or suits.
'Four Queens' are the queens of any suit or suits. 'Four Knaves' are the knaves of any suit or suits.
The cards forming the declarations are placed on the table to show your opponent that they are properly scored, and the cards may thence be played into tricks as if in your hand.
Kings and queens once married cannot be married again, but can be used while they remain on the table to make up four kings, four queens, or a sequence. The King and queen used in a sequence cannot afterwards be declared as a royal marriage.
If four knaves have been declared, the knave of diamonds may be used again for a bezique, or to complete a sequence.
If four aces have been declared, the ace of trumps may be again used to perfect a sequence.
If the queen of spades has been married, she may be again used to form a bezique, and vice versa, and again for four queens.

Bezique - queen of spades and knave of diamonds.40
Double Bezique - two queens of spades and two knaves of diamonds.500
- ace, ten, king, queen and knave of trumps.250
Four Aces.100
Four Kings.80
Four Queens.60
Four Knaves.40
Royal Marriage - king and queen of trumps.40
Common Marriage - king and queen of any suit not trumps.20
Turning up the seven of trumps.10
Playing the seven of trumps - except in last eight tricks.10
Exchanging the seven of trumps for the trump card.10
The last trick.10
Each ace and ten in the tricks - at the end of each deal.10

For drawing out of turn10
For playing out of turn10
For playing without drawing10
For overdrawing100
For a revoke in the last eight tricks
All the 8 tricks
See variations to rule 9

Never part with sequence or bezique cards, while there is a chance of your making these declarations. If the trump card is one of a sequence, be very careful not to play away the first seven of trumps.
2. Look out carefully for any exhibition on the part of your opponent, which will show you that you cannot make a sequence or bezique.
3. Avoid showing your opponent that he cannot make a sequence or bezique.
4. If in doubt whether to save kings or aces, prefer the former.
5. Avoid leading a ten.
6. Declare a royal marriage before a sequence, if you can secure both.
7. Be very careful in playing the last eight tricks. Notice what cards your opponent had previously lying on the table, and make every use of that knowledge.
8. Make your tens and aces in your tricks whenever you have an opportunity. Keep one or two small trumps in hand, as they are useful to capture aces and tens of other suits and to secure the lead.
9. It is of great importance to win the twenty-fourth trick, as it will prevent your opponent from making any declaration.

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