Écarté (pronounced \e.kaʁ.te\ or roughly ay-car-tay) is a French trick-taking game for two players. A novel feature of the game is that rather than the traditional bidding round prior to trick-play, the players shape their hands into their final form by discarding and drawing cards. The winner might well be decided before the first card is played!
Écarté was at its height in the 19th century. It was mentioned in several works of fiction of the day, such as The Count of Monte Cristo (where it was noted as being preferred over Whist by the French) and the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. The game gradually lost its popularity, however, and is now relatively obscure.
Object of Écarté
The object of Écarté is to form a hand capable of taking the majority of the five tricks, and then doing so.
Écarté uses the same deck as Piquet. If you don’t happen to keep a Piquet deck laying around, just grab your trusty deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards and take out all of the 6s through 2s. You’ll be left with a deck having aces through 7s in each of the four suits, for 32 cards in all. You’ll also need something to keep score with. Pencil and paper works, as well as the Card Caddy Connector, or chips or other tokens (you’ll only need nine of them).
Shuffle and deal five cards to each player. Place the stub in the center of the table, forming the stock. Turn the top card of the stock face up and set it aside. The suit of this card, the upcard, determines the trump suit. If the upcard is a king, the dealer scores one point.
The cards rank a little out of their usual order in Écarté. The ace ranks between the face cards and the number cards. This makes the full rank of cards (high) K, Q, J, A, 10, 9, 8, 7 (low).
The non-dealer decides whether or not they wish to play with their hand, as dealt. They can either play with what they’ve got by saying “I play”, or propose an exchange by saying “I propose.” If the non-dealer proposes, the dealer has veto power—if they decline, then the play proceeds without an exchange.
If the exchange is accepted, the non-dealer discards any number of cards they wish, then draws back up to five cards. The dealer then has the opportunity to do the same thing. The non-dealer may then propose again or start the actual play of the hand, and the dealer may refuse the proposal, as before.
Should there be less than ten cards left in the stock and exchanging still going on, the non-dealer always has the first priority in taking the number of cards they want, even if that doesn’t leave enough for the dealer to make their desired exchange. When the stock is depleted, there’s no further exchanging—the hand immediately begins. (Neither player can ever draw the upcard, no matter how bad they might want to.)
After the exchange, if either player ended up with the king of trumps, they can show it to their opponent. Doing so scores one point.
If either player prevents an exchange at all, whichever one turned it down (the non-dealer if they call “I play”, or the non-dealer if they reject the proposal) is said to be vulnerable. A vulnerable player’s opponent can score extra points if they win the hand, so it’s important not to be too overconfident with your hand.
Note that it is possible to avoid vulnerability by starting an exchange and then discarding no cards. This allows your opponent a chance to improve their hand, however.
After the first exchange has taken place, neither player becomes vulnerable by turning down the opportunity for an exchange.
Play of the hand
The non-dealer leads to the first trick. The dealer then plays a card in response, following suit and heading the trick if possible. That means that if they have a card of the suit led, they must play it, playing a higher card if possible. Otherwise, they must trump, if they can. Only if they cannot do either of those are they free to play any other card.
Whoever played the higher trump, or the higher card of the suit led if neither player played a trump, wins the trick. They take the cards and put them in a won-tricks pile on the table in front of them. (It may be helpful to put each pair of cards crosswise, so the number of tricks taken is easily counted.) That player then leads to the next trick.
After all five tricks have been played, the hand is scored. Whichever player takes the majority of the tricks (i.e. three or more) scores one point. If they took all five tricks, they score an additional point. One more point is scored if the opponent was vulnerable on that hand.
Further hands are played until someone reaches a score of five points. That player is the winner. (If the winning point is scored prior to the actual play of the hand due to the king of trumps, the hand is not played out.)