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Maw: A Card Game of the Scottish Court

Originally published March 2006.

Maw: A Card Game of the Scottish Court

Maw was a game that became popular in 16th century Britain, and is an ancestor to a family of games associated with Ireland and Irish communities abroad. It was also played in the Scottish court, and game historian David Parlett suggests that interactions with the court of Mary, Queen of Scots may have introduced it to the English court. Its descendants include “Spoil Five” and a series of games named after the points required to win: (25, 45, 55, 110, 120). Maw is also the oldest form of both Ireland’s national card game “Twenty-Five”, and the Canadian equivalent, “Forty-Five.”

English references to Maw start appearing around 1550, and a copy of “The Groom-porters Lawes at Mawe”, survives from the late 1500’s describing the irregularities and penalties in the game. (The Groom Porter was a crown-appointed officer responsible for organizing games and gambling at court.). Although it does not provide a full description of the rules, the “Lawes at Mawe” confirms that essential features of Spoil Five, and Twenty-Five were already part of Maw in the 1500’s. Like Cribbage (standardized in the 1600’s), game historians believe Maw has changed little over the centuries. The basics are that five tricks are played, and the goal is either to win three of them, or to ‘spoil’ the hand by preventing anyone else from winning five tricks.

Maw became the chief card game of the English court after James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603, replacing the game of Picquet, which had been in vogue during Elizabeth’s reign. Weldon’s Court and Character of King James refers to “the king’s card-holder” at Maw, provoking the author of Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards (1848) to comment: “His Majesty appears to have played at cards just as he played with affairs of State – in an indolent manner, requiring in both cases someone to hold his cards, if not to prompt him what to play.”

Maw was one of many card games that declined in England during the more puritanical Commonwealth period of the 17th century. Upon the restoration of the crown under Charles II (1660), returning royalist exiles introduced a wave of new games they had learned on the continent along with a resurgence in gambling that lasted until the 19th century. Maw finally reappeared in English game books in the 19th century, under the name “Spoil Five.”

The game always seems to have had two versions. In one, the goal is to win the pot by taking three tricks, or to “spoil” by preventing anyone else from winning the hand. The other is a two-player (or partnership) game scoring points for each trick that is taken, and there is no spoiling.

Rules of Maw

The game uses a standard deck of cards, 4 or 5 players are recommended. Each player antes 2 or 3 coins/chips to the pot. The dealer antes a double stake. The trump suit changes each hand, but the highest trumps are always ranked:
1. Five of trumps (‘Five fingers’)
2. Jack of trumps
3. Ace of hearts
4. Ace of trumps (if other than hearts)

Normally the cards are ranked differently depending on the suit color. But a 19th century source recorded a valid simplified version: “A very good game may be played by allowing the cards to retain their ordinary sequence. As this avoids confusion, it is more suitable for family play.” The normal ranking of the suits from high to low is:
Hearts & Diamonds: K Q [J] 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 [A]
Clubs & Spades: K Q [J] [A] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
-The bracketed cards only occupy those positions when they are not among the four top trumps.

The object of the game is to win three tricks, or to ensure that no one else wins more than two tricks. If no one wins three tricks the hand is said to be “spoilt”, and the pot is carried forward to the next hand.

Traditionally, there were specific rules for choosing a dealer and dealing. The first dealer was chosen by dealing cards out to the players until a player receives a Jack. That player deals the first hand, and the deal passes to the left with each new hand. Shuffle the cards, have them cut by player to the right of the dealer, and deal five cards to each player. Stack the remaining cards face down, and turn the top card determine the trump suit. If you misdeal, deal out of turn, or expose a card, you lose your turn at dealing and it passes to the next player. (Alternatively, it may be agreed that you may remain the dealer after paying a second dealer’s stake into the pot.)

The player to the dealer’s left starts the hand. The rules of following suitare:
– If you can follow suit, you must do so, or play a trump.
– If you can’t follow suit, you can play any card in your hand.
– If trumps are led, you must follow suit if you can. The exception is if the only one you hold is one of the top three trumps (Five, Jack or Ace) and is higher than the one led. In this case, you may discard from another suit. In other words, you are never forced to play the Five, or Jack of trump unless the Five is led, nor the Ace unless the Five or Jack is led, and even then only if you hold no lower trumps.

Tricks are won by the highest card of the suit led, or by the highest trump if any are played. The winner of a trick leads off the next trick.

Jinking: If you win the first three tricks you may stop play and claim the pot. Or, you can try for “double or nothing” by trying to win all five tricks. If successful, you have ‘jinked’ the hand, and win the pot, plus an additional stake from each player. If not, no one wins, and the pot is carried forward to the next hand.

If someone wins the pot, players ante as before to refill the pot. If not, the pot is carried forward and everyone but the dealer antes one coin or chip. The dealer pays the original sum agreed for the deal each time, no matter whether the previous round saw the pot won or the game spoiled.

Variations, or Optional Rules

Anteing to the pot. When the pot is carried forward from the previous hand, the dealer antes one coin/chip, and the other players ante nothing.

Robbing the pack. If you are dealt the Ace of trump, you are entitled to “rob the pack” by taking the turned-up card in exchange for any unwanted card in your hand. The turned-up suit remains trump throughout the hand. The discard is placed face down at the bottom of the deck. You must do this prior to the first trick, otherwise you not only forfeit the privilege, but also forfeit any chance at winning the pot that hand, no matter how many tricks you win.

If the dealer turns up Ace of trump, he must discard one of his cards, face down, before the first card of the hand is played. In order to leave a reminder of the trump suit he doesn’t take the Ace into his own hand until he is ready to use it.

Two-trick win: With more than five players it may be agreed that the pot goes to anyone who wins two tricks. Alternatively, if the game is being played by an even number of players, the players can form partnerships of two each, and if a team wins three tricks, they win the pot.

Fiving: This variation applies to the two-player game: If the non-dealer is dissatisfied with his hand, he may ask the dealer to ‘five’ it. If the dealer agrees, he turns the turns the next card in the stack until one appears that differs in suit from the first. The second suit will be trump in place of the first, and may not be changed again.

Arnold, Peter. The Book of Card Games. Christopher Helm: London, 1988.
Morehead, Albert H. The New Complete Hoyle Revised. Doubleday: NY, 1991.
Parlett, David. Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

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