"What shall I do, Sir Thomas? [asks his wife]: Whist and speculation; which will amuse me most?"
Sir Thomas, after a moment's thought, recommended speculation. He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner.
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
If you are a big fan of Victorian-era novels, you may find references to Speculation, a game that was popular in the nineteenth century. The game is mentioned not only in Mansfield Park, but in Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, and numerous other Victorian novels. If you have ever speculated about what playing Speculation might be like, here are the rules so that you can try it for yourself.
To begin, each player is given an equal number of chips. As the deal progresses, each player should ante one chip to the pot. The dealer then deals each player three cards face down, and turns over the top card on the remaining deck to establish the trump suit for the hand. (This is not a trick-taking game; the trump suit is merely the means to establish which cards will count in play.) Players may not look at their own cards, but should stack them without turning them over in the order that they are dealt in front of them.
The purpose of the game is to have the highest trump, with the deuce being the lowest and the Ace the highest. If the dealer turns over the Ace as he turns over the top card, the dealer wins the hand. If it is not an Ace, but is high, the other players may haggle with the dealer to buy it, or the dealer may auction off the card if he or she so chooses. If the turned-up card is sold, play begins to the left of the person who successfully bought the card; otherwise play begins to the dealer's left. The active player then turns up the top card of the stack of cards in front of him or her, and if it is not in the trump suit, or is lower than the trump showing, the play continues to the left. If it is in the trump suit and is higher, other players may offer to buy the card. The play continues, always skipping the player who is showing the highest card.
At any time, any player may offer to buy any visible or face-down card from any other player. The best strategy, if you have the highest trump showing, is to "speculate" by buying the cards that are still face down, especially if you think one of the unexposed ones may be higher than the one you have showing.
The hand ends when all cards have been turned over, and the person who has the highest trump showing wins the hand. As with all games involving chips, the game is over when people begin to run out of chips. This is a clever strategy game, and a lot of skill is necessary to estimate the value of unseen cards. Because not all the cards are exposed, and the deck is shuffled between hands, card counting will not work, unless there are sufficient players in the game that most of the deck is used.
Played well, Speculation is a very lively game, good for a crowd, but be careful, because it can get quite rowdy, especially by Victorian standards. Bidders can get excitable and play can be very noisy. Try Speculation, and see for yourself why this game was so fashionable in days gone by!