Nine Card Don, Irish Don, Phat

With thanks to the numerous players who have contributed information about this game.

Introduction

The card game Don, which is played in various forms in Ireland and Britain, is a descendant of the old game of All Fours. In the nineteenth century the game of Dom Pedro became popular in both Ireland and America. In Ireland the name was shortened to Don, and it seems likely that it was from Ireland that it spread to England and Wales.

The first version described on this page is Nine-card Don, which is played in Cheshire, Lancashire and South Wales. According to Arthur Taylor's "Guiness Book of Traditional Pub Games" (1992) it is also known as Big Don, Long Don, or Welsh Don.

The second game is Blind Don, or Two Player Don, which is a version of Nine-Card Don for two players, played in Lancashire.

The third version is played mainly in Ireland, and I have therefore called it Irish Don on this page, though in Ireland it is just known as Don. It differs from Nine-card Don in that all the cards are dealt - 13 to each player rather than nine, that the scoring value of the nines is increased, and that there is no score for 'game'.

The fourth game on this page is Phat, which is played in England and Scotland, and is quite similar to Irish Don, but with the 'game' score as in 9-card Don included. I do not know the origin of the name Phat, which is applied to the high scoring cards as well as the game overall. It is tempting to think that the valuable cards are 'fat' because they carry many points, but that does not account for the spelling of the name.

Nine Card Don

This description is based on information from players in the Bolton Don League (Lancashire) and the Abercarn Crib and Don League (South Wales), and reports from other players in both areas: Pontypool, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales and Preston in Lancashire. I am told that this game is also extremely popular in Cheshire and former parts of Cheshire such as Widnes, Stockport and Stalybridge. It is played intensively in the Cheshire Regiment - now 1st Bn The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) and also, to a lesser extent, in the Staffordshire Regiment - now 3rd Bn The Mercian Regiment (Staffordshire).

Players and objective

There are four players in fixed partnerships; partners sit opposite each other. Deal and play are clockwise. This is a point trick game: each team scores points during the play for winning particular cards in tricks, and also the team which has the greater total value of cards in their tricks, according to a different card value scale, scores extra points. The first team to reach an agreed total (91 or 121) wins the game.

Cards, Ranking and Values

A standard 52 card pack is used. The cards in each of the four suits rank from high to low A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

Tricks have no value in themselves; the object is to win tricks with certain cards in them. It is important to distinguish between the points that are scored during the play (usually by pegging on a peg board) for winning tricks containing particular trumps or any five, and the card values in all suits that are used to decide which team scores the extra points for 'game' at the end of the play.

    Points scored immediately
    for cards and game
     
    Ace of trumps   4 points
    King of trumps   3 points
    Queen of trumps   2 points
    Jack of trumps   1 point
    9 of trumps   9 points
    5 of trumps   10 points
    Each non-trump 5   5 points
    Game   8 points
    Card values used to decide which team
    scores the 8 points for game
         
    Each Ace   4 points
    Each King   3 points
    Each Queen   2 points
    Each Jack   1 point
    Each Ten   10 points
         
    If both teams have cards with
    the same total value then neither team
    scores the points for game

In South Wales the Fives are generally known as Dons.

Choice of players, Seating, Deal

The cards are cut for first 'pitch', i.e. the right to lead first (and make trumps) on the first deal. One player from each partnership draws a card and the higher card wins, with Ace counting high. The winner of the cut decides who will lead to the first trick (normally if you win the cut you should give the first pitch to yourself or your partner).

The person to the right of the player with the pitch is the first dealer. The dealer shuffles, and offers the cards to the player on his right to cut. The dealer then deals nine cards to each player, one at a time. The remaining 16 cards are set aside face down and are not used in that hand. Subsequently the turn to deal rotates clockwise after each hand. The pitcher is the player to dealer's left.

The players may look at and sort their hands, except for the player to dealer's right - the pitcher's partner - who must not touch the cards until after the first card has been led. (This is to prevent any possibility of illegally signalling to the pitcher which suit to make trumps.)

In Lancashire, Don is often played in pubs, where there may be more than four people waiting for a game. In this case, a procedure called 'jacks out' is used to decide which four people will play. Those who wish to take part (5 to 7 people - because if there were 8 you would have two complete tables) each place a stake (typically a pound - maybe 5 pounds) on the table, and the cards are dealt out one at a time, face up to the stakes. When a jack appears, the player who contributed that stake is in the game, and no further cards are dealt to that stake. Where the four jacks eventually land, those are the players. All the stakes, including those of the players who were not selected, form a pool which goes to the eventual winners of the game. Partnerships are then determined by cutting cards. In some pubs, people also bet on who will be partners.

Play

The player to dealer's left is the pitcher. The pitcher leads to the first trick, and the suit of the first card led becomes trumps for the remainder of the hand. The pitcher's partner may then pick up his or her cards. Tricks are won by the highest card of the suit led unless trumped, in which case the highest trump wins. Players must follow suit (play a card of the same suit as the card that was led) whenever possible; a player who has no card of the suit led may trump or discard at will. The winner of each trick leads to the next trick.

Scoring

Scores are often kept by pegging on a Cribbage board:

cribbage board

When any of the scoring trumps (A, K, Q, J, 9, 5) or any other five is played, the team that wins the trick pegs the points shown in the left hand table above at the end of the trick.

When all nine tricks have been played, each team counts the total value of the cards they have taken, according to the right hand table above, and the team that has more pegs 8 points for game. In case of a tie, neither team gets these 8 points.

It can be seen that the maximum number of points that it is possible to peg on the board from one hand, by winning all the scoring cards and the game is 52:

  • 4+3+2+1 = 10 for A K Q J of trumps
  • 10+9 = 19 for 9 and 5 of trumps
  • 5+5+5 = 15 for the other 5's
  • and also 8 for game

Often, fewer than 52 points are available, because some of the scoring cards are among the 16 undealt cards.

In Lancashire the winners are the first team to reach 91 points or more (one and a half times round the board).

In South Wales the first team to reach or pass 121 points (twice round the board) wins the 'leg'. For the next leg, the partnerships remain the same, and there is a new cut for pitch, normally between the two players who did not cut at the start of the previous leg. The first team who win two legs are the overall winners of the match.

In Cheshire, each row of 30 holes is a "leg", so a complete game (121 points) contains four legs.

Variations

1 for high; 1 for jack; 6 for game
Ken Swain repports that in Preston, Lancashire, instead of pegging 8 points for game at the end of play, the team that has taken the greater total value in cards scores only 6 points. In addition, one point is pegged by the team that took the Jack of trumps in a trick (additional to the point scored at the end of the trick to which the Jack was played), and one point is pegged by the team that had the highest trump. If the jack was not dealt, then the jack point is not scored.
1 for high, 1 for low, 1 for jack, 5 for game
Phil Wrench of Macclesfield and Colin Rawlinson of Barrow in Furness report a version in which points are scored at the end of the play for high, low, jack and game. The high point is pegged by the team that was dealt the highest trump, the low point by the team that took the trick containing the lowest trump, the jack point by the team that wins the jack (if it is dealt) and the 5 points for game are pegged by the team with most card points (in case of a tie no one gets the points). Note that these points are only pegged at the end of the play, and strictly in the order high, low, jack, game. This order of precedence can be important if both teams are close to winning.
Another feature of the Macclesfield game is that when the cards are cut at the start, it is the team that draws the lower card (ace counting as high) that pitches first.
The separate scoring of 'high', 'low', 'jack' and 'game' at the end of the play, as in its ancestor All Fours, presumably represents an older form of the game that was later simplified in many places by consolidating these scores into a single 8-point score for game.
Four Pitches
In Burnley a game consists of 'four pitches' - that is one deal by each player - at the end of which the team with the higher score wins. The '1 for high, 1 for low, 1 for jack, 5 for game' method of scoring is used.
Jacks Out
In the Cheshire Regiment the formation of a Don School is heralded by the cry "Jacks Out". People then purchase a number of cards from the pack at a set price per card and this becomes the kitty, to be collected by the winning team. Each potential player is dealt the number of cards purchased, face up, and this is repeated until all the Jacks have appeared. A player who already has one or more Jacks is dealt that number fewer cards in subsequent rounds of dealing. For example a player who bought 5 cards and gets two jacks in his first 5 cards will be dealt only 3 further cards when the deal comes round to him again. The player who has the advantage of being dealt the first cards is determined by cutting a card and counting around from the (impartial) dealer (J=11, Q=12, K=13). If the four Jacks are dealt to four different people, these are the players, paired off as red versus black. A player who gets two Jacks may sell one on to someone who has none. A player who is dealt three Jacks wins the kitty outright and if two players get two Jacks each they divide the kitty equally between them: the cry is "No game, Jacks out" and the purchasing of cards starts again. Side bets are common, for example on the first team to reach a certain score, on who will win the 8 points for game on a particular deal, on how many tricks a team will win, and so on.
Crib and Don League
The Abercarn Crib and Don League consists of 12 pub or club teams, with a minimum of five players in each team, though teams sometimes turn out with more than ten players. Nine matches are played, three of Don, three of Double Cribbage and three of Single Crib. Each of these nine matches is played as the best of three 'legs', with the match winners scoring one point towards the team's total for the night.
Double Cribbage is four player cribbage with fixed partnerships; five cards each are dealt, one being discarded to dealer's box. Game is 121 points. Single Crib is two-player five card cribbage, played to 61 points.
When all the matches have been played the number won by each team is added to their running total of championship points. For example, if a team wins 7 - 2 then they get 7 league championship points, whilst their opponents get 2.
Card ranks and values
A previous edition of this page stated that the ranking of cards in the trump suit in Lancashire from high to low was 5 9 A K Q J 10 8 7 6 4 3 2, but this was an error. Subsequent enquiries confirm that the ace of trumps is the highest card in all regions where this game is played. The misunderstanding arose because the trumps are often listed in order of their point scoring values, rather than in ranking order. Unfortunately my mistake has since been copied in various books. I apologise for my part in propagating this error.
In his Guinness Book of Traditional Pub Games, published in 1992 before this web page existed, Arthur Taylor listed the trumps in the order 9-5-A-K-Q-J without making it clear whether this was intended to be the ranking order. His book also gave the 5 of trumps a scoring value of 19 points rather than 10, but it seems likely that this was a misprint.

Irregularities

The following penalties for irregulaties are those used by my informants in Bolton.
Playing out of turn
Friendly: The card is 'boarded', meaning the card is left face up on the table and it must be played at the next legal opportunity.
League: In addition, the offending team loses 19 points from their score.
Reneging: Failing to play a card of the suit led, although you have such a card.
Friendly: The deal is abandoned, and there is a re-deal.
League: In addition, the offending team is penalised 52 points.

Blind Don

This two player version of Nine Card Don was contributed by Bernard Scott, who learned it in a weaving mill in Burnley, Lancashire in the 1970's.

In each deal one player is dealer, the other player pitches. First pitch is decided by a cut, Ace high, winner pitches. Deal and pitch alternate.

36 cards are dealt as follows. The first 18 cards are dealt face down, starting on the left, alternately to each player, so that each player has a row of nine cards. (This is possibly the reason for the name - Blind Don). Then 18 more cards are dealt, face up, one on top of each face down card, alternately to each player starting (again) on the left. Here is a visual example of a deal, provided by Bernard Scott.

Card ranking and values are as Nine Card Don. Play is also as in Nine Card Don, each player playing from his own face up cards and each trick consisting of just two cards. After both players have played to a trick, any face down card that is exposed, the card on top of it having been played, is turned face up and is available for play.

The scoring is the same as in Nine Card Don, using the '1 for high, 1 for low, 1 for jack and 5 for game' version. Four pitches are played (two deals by each player), the winner being the player with the higher score.

Colin Rawlinson describes another version of Blind Don, from the Stalybridge / Hyde area near Manchester, in which the two players get 7 cards each face down and then the pitcher gets 7 face-up on top of the first cards, while the dealer gets 7 face-down on top of the first cards. Then each player is dealt 4 cards face as a hand, which they pick up and look at but is unseen by the other player. The pitcher calls trumps on the basis of the 4 cards in his hand and his 7 exposed cards, after which the dealer turns the 7 cards on top of his stacks face up and the game commences. Cards can be played from the table or the hand and in all other respects the play is the same as in the version of Blind Don described above.

Colin Rawlinson also suggests a 3-player adaptation played as above, in which each player has 5 two-card stacks and 4 cards in hand, leaving just 10 cards unused.

Irish Don

This description is compiled from information from several players in Ireland, mainly in Dublin and Cork. I have also had reports of this game played in Britain by people of Irish descent.

Players and Cards

There are four players in two fixed partenerships, partners facing each other across the table. A standard 52 card pack is used, the cards ranking from high to low: A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 in every suit.

Points are scored for the winners of tricks that contain certain cards as follows:

    Ace of trumps   4 points
    King of trumps   3 points
    Queen of trumps   2 points
    Jack of trumps   1 point
    9 of trumps ("Big Don")   18 points
    5 of trumps ("Little Don")   10 points
    Each non-trump 9   9 points
    Each non-trump 5   5 points

There are thus 80 points to be scored in total in each deal.

Some players play with a reduced pack of 48 or 44 cards, obtained by removing the twos and sometimes also the threes from a standard pack. The players will then have only 12 or 11 cards each; the scoring is not affected since none of the removed cards are scoring cards.

Deal and play

Deal and play are clockwise. Anyone can deal first. The dealer shuffles, the player to dealer's right cuts, and the dealer deals out all the cards, one at a time, so that everyone has 13 cards. In the first hand, the holder of the diamond2 "pitches" or "pucks out" (leads to the first trick). (Some groups use the diamond2 to determine the first pitcher.) For the next deal, the turn to pitch passes to the left, and the dealer is the pitcher in the previous hand (so the pitcher is the player to the left of the dealer).

The suit of the card led by the pitcher to the first trick becomes trumps for that deal. As in Nine Card Don, the pitcher's partner should not look at his or her cards until after this first card has been led.

Players must follow suit when possible. A player unable to follow suit may play any card. A trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if no trumps are played, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of each trick leads to the next.

As in most partnership card games, it is illegal to talk or give signs to your partner as to what cards you hold or what you would like partner to play. Inappropriate covert communication with your team mate is called 'billying'.

Scoring

Rather than pegging scores during play, each team waits to the end of the play and counts the scoring cards they have in their tricks. Since all the cards are in play, the two teams' scores must always add up to 80. Winning all 80 points in a deal is sometimes called doing the bonk.

The first team that scores more than 80 points wins the game. Therefore a game lasts just two deals (one pitch by each team), unless one team is so far behind at the end of the first deal that they decide to concede the game.

It is normal for the players just to remember the score from the first deal - no paper or peg board is used to record it. During the second deal a team that has 80 points can stop the play and claim to have won. If the second deal is played to the end and the scores are 80-80, then the last team that took a scoring trick are the losers, since the other team must have reached 80 before them.

Variations

Some groups play the best of three games: after the first game, the turns to deal and pitch again pass to the left so that everyone pitches once. If after four deals the teams have won one game each, the diamond2 or diamond3 is used again to determine the first pitcher for the deciding game of two deals.

Some groups play that the overall winners are the first to win an agreed number of games.

Some play that if the score at the end of the second deal is 80-80 the game is a draw - no one wins or loses.

Phat

Compiled from information from Cheshire, Rugely in Staffordshire, Motherwell and Wishaw in Scotland; Arthur Taylor reports in his book that it is also played around Norwich.

Players, Cards and Objective

There are four players, partners sitting opposite each other. A standard 52 card pack is used.

The aim is to score points by winning tricks containing valuable cards. Some cards - the phat - give an immediate score to the team that wins the trick to which they are played. These are recorded on a peg board - see below. Further points are pegged after the end of the play by the team that has collected more than half of the muck in their tricks.

    The Phat
     
    Ace of trumps   4 points
    King of trumps   3 points
    Queen of trumps   2 points
    Jack of trumps   1 point
    9 of trumps   18 points
    5 of trumps   10 points
    Each non-trump 9   9 points
    Each non-trump 5   5 points
         
    Majority of muck   8 points
    The Muck
         
    Each Ace   4 points
    Each King   3 points
    Each Queen   2 points
    Each Jack   1 point
    Each Ten   10 points
         
    The total is 80 points.
    A team that collects in their tricks
    at least 41 points of muck
    pegs 8 points on the board

In Scotland, the trump nine is called the "Big Don" and the trump five is the "Wee Don", though in the English Midlands these terms are not known.

Deal and Play

Deal and play are clockwise. Each player cuts a card, and whoever cuts the lowest card will pitch first. The delaer will be the player to the right of the pitcher. The turn to deal passes to the left after each hand, and the pitcher is the player to dealer's left.

The dealer deals out all the cards one at a time, so that each player has 13 cards. The player to dealer's right (the picher's partner) must not pick up his or her cards until the pitcher has led.

The player to dealer's left leads first, and the suit of the card led to the first trick is trumps for remainder of the hand. Players must follow suit if they can; a player with no card of the suit led can trump or throw away at will. The trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if none are played, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of a trick leads to the next trick.

Scoring

The score is usually kept on a peg board which is like a cribbage board but half as long again:

phat board

In Scotland, I am told that the scores are written down on a special score sheet.

Points are scored or pegged at the end of each trick containing phat, and at the end of the play for muck, as described above. The first team to peg a total of 181 points (twice round the board) wins the game.

Since there are 88 points in each deal - 80 phat plus 8 for the muck - most games are completed within four deals - one pitch by each player. If neither team has won by then a fifth deal is started, and the winners are the first team to peg enough phat to reach 181. The pitcher for the fifth deal will of course be the same as for the first deal. Note that muck cannot count in this fifth deal, since the phat will always be sufficient to allow one team to reach 181 before the end of play.

It sometimes happens that each team has 40 points of muck. In that case the 8 points are carried over to the next deal, and the team with more muck will then peg 16 - 8 for the new deal plus 8 carried over.

Some play that if the muck is tied 40-40 but one team has the majority of tens (three or four), that team wins the 8 points for muck. If the tens are also divided 2-2 the muck has to be carried over as above.

Software

You can download a freeware Don program from Thanos Card Games.

Contributors

Thanks to the following people who provided the information on which this page is based: Alan Byrne, Peter Conlon, Donncha Daly, Daniel Dunne, Pete Eccles, David Hodgson, Stephen Lowry, Les McDonald, Ian Morgan, Steve Povey, Colin Rawlinson, Simon Roberts, Tony Roberts, Bernard Scott, James Smith, Tony Street, Ken Swain, Eddie Watkins, Jim Wilkin, Richie Wormald, Phil Wrench.