Screw Whist: Vint in Finland

This page is based on an article written in 1999 by Olli Salmi, followed by notes on recent developments by Prof Olli Meretoja, reprinted here with their kind permission.

Introduction

The Russian game of Vint came to Finland in the ninteenth century and became the favourite game played by gentlemen. It underwent a lot of changes until it was finally replaced by Bridge. The game is called Skruf-Whist (Screw Whist) in Swedish, Skruv in a more modern form, and Skruuvi in Finnish, which are translations of the Russian term Vint.

I will try to describe the main changes to the original game. I attach particular importance to what I call conceptual changes, where a category in the game is interpreted in a new way. I will also try to show that the introduction of misère changed the game and greatly affected the scoring.

An attempt has been made to include all changes in scoring, so that reading carefully, one should be able to play the game in seven different historical stages.

Skruf-Whist in 1895

The scoring table below is based on the notes I made in 1979 of the little manual printed in 1895. One nought is dropped from all the scores below, because that has been the rule in Finland since 1903. The game is similar to Bridge, a basic knowledge of which is assumed.

I am grateful to Cristian Seres for checking some aspects of the 1895 rules, which I have not had handy at the time of writing.

Scoring

Honours 10 × level of bid
Aces 10 × level of bid
Aces at No Trump 25 × level of bid

Honours are the top five trump cards. Aces and honours held are counted separately for the side that has the majority. The side that gets the odd trick scores for two aces held.

Undertricks 100 × level of bid

Slams

Unbid small slam 100
Bid small slam 500

Doubled for grand slam

Overtrick in small slam 200 (bid small made grand)

If a slam bid fails, the opponents score for it.

Coronets

Coronets are sequences of three or more highest cards in a suit or three or four aces held in the same hand.

AKQ 50
3 Aces 50

Extra cards 50, doubled for no trump and trump suit.

Below the line

(Number of tricks) × (level of bid)

Both sides score below the line. Game is 50 below the line, in purchase play 60.

first game 100
second game 200

Bidding

Bidding is the same as in Bridge, but all players have to pass twice before the bidding comes to an end. The suits rank no trump (highest), hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades. If all players pass in the first round, there is a new deal.

Play

There is no dummy.

Rubber

At the end of the rubber the players of the winning side score the difference of the scores and seats are exchanged, so that everyone eventually plays with everyone else. The order is determined by drawing at the very beginning. The player who draws the lowest card, plays the first rubber with the player who draws the next lowest card, the second rubber with the player who drew the third lowest card, and finally with the player who drew the highest card.

At the the end of each rubber, each player is assigned the difference of the scores, divided by 100. The winners get a positive sum, the losers a negative. This is used to settle any payments at the end of the session. 

Optional Variants

Purchase Vint: The players are dealt only 12 cards. Four cards, which cannot include the last card of the deal, are dealt on the table. The player that makes the highest bid takes them into his hand and gives away one card from his hand to each of the other players.

Packet Vint: Same as Purchase Vint, but the player that makes the highest bid takes the purchase cards into his hand, gives four cards over to his partner, who gives one card from his hand to each of the other players. Then the side making the bid can bid again, with the previous highest bidder starting. After the final bid the opponents can exchange one card. The player to the left of the final bidder hands a card to his partner and then receives one card from him.

Transitional Stage

The above is the original form of the game, simple and elegant. The booklets from 1903-1912 (the same book in Swedish and Finnish) describe almost the same game, with some changes in scoring. The points for unbid slam, ace coronets and game were doubled. Bid small slam was 700 (overtrick 200). This was doubled for grand slam. The bonus points for the opponents for unfulfilled slam bids were unchanged (500 and 1000) and were included in the scoring table for the first undertrick. This is a conceptual change, because these scores no longer are the same as the slam scores.

There was a peculiar system of scoring honours apparent in the scoring tables.

Aces and honours were still counted separately. The side that had the majority in both aces and honours scored for both. If the majority was divided between the sides, the side taking the odd trick scored for its majority, but the opponents only the difference, but if the side taking the odd trick held three aces and the other side 3 honours, neither side scored. The side taking the odd trick scored for two aces if it had two honours or more, the opponents scoring for its majority of honours, and also the two aces if it had four honours. After these calculations, only the difference between the scores of the two sides was scored. The table does not include cases where a side has no aces or no honours.
Presumably this strange and complicated rule was a misunderstanding of the rules in 1895, where, for the case of simplicity, only the difference between the aces and honours was scored, if one side held the majority of aces and the other the majority of honours. This has perhaps been taken to mean that the opponents score for the difference in aces or honours, if the same side did not hold the majority in both. The 3-3 situation and the other exceptions remain an anomaly in this interpretation. In any case, it is very difficult to remember and understand a rule like this.

The game in 1912 was Packet Vint, although called Purchase Vint. The old Purchase Vint was not mentioned. Playing without purchase cards was also mentioned as an option. It was also customary to agree that bids under four were not played. The scoring tables in the book start from the level of three.

A new feature in the game is misère (forced misère). The players can agree that if all players pass once in the first round, a misère will be played. The purchase cards are dealt to the players. Each player in turn, starting from the dealer's left, hands a card to his partner. The side taking fewer tricks scores 100*difference in tricks.

Some Later Versions

In the 20th century a number of changes were made to the game. Most of them were motivated by a desire to play an interesting, high scoring game. The changes took place some time between 1912 and 1937, probably early in the period, but no written sources have been found from the period. Maalari 1944 gives some chronology. It may or may not be of relevance that with the independence of Finland contacts with Russian Vint players had stopped.

Doubling and redoubling was introduced early on (1910-12). It was expressed by knocking on the table. The knocking round followed the final bid and was started by the player to the left of the final bidder. If either of the defenders had knocked, the declaring side could knock to redouble. The points below the line, including points for game, were not doubled.

The optional features of the previous stage, unbid misère (forced misère, pass misère), purchase cards (Packet Vint) and playing only bids above three became standard and obligatory. Misère scoring  was changed so that a side scored for the aces that their opponents had to take, 200 points for the first ace and 400, 600 and 800 for the next ones. Optionally (by default in 1944) the points for the aces had the value 100*number of the trick, so if you had to take an ace in the last trick, the opponents scored 1300 points. In early experiments, aces cost 100 or 250 points each (Maalari 1944). Nothing was scored below the line in unbid misère, but one still scored for 100*difference in tricks in addition to the aces.

It is possible that the idea for the ascending value of the aces was taken from the game Ässämisääri ("Aces"), a game similar to Knaves where the cost of aces rises exponentially (Korttipelikirja 1962:95).

Around 1920 bid misère was introduced. Misère was ranked below Spades.

Misère changed the nature of the game, so that most points were scored in misère. Several attempts were made to restore the balance in the game by raising bonus points:

Bonus points for fulfilled contracts:

  1895 1903 1937  1943 (1943) 1944 1962
4 0 0 400 - - 1000 1000
5 0 0 500 500 700 2000 2000
6 (small slam) 500 700 1300 1300 1500 3000 3000
7 (grand slam) 1000 1400 2100 2100 2500 4500 4500

(1943) refers to a proposal for reform by Lehtosuo 1943. The points proposed in Maalari 1944 were drawn up during war time by the Screw Whist Club in present-day Petrozavodsk. Maalari says that the 1937 scoring (in the encyclopedia of 1931-39) was suitable at a time when there was no knocking, no bid misères, and when aces in misère cost 100 points each. He criticises Lehtosuo's proposal as inadequate and tells that the changes made in Petrozavodsk were sufficient to restore the balance in favour of trump and no trump bids.

The introduction for a bonus in 4-bid or 5-bid in 1937 could be regarded as a conceptual change. Since lower bids were not played, this was a bonus for fulfilling a normal contract. Previously a similar bonus was only awarded for the exceptional bids of small or grand slam. The bonus was 100×level of bid (same as for undertricks) and the extra slam bonus (1300=6×100+700, 2100=7×100+2×700) was the same as before.
However, it seems that the motivation for these points was not apparent. In making his proposal,  Lehtosuo says it would be nice to have simple and easily remembered scores. That is why the recommends 700, 1500 and 2500, which in actual fact are just arbitrary numbers with no connection to the rest of the scoring table. Similarly, Maalari's new scores were a complete overhaul. In 1937 the score theoretically started from the level of one, but in the 1944 scoring table it is impossible to deduce any score for lower bids than four.

It should be noticed that there were no bonuses for unbid slams in the 1937 rules. In other words, you do not score much for something you have not contracted for.

Overtricks were worth 200 points from 5-bid onwards. This amount originated in the bonus that was given for a grand slam made when a small slam was bid, but it was extended one level downwards.

Besides these major changes, there was another raise by 1937, coronets (all coronets this time) were doubled again. On the other hand, undertricks remained the same until 1943. In Korttipelikirja 1962 the first undertrick at 6  was 1000, which is the amount that Lehtosuo 1943 proposed, while Maalari 1944 has 1100 (6×100+500, where 500 is the old small slam score). This could be a mistake in Korttipelikirja, since otherwise it follows Maalari. If the score is 1000, the connection with a small slam is lost, because in earlier versions of the game the extra punishment for the first undertrick in a grand slam was double the punishment for a small slam.

Honour scoring was not raised but it was simplified. In 1937 the declaring side scored for both aces and honours held, with no difference between the categories. If the opponents had more, they would score the difference only, presumably a relic of the strange 1903-1912 rule. In 1943 and 1944 the side taking the odd trick (usually the declarers, of course) simply scored for all aces and honours they held. They were not counted separately, but the ace of trumps was counted twice, both as an ace and a honour card. This is again a conceptual change, because in 1903-1912 and earlier aces were not called honours.

A major change in the structure of the game was a set of end games invented in the town of Kotka. According to Maalari, this happened around the turn of the century, about the time when misère got its final form. The Kotkas have no purchase cards. The lowest bid is 6 and misère ranks above Hearts (in 1937 it was the highest at the level of six). The highest bidder gives his partner four cards and receives four cards. Then the declarers can continue bidding. Kotkas were played mainly in misère until Maalari's changes, and were often regarded as the most interesting part of the game.

Four deals are played in the Kotkas and the scores for game start from 600 and grow in increments of two hundred. You can make several games during a rubber. This means that the old Whist (or for that matter Badminton) system of playing the best of three had been given up. Game points are just a bonus for a certain score.

As we have been able to see, the changes originally introduced to make the game interesting succeeded in changing the game so that it lost some of its appeal. As a result other changes, mainly in the scoring, were necessary.

The first changes were caused by the purchase cards. Play became higher because the players, the declaring side in particular, could exchange cards and concentrate their power in one hand. As a result, lower bids were not played, which narrows down the choices available to players. This was particularly noticeable in the Kotkas, where only two levels were available for bidding. Finally, the scoring table was changed so that one could not even infer the score for low bids.

The other main change was misère, which was introduced to get rid of the boring reshuffles. It had become the commonest play in 1943, forced misère in particular. The points for misère came from aces, so we could say that misère is more like a game of Hearts than a game in the Whist family. This was again particularly noticeable in the Kotkas. Both the war time books suggest that bonus points should be raised and Maalari's suggestion seems to have become the last standard.

Apparently it was at no time suggested that misère points should be reduced  or misère abolished altogether. This would have been an alternative way of giving more importance to bidding. Perhaps it is simply very difficult to lower points, because you easily feel that you reduce excitement at the same time. It is interesting to notice that the default score for aces was 100×number of the trick in Maalari's book, where the highest scores in the history of the game were proposed. Lehtosuo still preferred the system with 200 etc. points.

In original Vint, a lot of the points came from undertricks and other punishments. The changes in scoring introduced a system where positive scoring was more important, which in a way resembles the development of Auction Bridge into Contract Bridge, in that you mainly scored for what you had contracted for. This is shown by the 100* level of bid bonus for a fulfilled contract in 1937, as well as the scores suggested by Maalari, and the abolished points for unbid slam. In contrast to Bridge, the points below the line were not used for this purpose, they just served to measure the length of the game.

The final form of the game is not simple and elegant as the original form was. This is perhaps one reason why the game is not much played nowadays.

Further notes by Olli Meretoja

Finnish officers serving the tsar in St. Petersburg in late 19th century brought Vint to Finland. Here the game was modified soon by the introduction of misère, which made Skruuvi totally different from Vint. All-pass misère was already mentioned in Regler för skruf-whist (Turku 1895) along with two ways of handling kitty cards, as described by Olli Salmi above. However, the possibility to bid a misère became available only in early 1920’ at the same time that the Kotkas (Eagles) variant was created.

In 1939 Johannes Nyrkiö wrote a 237-page manuscript on Skruuvi, but publication was posponed becuase of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. After the War, Nyrkiö decided not to publish his book since two other books (OL, Osmo Lehtosuo in 1942 and E.N. Maalari, Ensio Nordström in 1944 ) had just appeared. I have edited Nyrkiö´s text and it is the best description of the game strategy that I have ever read.  He wrote that the scoring system should be simplified and suggested that games in all denominations should score 1000, 2000, 3000+700 and 4000+1400 points at 4, 5, 6 and 7 level, respectively. He also suggested that games at 4-level should not be played unless they were doubled, but should be scored as successful without play. In all misère games the aces were to be counted based on the trick number (an ace in the 7th trick scores 700 pts, etc.). When calculating the final result, all scores were divided by 100.

Both Nyrkiö and EN Maalari describe a very simple system for passing information when exchanging cards. Almost the only card exchange convention in Kitty games is that a low card on top of the four cards passed to the partner indicates an ace in that suit. In Kotkas, since there were no sophisticated card exchange conventions, the bidding system differed from current practice. If the player was not is a position to bid a side suit followed by the main suit (e.g. six clubs followed by six hearts), most often the only sensible option was to pass and an all-pass misère was played. Towards the end of the 20th century the card exchange system was improved significantly and it was further refined in 2016.

As Vint was originally a game for officers and people of higher social classes, the game almost disappeared from Russia during the Stalin´s regime. Thus Finland was the only country where a version of Vint, under the name Skruuvi, continued to be actively played. After World War II, Contract bridge became so popular that even in Finland it gradually took over from Skruuvi the role of the trick-taking game most favoured by skilled players. Nevertheless Skruuvi survived in the Helsinki Finnish Club where it has now been played for 140 years, and in the 1960’s active players led by archiater Arvo Ylppö started to modify the scoring system radically to make it simpler and easier to remember.

This process led to the following system. A contract made at the 5, 6 or 7 level scored 25, 36 and 49 points respectively (5×5, 6×6, 7×7), the 1st (and subsequent) undertricks scored 5 (5), 11 (6) and 17 (7) minus points, and overtricks scored 5, 6 and 0 plus points, respectively. A bid misère made at 5, 6 or 7 level scored 10, 20 or 30 points, respectively, all under- or overtricks scoring the same as in trump or NT games, and aces result in penalty scores based on the trick number (e.g. ace in 7th trick = -7 ponts). Unfortunately, this scoring system was not published until 2004 (Hannu Taskinen: Skruuvi. Turku 2004). However, it was already in use in the Helsinki Finnish Club in late 1960’s. Doubling and redoubling multiplied all points by 2 and 4 respectively in all games. There were no longer any scores below the line and completed games were not counted. So each session consited of four Kitty-games and four No-Kitty-games (plus Bolsheviks if time allowed).

The aim of the most recent Handbook of Skruuvi was to record the current practice of playing and scoring and to eliminate some disadvantages of the system. For example if one side has excellent all-pass misère cards and they double (their own winning game), the result could be a loss of as many as 100 points to the opponents if aces are discarded in the final tricks for double score. Also, the guidelines on how to pass information about a player’s hand to the partner when exchanging needed further refinement. So the Handbook presents a scoring system in which doubling no longer affects aces in misères, the points for overtricks are reduced, and redoubling now multiplies the basic scores by only 3 intead of 4. A special effort was made to recommend conventions that maximise the information given when four cards are passed to a partner. The aim was to provide a system that fully realises the potential of Skruuvi as a logical and versatile card game that rewards willingness to take a controlled risk.

References

Reglar för skruf-whist utarbetade etc..., Turku 1895.
Goren's Hoyle Encyclopedia of Games. New York, 1961.
Hjälpreda vid skruf whist-spel för nybegynnare, Tammerfors, 1912.
Iso tietosanakirja, 1931-1939.
Korttipelikirja (ed. Ilmo Kurki-Suonio). Otava: Keuruu 1962
OL (Lehtosuo Osmo). Skruuviopas, Lahti 1942, 1943
EN Maalari (Nordstöm Ensio). Uusi täydellinen skruuvipelin ohjekirja. Hämeenlinna 1944.
Maailman pelit ja leikit (translated and adapted by Leena and Ilmo Kurki-Suonio from The Way to Play). Sanoma Osakeyhtiö: Helsinki 1976.
--nen. Opas "Skruf Whist" peliin alottelijoille, Pori 1903.
Opas "Skruf Whist" peliin alottelijoille, Tampere 1911.
Nyström Johannes. Skruuvipeli, Hamina 1939 (manuscript), printed in Helsinki 2018
Taskinen Hannu. Skruuvi, Turku 2004
Handbook of Skruuvi – The Finnish Whist-Bridge, Helsinki 2016