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LECTURE VII.
THE PETER AND ITS PECULIARITIES.
——
“Petrus nimium admiratur se.”—Eton Grammar.

“The base vulgar do call.”—Shakespeare.

Some years ago a simple piece of mechanism, to which somehow or other very undue importance has been attached, was introduced to the Whist world; you play a higher card before a lower one—unnecessarily—to indicate that you hold good trumps, and want them out.[30]

You can want this for two reasons:

(1) Because you have the seven best trumps. There is no objection to your signalling here, though it is quite uncalled for; if you have the game in your own hand, you can either lead the lowest but two of six, stand on your head, or execute any other—what it is the odd fashion to call—convention the authority of[60] the day may think fit to invent, as long as you do not come into collision with law 5.[31]

(2) Because you have a good trump hand, and the fall of the cards shows that unless you get them out, your winning cards or your partner’s will be ruffed. Here is a good legitimate reason, but when everything is going nicely, and your partner making the tricks, that you should interfere with this merely because you have five trumps—or nine for the matter of that—is the height of absurdity. It may be an interesting fact for him to know, on the second round of a plain suit, that you hold five trumps, just as there are numerous other interesting facts which he may[61] also ascertain at the same time, e.g., that you have led a singleton, that you hold no honour in your own suit, and so on, but none of them justifies him in ruining his own hand and devoting his best trump to destruction.

You ought to understand the signaller to say, “Get the lead at any cost the first moment you can, play your highest trump, and you shall see something remarkable.”[32]

This is rather a large order, and when you find as the result of your best attempts to execute it, that that promised something is not uncommonly the loss of the rubber, though it will be a shock to you at first, you will soon get accustomed to it.

It is even a dangerous practice to signal when the adversaries will most likely have the lead on its completion; they at once adapt their play to the circumstances. I have seen innumerable games of whist not won, and many a game lost, by absurd signalling; still Whist players suffering from Peter on the brain constantly refuse to ruff a winning card in order to disclose a signal in the discard. If they wanted[62] trumps led, it occurs to the ordinary mind that the simplest plan would be to win the trick and lead them, and as they decline to do so, the only conclusion is that they regard signalling for the mere sake of signalling to be in itself so noble an end that, to attain it, it is worth while to announce to their opponents that they had better save the game at once, and at the same time to present them with at least one trick towards it.[33]
“O scenes surpassing fable, and yet true.”
“By Heaven! he echoes.”—Othello.

If you only want the odd trick, signalling is about the safest way to miss it. Any two decent players would, in a vast majority of cases, get on exactly as[63] well if the Peter had never been invented, while two bad players—assuming they can possibly miss the game with all the trumps—generally do so by its assistance.[34] Where it would be useful is when, with moderate strength in trumps, and the cards declared in your favour, you want trumps led at all hazards. Unfortunately, if at such a crisis as this, your partner is not equal to leading them without a call, he is certain not to see it, although he is missing all the other points of the game in what he calls looking for it. This looking for a Peter is an oddly-named and peculiar form of amusement appertaining not only to Bumblepuppy, but also to Whist. Among all those people who have attended the University Boat Race during the last half-century, I apprehend not one went to look for it, they went to see it, and just as you would see that race, so you should see the[64] signal. Never look for it! look at it! It is just as obvious as any other circumstance that occurs in the play; instead of this, after much looking, it is generally overlooked altogether.
Spectatum veniunt, veniunt spectentur ut ips?.

They come to look, and end by making spectacles of themselves.[35]

If you must look for it, at any rate don’t look for it in the last trick; you would scarcely look for the Boat Race as you were going to church the next day. Still, Cowper—though he clearly disapproves of the signal and calls it senseless—seems, if he is to be annoyed with it, to advocate this—
“’Tis well if look’d for at so late a day
In the last scene of such a senseless play.”

What the signal for trumps ought to be, and what strength in trumps justifies a signal are clearly laid down by Clay.

If you see a call and hold the ace and any number of trumps, play the ace—there can be no danger of dropping your partner’s king—and if you had originally more than three, continue with the lowest; but if you are quite sure that leading trumps is the only way to miss or lose the game, don’t lead them at all.[65] Often as, in obedience to my partner’s call, I slam in an ace and play my best trump, Elaine’s despairing cry rises to my lips,—
“Call and I follow, I follow, let me die.”

This important fact is too much lost sight of: that the object of Whist is not so much to lead the lowest but one of five, or to signal, as to win the game; these and other fads may or may not be means to that end, but the end itself they emphatically are not; in their inception, at any rate, they were intended to be your instruments. Don’t let this position be reversed; whether, like fire, they are always good servants may be open to argument, but their resemblance in the other respect is perfect.

One aspect of signalling has been overlooked in all the treatises on Whist. I have seen a player of great common-sense and acute observation signal having three small trumps and a short suit, and by this means induce his watchful opponents to force him to make them all. I do not recommend such devious courses to you, even if they are lawful in a Christian country (of which I have doubts); they are only practicable when you are playing very good Whist, and this, as Clay says, can only be the case when you thoroughly know your men.

Hair-splitting about the legitimacy of the Peter is beyond the scope of these remarks; what is lawful is not necessarily expedient: this the Apostle Paul pointed out, long before either the foundations of[66] New Orleans were laid, or Columbus discovered America; but when Professor Pole—who appears to have been acquainted with the present mode of signalling for forty years (Fortnightly Review, April, 1879), and for nine has advised learners with five trumps always to ask for them (Theory of Whist, page 65)—begins at this eleventh hour to find fault with the practice, and to have his suspicions that it is immoral; this is the Gracchi complaining of sedition with a vengeance.
“A merciful Providence fashioned him holler,
A purpose that he might his principles swaller.”

In this year of grace, good players have long known that signalling is by no means an unmixed benefit, but rather an edge-tool dangerous to play with,[36] while it has been so long rampant that it has permeated the very lowest strata. If at such a time as this—when all the tenth-rate Whist players in Christendom and Jewry not only think they know all about it, and consider it in itself the quintessence of science, when many of them by constant practice have actually acquired such skill that their hesitation in playing first a ten and then a deuce is sometimes scarcely perceptible—the professor imagines that any [67] words of his can put a stop to it, his courage is only equalled by that of the well-known Mrs. Partington with her mop. A child may start an avalanche; but once started it runs its appointed course, and in one respect it is preferable—it is sooner over—for there is no instance recorded in history of an avalanche keeping on for forty years.

In bumblepuppy the proceedings are so complicated and peculiar, they must be seen to be appreciated; but there are five common forms you should be acquainted with.

(1) After you have had a lead or two and got rid of your winning cards, you can begin signalling for somebody to lead a trump;[37] if somebody obliges you, and you win the trick, lead another suit, and wait till somebody else leads trumps again—continuing to signal in the intervals.

[68]

(2) You can signal in your own lead, and I don’t know that there is any objection to your expecting that your partner will attend to it—assuming he ever comprehends what you are driving at.

(3) You can signal without any trump at all.

(4) You can signal without intending to do so.

(5) If by any odd chance there should be no signal about, you can imagine there is and act accordingly.

To obviate the evident disadvantages and mutual recrimination which might ensue from such vagaries, if you really intend to signal, it is usual to take the following precautions:

(1) Always signal with your highest card.

(2) Pause before you play it.

(3) Put it down not only with emphasis, but in a special corner of the table mutually agreed upon beforehand. (Note,[30] page 59.)

(4) As soon as the trick is turned, ask to see it. (See note to Law 91).
“Why the wicked should do so,
We neither know, nor care to do.”


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