Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Game's Afoot! By Barbara Barrett

The Collected Letters of REH
In a letter to Clyde Smith (The Collected Letters of Robert E Howard, August 28, 1925), Robert E. Howard (REH) included one of his tongue-in-cheek poems,

Roses laughed in her pretty hair,
Shading her eyes from the sun’s rude stare
A little hand was prettily raised,
Nor ever enough might it be praised.
Five little fingers, soft and white,
A dimple, a sheer kiss of delight.
But, miss, a hand that I held in mine,
Some nights ago was e’en more fine.
A hand that I must grant more praise,
Three aces and a pair of treys.

But poker wasn’t the only game in town for REH and his friends.  Tucked away in the last two pages of REH’s semi-autobiographical book, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (PO&SR) is a poem that pays tribute to another card game:

                                      The Seven-Up Ballad

Carl Macon was a kollege kid of far and wide renown,
Also a champ at seven-up and the wildest sot in town.
And in a way there came a day of high and lofty fame
For title of the eating house was the prize for a game.

Carl gave a yell and dealt the cards unto the other chumps
And they all whooped with joyous glee when diamonds turned up trumps.
“High, jack and game is here, begad!” Pink bellered with a scowl;
“You lie, you sot! You have it not!” Carl answered with a yowl.

Pink led the ace of trumps full soon, and “There,” said he, “is high!”
Carl followed suit, it was a trey, with a tough light in his eye.
Then Pink led out the queen of trumps and gave an ugly frown;
Carl snickered with unholy glee and laid a four spot down.

Pink swore full long and loud and rough and led the deuce of clubs;
Carl caught it with a king and said, “You’re all a lot of dubs.”
He led an ace and caught a king, “Here’s a game for me, egad!”
For many an ace and many a face the wicked scoundrel had.

And then an argument arose and loud was their abuse
And Pink got into lead again with a nine upon a deuce.
Then Pink laid down the diamond king and feinted with his right,
“Egad, that jack of yours will go, if it takes the rest of the night.”

Carl drank four pints of beer or so and at his hand he glanced —
He flung his cards at Stupid’s head and in his rage he danced
Then with a curse that would, egad, clean freeze a camel’s humps,
Beside the king that Pink had led he put the jack of trumps.

“Hold on! Begad!” somebody said, “That king’s been led, by damn!”
“Too late, too late!” the sot replied, “It is, it was, it am!”
Then long and loud the battle raged until the evening meal,
They punched each other in the nose and bit each other’s heel.
The battle lasted all that night; at last the field was clear,
And Pink had high and jack and game and Carl was drunk on beer.

Howard Payne
Seven-Up was more than a poem to REH.  The card game actually played a role in his college life.  The beginning of that school year is described by Mark Finn in his book, Blood and Thunder (p.103) [First Edition (2006) Monkey Brain Books]: 
"September 1926 found Robert back at Howard Payne, taking bookkeeping from the same nice old man who had taught him shorthand and stenography two years prior.  It was evident from the start that Robert had little interest in taking the course, as he quickly ignored his studies in favor of spending time with his friends and writing.   
Robert and Lindsey were reunited again in Brownwood at the Powell boarding house and they killed many an afternoon watching movies, going to see prizefights and boxing and exercising."
But movies, boxing and exercising weren’t REH’s only interests according to Steve Costigan, REH’s alter ego.  In PO&SR (p. 124) he writes about himself,
"Never a reckless spender, always something of the miser, his money was nevertheless beginning to run low.  His mother was paying his board for him, and Steve was neglecting his school work and spending most of his time going to picture shows and engaging in seven-up games with the genial and careless boarding house gang."
Earlier in the same book (p. 112), REH explains more about his involvement with the card game,
“Now abideth high, low, jack, and game; and the greatest of these is high,” droned Steve Costigan, leading a king. “Yea, though I speak with the voice of trumps and of jacks, and have queens to move mountains, yet have not high, I am as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, full of kings and aces, signifin’ game.”
Seven Up was the abiding sin of the boarding house gang, and the devotees of the game kept it going with monotonous regularity.  The main fiends were Henric [Carl Macon], Steve [REH], Spike [Lindsey Tyson] and Randolph [Ralph Duke?].  [Real names of the players are in brackets.]  The rest usually jeered loudly at the slowness of the game and sang praises of penny ante.

“Say, you bastards,” said Ad on this occasion, “we want them cards.”

“Go to hell! Came the prompt and ready chorus. “Go buy yourself a pack if you want any.”

“Lead, sot!” this last to Henric, who riffled his cards with an unsteady hand and dealt with a wandering eye.

“Shut up!” came the hiccuppy retort.  “I can whip any son of a bitch here.”

Raucous and mocking guffaws jeered him down.

This fun is interrupted by Clive [Clyde Smith].  Steve leaves the game and does not mention Seven-Up again. Nor does it appear in any of his writings. Although obscure now, Seven-Up was a variant of a very old card game called All Fours which has quite a long history.


In an opening paragraph describing the game, The Complete Book of Card Games (2001) states, “All Fours was mentioned in Charles Cotton’s Compleat Gamester in 1674 as being ‘much played in Kent.’  It became popular in the United States, where it acquired other names such as Seven-Up, High-low Jack or Old Sledge.”  According to Hoyle (August 1996) describes All Fours further,

This old English game, based on scoring for ‘high, low, jack, and the game,’ spawned a large family of American games – Seven-Up, (because 7 points win), Old Sledge, High-Low-Jack, Pitch, Setback, Cinch, Pedro, and others.  For at least a hundred years, from the late 1700’s to the Civil War era and the rise of Poker, it was the favorite of the American gamester.

By the time REH and his friends were playing Seven-Up in 1926, it was about 250 years old and had been in America for over 100 years.  To better understand why REH and his friends were spending so much time “engaging in seven-up games,” we need to know how the game is played.


The rules in Hoyle’s Rules of Games (2001), According to Hoyle (August 1996), and that of the U. S. Playing Card website  (scroll down to the Seven-Up rules), seem to be the closest match to the game outlined in REH’s poem.  All of them basically agree that a regular 52-card deck is used.  Rankings for the suits are: ace highest point and two lowest.  The game can be played with two or three players, each for himself, or four players in partnership.  Each player draws a card and high card deals the first time.  After that it goes in clockwise rotation.  If it is a partnership game, the two highest cards are partners.

The Deal

Each player is dealt six cards, three at a time clockwise from the dealer.  The next card is dealt face up on top the face down deck.  This is the trump suit.  If there are more than two players, no one except the dealer and the first person to the dealer’s left (eldest player) may look at their cards until the trump suit is accepted by the eldest player and the dealer.  The eldest player has the option to accept the trump suit by saying “I stand” or refusing it by saying “I beg.”

If the eldest player begs, it goes to the dealer who can accept or reject the trump suit. If the trump suit is taken, the eldest player scores one point for the “gift.”  If the trump suit is refused, three more cards are dealt to each player with another card turned up.  If it’s the same suit, it must be discarded and another three cards dealt to each hand until a new suit is turned up, which then becomes trump.  If a jack is the turned up card for the new suit, the dealer scores one point.  If the deck is exhausted before the new suit is turned up, it must be reshuffled and dealt again.  When trump has been determined, the other players may look at their hands.  If the players are holding more than six cards, they must reduce their hands to six by discarding the excess cards and placing them face down.

After the new suit has been selected, any player may call “Bunch” and if all the players agree, the cards are reshuffled and dealt again.

The dealer is bound to refuse “The Gift” when the eldest player has reached six points and begs.

The Object of the Game

There are at the most, four points in each dealt game: High, Low, Jack and Game.  The points are always scored in the given order: High, Low, Jack, Game.  The object is to win points in tricks.  A trick is defined as points won as the result of one round of cards played.

  • High, the highest trump in play, scored by player winning it in a trick
  • Low, the lowest trump in play, scored by player to whom it was dealt regardless of who wins it in play
  • Jack, the jack of trumps, scored by player who wins it in a trick
  • Game, the player who won the most points in tricks.  The card count:
                  Each 10 is 10 points
                  Each ace is 4 points
                  Each king is 3 points
                  Each queen is 2 points
                  Each jack is 1 point

The point received as a result of “The Gift” (if this occurs during the selection of trump.)

If there is only one trump card in play, it scores two points as both high and low card and three points if it is a jack. The one point for high score is not given if there is a tie.

Some of the rules suggest that each player be given 7 counters (chips) at the beginning of the first round.  A counter is thrown into the pot whenever a point is scored.  Whoever gets rid of all the chips first is the winner.

The Play

The eldest player opens the game by laying down a card in any suit.  The next person may follow suit if able to do so on a non-trump lead, or may choose to play a trump card.  If unable to follow suit or play trump, any card, trump or nontrump, may be played.  The highest card played in suit or trump takes the trick and leads the next card.  When all six cards are played, the points are added up.  If no one has reached seven points, another game is dealt and games continue until one person or team has scored seven points.  If more than one person reaches seven in the same game, the points are counted in order: high, low, jack and game.  Whoever reaches seven first is the winner.


There must be a new deal by the same dealer if a card is exposed during the deal, or if the deck is not shuffled or cut.  If the card is exposed through no fault of the player, it may be buried in the deck and a new card dealt after all the other players have received their cards.

If a player does not follow suit (or trump) when able, it is called a Revoke. The player may correct the error before the lead of the next trick. In that case, all cards played after the revoke are withdrawn.  If the error is not caught, the player’s Game score is reduced by two points if a jack is in play and by one if not.  In two-handed games, the opponent of the offender may just add the points to his or her own score.


Looking at the first stanza of the poem, the first line mentions Carl Macon, who according to the Index in PO&SR, was the real name of the fictional character, Henric Matson.  REH describes Carl as “the wildest sot in town.”  The Oxford Dictionary (1991) defines “sot” as “an habitual drunkard.”  This stanza also mentions that the stake in this game was “For title of the eating house was the prize for a game.”  An online definition describes an “eating house” as a house where cooked provisions are sold, to be eaten on the premises, thus the title holder would be the champion of the boarding house or restaurant.

In the next stanza of the poem, we find out there are more than two players: “Carl gave a yell and dealt the cards unto the other chumps.” PS&SR mentions there were four “main fiends” of the game.  In this particular game, there were apparently at least three and possibly, four players, although there is nothing to indicate partnership playing.

In this same stanza, Carl’s opponent, Pink (nickname for REH's friend Lindsey Tyson), is introduced.  When the game starts, REH tells us which suit is trump, “And they all whooped with joyous glee when diamonds turned up trumps.”  Pink looks at his hand and immediately declares that high, jack and game are his.  He must be the eldest player since he leads with the ace of diamonds (high) and picks up the trey of diamonds from Carl.  The trey is the lowest trump card so far.  If the two isn’t dealt to anyone, this gives Carl a point because the point goes to the person who received it in the deal, not to whomever picked up the trick.  But Pink is after the jack of diamonds so he plays diamond queen next and Carl plays the four of diamonds.

Lindsey Tyson, "Pink"

Pink doesn’t know how many diamonds Carl has in his hand.  In an effort to save the king, which is only card left that is higher than the jack of diamonds, Pink gives up the lead by playing the deuce of clubs.  Apparently Pink didn’t have aces in another suit or he would have played them in order to pick up points.  Carl takes the lead and from the line. “For many an ace and many a face the wicked scoundrel had,” it’s obvious that Carl kept the lead for awhile.  Pink gets the lead back when he plays a nine on a deuce.  Then he lays down the king of diamonds.  After language that would “freeze a camel’s humps,” Carl relinquishes the jack of diamonds to Pink.  Normally that would be the end of the game if all six cards were played.  Then someone yells, “That king’s been led, by damn,” seemingly accusing Pink of cheating and this is probably when the real fun began.  In REH’s words,

            Then long and loud the battle raged until the evening meal,
            They punched each other in the nose and bit each other’s heel.
            The battle lasted all that night; at last the field was clear,

The last line of the poem says that “Pink got high, jack and game” so either Carl didn’t have as many “aces and faces” as indicated earlier or they were playing with partners which enabled Pink to get enough tricks to pick up the one point for game.  The low point probably went to Carl for the trey of diamonds.

The poem ends with the words, “and Carl got drunk.” Since REH has already described Carl as a “sot,” it sounds as if everybody had a good time!


REH, "Steve"
Steve mentions that the boardinghouse gang has turned to poker (PO&SR’s, pp. 124-25), so it is unknown whether REH played Seven-Up after he left Brownwood or whenever he returned there for visits.  I couldn’t find another mention of the game in Rusty Burke’s and Mark Finn’s biographies or in The Collected Letters of Robert E Howard, Vol 1.  It appears that all we have is what’s written in PO&SR and the poem “The Seven-Up Ballad.”

It’s been over eighty years since those games were played by REH and his friends.  During that time the Seven-Up game has become almost forgotten in America and another piece of our history is fading into obscurity.  But, to those of us who are REH fans, the game still has meaning.  For however long he played Seven-Up, it brought REH enjoyment and it was of some importance to him during that phase of his life.


About Barbara Barrett:

Barbara Barrett has been an enthusiastic and dedicated Robert E. Howard fan since 2006. Shortly after watching The Whole Wide World, she began reading REH and through his stories she discovered his extraordinary ability with words, images and strongly written characters.  Eventually Barbara found her way from Howard’s poetic prose to his poetry and subsequently compiled and edited The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard, which won the the 2009 REH Foundation Atlantean Award.

She has won three other REH awards for her work on Howard and she has contributed articles to REH: Two Gun Raconteur, Black Gate, and others. She has been a member of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association since 2008 and her ongoing REH column "Word of the Week" has appeared weekly in various venues since 2010. This is her first guest appearance at On An Underwood No. 5

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