Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Italian Game of “Primiera”

Gonna move on today to try to provide at least a summary description of another card game often listed among poker’s “precursors,” this time looking at the Italian game of primiera that made its first appearance in the early 16th century or about two hundred years before poker’s debut.

There are a ton of alternate names for primiera -- prime, primo visto, primus, primavista -- as well as other very similar games like scopa and other regional variants. In fact some argue its birthplace is actually Spain (where it’s called primera) and not Italy. And speaking of Shakespeare (about whom I was writing yesterday), the game or something similar to it pops up on more than one occasion in the plays (where it’s called primero).

Different versions of the game are still played today in several European countries, although none of these modern variants are exactly like the original game. In fact, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how the game was first played as there exist a number of descriptions of 16th-century primiera but no unambiguous rules for it. Several folks have tried to “reconstruct” the game from various sources, and this summary is based mostly on one of those attempts.

Primiera is another “vying” game where players build hands and compare them, with betting and bluffing also part of game play. It’s played with a 40-card deck, tossing out the eights, nines, and tens. The remaining cards are assigned point values as follows:

  • seven = 21 points
  • six = 18 points
  • ace = 16 points
  • five = 15 points
  • four = 14 points
  • three = 13 points
  • two = 12 points
  • jack, queen, king = 10 points each
  • Play begins with each player being dealt two cards face down, followed by a betting round that kind of resembles how betting works in poker (i.e., you can “pass” or check, bet, call, raise, or fold just like in poker). But there’s more to it than that.

    Besides betting, players are also getting to declare on this round which of five different hand types is going to be the goal of that particular hand. It sounds a little like playing five games in one, and here, halfway through the deal of what will ultimately be a four-card hand, the first bettor gets to choose (initially, anyway) which of the five is going to be played.

    Here are the five hand types, with each valued higher than the last:

  • numerus -- a hand with two or three cards of the same suit (and you add up the point values of the 2-3 cards)
  • primero -- a hand with one card from each of the four suits, like a Badugi (again, you add up point values of all four cards)
  • supremus -- a hand with the six, seven, and ace of a single suit (which add up to 55)
  • fluxus -- a hand with four of the same suit, like a flush (again, adding up the points)
  • chorus -- four of a kind (again, adding up the points)
  • When that first player bets, then, after having been dealt just two of the four cards, the player puts some chips or money out, declares a hand type, and also bids a certain point total. For example, the first player bets some amount and says “Numerus 40,” meaning the “game” is numerus and making it necessary for that player to make at least 40 points by the showdown to win.

    As noted, subsequent players can fold or call or raise, but if they want to stay in the hand they either have to bid a higher point total in the same hand type/game, or declare a “higher” hand type/game. Say the first guy bets and says “Numerus 40.” The next player can call (or raise), but has to say “Numerus 41” (at least) or declare, say, “Primero 45” or whatever.

    It’s kind of complicated to explain -- you’re basically having two different kinds of “betting” going on at once here, what with the actual betting and the declaring/bidding. Muddling things further, players can “pass” and discard/draw one or two cards, and they can fold and get back half of whatever they’ve already bet. Also, a bet goes uncalled around the table, the last player left to act must call the bet and stay in the hand, no matter what kind of hand he or she has.

    For whoever is left in the hand comes a second deal -- the last two cards -- and another betting round, again picking up where the declarations of hand types/games was left off as well as the bidding. If the hand type is numerus or supremus, players have to draw/discard one or two cards. You can bluff in a way, too, by bidding a lower point value than you actually have, or by declaring a hand type that is lower than what you actually have (e.g., you declare supremus when you have a fluxus).

    Finally when all of the betting and bidding is done players show their hands. Whoever has the highest hand type wins, and if they have the same type they go to the point totals to determine who comes out on top. You can “foul” your hand (as in Chinese poker), for example, if you don’t have at least as many points as has been last bid. Or if you’re playing numerus (say) and when you draw/discard you end up with something better, like a fluxus.

    You can follow that link above for a more thorough explanation -- or rather, reconstruction -- of how 16th-century primiera was played. You see some of the elements of poker here, including a few of the same hand rankings and the procedures of betting and bluffing. Though again, as was the case with both mus and poch, it’s clear that primiera isn’t quite poker, even if it shares some of the same elements.

    Image: “Card Players” (1508-1510), Lucas van Leyden, public domain.

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