Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Primero: A Renaissance Cardgame

Copyright 1994 by Jeff A. Suzuki
Primero is Renaissance cardgame that has many similarities to modern day poker. The following is my redaction, based on the description given by Giralamo Cardano in his "On Games of Chance", included in Oystein Ore'sCardano: The Gambling Scholar. As with poker, there are probably thousands of variants; this represents one.

The Deck

Primero can be played with a regular deck of 52 cards, with the 8s, 9s, and 10s removed. The remaining cards all have certain point values (regardless of suit):
  • Face cards count 10
  • 2 through 5 count 10 + their value; thus a 4 counts as 14
  • Aces count as 16
  • 6s and 7s count as three times their value: thus a 7 counts as 21

The Deal

Four cards are dealt, face down, to each player in the standard manner. (Cardano's description implies the cards are actually dealt two at a time, which, given the lack of laminated cards during the 15th century, seems to be a matter of convenience!)

The Play

Starting with the player to the dealer's left, each player has three options: bidstake, or pass.


In order to bid, the previous bid must be staked. Then the bid is announced. It consists of three things: the point total, hand type, and bid amount. The hand type must be higher than the previously bid hand type or, if it is the same, the point total must be higher.

The hand types are, in order of increasing rank:
  • Numerus: two or three cards of the same suit
  • Primero: one card of each suit
  • Maximus: the Ace, Six, and Seven of one suit
  • Fluxus: all four cards of the same suit
  • Chorus: four of a kind
Note that even though all face cards are worth the same, you must have four of the same type of face card to form a chorus. (See variants, below)

For example, if a player had a 2 of clubs, 3 of diamonds, 4 of spades, and King of clubs, he would have a primero (one of each suit) and his point total would be 12 + 13 + 14 + 10 = 49; thus he could bid "primero 49". Any player after him who bid would have to beat a primero 49, either by naming a higher rank (e.g., Maximus) or a higher point total (e.g., "Primero 59"). If he wanted to bid 5 scudi, his bid in full would be "Primero 59 at 5 scudi".

Note that the point totals include only the total of the cards that make up the hand. For example, a numerus point total could be as low as 20. (If you've seen the earlier editions, this was not specifically pointed out)
Players may deliberately understate their point total or their hand type. For the above, the player can bid no higher than a primero 49, but could claim to have a numerus 49, or a primero 40.


Staking, or "covering" a previous bid involves putting money down. No other action is necessary or required. Unlike poker, you have only to cover the last bid, not all the bids since you last staked. Thus if the players are Alberto, Bernardo, Cinthio, and Domenico, and Bernardo bids "numerus 40 at 10 scudi", then Cinthio covers and bids "numerus 50 at 5 scudi", Domenico (if he wanted to bid or stake) would have to throw in only 5 scudi, not 15.


The major difference between primero and poker is that a player may pass without having to put money down. However, the player must discard one or two cards from his hand, and then draw the same number from the deck. As all the hands but numerus and maximus require four specific cards, this usually destroys the hand that you hold. Note also that you cannot "fold" out of a primero hand (like you can in poker).

Forced Staking

If no one bids, the hand ends and the player with the highest hand type wins; if two players have the same hand type, the higher point total wins the pot. (If no one bids, the pot is likely to have nothing in it!)

If someone does bid, this bid must be covered. If someone else stakes, the bid is considered covered.

However, if play returns to the last person who bid without being covered, the last person to pass must stake; this is called a "forced stake" (my term). The sequence of play is: pass, draw one or two cards, then stake. (The forced stake is one of the reasons why you are warned against playing primero with those who have much more money than you, for obvious reasons)

The last player to bid must then prove to the player who was forced to stake that he has at least what he claimed. Note that in all cases but numerus and maximus, this involves showing the player all four cards. After this, the player who was forced to stake may make a bid without naming hand type or point total. This bid does not have to be covered (but all players who pass must then draw as usual). If play returns to the player who was forced to stake without any additional bids, the hand ends as above.

Sample Hand

Alberto, Bernardo, Cinthio, and Domenico are playing primero. Alberto deals; two cards are dealt; Alberto gets a 2 diamonds (2d) and a 5 hearts (5h); Bernardo gets a Queen of clubs (Qc) and the ace of hearts (Ah); Cinthio has the 4 of spades (4s) and the 7 of spades (7s); Domenico receives the jack of diamond (Jd) and the king of hearts (Kh). No one wants to bid, so the remaining cards are handed out. Now the players hands are:
  • Alberto: 2d, 5h, 7c, 6c
  • Bernardo: Qc, Ah, As, 7h
  • Cinthio: 4s, 7s, Qd, 6h
  • Domenico:Kh, Jd, 2c, 5s

Since Alberto dealt, it is Bernardo's turn. He passes, so he must discard one or two cards and draw the same number. He discards the ace of hearts and draws the 4 of diamonds, giving him a primero.

Cinthio also passes; he discards the 4 of spades and draws the 3 of diamonds. This gives him a numerus, which is practically worthless.

Domenico already has a primero (one of each suit). As his point total is 47, he can bid up to a primero 47. Understating his bid, he announces a numerus 30. He bids 5 scudi, and keeps his cards.
Now it's Alberto's turn. He passes and does not have to put in money. Hoping for a maximus, he discards the 2d and 5h, and draws Ac and Js.

Bernardo has a primero, so he stakes (throwing in 5 scudi) and bids. His hand total is 61, so he bids numerus 32 and 10 scudi.

Cinthio passes, throwing out the Qd and getting a 6s. A good card, but it still leaves him with a numerus.
Domenico realizes his point total is nearly the lowest possible one for a primero (which he suspects Bernardo has, even though he only bid a numerus), so he discards his two face cards (worth only 10 points apiece), and draws Qh and 3h.
Alberto, though his point total is very high (65) is also pretty sure that Bernardo has more than a numerus. Thus he discards his Ad and Js hoping to get the maximus which would save him...and gets a Ks and 2h instead.

Since no one has covered the bid that Bernardo made (10 scudi), Alberto must cover it. He throws in 10 scudi; Bernardo shows him that he actually has a primero 61. Alberto smiles convincingly and throws in 10 more scudi.

Now Bernardo is in a quandry. He can throw in 10 scudi and keep his hand. Or he can pass, draw one or two cards (probably destroying his hand) and not throw in 10 scudi. He throws in 10 scudi.

Cinthio passes, throwing out the 6s, and drawing 5d. He still has a numerus.

Domenico also passes, throwing out his Qh and drawing the 6d.

Since play has returned to Alberto and no one has bid, the hand ends. Only Bernardo and Domenico have anything higher than a numerus. Since both of them have primero (Bernardo with a Qc As 7h 4d and Domenico with a 5s 2c 3h 6d), the point totals are compared. Bernardo's point total is 10 + 16 + 21 + 14, or 61; Domenico's point total is 15 + 12 + 13 + 18, or 58. Bernardo wins the hand.

Note that if someone had bid after Alberto's forced bid, play would continue normally. For example, suppose Bernardo cackled maniacally, threw down 10 scudi and said "Primero 40!". Then play would continue normally; if no one felt they could beat Bernardo's primero 40, poor Alberto would have to cover the bid again.


There is circumstantial evidence for certain variants. In no particular order:
  • As I mention below, the "winner take all" endgame is mine entirely. Cardano spends a great deal of time discussing how the pot should be divided which, to my mind, says that in general the pot was divided according to a different scheme. Based on Cardano's description, I suggest the following division of the pot for those to whom the game is not sufficiently complex mathematically:
    • The person with the highest hand wins half the pot. This is consistent with Cardano's description of the game.
    • The person with the next highest hand wins half the remainder.
    • The remainder stays in the pot as an ante for the next hand.
  • I strongly suspect that a bid of numerus was not actually permitted. (The circumstantial evidence being that the game is called primero, which is neither the highest nor the lowest hand). If you do not allow any bid lower than a primero, the resulting play is something similar to the "jacks or better" version of poker.
  • Cardano is unclear as to whether the forced bid player was the only person who got to look at the other player's hand; it seems reasonable to give them some advantage over the other players.
  • Another possible variant addresses the problem of no money in the pot: everyone must ante. Cardano mentions this is how some people play the game, though does not indicate that it is a universal practice.
  • Cardano specifically mentions that, even though all face cards count as 10 points, you cannot form a chorus using different face cards. While I suspect it would totally upset the game balance by allowing non-identical face cards to form a chorus, there may be some compromise possible. Anyone who wants to playtest such a game is welcome to try, and email me with their results and/or suggestions.
  • Also, in my version, you are only allowed to understate your hand total. A different version might allow you to overstate it. However, this would make the game as written unplayable, since the rule of bidding higher than the previous bid would quickly become unplayable (e.g., "I bid chorus 84!" which is the highest possible bid: four 7's.) If you want to play this way, the easiest "fix" is to require that each succeeding bid be lowerthan the preceding ones, no bid to actually be below the amount held in your hand.
  • An additional possibility: Cardano is not explicit, but there is reason to believe that the highest bidder sets the hand type, and all others attempt to match that hand type with the highest point total. See below.

How This Redaction Came About

The English translation of Liber de Ludo Aleae, done by Sydney Henry Gould, appears as an appendix to Ore's Cardano: The Gambling Scholar. When I first saw it, and read Ore's (brief) discussion of primero in the body of the book, it occurred to me that it might be possible to turn Cardano's brief description of the game into a set of playable rules. The the page numbers refer to the Dover edition.

p. 206 to 207 discusses the deck, card values, and hand types, which are exactly as in the rules above.
p. 207, bottom: Cardano writes "Also chorus can always be concealed for primero and for fluxus when another has announced it". I have interpreted this as the rule of understating bids.

However, there is another possible interpretation. The previous sentence says "It is not permissible to count diverse bids as more than the greatest of these". On page 206, Cardano writes:
"Now there are two kinds of primero. In one, the greater number wins, and this number is different according to the nature of the hands.."
(The other type is where the lesser number wins --- a type of lo-ball poker --- though this is "very little in use".) This and some other isolated quotes suggest that one player announces a hand type, and everyone tries to build that hand type. If you do not have that hand type, you lose, regardless of whether what you hold in your hand is a higher hand type. For example, if the bid is primero, and you have a fluxus --- you lose the hand! As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that this would make for a much more interesting game; it also has the effect of upping the ante of the pot, as players bid to keep the hand from ending. It also has a nice sort of symmetry: a maximus is a numerus, and a chorus is a primero.

p. 208-209: Cardano discusses dividing the pot. I have eliminated this rule and substituted "winner take all", in the interests of ease of play. Also, Cardano is not very clear on who gets which part of the pot.
p. 212 (Cardano spends a few pages discussing cheating): This is the origin of the stake-or-draw rule. Cardano's exact statement is:
"He who, not having announced his primero or fluxus, shall have increased the deposit, except when purposely changing cards, loses his deposit; but if he has not increased it, he is compelled at the will of the others to change his cards..."
This sentence is fairly confusing. It seems to relate to the pot splitting mentioned earlier. If one uses a "winner take all" scheme, then (it seems reasonable to me) to interpret the last statement as saying that if one does not increase the pot, one must change cards.

p. 213 discusses the forced stake. Also, the necessity of exchanging one or two cards if one does not stake is explicitly written out.

Some things that are my invention:
  • The necessity of increasing hand type or point total is mine alone. However, it seems to make sense: if Alberto bids a primero 57, Bernardo has no reason to bother announcing a numerus or a lower primero. (On the other hand, if you use the "bidder sets hand type" rule, above, then it is not necessary to increase the bid type or point total.)
  • Also, the necessity of covering a bid before raising. I admit it: this comes directly out of poker. However, I claim play balance: it prevents someone from getting into a hand with a ludicrously low bid (e.g., Bernardo bids primero 50 and 40 scudi; Cinthio says primero 51 and 2 scudi, and thus for only 2 scudi, has a chance of winning 50).
  • Finally, the revealing of the hand to the forced stake player. At several points Cardano mentions the necessity of a player revealing his hand to prove he either has or does not have a certain type of hand, but the conditions are somewhat vague. I have chosen to allow the forced stake player a look at the hand, mainly to provide some compensation for the forced staking. However, there are some points where Cardano's description seems to match a poker game of the "baseball" type, where a player's hand is revealed card by card; I have not been able to figure out the rules for this.

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