Primero: A Renaissance Cardgame

Copyright 1994, 2007 by Jeff A. Suzuki

Primero is Renaissance cardgame that has many similarities to modern day poker, with a hint of contract bridge. As with poker, there are many variants, so if you set down for a game of primero, be sure to agree on the rules first! The most important variations (i.e., the ones you don't want to find out about midgame) seem to be whether you can overstate your hand during the final bids, the details of passing, and how the pot is to be divided. I'll give what I call (for convenience only) the Bergamese rules. Why Bergamo? At the the time of the original redaction, I was best known in the SCA for playing Arlecchino, a character from Bergamo, in a commedia troupe. I have no evidence whatsoever that links the following to Bergamo in any other way.) If you have questions about these rules, email me at (with the xxx replaced with com). I'll try to get together a FAQ for the Bergamese rules. See William's Primero Challenge for an idea I'm working on. I'll also present one non-betting variant for those who might want to present it as a straight point total game.

The Basics

All versions of 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):

A primero hand consists of four cards (as in poker, you might have more cards in your hand, but only four count). The hand types are, in order of increasing rank:

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.

Players should decide on the ante (if any: not all versions require it) and bid limit, if any. The basic game play is: ante (if any); deal 2 cards; bid; deal 2 more cards; bid again; showdown and determine the winner. The bidding phases end when 1) no one bets, or 2) everyone has had a chance to bid, stake, pass, or fold the most recent bet (if a bid and a new bet are made, that bet becomes the most recent, etc.). The winning player will be the one holding the bid hand type; if two or more players have the bid hand type, the one with the highest point total wins (note that four kings and four queens have the same point total). Winner takes the pot, except as noted under the “all in” rules; if there is no winner, the pot remains as ante for the next hand. If two players have the same number of points, the player who is nearer to the dealer on the right wins the pot. (In other words, begin with the player on the dealer's right and go around backwards; the first of the tie players you encounter wins the pot)

Bidding begins with the player to the dealer's left and proceeds leftwards (i.e., in the normal fashion). Players may bid, stake, pass, or fold. If you pass, you must discard 1 or 2 cards (face up) and draw the same number from the deck if you pass; if you bid or stake, you may discard and draw 1 or 2 cards.

A bid (“vie” or “revie”) consists of three parts: a hand type, point total, and bet. First, cover the current bet (if you are the first person to make a bid in the round, there is no bet to cover). Then announce the bid. The hand type must be higher than the previously bid hand type or, if it is the same, the point total must be higher. Throw in the new bet to finalize the bid. Note that the new bet replaces the current one: it does not add to it. (See the
notes for the rationale behind this rule; this interpretation is not universal)

Players may deliberately understate their point total or their hand type (for example, if you have supremus, you can bid primero; if you have chorus, you can bid fluxus or primero, etc.), but remember that you must have the bid hand type in order to win.

In the second (final) round of bidding you cannot overstate your hand type. You don't have to have the bid type (for example, if you have a fluxus, you can bid primero, since a primero is a lower hand). To keep players honest, I suggest imposing a penalty for “accidentally” overbidding your hand (this falls into the category of “house rules.” Note that whether or not you can overstate your hand is unclear from extant descriptions, and different versions will (or will not) permit it; see the notes.

Example: The current bid is primero 50 at 10 scudi. First, cover the bet by throwing in 10 scudi. Then announce a new bid; you must either announce a higher hand type or a primero with a higher point total. If you bet 5 scudi, subsequent players will have to stake 5 scudi, not 15. Note that if this is the second round of bidding, you cannot overstate your hand type.

Throw money into the pot to match the current bet (“see”, exactly as it is in poker). This is said to cover the bet (an uncovered bet must be covered by someone: see below). No other action is necessary or required. If you want to raise, make a new bid (see above).

You may also declare “all in.” No further bids are allowed. Play continues normally, but a secondary pot is created as follows: All bets in excess of what you could have covered (including all future increases) should be put into the secondary pot. Only one player per hand may declare “all in” (this is for sanity purposes! See below). If you win the hand, you win the main pot, and player with the second best hand wins the secondary pot. If someone else wins, they win both. If no one wins the hand, the entire pot serves as ante for the next round.

Example: The pot has 50 scudi in it; someone bids 20 (raising the pot to 70). You only have 15. You declare all in. Since you can't cover all of the 20 scudi of the current bet, 15 are kept in the main pot and 5 are separated to form the secondary pot. The bet is still 20, but anyone who stakes puts 15 into the main (what you could have covered) and 5 into the secondary. At the end of the hand: if you win, you receive the main pot, and the player with the second best hand receives the secondary. If someone else wins, they get both pots. If no one wins, the pot remains as ante for the next hand.

One major difference between primero and poker is that you do not have to bet to continue playing. If you pass, you must discard one or two cards (face up), and then draw the same number from the deck. In addition, set aside an amount equal to the current bet; if you bid or stake later, you must throw this amount into the pot (this brings you current) before matching the current bet (if you fold, take back half, rounded up, and throw the rest into the pot). Immediately before the cards are revealed, you must decide whether you will stake or fold; this should be done in play order (starting with the player to the left of the current bidder). Note that different versions of the game handle passing differently, so check with the other players before assuming!

Example: The current bid is primero 60 at 10 scudi. You have nothing. You pass, but set aside 10 scudi, and draw to a primero 70. Someone bids primero 65 at 15 scudi. Since you have a primero 70, you decide you want to re-enter: throw in the 10 scudi you've set aside to bring you current, then 15 to match the current bet.

Example: As before, but the hand ends. You must decide whether you fold (in which case, throw 5 scudi into the pot and return 5 scudi to your bank) or stake (in which case, put the 10 scudi in and take your chances).

The same as it is in poker. It seems clear that folding existed; what is not clear is why you would fold (since you can pass and stay in the hand without betting). If you fold and have stakes set aside from passing, give half (rounded down) to the pot, and take the remainder back. Again, check with your fellow players before assuming this is the rule!

Covering a Bet
If you make a bet and no one covers it, the last player must match it. They cannot fold. In this case, the last player would pass, draw one or two cards, and cover the bet (this assumes they don't want to bet or bid).

After this, the player forced to cover may make a bet without naming hand type or point total. This new bet does not have to be covered (but all players who pass must then draw and set aside stakes as usual). This bet also becomes the current bet, so the hand will end if everyone stakes, passes, or folds. If there are new bids, play continues normally.

The player forced to cover the bet may choose to make a new bid instead. This is treated as a normal bid: Play continues normally, if no one covers it, the last person before the bidder must cover, etc.

After the final bet is made and everyone has had a chance to bid, stake, pass, or fold, the hand ends. Before showing cards, the players with outstanding bets (from passing) must decide whether they are in (at which point they put the outstanding stakes into the pot) or are folding (at which point they put half, rounded down, into the pot, and take the remainder back). Go in turn order, beginning with the player to the current bidder's left.

For the showdown, all remaining players must show all their cards. This holds even if everyone but one person has folded. This is to verify that you actually had the bid hand: in particular, if you do not have the bid hand, no one wins the pot. The hand is won by the player with the current bid type with the highest point total (so if the most recent bid is a primero, the player with the highest point primero hand wins the hand). Note that the face cards have the same point value: a chorus of four kings and a chorus of four queens are equal hands. In the case of a tie, the player nearest the dealer on the right wins. If no one has the current hand type, the entire pot remains as ante for the next game.

As with poker, primero seems to have innumerable variants (Ore mentions that virtually every city in Italy had its own local version); some of these will be discussed below.

Sample Hand (Bergamese Rules)

The players (going leftwards) are Alberto, Bernardo, Cinthio, and Domenico. Domenico deals 2 cards to each player. The play:

Since play has returned to the most recent bidder, the hand ends. At this point Cinthio has to decide whether he will play or fold. He has numerus 34 (3D, 13 points; 7D, 21 points), and decides to play. He throws in the 5 + 10 = 15 scudi set aside from his passes. The players reveal hands. Alberto has a numerus 28; Bernardo has numerus 47; Cinthio has numerus 34. Bernardo wins the pot.

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. In 1994, based mainly on the Gould translation, I presented the first draft of a full-scale redaction of the game (I believe it was the first, though Parlett gives a rough description in A History of Card Games, 1990). Subsequently Mark Waks (Justin de Coeur in the SCA) did another redaction (giving me, I suspect, more credit than I deserved, and giving the appropriate terms for bidding and staking). I've incorporated a number of his suggestions into this version, though we differ on certain key points (particularly the issue of bluffing; see below).

Note that the rules of this game are by no means settled. Again, if you play with other people, check with them for the specifics of the rules. The only things that are certain (from Cardano's description) are the hand types and point values.

The specific rules came about as follows; the the page numbers refer to the Dover edition.

p. 206, bidder sets hand. 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 suggests that the hand is won by the player with the highest point total of the appropriate hand.

p. 206 to 207 discusses the deck, card values, and hand types, which are exactly as in the rules above.

p. 207 describes the cards being dealt two at a time, twice. This suggests a game similar to stud poker. Presumably there are variants: all four cards dealt at once, etc.

p. 207 describes how ties should be handled. Cardano's rule is that in the case of a tie, the player nearest to the dealer on the dealer's right wins the pot.

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: e.g., if someone announces primero and you have chorus, you can bid primero.

p. 208: Cardano notes the circumstances under which one customarily draws additional cards. One of these circumstances has to do with having fewer points than the bid. This implies that the players routinely state their point totals (or at least what they claim to be their point totals). It also implies that if someone claims a certain hand, they have at least that amount (which ties in with the “no overstating” rule).

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.

p. 212: Cardano discusses cheating, and notes that it is forbidden to draw from the discards. If the discards are face down, there is no advantage to drawing from the discards, so this suggests the discards are face up.

p. 213 (Cardano spends a few pages discussing cheating): This is the origin of the bet-or-draw rule. Cardano's exact statement is:

“If no one bets, they are compelled to exchange one or two cards according to their judgment”
Strictly speaking, this sounds like you can only draw if everyone passes (other redactions have this rule). It seems to make more sense that if you don't get, you are compelled to change cards: that is, the passing rule as written. It's not clear from the description how many times you can pass; some versions have limits. Check with the other players before assuming!

p. 213 discusses the “all in” rule (Justin pointed this rule out). Cardano's description specifically notes the other players can continue to play and compete for the remainder “as if they were playing alone among themselves.” This suggests that the bidding does not end. However, this may cause problems: if a player goes “all in” because they have a good hand and they think they can win it, then allowing future bids might render their hand worthless.

p. 213 discusses the forced stake. Cardano never mentions the possibility of folding; it might exist, but note that a player can choose to stay in the game without having to add money to the pot, so there seems to be no reason to fold. Cardano specifically mentions the possibility of betting, but not the possibility of bidding; I've included it as an option to give the player forced to cover some compensation for having to bet when their inclination is to pass or fold.

p. 213 also discusses the necessity of showing cards, and is where I derive the “show your cards” rule. The exact quote is: If he professes to have primero, and his fellow-player refuses to increase the deposit, he is compelled to show primero. Cardano also gives as an example winning with a greater point (numerus) and proving you don't have fluxus. One interpretation is that you must show that you have the bid hand type. In poker rules, this makes sense: If you bet, and everyone else folds, you win by default. On the other hand, it seems clear that you can stay in the game without having to bet, so it would seem that you'd have to show your cards anyway.

Some things that are my invention:


Cardano's discussion suggests certain variants. In no particular order:


Of course, as a mathematician, I'm inclined to quote a random draw of four cards from a primero deck: You might wonder why the supremus, which is less likely than the fluxus, ranks below the fluxus. The answer should be fairly obvious, given the primero rules: All hands except the supremus could be destroyed by a bad draw (for primero, chorus, and fluxus, obviously; remember that if you have a numerus, you must have at least one card of a different suit); the supremus is immune.

A non-betting Variant

Since “money is just a way to keep score” I'll present a non-gambling version. Instead of making a bet, simply name hand type and point total; players may revie as indicated, and folding is not permitted. At the end of each hand, the player who wins the round receives 100 points for each player with the designated hand type plus their own point total. Every player with the designated hand type receives their point total. Players without the designated hand type receive nothing.

For example let's say the bid is primero and you are the winning player with a primero 75; say there are two other players with primero. You would receive 375 points (3 primeros at 100 apiece, plus your own 75 points); the other primero players would receive whatever their point totals are; the remaining players (who did not have a primero) would receive nothing.

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