The History of Pinochle

Card Games – a Traditional Pastime for Centuries

Whereas playboards, tokens, and dice were known in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, playing cards made of paper or cardboard are more recent. Their first accounts point to 12th century China and Japan. Via India, the Persian Empire, and the Arab world, playing cards eventually came to Europe.

Codes of law are the first evidence for their occurrence in Europe: In 1377, card games were officially banned in Florence! But neither authoritative bans nor condemnation by the Christian church had much effect.

The constant improvement of printing technology gave ordinary people access to formerly expensive playing cards. This led to the victory of the joy of playing cards in Europe. Of course, tax authorities demanded their share: Already in 1583 in France, a tax was imposed on playing cards.

Pinochle, as it is known in Germany, probably has its roots in France, too. Nowadays, this game is enjoying a revival with old school card game groups as well as with young people. We think there is a good reason for it: Online platforms such as the Pinochle Palace enable joining a game of Pinochle at any time, without having to be at the same physical table!

What does Pinochle Mean?

In Germany, Pinochle is known as Binokel, in some places, even Binocle. In Swabian, a southern German dialect, it is called Benogl or Benoggel, as well.

The origin of these names is speculative. It seems reasonable that the Italian phrase bin oculi, meaning two eyes, was modified here. This would refer to the two decks of cards being used in Pinochle, where each card exists twice.

Another potential derivation is the French term binocle, referring to glasses with two lenses as opposed to the monocle in the 19th century. A hint to the two card decks in Pinochle could be assumed here as well.

Two Decks of Cards in Württemberg Pattern

German Pinochle is usually played with 40 cards, wherein each card exists twice. Accordingly, five different ranks are presented in the four traditional suits: Ace, Ten, King, Ober, and Unter.

Traditionally, the Württemberg pattern is used. This is a regionally distinct version of the German pattern. Card game fans can easily spot the Kings‘ peculiar design: It is heavily influenced by the French pattern and equips the Kings with the typical attributes, such as scepter and royal orb or harp.

Colloquially, especially in southern Germany, the pattern is referred to as Pinochle pattern or Gaigel Pattern.

Pinochle: A Classic Among Trick-Taking Games

Pinochle is part of the trick-taking family. These games follow the same basic principle: A player plays a card. The other players must each play a card to the trick. Whoever played the highest card wins the trick and receives the cards and their respective pip value as points.

The cards‘ values, the rules for playing cards to the trick, and the scoring vary for each trick-taking game. This diversity in rules is the appeal of classic card games: One single deck or two decks offer nearly infinite options for playing!

Pinochle’s kinship with well-known trick-taking games such as Skat, Doppelkopf, and Sheepshead makes getting started easy: Once you get the basic principle, you will easily pick up on Pinochle and can appreciate its particular charm!

French Ancestors: Cinq Cents and Bezique

The kinship with other trick-taking games suggests that Pinochle was no absolute invention: As all commonly known, modern card games it is derived from older ones. Players eager to try out new things modified these old games again and again.

Sadly, we cannot reliably determine the exact time and place of modern Pinochle’s origin. The rules modified over time were not printed and marked with a timestamp after all!

Historical sources indicate the development of Pinochle in the Württemberg area. French card games such as Cinq-Cents and Bezique probably were the foundation.

Cinq Cents is also known as Single Bezique and is considered Bezique’s predecessor. Bezique is a two-player game with one deck. Around 1860 it was highly popular, especially in France and Great Britain. Later on, even Winston Churchill was an outspoken fan of the card game! Bezique’s rules feature melds, a trait now distinguishing Pinochle from other trick-taking games, e.g., Skat or Doppelkopf. Melds are particular combinations of cards that award additional points to the score gained by trick-taking. Some examples are four Aces, four Kings, or four other cards of the same rank. Furthermore, there are pairs of a King and a Queen as well as the Bezique made up of the Queen of Spades and the Jack of Diamonds.

Related Games in Between North Sea and Mediterranean Sea

Bezique did not only inspire Pinochle but numerous similar trick-taking games, rewarding particular combinations of cards with additional points.

To name a few games, there are Sixty-Six and Schnapsen, both of which predominantly occur in Bavaria and the region of historical Austria-Hungary. Another example is Jass, Switzerland’s national game. It is also well known in the Alemannic German-speaking regions of Europe – from Alsace via southwestern Germany (Baden Württemberg) and Liechtenstein to western Austria (Vorarlberg) and northeastern Italy (South Tyrol).

However, the Netherlands, as well as Altes Land – a marshland area between lower Saxony and Hamburg – know the variation Klaberjass.

American Relatives

At the Pinochle Palace, you initially get to play Pinochle as it is known in Germany. How come German Pinochle is different from American Pinochle?

With emigrants and travelers leaving Europe westward, Pinochle most likely emigrated to the United States as well. Popular with Jewish and Irish immigrants, it was soon established as Pinochle or Pinocle. It is a game for two to four players, two decks of cards and rules slightly different from those of German Pinochle. The basic principle of bidding, melding, and trick-taking is clearly applied in American Pinochle, as well. Use our custom rules at the Pinochle Palace to set up a table the American way!

Some playbooks support the theory of American Pinochle having developed directly from Bezique and only afterward being brought back to Europe as Binokel.

Enough With Mere Theory. Do you Feel Like Playing?

As exciting as disputing authorship might be to cultural historians, it does not change anything for the card game lover. What matters is always finding enough motivated fellow Pinochle players to open the next round!

And this is especially easy at the Pinochle Palace: No matter if you are using the browser or app, a table of Pinochle can always be found. Do not hesitate and get the kitty!