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  • Writer's pictureCarol Harris and Mike Brown

Beggar My Neighbour

Here’s an excerpt from the book Great Expectations written by Charles Dickens, in 1860-61. In it Pip, a young blacksmith’s apprentice, is sent to the local ‘Big House’ owned by Miss Havisham, to play with her ward, Estella:

"What do you play, boy?" asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.

"Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss."

"Beggar him," said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards.

Perhaps you can work out what ‘Beggar my Neighbour’ is?

1 "What do you play, boy?" – ‘play’ suggests a game or a musical instrument.

2 ‘So we sat down to cards’ - add this fact and we get a card game.

With no TVs, computers, radios, etc., children in the past would often play simple games to pass the time. Card games were very popular, as they required little in the way of special equipment.

‘Beggar my neighbour’, or ‘Beat your neighbour’ is an old card game, dating from the 1840s or possibly earlier. It is very easy to play so even young children can join in.


A pack of playing cards (for this game, it doesn’t matter if there are one or two missing!)


Two or more players can take part.


1) Deal all the cards, face down, among the players.


2) Starting with the player to the right of the dealer, each player turns over their top card, laying them in a single pile in the middle of the table. Go round the players until

3) If a Jack is laid, the next player has to lay their next card on top of it. If that card is also a picture (Jack, Queen, or King), the game continues. If it is not a picture card, the player who laid the Jack wins the whole pile, which they add to the bottom of their pile.

4) If a Queen is laid, the following player has to lay two cards, one after the other. If they do not, the pile is taken by the player laying the Queen.

5) If a King is laid, the next player must put down three cards. If they do not, the pile is taken by the player laying the King.

6) A picture card laid down as part of a series interrupts that series.

EXAMPLE with THREE players:

PLAYER ONE lays a King, so

PLAYER TWO has to lay three cards, which turn out to be a 7, followed by a Queen. This means there is no need to lay a third card, as the Queen means that play passes to

PLAYER THREE, who now has to lay two cards to follow the Queen. The first they lay is a Jack, so play passes on to the next player, PLAYER ONE, who lays a 9.

So PLAYER THREE picks up the pile.

7) Play starts again with the next player and continues until a player is ‘beggared’, in other words, runs out of cards and is out of the game. Play continues until only one player – the winner – is left.

8) Sometimes a variation is played in which an Ace requires four cards to be laid.

REMEMBER – you must NEVER look at the cards in your hand, and any cards you win must be put at the bottom of your pile, so no-one knows what card is coming next.


Playing Cards are believed to have originated in China, in the 9th century, from where they spread to India and Persia, and then to Egypt. Merchants brought them to Europe through Italy and Spain in the 1300s.

English Malmuk playing cards, 1500s

Left to right: 6 of coins, 10 of polo sticks, 3 of cups (called 'myriads' ), and 7 of swords.

The pack of playing cards we use today is divided into four suits: hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. Each suit has 13 cards, including three picture cards: jack, queen, and king. This has its origins in the mamluk pack, like the example above. Mamluk cards patterns spread from the Islamic world to Europe via via Italy and Spain. You can read about the history of cards, and do some puzzles here:

British Library manuscript, date 1352-1362. This is the earliest known depiction of card play.

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