Playing cards may be the best game object ever invented. They are easy to carry, common around the world, and enjoyable by all ages and skill levels. 

Playing card games with your kids is not only a fun way to connect, it also helps develop key academic and social skills. Familiarity with cards gives kids a lifelong tool for making friends wherever they go.

If it’s been a few years since you played, brush up on a few popular games. Read on to learn about the Old Maid card game.

History of the Old Maid Card Game

Old maid is a shedding game, probably originating in drinking establishments to determine who’s buying the next round. Like many card games, old maid moved on from such grown-up origins and made its way to children’s circles in the nineteenth century. 

“Old maid” is an old-fashioned, and frankly kind-of insulting, title for an unmarried woman of advancing years. Back in the day this might mean as old as thirty! The name predates the game, but the game also predates its association with that name, with versions played across Europe under various titles. 

Amusingly, one old maid card game from the late nineteenth century was called “Up To Date.” This deck featured an “old maid” in bloomers riding a bicycle. The implication was that such scandalously unladylike behavior would certainly ward off suitors and ensure one wound up an old maid. To truly bring the game up to date, modern families may eventually want to have a chat about stereotypes and outdated expectations, but in the meantime, see the section below on variations for ways to sidestep the issue.

How to Play the Standard Old Maid Card Game

The basic rules are simple enough. If playing with a standard deck, remove one of the queens. If playing with an old maid specialty deck, you can skip this step. The dealer (who can also be a player) shuffles and deals the entire deck. Chances are players may not have perfectly even hands, but that’s fine. 

Players examine their hands for pairs. Any pairs they find are set down. Players can only set down pairs, no sets of three. 

Play begins left of the dealer and goes clockwise. The player to the dealer’s left takes one card, face down, from the dealer’s hand. If the card matches one in the player’s hand, the pair gets set down right away. 

Play goes around the circle until only one card is left unmatched. The player left holding the unmatchable queen loses.

Variations on the Old Maid Card Game

European variants that predate old maid include Germany’s Black Peter and France’s Vieux Garçon (Old Boy). In these games one or three jacks are removed, typically leaving a jack of spades as the odd one out. 

For extra challenge, you can play with the additional rule that all pairs must match not just face value but also color. To add greater suspense to the game, a popular variant is to remove a card at random, leaving it unknown until the very end what card will be unmatchable.

Standard or Variant, Play Old Maid Today

A classic of children’s card games, old maid is easy to pick up and fun to play. And if you want a family-friendly way to incorporate its historical context, you could always play for “loser does the dishes” stakes.