Monday, 9 March 2009

Playing Your Cards Right

My youngest daughter doesn't suffer fools well. This makes it especially hard for her whenever we all play cards together. Other people might play cards solely for diversion, but with us, it's a real learning process. And it's great for character building.

Only this past year, I finally learned the difference between clubs and spades. I learned this when my family taught me a card game that has taken me ages to acquire: hearts.

If you know anything about cards, you'll know that hearts isn't an especially hard game to learn, but I'm as card challenged as Youngest Daughter is short tempered. Suffice it to say, it's been tough going for all of us.

One of the reasons I never learned to play cards was because my mother's family were an old-fashioned bunch who believed that card playing was right up there with drinking and provocative dressing: a major sin. Once you started playing cards, they seemed to feel, one thing led to another until one day you found you'd gambled away the farm and the kids' lunch money.

Paradoxically, if it weren't for a card game, I wouldn't be here. My father served in the U.S. Navy in WWII and although he wasn't much of a card player himself, one night when he was off-duty, some buddies invited him to a poker game. He begged off, but they wouldn't take no for an answer: they needed another hand. An hour later, as they sat playing cards, the ship was torpedoed. Over half of the men on board died; the side of the ship where my father bunked was blown to smithereens and there were few survivors.

But although I owe my existence to a game of poker, I never learned to play. My mother's mistrust of card-playing and her own utter lack of card-playing skill meant that we kids never really learned to play ourselves. For a long time, I used the excuse that my lack of card know-how was down to my weird family background, but I've come to see that this isn't true. I can't play cards because I just don't have the smarts for it. But I have come to see that cards are a great way to learn about the strengths and foibles of others. And whatever my mother's family might have thought about card-playing, it is an excellent means of character building.

My husband is an accomplished card player. Everybody in his family plays cards and he learned over a dozen games as a little boy at his grandmother's knee. His granny was a feisty old lady who evened out my husband's and my gene pool: she liked to smoke, drink, and gamble. Her method of teaching was to cheat until her pupil was sharp enough to figure out what she was doing. The minute he knew she was cheating, she knew her work was done.

Our Acquired Daughter is a fine card player herself. I marvel at her acumen. She can remember who has run out of diamonds; like my husband, she instantly knows that if someone bid a low spade early on, they probably don't have anything higher. Every time we play, either my husband or Acquired Daughter wins: our two biological daughters are somewhere between my husband and me in skill, but far closer to my husband's end. Every single time we play, I drive one of them half wild.

"Mom, it's your turn," Youngest will prod irritably, and I finally plonk down my card after an agony of deliberation.

"It's spades!" Eldest will shriek. "You can't play a club unless you've run out of spades!"

"Oh, sorry! I thought that was a spade." (I've only just learned the difference, after all.)

"Come on!" the two shriek in unison.

Half the time, I miss clues as subtle as a toilet seat. I unwittingly allow my husband or Acquired Daughter to shoot the moon, thus ruining things for not just me, but my other two daughters.

"Just pay attention!" Eldest will moan, slapping her forehead. Youngest, upon witnessing yet another instance of my card idiocy, will sometimes stomp off after an embittered declaration that no one could possibly be so stupid: I must be doing it on purpose.

But the awful truth is that I'm trying as hard as I possibly can.

"I don't want to play anymore," Youngest hissed through clenched teeth the very last time we played. I'd hung on to my ace of hearts too long, thus allowing her father to shoot the moon and ruining her all-too-rare near-perfect score. "If you can't--" (long, ragged breath out) "--just--" (deep, shuddering breath in) "--remember when to play your high cards!" And off she stomped in a fit of pique.

But nevertheless, I think cards are a great learning tool. Youngest Daughter got through the game with only that one little outburst. I got through her outburst without crying or whacking her.

Like I said, card playing is great for character building.


Christy said...

I suspect the reason that you aren't good at cards is that you're just too nice. Most card games are cutthroat and require a fair amount of shrewd behavior best learned young. Unsurprisingly, I'm a very good card player. Hone your competitive spirit, Mary!

debra said...

Years ago I worked in a youth program. Card playing was a daily activity, and spades was the game of choice. I, like you, was not, shall we say, the best player. Or I was when I remembered the rules. Then when I'd win, which I did sometimes, I didn't have a clue how I did it. Made for many rolling eyes and sighs...

Tabitha said...

Card playing requires a strategical mind as well as memory (so you will always know who's run out of diamonds). You also need to be able to weigh the risk behind each card you play. AND, you need to hide what you have by not displaying emotion. It's no easy thing to play cards well...and I agree with Christy. Nice people don't generally do well.

I think you've hit the nail square on the head when you said cards are a great learning tool. They're also a great way to find out what kind of people you're playing with. :)

Robin said...

We have a similar situation with chess around here, but I'm sure I'd be just as crappy at cards. There must be a specific game playing part of your brain. I'm sure missing it, too.

Don't you get points for trying?

Carole said...

I love card playing. Like you, cards were not allowed in my home. Agents of the devil you know. But after I got married to a service man I learned how to play military pinochle (double deck and you must make twenty in the play to keep any points). A divorce and several years later, I found out this was child's play to John's family. They played a game called Sheepshead (an old german game where half the card are trump and the black queens are partners). Good stuff.

Carolie said...

Good for you. I'd've been whacking away. Heh.

Bish Denham said...

My sister and I played ALOT of cards when we were kids, starting with games like Old Maid, Go Fish, War, graduating to Rummy, Gin Rummy, Canasta, Spades, and Hearts.

Despite the experience, I'm not all that good. We played more for the enjoyment, something to do to pass time (because we had to electricity or TV.) My ever patient sister would often let me win.

Kim Ayres said...

Love card games. Tend to be good at them too. Fortunately I learned at a young age not to gamble more than I could afford to lose

Lily Cate said...

Well, penny ante poker is big here, on both sides of the family. Only, these days we've moved up to a nickel... inflation and all.
When I was a baby, my dad's siblings (and there are a lot) used to get together at someone's house, everyone brought their change jar and a playpen, and once all of us tiny cousins fell asleep, they had a nice evening without having to hire a babysitter. Ingenious, really.

So, I'm not bad at poker.
But I can't score a tennis game, no matter how easy everyone says it is. It's my kryptonite

Charles Gramlich said...

I am not a good card player either. Part of the reason is that I just don't find games dominated primarily by chance to be much fun.

Maybe it's my bad luck.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- I would be ruthless, believe me -- I just don't have the skill. I'm convinced that a good card player needs more than the sheer desire to win: they require a certain skill at keeping track of details. My own lack of this is just phenomenal.

Debra -- I never remember the rules, and when I manage to learn them, I'm very apt to forget them when I play. Like you, I sometimes win for no reason, and when that happens I feel so bewildered and frustrated. I want to think I had something to do with it, but I know that's not the case.

Tabitha -- I absolutely do NOT have a strategical mind and my husband and foster daughter do. I marvel at the things they remember and how, time after time, they manage to wipe the floor with the rest of us. While I would LOVE to think that I'm a card dunce because I'm so naturally sweet, in my heart of hearts I know that this just isn't so. (And I'd have to come clean on that anyway: my kids have sometimes been known to read this blog...)

Robin -- We all learned chess when we were kids, and I do a little better at that than at cards. But I'm still not very good: it's that pesky strategic thinking problem again! Nice to know I'm not the only one...

Carole -- Listen to you: you can speak the lingo and obviously know your way around a deck of cards! I should have tried harder way back when I first had the chance. Now it's probably too late, but in the interest of family togetherness (and strengthening my daughters' fool-suffering skills) I will gamely plug on.

Carolie -- Believe me, she has no idea how close she came. I reckon I've put layers of tough covering on my character, what with parenting adolescents and card-playing.

Bish -- When we first started playing, my husband had an awful time getting our girls to accept that you could not let the other guy win. I feel like your sister, though: being ruthless is a learned skill... We learned Go Fish, War, and Old Maid from the neighbor kids, but my husband snorted when I told him this: he claims they don't qualify as real card games. I couldn't play Rummy or Canasta if you put a gun to my head, but they sound like fun.

What an interesting childhood you must have had, growing up without TV or electricity! It can't always have been easy, but I'll bet you have some wonderful stories.

Kim -- I should have known a philosopher would be capable of strategical thinking!

There are people who know intellectually that they should not gamble, but cannot help themselves. My mother had a few uncles who really did gamble away the rent and grocery money; that's probably what made card-playing such a no-no in our family.

Lily -- I love the kind of evenings you describe. So much better than everyone sitting around gaping at a TV screen, and you kids were learning all sorts of socializing that way too. And I'm envious of your skill at poker. I'd love to be the type who could sit there, not a flicker of emotion on my face, playing a crafty game of poker.

And tennis? Forget it! Just as the powers that be neglected to give me any strategic thinking skills, they also skimped on the hand-eye coordination.

Charles -- At first, I felt the same way. But watching my husband and foster daughter win time after time, I finally saw that it wasn't luck, it was skill. They just have the knack and I don't -- at hearts, anyway. Maybe there's a card game out there I might excel at, who knows?

Angela said...

I love playing cards. It's one of my best memories with my mother growing up. :-)

Charlie said...

Something must be wrong with Blogger updating new posts; this one just showed up a few minutes ago.

But ignoring my personal problems for now, I loved your descriptions of family reactions--I could see them in my mind.

Talk about getting kicked when you're down . . .

C.R. Evers said...

oh wow! That's an amazing story about your dad. Wow!


laura said...

Well, I hate to say it but Hearts was the beginning of the end of my marriage! I kid you not! One day I made the mistake of telling my husband that we should invite my 'poor girlfriend who had left her idiot husband' to bring her kids to our house and play cards with us. Well, she eventually decided to play more than Hearts with my husband and one night while the cards were flying, I got to watch (they had no idea I could see this!) a very intimate game of footsies being played under the table. My marriage of 17 years ended after that but I wish I could tell them that they did me the biggest favor in the world because seven years later I met Hans. And the rest is history!

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- That is sweet, and I just hope that some day my kids will say that. But (sniff) I'd better not hold my breath. Every time they see a pack of cards, they'll remember me with wholehearted exasperation.

Charlie -- Watching me muddle my way through a game of cards drives my kids to the brink every single time. But think how prepared they will be for all the idiots they are bound to meet in life! If I'd never allowed myself to be so humbled and vulnerable over cards, they'd have missed out on many valuable lessons.

Christy E -- That was the only story about the war that my father was prepared to tell us, but I heard it many times.

Laura -- If I were you, I would write that up as a short story and turn it into an even greater advantage for myself. What a sad (initially) story, but how glad I am that the ending was happy for you. Hope it wasn't so happy for your husband and so-called friend. What jerks they were! Even if I happened to think my friend's husband was the hottest thing in the world, I can't imagine pulling a stunt like that.

Barbara Martin said...

In my growing up years, my family all played different kinds of card games, especially hearts and whist.

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- Everyone, it seems, learned how to play these fairly complex card games. My husband's family mastered bridge, cribbage, whist -- all sorts of card games I've never even heard of. Sometimes I feel like we were socially and developmentally deprived.