On card games


I GREW UP IN a house of cards. As a child, I lay in bed fighting slumber to the sounds of aunts and uncles giggling and hooting with my parents around a table of clinking coppers and tea cups: the shrieks and shuffles that made their muffled way into my bedroom were intimations of an alien, adult world. These games were for grown-ups only, games in name but much more complicated than chasing or 40-40. That their card playing could keep them awake so late and generate such conviviality was something I found hard to fathom. There were only so many rounds of “crazy eights” that I could imagine playing.

But I did understand that there was something magical in these decks of coal black and blood red, the mysterious spades and menacing clubs, the shape-shifting aces, lonely jacks and haughty royals with beards twirled and heads veiled. It felt like I always knew how to play cards, though it took years before I could shuffle like my dad, whose ease with the rap, tack and slide of rearranging cards inspired me to hours of practised imitation.

My card sharkery back then plateaued at seven-card rummy. Snap was banned because its aggressive hand slappery always ended in the predicted tears. I played with my older sister, and she beat me every time at everything except Beggar My Neighbour, the only game with an outcome solely dependent on the luck of the draw. But these games never kept us up at night, not even when we spread all the cards face down across the patterned carpet and tried to turn them over in pairs. Cards were stubborn, distracting and sometimes entertaining, but never laugh-out-loud fun.

Yet while Ludo gave way to Cluedo and Monopoly was trumped by Game of Life as we grew up, cards remained a constant, and made an appearance at every family holiday. They were less an evening’s entertainment than a chance to release our familial neuroses and frustration in a controlled environment. A score-keeping nine-card rummy became the default, and my parents exhibited such different approaches to the game it became a wonder they had ever bound their lives together.

My mother is a player who gets her kicks from keeping the game going as long as possible (an approach also notable in her insistent “open-up- the-board” policy regarding Scrabble). My father plays to win and catch the rest of us out, a strategy that could draw steam from my mother’s ears and put her in a steady blue funk from which she would only emerge if said strategy backfired and he lost.

When aunts and uncles came round for poker, her umbrage would quickly extend to anyone who tried to buy the pot or who failed to temper their desire to win with due consideration for the other players. She held a special place in her heart for my father’s Aunty Síle, who would unintentionally reveal her hand within the first five minutes, and then make all efforts to ensure my father won, given that it seemed so important to him.

As I grew up and out of home, the cards came with me. There was always a pack kept somewhere near my passport, and various paramours would be put through their paces over hands dealt in airports, on trains, by pools and on beaches. Cards were weighed down with rocks and rained on, but the game always continued. Somebody always won and somebody had to lose.

The whirr of shuffling cards, so long part of my life’s soundtrack, was joined by the chink of chips when I finally stepped into the grown-up world of poker. The secret language, the careful rituals, the chance and bluff and check and bet: poker was a game where lies could win and losses spread out beyond the table top, and as such it was an insight into a very adult world.

It was also a game where women weren’t always welcome. If I had a chip for every time someone has organised a poker game in my very presence, only to exclude me because of my gender, I’d be lighting my cigars with fifties by now. “But this is a serious game,” I would be told. “We play for money.” Really? Poker for money? Oh in that case, I’ll stick with the sewing circle. Grrrr.

It’s one thing if the card game is just the bluff for an evening of male-only company, but it’s a whole other deal when the men in question are making an assumption that women don’t, or worse, can’t play. Often, the only way to call their bluff is to see their poker circle and raise them one of your own. That way you don’t even have to play their game.

Last Sunday, my husband and I were at my parents’ house for dinner. Once dessert was cleared, out came the deck for a game of 110. My mother, a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and her hand all over her face, was gleefully in the lead for much of the game, until my dad, like an agent provocateur planted in an anarchist cell, mobilised the rest of us to take her down. The kettle went on, the stakes were raised, my mother kept adding rules she’d forgot to mention at the outset, and there were giggles and hoots as we all conspired to beat her at her own game.

“Wasn’t that great fun,” she beamed around the table, as my head-shaking father tried in vain to point out to his wife she had ended with the lowest score.

I grew up in a house of cards. Which I sometimes suspect is the very reason it’s still standing.