Sunday, March 7, 2010

if you play your cards right

There are, in life the world over, the right sort of people and the wrong sort of people. You can tell the difference because the right sort play cards. They're also likely to love Taboo and have good grammar, but that's beside the point for now.

I grew up in a family where learning to shuffle was a seven-year-old rite of passage (forever indebted to Aunt Heidi), and I could beat my grandmother by the time I was eight. Not that that was particularly saying much (she tended to get rather discombobulated rather often), but I did manage to beat Aunt Ruthie by the time I was twelve, which was. She wasn't the sort who believed in letting kids win just to keep them happy.

Canasta was our game of choice, and I soon developed a nasty reputation as a "dirty" player in the line of the legendary Judy "101-ways-to-cheat-at-canasta" Franchak, though I insist I never cheat if I can help it. You show me your cards, though, what am I supposed to do? Blink?

I learned quickly to hold my cards close, literally and metaphorically, and not to ask my mother why she hadn't laid down those three kings yet. Before long my reputation had expanded to a hold-everything-till-the-last-minute-and-keep-em-guessing-possibly-to-the-extent-of-pulling-a-concealed-hand type. Eventually my aunts decided we should branch out into pinochle.

Pinochle was possibly even more fun than canasta (after a decade it was time for a change), and left me not only better equipped to deal (pun intended) with euchre later on, but also taught deep spiritual truths, the most common one of which was to "rise like Lazarus." Everyone "rose like Lazarus," but particularly Aunt Ruthie and whoever her partner happened to be. Preferably me.

In case you're unfamiliar with the history of Lazarus, he died (overdose of late night pinochle I heard) and was risen from the dead several days later by Jesus, just like a card player who is in the negatives is expected to, though generally divine intervention was not provided. And so, you see, we learned our Bible, too. (Aunt Ruthie was also a pastor. A pastor, who, incidentally, thought it would be highly amusing to name her daughter Naomi. And so she did.)

By the time I made it to high school, I knew how to seize the moment when cards were involved and spent the better part of my lunch periods playing endless games of euchre, almost all of which I distinctly remember winning. The gang I played with were the nerds and real masters -- not only of euchre, but also of carving out time and places to play. In class, out of class, in lunch, at graduation, it didn't matter. A handful of us showed up at our five year reunion and, upon realizing we had still not become cool, immediately whipped out our safety net of Bicycles.

(Sorry, guys, if you see this. I'm sure you're both infinitely cool by now. I, unfortunately, am not.)

Real card players are, I am happy to report, the same the world over. I knew euchre and it's big sister 500 were popular in Australia (see the sexy shuffling at Thanksgiving) and I'd naturally seized every opportunity to play.

This weekend I was having a bit of a moment when somehow, I can't possibly imagine how, the subject turned to cards. There is, I find, hardly anything more appropriately distracting than a good game of cards. Of course, it's even better if it's the competition being distracted, but that's beside the point for now, too.

"So do you want to play?" I asked my friend Adam.

"Sure," he said.

"Now?" I asked.

"We've got time to get one in before the evening session starts, don't you think?"

And that was when I knew I'd found a true card shark: one who lets nothing, not even evening worship services on a church retreat, get in the way of a good hand or two of 500.

"Great!" I squealed. "That means we only need to find two more! Cards, anyone?"

Unfortunately we were surrounded by Christians clearly unfamiliar with the deeper meaning of Lazarus, but Adam knew of another sure to be in (and sure enough, when we found Laurie he was nonchalantly holding his own deck when we ran up, breathless, and desperate to play) and we managed to find one more true shark as well.

"Do you want to play cards?" I asked Sarah.

"Sure!" she said.

"Now?" I asked.

"Yeah!" she said, and I knew I'd found a kindred spirit.

And we four all skipped merrily along.

Now it is inevitably the destiny of card sharks to be hustled away from their comfy, out of the way table the moment they've dealt and realized they have one of their best hands ever. No sooner had I spotted two Jacks had the kitchen staffer come along and shooed us out. Thankfully card sharks are also resourceful sorts. We soon found a new, slightly more obtrusive, but comfy spot to redeal. No sooner had we lost two hands did they start to pray in the next room. We looked guiltily at each other, then quickly bowed our heads. The singing started and we again looked guiltily at each other, cocking eyebrows as we showed our true colors and silently decided to finish the hand. There are, after all, priorities in life.

We skulked into the back row and, I am proud to say, did not once during the songs or sharing so much as shuffle. Immediately afterwards though I turned to Laurie. (In my experience, the people who actually own the cards that pop out of nowhere are the most likely to be the truest sharks.)

"So, we're still playing, right?"

The game lasted till 2.

Oh, and I won everything in the second go-round, except the very last game of Go Fish.

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