All in the Cards
Rebekah Curtis

Card games are a regional phenomenon. In the Chicago exurbs where I grew up, the game was Euchre. My mom, only as far removed as Rockford, is a four-point Pitch player. Great-grandma from Wisconsin was committed to Canasta; old timey people in English drawing rooms played Whist; Lutherans still conflate region with religion and play Schafskopf. Children, another non-geographical region, play War. I had to learn ten-point Pitch to marry a Nebraskan. Southern Illinois, where I now live, is Pinochle territory.

My neighbors tutor me in Pinochle with the same forbearance they show as I try to remember how they are all related to each other. Our town is small and, like Jerusalem, quartered by religious identity. We and our church inhabit what the rest of the town calls the “Dutch” side (apparently Dutch is Scotch-Irish for German). The names here have been the same for most of a century: Blotevogel, Emrich, Behme, Schien. The branches of the parish tree expand and contract with the marriages. An outsider is never past being dumbfounded to learn that Carrie and Harold are cousins, but the Klenke/Schreiber alliance is due solely to ancient friendship.

Pinochle is the natural game of this people. The play is not terribly complex, but there is a lot to remember. There are two scoring systems, meld and power. Power is, essentially, War. Higher cards win the tricks. But meld precedes power. Before any cards are played, they are all scored. Different sequences and combinations (melds) of cards get points. The jack of diamonds and the queen of spades together earn the holder a Pinochle. The nine of trumps wins an unlikely pittance. In Pinochle, a card doesn’t have to be a trick-taker to have value.

The cards, like the players, are a community living within the prosperity or lack its membership allows. They may ally themselves with each other, or merely get by through vacancies. They marry, become business partners, barter, or they cannot. But when one does not meld, she has her place in the power. When one is not powerful, he may meld to complete a sequence or alliance. From one generation, one hand to the next, there is no question of value. Everybody did something. We wish we’d had the queen. We wish Bonnie hadn’t gone. We’re still shaking our heads over the Daube boys and the Schien girls pulling that live action double pinochle.

We had to learn to play cards somewhere. It was probably at War. War is a child’s necessary introduction to card playing. Each card is nothing more than its rank. The Joker doesn’t even act like himself, diverting the players by subverting their play. He just steps into the order and goes through the drills. The only interesting thing that happens is a war, in which two cards . . . but we know, and it’s boring, and whoever has the Joker wins the game, and then you can say you’ve done right by your five-year-old today.

We all stop playing War because there are better games.

Ten-point Pitch is a game of personalities. The cards are members of a family, or a group of friends. Tricks are taken by traditional order, but players must be careful. The ace is high, and worth one point. The king and queen are next highs, but worth nothing. Then comes a rank of dangerous blokes: jacks, jokers, and the ten, each worth one but decreasingly reliable in terms of self-protection. The two is worth a point, can take nothing, and also cannot be taken in a trick. Most troublesome is the three, hopelessly vulnerable, but worth three points. High, Low, Jack, Jick, Joker, Joker, Ten, Three: ten points.

Who is greatest in the kingdom of Pitch? There sits the mighty ace, the paterfamilias, grumping at our attacks upon the fine gin his lifetime of work has provided. The two affords the holder certain protections: the aunt too skittery to bid the potential of her hand, but who never goes set. Or is it better to have a handful of middlers? The weisenheimer nephew, wearing a Data-style visor; the dad still hassling middle-aged sisters? No less can we cherish the helpless, expensive three: the toddler who keeps her mother from play altogether, and whose tiny person is the promise that Pitch will go on, world without end.

War cannot account for families, friends, or communities, with their inscrutable applications of personal diversity to historical fact. In War there is only power, and every warrior feels in his heart that he is the rightful Joker. He must resent those who rank above him, because there is no value but rank. She must become President. He must call his pastor Brad. War-players rage for recognition and opportunity while scheming to pay less for daycare and trash pickup.

War is the simplest game, so we could salute its players for being economical. But there is a difference between being simple and being simplistic. To be fair, those seeking status in life’s daily war would probably maintain that their game is terribly complex. The acquisition of recognition, wealth, or influence requires endless marching and tiresome horse trading. The machinations of the ambitious are beyond the dull imaginations of housewives and townies.

But War cannot know what a game other than itself might offer a lowly two or an awkward ten, to say nothing of a warm king or a circumspect queen. In the tight game of martial conquest, expedience must determine what is economical. It has no use for the slower, deeper game of being ecumenical. Values outside of bald rank are more easily disfigured than figured out.

War cannot countenance the ways aptitude, genius, virtue, and confounding love interact with chance and circumstance in each generation. It does not have time to learn of complications like bauers and trumps. It cannot afford to shoot the moon or declare out. War-players are too busy being angry that someone sat out the game to make nachos for the family she loves; too offended that the queen is lower than the king and that no one likes clubs. They are too sick of always doing all the work around here to keep track of bids, points, and where the box got to, so that we can all be happy together.

If we lived at war, we’d be home by now. But while nations rage, we live in realer places: families, communities, regions of geography or affinity. We play the hands we are dealt. We meld and see who comes of it. We convince Grandma to let us deal her in this game. We watch this round so someone else can have a turn. We let the outsider keep her cheat sheet.

We only play War until the kids are big enough to learn what we play here.




Rebekah Curtis’s writing has appeared in print magazines including Lutheran Forum, Modern Reformation, Touchstone, and Salvo, and online at First Things, Babble, and The Imaginative Conservative.

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