The English language is indebted to card-playing. We have extracted an overwhelming number of terms from this noble pastime. From phrases like “follow suit” and “luck of the draw,” to simple, everyday words like “trump” and “ace,” cards saturate how I speak. It is an understandable influence, after all, a wide range of human experience exists in card-playing. Victory, loss, cunning, and bravery are all present in the game.
Card-playing runs in my family. Not a holiday visit passes without the familiar rip of a shuffling deck, or the soft, sleek sound of cards sliding across the table. The summons “let’s play some cards,” is enough to stir all to action. We pull out the deck, clear the table, and take our seats to play what is implicitly understood to be a game of Norwegian Whist, a game passed down by Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest. I sneer with calm resolve as I utter trash talk that would offend anyone else but my family. The table descends into joyful ritual as the dealer picks up the deck and begins to portion out cards.
There is a mystery to a shuffled deck of cards. Each plastic slip, imprinted with some elaborate design– a leftover from British taxing stamps–, holds a value unique to itself. Mathematics assures me that the order of cards in a well shuffled deck is one that has never happened before in all of history. The dealer holds in his hand a pattern individual and foreign to this world– a powerful mystery. The cards jealously protect a question mark, burning under images of Poseidon or oddly nude bicyclists. The dealer holds a mystery. The dealer also holds my fate for the next fifteen minutes. As the cards are dealt in threes, which I am assured by my family is “the Norwegian way,” the cards exit their curious mystery, and the game begins.
My eyes scan the line of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds before me with cold judgment. In Norwegian Whist, low and high cards are valuable, but cards in the middle– sixes, sevens, eights, are lukewarm, and a frustrating problem. Whist loves characters, valuing the first and the last but not the placidly in-between.
I send my cards out to do battle, each armed with their number value and my best wishes. A small drama is played out on the table, as each player mourns, gloats, and crows with every card. The table’s risks, banter, and strategies collide with raucous ferocity. This drama is acted out with an underlying joy, a righteous merriment at good sport. Even the hapless loser, forced to slough off valuable cards, has the fire of laughter behind his or her eyes.
I watch my cousin’s, grandparent’s, uncle’s, aunt’s, or any other member’s faces fall, rise, or remain in stoic secrecy at the contents of their hands. Their personalities, however, careen through the cards they hold in front of their faces and onto the battlefield, now littered with kings, queens, and jacks. They cast down royalty and sweep up tricks with firm individual distinction.
Some play like Achilles, brashly and with bravado, but with small, crippling weaknesses. Others are like Odysseus, spinning webs of tricks and wile. My late Grandfather was a Nietzschean superman at cards, winning through his sheer force of will. Grandpa looms over us as we play. While he passed away in 2012, his genius remains with the deck, grinning and guffawing with each hand. His indomitable card-playing will echoes throughout the room and around the table. His style is most present in the tense moments before the first card of a trick. As the player with the lead stares at his or her deck, the table is caught in almost reverent silence. Which card to start with is vitally important– a decision which could cost the player the entire game. This decision was always decided with aggressive ease by my Grandpa, as if he knew intimately the contents of everyone’s hand. When others would lead, he would lean forward, his eyebrows issuing forth challenges with an arch, as his fingers drummed the card he preemptively chose to play. He was rarely wrong, predicting the play and suit with astonishing regularity. He employed either some willful prophesy or card-counting genius– I still don’t know which it was.
As the game comes to a close, the cards are reshuffled into the great mystery in an all too obvious metaphor for death, where they await the next battle in their Valhalla.
When I stare in dismay at my paltry hand, or look excitedly at my partner, biting my tongue from divulging my good fortune, I am participating in a ritual older and bigger than I am, a traditional drama. Card-playing runs wildly in my blood, coursing through my veins with every card thrown down. When I play cards, I am joining masses of my relatives and ancestors, huddled around tables, locked in the riotous joy of competition.