Card games have been around for a long time. They’ve existed in various forms for a millennium, having been invented in the Far East. From there, they came West with trading, and in the 1400s the French solidified the 52-card deck and the four suits — spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds — that we use today. While different cultures and nations use different sets of cards, that system is the most widely used around the world. For literally centuries now, friends, families, and strangers have convened around bar tops, campfires, and dining room tables to play friendly and perhaps not-so-friendly games of cards.
The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games
What is it that makes card games so appealing, and why have they found such a particularly prominent place in the culture of men?
Portability. Rather than having to cart around a game board and various easily-lost pieces, a deck of cards can readily fit into a pocket or other small space. This is one reason they’ve long been popular with sailors and soldiers (as well as travelers and adventurers of all kinds); they can easily be thrown in a pack or seabag and cracked open on the frontlines or the bunk of a submarine.
Speed. Board games often require lengthy set-ups, and games can take a long time. It’s easily forgotten where one is at in the game if a break is needed. Card games, on the other hand, just need a shuffle, and you can play almost anything imaginable. And most games, even long ones, have natural breaks at the end of a hand or deal. You can just as easily play for a few minutes or a few hours.
Adaptability and informality. Most card games are folk games, with rules being passed on and changed from generation to generation (which is what makes tracing each game’s specific history particularly difficult!). Every family and even region has its own set of rules they prefer, and those rules can continue to evolve based on what’s most enjoyable for the folks playing it. Most games can also be scaled up or down on the challenge level to incorporate kids and expert players alike.
Balance of chance and skill. Games scholar David Parlett writes: “A major attraction of card games is that they are in general neither wholly mindless, like most dice games, nor excessively cerebral, like Chess, but offer a reasonable balance of chance and skill. The actual balance varies from game to game, enabling well-informed players to select from the vast repertoire of card games the one or two best suited to their tastes and talents.” Even though players don’t have control over the chance aspects of games, in times past, a man who had a streak of luck in cards was considered favored by the gods, which enhanced his honor.
Manly competition. It is has often been noted that men’s games are symbolic representations of their more violent clashes in fighting and war. This is as true of something like football as it is of card games. When anthropologist Michael Herzfeld lived among the tough, rugged shepherds of a remote, mountainous region of Crete, he observed that their daily card games were a “medium for the expression of contest in emblematic form.” He writes:
“Contests they most certainly are. One of my most frequent card playing companies would announce, ‘Let’s clash lances [na kondarokhtipisomene]!’ Card games are often described as ‘struggling,’ and valiant opponents as pallikaria (‘fine young men’). Some basis of opposition beyond that of a friendly game is usually sought; when two kinsmen of different generations were matched against each other, even though they were fairly close in age, an onlooker jocularly justified the whole situation by announcing that it was a contest between the old and the young. Almost every move is made with aggressive gestures, especially by the striking of the knuckles against the table as each card is flung down.”
This echo of the basic quest for manhood and honor, the requirement of strategy, and the element of risk and reward, “lends spice to what would otherwise be a daily repetitive activity.”
Ease and enjoyment of conversation. Card games facilitate easy, no-pressure conversation; if someone has something to say, they can say it; otherwise, people can just concentrate on the gameplay. Especially when all the participants are men, jokes and insults are traded and contribute to the unique sense of male camaraderie that can emerge around card playing. As Herzfeld notes, while other male activities like hunting or war “require swift and often silent action . . . the card game provides a forum for skill in that other area of demonstrative masculinity, clever talk. The rules of the games themselves are fixed, and therefore of relatively little interest . . . But the conversational gambits, well-timed gestures, and of course the flamboyant triumph of the winners are all legitimate themes in male interaction.”
Element of Mystery. Generally in board games, every player is aware of the possible moves of every other player. You roll a die, and everyone else can see what’s going on and if a player is close to winning. With cards, the only thing the other players see is the uniform back of what you’ve been dealt. There’s a fun air of mystery knowing that on your next turn you can go out, and nobody else is the wiser until the moment you exultantly drop your cards on the table.
6 Card Games Every Man Should Know
For the reasons above, and the rich history of cards — you can play the same game your grandparents and great-grandparents played, and of course folks well before them! — every man should know a handful of games. The 6 below are a set particularly worth learning, for reasons of both popularity and intrinsic value; they are games that you’re likely to be invited to play by others, and if you aren’t, you should consider asking others to play them, because they’re so enjoyable!
Note: A couple of those listed feature one specific type of a broader category of games (e.g., gin rummy is just one of many types of rummy that can be played). But the general principles of that particular “subgenre” will give you a good idea of how that broader category of game is played.
Rummy, as a broader category of card games, revolves around gameplay in which participants try to make sets, or melds (in card playing parlance) — generally either 3 (or more) of the same number/rank, or 3 (or more) suited cards in sequence (a run). It’s also a “draw and discard” game, in which players draw a card from either an undealt or discard pile, and throw out an unwanted card as well. When all a player’s cards are part of a meld (or as many as are needed based on the variation), they go out, and get points based on what the remaining players have in their hand. Generally, you’ll play to a set point number, often 100.
Games scholars believe that rummy was originally a card variation on the Chinese tile game mah-jong, and came into being perhaps as early as the 1700s. Through many cultural and regional iterations, gin rummy, as the folk tale goes, was created in 1909 by whist (another card game) teacher Elwood Baker and his son, Charles Baker (who went on to become a renowned screenwriter). It’s thought that they invented the variation as a faster version of standard rummy. The history of gin is hard to suss out, though, since it didn’t really become popular until the 1930s (as with many card games in the US), when the Great Depression forced families to entertain themselves at home. It’s an easier game to learn than bridge, and more family-friendly than something like poker.
Gin rummy then took off in Hollywood and became immensely popular on movie, TV, and Broadway sets as an easy game, with a better reputation than poker, that could be played in dressing rooms and picked up and left off between shoots. In the late 1930s and 1940s you’ll find references to gin and “gin sharks” in numerous films, shows, and plays.
From there, its place in American leisure and game-playing was cemented, and today it’s often a game the whole family knows and plays, particularly when visiting with grandparents.
The game of hearts falls into the trick-taking category of card games, originally stemming from whist. Rather than wanting to take tricks though, hearts is unique in that you want to avoid collecting tricks, depending on the cards in the pile; hearts are bad, as is the notorious queen of spades (also known as “Calamity Jane” or the “Black Lady” in the game). It’s usually played to 100 points, but the person who gets to 100 is actually the loser, and the person with the lowest points the winner (hearts being a point each, and the queen of spades being 13 points).
Hearts first appeared in the US in the late 1800s, but has origins going to back to a 1600s French game called “reversis.” Like the modern hearts, the goal was to avoid taking tricks that had certain cards in them. While one hindrance to playing hearts is that the modern version requires 4 players to get a game going (though it can be played with more or less, with rule changes), it still enjoyed pockets of great popularity in the 20th century, especially among college students.
The game was then given new life at the end of the millennium when Microsoft Windows included it as a built-in game in their operating systems starting in the 1990s. You had three players provided for you, and could pick up a game anytime you wanted. This was how I learned the game, actually. Practice and learn on a computer or on your phone, then find three friends to play with. It will be far more interesting than staring down Pauline, Michele, and Ben (the default opponents in early Windows versions).post was originally published on this site