Card Games

When I was 14 years old, my birthday present was a subscription to Sports Illustrated. It was a big reason I pursued a career in sports journalism. A quarter-century later, I still have that subscription.

In the most recent issue, there is a photo montage of scenes from Major League Baseball’s Spring Training. One picture shows members of the Boston Red Sox playing a card game called “casino” in the clubhouse.

I was shocked. This was a game our family had played for years, but I’d never heard of single person outside of our family who had ever heard of it or played it. I thought there was a 50% chance my dad had just made it up.

It’s a great game for 2-4 players, and I’ve shown a few of my friends how to play over the years. (If you’re interested, check out the link I posted to the origins and rules of the game. I’ll include that for most of the games I discuss here).

Seeing that picture got me thinking about all of the different types of card games we played in the Franklin house growing up. I never played poker or gambled in any way while I lived at home. One time in college I remember having a poker night with my roommate and couple other buddies, but we were so broke that we were literally playing with pennies, nickles and dimes. I don’t think anyone won or lost more than $1. I didn’t risk more than $5 until I was 23 years old and working at the newspaper in Lawton.

There’s no doubt in my mind that learning and getting good at a dozen or so other card games while growing up laid the foundation for what I do now. Just like that Sports Illustrated subscription (and reading The Daily Oklahoman every day) launched my first career.

I decided to rank all the card games we played at least semi-regularly growing up. Keep in mind, we played board games, dice games, basically any kind of game you can think of. We played a ton of games, and I loved it. But for purposes of this post I’m only discussing the card games.

The Boston Red Sox play casino in the clubhouse

10. 10-point pitch (aka Partner Pitch) — I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t watch this whole video about the game, just enough to see that it was basically the same version we played. But it was my least favorite of the games we played because there was just a massive amount of luck involved. I think spades is the most overrated card game ever, but I’d rather play spades than 10-point pitch.

9. Kent — This is a perfect game to play if you have 8 or 10 people and want to do something fun. It requires no card skills at all and is a lot of fun. (In the version I found today online, it’s called Kemps, but we always called it Kent. Anyway, same game/concept). We would never play this game with just our family of five, but we would frequently have friends or the church youth group over to the house and this was a favorite. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure Kevin Ash and I have the best record at Kent of anyone in the history of the universe.

8. Spades — It seems like everyone who only knows how to play one card game knows how to play spades. Personally I don’t think it’s that great a game, but I’ve probably spent more time playing it than any of these other games.

Here are my problems with the game of spades. First, everyone has slightly different rules so you spend 10 minutes negotiating them anytime you play with someone new. Does the high bidder lead first or left of the dealer or the deuce of clubs? Are we playing sandbags? Do you get to pass a card on a blind nil? Etc. Second, if you’re playing with halfway competent opponents it’s almost all luck. Adding sandbags into the mix raises the skill level but it feels communistic to not just want to win every single trick you can. Third, nil bids are worth too much. They should probably be worth about 72 points.

Moving on from that, spades are a great way to witness fights between siblings, spouses or friends. My sister Allison and her husband Matt love to play spades so we still play with them when they are in town. There’s nothing better than seeing the looks on their faces when they realize they’ve been set, followed by one of them saying, “Well, I got my bid.” Allison pays less attention to the game than anyone I’ve ever played with but she still knows she got her bid 90% of the time. If mom is playing, you can just mark her down for a 2 bid every time no matter what. Another staple of Franklin family spades games is that after every hand, 3 of the 4 players will get up from the table for various unspecified reasons, doubling the length of the game. (I love you all!)

At Westmoore High School, I was involved in many a game of spades with my fellow members of the Class of 1998. In Mrs. Liston’s algebra class, Matt Fallwell and I came up with the “Matt Theorem,” which stated that we would win every game of spades. We were pretty successful until Mrs. Liston confiscated my deck of cards for playing during class. She gave it back to me on the last day of school. In Mr. Chance’s class, Chris Myers and I dug our way out of a hopeless blind nil situation by sliding cards down the chalkboard rail to each other, behind our opponents’ heads.

7. Cribbage — This is the only game on the list that I didn’t play with my dad. My mom and her dad (my Papa) taught me cribbage, and it’s a pretty fun game to play if there’s only two of you. I’d still rank it just below the other two-handed games on this list.

6. Four-point pitch — This is a really fast game with quite a bit of luck but also some skill. If we were waiting for dinner or about to go to bed, either dad or I would just deal six cards and we’d play a quick game without even discussing it beforehand.

5. Gin rummy — This is the only card game Missy will play with me, unless you count Skip-Bo or Uno. My favorite aspect of our trip to Paris several years back involved gin. After a full day of sight seeing, we’d return to our airbnb and Missy would put Addie to sleep while I walked to different small businesses in the neighborhood and bought a baguette, wine and cheese. Then we’d eat, drink and play gin at a low enough volume not to wake up the baby.

After I moved away for college, I always enjoyed coming home and playing card games with dad. Mom might play a game or two but she always went to bed early and dad and I would play for another hour. Our rotation (in no particular order) was gin, four-point pitch and casino.

Because it’s a game that can be gambled on, I’ve played gin with several of my poker friends (though never for more than a few bucks). I can remember playing with Randy Clark, Noah Nodine and Jake Steele at different times, and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.

4. Moron — Surely this game goes by another name, but this is what my family always called it. I couldn’t find it anywhere online, so let me describe it and maybe someone can help me out with the name.

This is the best 5-handed game in the bunch, and we played it a lot growing up when all five of us were able to play. It’s a bidding and trick-taking game like spades, but there are no teams. It’s every man for himself. You start by dealing 10 cards to each player, then flipping up the next card which determines the trump suit. The player to the left of the dealer bids on how many tricks he thinks he will take, then everyone else bids. The catch is that when it gets back to the dealer, they must make a bid that doesn’t add all the bids up to 10. So if the players bid 3, 1, 2, and 3, the dealer can’t bid 1. And you have to get your bid exactly to get any points.

The next hand only 9 cards are dealt but the rules remain the same. Dealer can’t make a bid that adds the total up to 9, so somebody has to go set. If you make your bid you get 10 points, plus one for each trick you bid (a successful 3 bid nets 13 points). If you don’t make your bid you get 0. This continues until on the final hand only one card is dealt. This can be pretty annoying if you happen to be the dealer and the bids are 0, 0, 1, and 0 and you are forced to bid 1 holding a crappy card. But such is life. It’s a fun game.

3. Casino — Casino is a great 3-handed game, and I played it a lot with both mom and dad, or with dad and my brother Andrew. I also taught it to Kevin Ash and Chad Anderson and we’ve played it several times over the years. I remember playing it a lot during our 2002 college graduation baseball road trip to Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago even though I was sick with mono the whole time. It’s cool that the game is popular in the clubhouse of the defending world champs.

2. Hearts — Some of you probably haven’t played hearts since the year 2000, or whenever it was that hearts stopped becoming a feature of the home computer. (Remember the sound of breaking glass whenever hearts were broken or the sound it made when the queen of spades was dumped on someone?)

Anyway, I can’t even begin to add up how many hours of my employers’ time has been wasted by me playing hearts online. One summer in college, I got a full-time job at OU with the office of telecommunications. It was a complete joke. There was literally about one hour of work to be done, not just in a given day but over the course of the entire week. I found a site called Pogo where you could play different games online against real people, which was a lot more fun than those dumb computers. Hearts was my game of choice and I ran up a really good rating on there.

When I graduated and started working in Lawton, there were many slow nights when we had everything done but needed to wait for MLB or NBA games to finish so we could run the recaps and box scores to fill out the rest of the sports section. I would frequently play hearts or bridge (spoiler alert) on Pogo.

I think hearts is a great and underrated game and I wish I got to play it more. Really have hardly played at all in the 10 years since leaving the newspaper.

#1 Bridge — I’ll rank bridge ahead of any form of poker all day every day. It’s the best card game in the world.

I learned the game by watching my parents play against my grandparents. Mom would always get on to dad for bidding too aggressively, which he was definitely guilty of at times. But they were a good bridge team because his aggression canceled out her conservative nature. I usually sat with Papa and watched him play.

Bridge is the only card game on this list that I still play semi-regularly. I’ve gotten a ton better since I started but there’s still so much I can learn and so much room for improvement. I’ll do a full post about bridge at a later time, but for now I just want to thank Francine, Will and Bev for being great and supportive partners and for teaching me a lot. Those are really the only people I get to play with these days.

I’m sure I forgot about a card game or two that I once played regularly. Please comment and remind me of those! Also, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite card games. Missy’s family used to love to play rummy (not gin rummy; this kind can be played with up to six people) and some friends taught us canasta (shout out to the Hicks’!). I didn’t include them on this list because I didn’t play them growing up but those are both fun games too.

In 1960, Sports Illustrated put a bridge player on the cover. 59 years later casino made it into the magazine. I wonder which game from this list is next?

7 thoughts on “Card Games

  1. No War? Crazy 8s? Pinochle? Canasta? Whist? Those aside, have to admit the vast majority of card games I enjoyed playing as a kid/teenager were solitaire. The only card game I preferred over any of the games of solitaire was bridge. I actually think bridge is the reason I loved winter and snow so much. Whenever we would get snowbound it meant my uncle and often a cousin would come over and play some bridge,and I was so excited for that to happen. Funny how a card game can give even Old Man Winter a super positive connotation. Bridge is probably the only thing that has often kept me from being a complete loner too. But nowadays I’m more likely to play with robots than people. Matt, you are one of the few I prefer over the robots. Thanks for the many years of bridge partnership. You da best!

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  2. We’ve had some vigorous Go-Fish battles with the kids. Maybe I should farm them out to you so they can learn some more compelling games.
    You forgot Rick Reilly’s epic strip poker reference in his column “It’s Your Life, But I’m Keeping Score.” I had to look it up because I remember it made me laugh. Really hard. In 1998.
    Everybody else at your table is losing at poker (+5).
    Everybody else at your table is losing at strip poker (+25).
    Everybody else at your table is losing at strip poker and is a
    member of the Danish Olympic lap-dancing team (+50).

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  3. We’ve had some vigorous Go-Fish battles with the kids. Maybe I should farm them out to you so they can learn some more compelling games.
    Rick Reilly had an epic strip poker reference in his column “It’s Your Life, But I’m Keeping Score.” I had to look it up because I remember it made me laugh. Really hard. In 1998. It’s a card game and thought it was pertinent to the discussion at hand.
    “Everybody else at your table is losing at poker (+5).
    Everybody else at your table is losing at strip poker (+25).
    Everybody else at your table is losing at strip poker and is a
    member of the Danish Olympic lap-dancing team (+50).”

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  4. You forgot to mention the dutiful phrase “And that’s why they call it moron” dad said every time a hand ended and anyone but himself didn’t make their bid.

    Totally woke Matt Dubs up laughing dad’s laugh while reading Spades section. You nailed it. For the record I was usually getting up to avoid shuffling, dealing, or the odor just surfacing from someone’s hiney who shall go unnamed.

    And just to let you know, I almost always end up mentioning when playing cards with my kids how whoever played the best that game must have taken after their Uncle Matt, the darn best card shark I know.

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    1. I forgot about “That’s why they call it moron!” Dad loved to say that! Thank you for the kind words. Have to admit that you and Dubs have been winning a lot more lately than you used to

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  5. Great blog Matt! It’s always interesting to see the games people played with their families. I think “Oh Hell” is the name of the game you guys call “Moron”. We played pretty much that same game with a few differences. Of course, we weren’t allowed to say the word HELL! It was called Up&Down at our house and you start at one card, go up to as many as the deck will support, then come back down to one. Many Sunday afternoons spent with the whole fam playing that one. Thanks again for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

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