Monday, 24 September 2012

Card games and gambling

I like playing cards, but sadly this is no longer a usual family passtime, and not many people now seem to play cards in the home, or even know how. I suppose that anyone brought up in an era where money was tight, entertainments were fewer, and home-made entertainment was important, will know a wide range of card games for varying numbers of players, including patience games for only one player. Especially if they were in the war, or had a job where hanging around for hours on end for an emergency call was the routine: cards helped to fill in the waiting time.

I first learned about cards as a young child in the 1950s, because my Dad and my Uncle W--- were inveterate players. And on holiday - in the chalet say - the parents would all play Whist or similar games. Mum wasn't very good; but she knew enough to play a decent game; and an ability to take part in a game of cards was definitely part of one's social repertoire, as much as knowing how to dance, or how to hold a cigarette as done in the movies (which we called 'the pictures'). Cards might bore you rigid, but nevertheless it was something you had to be prepared to join in with. People who refused to take part in a game were thought odd and awkward. Like making too much of a fuss about not watching a well-loved TV programme in the days when people really did sit enthralled by I Love Lucy, and The Phil Silvers Show (that is, Sergeant Bilko), and The Flintstones, and The Black and White Minstrel Show.

There were many, many card games to play, full of interest, and the ones suitable for children, like Snap, were always lots of fun. I staunchly maintain that I didn't have a satisfactory childhood - you can easily guess why in retrospect - but I must admit that family card games were something I always enjoyed, whatever the company. I was never very good at them, but I was better than Mum was, and it was always a pleasure, and a delicious taste of grownupness, to play Solo Whist with Dad and Uncle W---. They were both gentle, good-tempered men, who studied the game and were good at it. When they won, they'd comment on their very good luck (not their skill); and when they lost, they did so with no more than a rueful smile. It was a world of laughing and chuckling, of winks and twinkling eyes, without strife and inquests or any suggestion of bad feeling.

If I ever thought about it, I saw a game of cards as a ritual in which the rules of the game overrode any personal feelings, a ritual that made people friends, not enemies. I associated my childhood card games with enduring stability and the best of family life.

But then I never took part in cut-throat backroom games for money, never felt the motification of being cheated, and of being afraid to challenge the perpetrators. In the course of my job, I once investigated a London bookmaker who had been cashiered from the RAF for gambling. I was able to prove that he was now taking a percentage off the Revenue. We agreed on that percentage, and settled on that basis, after a cross and contentious interview at which I felt not only soiled by the man himself, but by his equally shysterish accountant. My Revenue experience, whether it was the girl early on who was a croupier on a cruise ship, or the dentist much later who claimed to make a large income from private games of backgammon, all made me associate gambling with sleaze and moral corruption.

I'm sorry to say that. After all, I used to like playing Pontoon for matchsticks when young. I thrilled to the glamorous descriptions of casino gambling, and cards with M at Blades, in the James Bond books, especially Casino Royale (Baccarat, against Le Chiffre) and Moonraker (Bridge, against Hugo Drax).

But during my teens I read Scarne's Complete Guide to Gambling - which I still possess. This was a pre-computer age treatise, on all kinds of gambling from poker to horse-racing; all about craps, blackjack, roulette and other casino games; all about sweepstakes and the numbers game; all about one-armed bandits, all about fairground rackets; with a section on how to cheat. Fascinating stuff. I absorbed it. It was one area in which I felt well-informed as I grew up, and apart from some drunken games of three-card brag with friends after a take-away chinese late at night during the mid-1970s, with nothing but pennies at stake, I kept well away from gambling. The 'glamour' entirely faded when confronted (in my Revenue career, though thankfully not as a steady diet) with real people who did it for real money in real life, and cheated, and then lied about their winnings (or losses) to my face. Even if they could produce scorecards and silver cups. Even if they could claim to be close friends of John Aspinall. Ugh. Or the pathetic Kebab House owner who concealed £300 a week of his takings so that he could blow it on gambling, eventually confessing this in tears to a colleague. The tears didn't signal an end. He didn't stop placing bets so that he could pay his tax arrears instead. Gambling was in his soul.

To this day, I feel disinclined to take part in the National Lottery. No Thunderball for me. You don't see me at the bingo club either. Nor do I ever fancy Camira Flash - that's The Duke's dog, innit - or want to put twenty-five knicker on Yellow Printer, the dog that broke the record at White City last week. I don't even have a flutter on the Grand National. My prejudice is deep. I'm as unlikely to visit the betting shop as shoot cocaine.

All this is a far cry from the innocent joys of family cardplaying! All my life I have distinguished between card playing in that way, and 'serious' card playing - Bridge, mainly - at clubs. Or the racy gambling games like poker, which are now relentlessly pushed at punters, and which for a certain type of young man must be as dangerously addictive as fast red sports cars, and easy sex with young blonde girls in hotpants and exaggerated manga bodies. What a shame that for many people, especially young people, 'cards' are associated only with Texas Hold 'Em, and hammering the credit card balance at midnight in front of the computer.

Elsewhere on this blog I've described how I used to play cards with Dad. And how for three years after he died, I missed not playing our favourite games with him. Buying my Sony tablet last April has changed that. I can now have a game with an 'artificial intelligence'. This is what I have installed. (These are games for an Android device. You'd have different versions for an iPad)

BTO Cribbage by Buck The Odds, LLC (£1.28)
Ecarté by GoodSoft (free)
Piquet by GoodSoft (free)
Klondike Solitaire by Softick Ltd (free)

As you can see, these were mostly free. I'm sure you are familiar with Cribbage, and of course Solitaire. Ecarté was an Edwardian casino game, a bit like Whist with trumps but played with only five cards, in which you discard again and again to improve the hand before someone calls a halt and you play with what you've got. Piquet is a very old but highly skilful game, again on the lines of Whist, with a discarding stage, scores for sets and sequences, and a playout at No Trump. There is facsimile onscreen running commentary, because in the real game you speak as you play. In the example below, I'm 'Y' for 'Younger Hand' (i.e. the dealer). It's the fifth of six deals, and I've got a commanding lead already, but then I get this cracker of a hand. I think I won with over 300 points clocked up (the computer does the arithmetic):

With all but Solitaire you are playing for points against an opponent. I keep to 'moderate' difficulty with the two-player games. I can usually thrash my opponent at Piquet, because I've got a feel for the game. But Ecarté and Cribbage (with much more of an element of luck, good or rotten, in them) are harder, and I can feel more of a triumph if I win, or savour a sweeter revenge if I lose and then trounce my opponent in a return match. Complete with 'swivel on that' gestures. (Pointless of course, because there's really nobody there. But I get exasperated at the impossible luck the 'artificial intelligence' seems to enjoy all too often, and frankly he-she-it deserves much worse abuse than I give out!)

These are pretty good card games if you can seldom play anyone in real life. Computerisation makes them unnaturally slick, but the same fine judgements on the odds can be made, and you can play your hunches, just as in the real-life version. Softick's classy version of Solitaire is an absolute winner in my view. It has so many nice touches. Even a 'realistic' noise as you turn up cards, or send them onto different piles. And you can put the photo of your choice on the back of each card. I use Mr Punch, as in this photo I took in 2010:

If I'm doing nothing else, and feel inclined to play cards, as I might anytime during the day, I will challenge my opponent at Ecarté and Cribbage - or rather less often at Piquet (because it takes six long deals to win). That usually results in a satisfying tussle. Then I'll play Solitaire until I have clocked up three wins. 'Three-win Solitaire' is my regular bedtime mental exercise, and because the tablet is easy to hold or prop up, I can actually do this when snug in bed, whether that's in the house or away in the caravan.

The 'mental exercise' aspect is important. You can buy little gadgets that let you play Sudoku - pardon me, while I yawn and fall over at the thought of Sudoku - as bad as crosswords - anywhere, anytime, to keep your decrepid brain from seizing up. But I prefer Solitaire, or, for a bit more excitement and emotional expression, one of my other card games. Same function.

And is my brain in better shape? Or am I still going gaga? Reader, you must make up your own mind.

And if anyone recognises where the references to Yellow Printer, or Camira Flash (The Duke's dog, innit) come from, I will be mightily impressed with their Great Knowledge.


  1. I never was drawn into playing cards, here it was Bridge and I saw how upset some got if someone played a hand "the wrong way..."

    My only two goes at gambling were when I was working and my assistant kept pestering me.

    Once he needed to overcome being sent to Coventry for strike breaking (with me!). He organised a Grand National sweepstake in the works against all the rules, it backfired when our horses came in first and second...

    Then he wanted to play football pools and kept asking me which team I fancied against an equally fathomless other team! I agreed to join in so long as we chose one set of numbers and never changed them. I asked for all the results of the season so far and used my free time to work out the average number of draws for each division then told him to choose these numbers from each group and never bother me again except to get my small contribution. One day he arrived in a great panic because our numbers had come up, the person who organise the collection for the bets from many groups in the works was also excited as the agent would get a bonus and normally on this permutation it would be considerable, our win should have let me hand in my notice! It was an unusual week and we only won the equivalent of a months pay. I quit while I was ahead.

  2. I always liked bridge and often played at the young chelsea club.
    Most local authorities will have evening classes in it and if you know whist type games that gives you a reasonable start. Some do get uptight about it but it's easy enough to avoid them as partners and as opponents it's all to the good.

  3. In my engineering days we played Euchre at lunchtime - popular in Cornwall, but in few other places outside US & Canada. Often, if I go to a pub with a friend, there's a group playing. But these days, with no teams to join, I resort to playing it online.


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