Thursday, July 12, 2018

Card Sharks

When I was 9 or 10, I beat an old man at cribbage, high on a mountain. I have no recollection of this encounter, but my father swears it happened, and so it must be true.

This was during one of my family’s multi-day hiking outings when we’d string days on the trail with a night or two at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. Apparently, the old man was both thrilled and surprised to have been out-pegged by a little girl. Maybe he’d gone easy on me. I have no idea.

The cribbage story is one of the tales my family tells of these outings – along with my older brother’s disagreement with the green spaghetti we ate one night and my younger brother filling his small, teddy bear-toting backpack with rocks along the trail. So I remember it without actually remembering.

I also don’t remember learning to play cribbage, although I imagine this happened over a series of winter nights spent in Franconia, where we came to ski on weekends – and where, when I was growing up, our television received only one or two channels, and that only if the cloud cover was aligned perfectly over the unwieldy antenna on the roof.

In the absence of television and smart phones (heck, back then we shared a party line with the other half-dozen houses on our road), we either read or played games through the long winter evenings and the occasional summer nights spent at the house. There were rousing, post-supper, multi-generational rounds of Balderdash and Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit when friends were over. And, apparently, quieter and more contemplative contests over the cribbage board when fewer people occupied the living room.

Despite growing up in the digital age, my children have become quite the little card sharks in recent years. I will take very little credit for this, as I don’t have the patience to teach card games, with all their intricacies, to anyone. Some games I have learned – or re-learned – along with the kids.

My husband has taught the kids to play Hearts and what we call Bull Poop (rather than the more adult-language name for the game), along with a couple variations of solitaire. He and my parents have also worked to hone the kids’ cribbage skills. Friends have taught them to play Kings in the Corner and Beggar My Neighbor.

Most nights after dinner, at least one of the kids asks to play some card game or another, and in these summer evenings that seem to stretch long between dinner and bed, we usually fit in a round or two of something.

Already, the children have developed a sense for card game strategizing that often escapes me. They delight in holding the Queen of Spades and giving her away at the perfect time in Hearts, and they usually know someone is trying to “shoot the moon” before I do. They can often tell when someone is bluffing at Bull Poop and have learned to count ahead to see which cards they should try to unload at which turn.

It is only at cribbage where I feel I have a slight advantage, but I may be fooling myself here. My older daughter tallies each hand quickly in her head and sometimes knows my score before I have finished counting it out. Both she and her brother have beaten me in cribbage fair and square. (I have never been the mom who lets her kids win – except, perhaps, when they were tiny and wanted to play Candy Land, and I tried to organize the cards so the game wouldn’t last to the point of boring me to tears.)

Last week, the littlest one wanted to learn to play cribbage. She played against a sibling with my husband’s help and was soon ready to tackle the game solo. In her first game on her own, she beat me, and was on the way to skunking me before I managed to close the gap in the last hand.

I think there’s probably some educational value in the card-playing – basic math, planning ahead, having to choose what to keep and what to let go. Mostly, though, it’s just a fun way to pass the time together – wherever we are. A deck of cards slips easily into a pocket or a purse – or a backpack.

Later this summer, we have a two-night hut trip planned in the mountains with another family of card-playing friends. We’ll pack a couple of decks of cards and our smallest cribbage board. Perhaps one of the kids will challenge a stranger to a round, and that will become part of the story we tell many years – and many rounds of cribbage – from now. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 13, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.