Saturday, August 16, 2008

Card games and I

When I was growing up in 1960s and 70s, playing cards were considered bad in many "respectable" circles. In fact playing card games was considered as synonymous with gambling. As a result, I never had any exposure to cards, a nice and properly brought up kid that I was.

I was finally introduced to playing cards in 1980s in my hostel, and the card game that was popular among card players was bridge. Us freshers were given a list containing rules of bridge by our seniors, and we were required to learn them. There were some of us who were already exposed to cards and bridge, and their expertise was much in demand among the other freshers. We would seek these knowledgeable people out and request them to enlighten us. They would condescend to help out, but for a consideration. Their charges were - cad ( cadbury chocolate), double omelette and other such goodies.

Despite the crash course we underwent, there were some who found the rules more difficult to crack than a jigsaw puzzle.They would memorise the bridge rules by rote, without actually understanding them, and hoping that their learning by rote would help them pass muster with the seniors.

And this was not the only thing we were supposed to learn. We were also given the rules of billiards and snooker to learn. But that discussion will have to wait for some other day.

I had great difficulty understanding the concept of suit and colour, bid and trick,deal and trump etc. When I finally managed to have an idea what a suit was, I found myself struggling to remember the terms for them. I had heard of hindi terms like "paan, "eent" "chidi" and "faawda" in my younger days when exposed to such talk by some less reputable school mates. But associating them with their English equivalent terms turned out to be a giant mental step for my limited mental faculties.

Having learnt about suits and colour the hard way, it was the turn to grapple with bidding. We were given the rules of bidding in what was called strong club, semi strong diamond convention, which was suitably amended in house and renamed as CCC. The acronym shall remain unexpanded to public, the hint is that none of the C's stood for cricket.

I was among those who just crammed the rules and managed to pass muster. I never put this "knowledge" to practice.

A few years later, I finally got interested in playing brigde, and I brushed up on the CCC rules once again, and started hobnobbing with bridge players. Initially I would just watch the experts in action from the sidelines, hoping to pick up valuable tips on how to play the game.

After a period of apprenticeship, I was finally offered the chance to be one of the players. Boy, I felt like a debutant Indian cricketer who finally gets selected in the playing XI.

Cards were shuffled ( fentna was the hindi term) and then dealt ( baantna). I got my 13 cards and tried to arrange the cards spreading them into a fan like structure, as I had seen others doing. And I started sweating. The cards seemed to stick to each other and would not come to the V shaped figure that the other participants managed with such ease. Manging to make the cards took like an untidy fanlike shape, with a few cards looking like they would slip off any time, my next worry was to find out what carrds I actually had. All the cards were in left hand i a haphazard way.. Others would bid and I would struggle to make head or tail of my cards.

Keep the cards of one suit together, came the friendly advice. Yes, it was a very good advice, why did not I think of it earlier?

My bidding would often be wrong and my partners, never very patient men, would give me a mouthful of their tongue lashing. In case our team won the bid, my partner would be the active player and I the dummy, literally as well as figuratively, and I had little role in that hand. But in case the opponents won the bid, then I had to be an active player. I would not know which card to play. "You should have played that card, I had such good cards of the other suit to take advantage of, if only you had played that card"- this was a standard criticism I would cop from my partner.

I was always amazed how other players in general, and my partner in particular always knew what card I needed to play, and if our team lost, it was always because of me.

But I was loving the game, and when you love something, you take such pinpricks in your stride.

I began taking interest in the saturday English paper where there was one bridge column and one bridge game would be discussed. I started reading that. I started cutting that clipping every saturday. In fact, I began to look for bridge articles on all news papers and sports magazines. I even bought bridge books when I went to bigger places like say Calcutta or Delhi.

But the published games showed who had what cards, and what cards were left after a few tricks. In real life contests, I as a player had no way of knowing who had what cards. Others appeared to guess the cards of others, and even knew who had what cards left. I could never acquire that ability to visualise the cards.

Once a bridge tournament was held in the hostel, and I too decided to participate. The most dificult part was to find a partner. Seeking a good player as partner When you were not good enough as a bridge player took guts, and it was like an ineligible bachelor going around proposing to eligible girls.Most good players had already formed pairs and I finally managed to convince one person to be my partner.Fortunately he was a decent and a patient man. We managed to do decently well. Of course we did not go too far. I am not aware how we got eliminated. To me we seemed to have done reasonably well.

Cut to present- I no longer play bridge as that needs 4 players and those bridge enthusiasts are now spread over to various parts of the country. But that does not mean I have lost touch with cards. My daughter likes to play cards. She has learnt one card game from my wife ( no idea what it is called) which can be played by any number of players. Here one starts with a card ( say 7 of diamond or 7 of other suits) and every participant has to play the next higher or lower card available with them. The person who disposes off all his cards wins, people left with cards get points depending on cards left with them. Player who has the lowest points after a few rounds wins.

I am not interested in the game, but I am dragged into playing. "We will play only 15 rounds", my daughter assures me.

If I deal the cards, the two would accuse me of giving them bad cards. "I have got two kings", one would say, "and I have got two", another would say, and I could very well see that they were lying because I would have three kings in my hand.

At the end of the 15 rounds, when I invariably finish last, the two have a hearty laugh at my expense. I tell them that the match was fixed, because the two of them were liberally exchanging information about their cards. I also tell them that these card games are like Sharjah cricket tournaments, they were like Pakistan, and I was like India. I would also threaten to pull out of these games like BCCI pulled out from Sharjah tournaments. On rare occasions when I win and one of them finish at the bottom, the loser throws lots of tantrum unlike me, the graceful loser.

Of course, pulling out of these fixed matches has never been a viable option for me, though it is not for want of trying. May be I need to do some introspection why I am so bad in cards- or as they say in cards lingo,Playing cards has never been a strong suit for me.The only way I can finish off their entusiasm for cards is if I start beating them regularly. Just as England's enthusiasm for Twenty20 cricket ended when Yuvraj hit Chris Broad for 6 sixes in an over,I need to hit their card craze for a few sixes.Yes, let me start playing bridge with them.My CCC notes, here I come.