Lucky at Cards: Happy Ways to Learn Life Lessons


I play cards a lot. I’ve done it all my life. There is something very special about sitting down with friends and playing a game that challenges one a bit, but does not push one far enough to generate bad feelings. The games I play involve acceptance and generous congratulations for the winner or winners – whoever they may be. I only play games with good friends. In contrast, my mother had a real horror of card games that involved any kind of gambling. She came from an abjectly poor family with two brothers and many cousins and had experienced some horrible conflicts arising from bitterly competitive card games where money was involved.

The best card games feature a combination of skill and luck. I play two games on a fairly regular basis – an Italian form of Canasta, known as Samba (in this country) and also Poker. These two games are very different, but still take me to places that remind me of life skills and lessons that are difficult to learn. Samba, described as ‘Canasta on speed’ is a terrifying and addictive, and is played with a partner. As one rises above the first levels of play, one acquires handicaps that can bring down fast-speeding front-runners as quickly as one likes. There is no place for arrogance… at least not for too long. Italian Canasta also has a built-in tension factor, as the four players fight-tooth-and-nail to gain a pile of cards that will set them up with a higher score. Every now and again, as we sit around the card table, some anxious but jolly player will ask why we choose to create so much stress for ourselves… just for a card game!

An entirely different kettle of fish is poker – two kinds – Texas Hold’em, with two cards, plus the flop of five, or Omaha with four cards plus the flop. The game is usually adjusted to the number of players at the time. Money is also involved, albeit small sums. With poker there is skill in reading people, making sure that others don’t read you, but also in working out whether the cards have potential, or imagining what the others might have in their hands. The problem arises when one just does not have good cards, and there is little or no room for manoeuvre when this happens. Having bad cards is demoralising – like failing to get to a good drop shot (in tennis) – or being rejected by an official body when one thinks one has done something brilliant. Bad cards are like the bad turns in life that lead one questioning oneself and one’s skills, which is why one has to play cards with a touch of optimism, faith and enthusiasm… alternatively just keep to playing cards with friends, and keep the stakes to a minimum and stay happy.

Games… including card games teach one about life, but sadly the lessons are not always easily learned. If one is on a winning streak it is a great feeling, but countering that are so many emotions that can spoil things. Does one deserve to win? Is it unkind to others? Is this war or just a bloody silly game? If one is constantly winning is it because one is just utterly brilliant? Possibly yes; more probably no.

The one thing that pushes the sweetness and kindness out of the window is playing games with one’s three teenage nephews, and then one gets a real sense of the bitter struggle, the silliness and vicious punch-ups necessary for survival. Many years later I am glad to say that we are all alive to tell the tale, but I think I might leave out some kinds of board games. Monopoly and Hotel are far too scary for me.

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