A good hand.
I have two priceless mementos from my late father, apart from actual memories, of course. The first is his work hat. It has been shaped by wear and worry to the shape of his head. The charcoal grey felt had kept the contours of his life, and now we keep it, close and dear. The second is his set of cards. By now, worn and faded. The box for them was long gone and so my father, a smoker for years, fashioned a new one from a golden box of Bensen and Hedges. I have kept that too. I always experience a new frisson of loss holding the cards that his own hands once held.
Growing up in my Italian family, I vividly remember Friday night card sessions. It was always dominated by the men, loud and dramatic and very theatrical. While there was always red wine, taralli and nuts on the table, this was serious business. Although the women played too, they inevitably had to see to the panini and the biscotti, the coffee and liqueurs. Sometimes, they started they own gioco in the kitchen, much more sedate and polite; there was much less at stake. Eventually though, the little ones climbed up and fell asleep in their laps and the chiacchiere turned to hushed gossip, the pettegolezzi of suburban lives.
I loved then, as I do now, the artwork on the cards, particularly the Neapolitan mazzo that I grew up with.
Intricate designs of the Napoletane cards. From the top, the suits are: denari, spade, coppe, bastoni. From left to right: asso (ace) through to sette (seven), then Fante, Cavallo, Re (Knave, Knight, King).
Italian carte da gioco have hardly changed since the late 14th century when they were introduced from Mamluk Egypt during the 1370s. Mamluk cards used suits of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks. Italians changed the polo-sticks to clubs. As you would expect, even in cards, there are regional differences. It's Italy after all. In the north, occupied as it was by French and German houses, they use different characters and designs while in the south, the Spanish styles dominated. Northern Italian mazzi such as Piemontese, Milanesi and Toscane cards use "French" suits - cuori (hearts), quadri (diamonds), fiori (flowers) and picche (spades).
There are so many different card packs in Italy, it can be confusing. For instance, the Trevisane deck, also known as the Trevigiane, Venetian or Veneto deck, comes in sets of 40 or 52. The smaller set is missing 8 through 10 while the larger often includes two character cards to bump it up to 54 cards. Closely related is the Triestine pack which is used by the Romansh (this is an ethnic group in Switzerland, native speakers of the Romansh language, in the canton of Graubunden) to play Troccas and by German Swiss to play Troggu. In Trieste and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol Italians play with Industrie und Glück decks. The Salisburghesi suits are used in Italian south Tyrol. All have fascinating histories of their own. Most of these decks were introduced at the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire held sway over much of the northern areas of Italy before Unification in 1861.
All Italian, as opposed to the French style, cards use Latin denominations and names. There are four suits: swords (spade), cups (coppe), coins (ori or denari), and clubs (bastoni). All decks, mazzi, have three face cards per suit: the fante (Knave, value of 8), cavallo (Knight, value of 9), and re (King, value of 10). The Queen, donna or regina, is not used in Italian cards except if it is a Milanese stack in which case a donna is inserted between the cavallo and re.
But it is the Spanish suits - Napoletane, Sarde, Romagnole, Siciliane, and the Piacentine - that I am familiar with. I know very little about the rules and protocols of the northern suits, they were never used in my circle of uncles and aunties.
For us, the popular games included Scopa, Briscola, Tressette, Bestia, and Sette e Mezzo.
I hope that everyone will have an opportunity to see the unscripted drama that is an Italian card night. As a girl, I thought the emotion and animation was totally genuine, that friendships could never recover, that fortunes were made and lost on those formica tabletops. But in the end, they hugged like brothers, kissed each other on both cheeks and arranged to do it all again the next week.
Of all the games that were played, briscola was my favourite for its speed and showmanship, though I can't pretend to be good at it.
Briscola is a fast, fierce and masterful game. More than any other gioco it gives 'game face' a new meaning. The universal 'tells' for communicating with your briscola partner include the following: if you hold an ace, you tighten your lips, stretching them across your teeth, while if your hand includes a three, you twist your mouth subtly to one side. Discretion being key for all these motions, if you were to look skywards, your partner would know you held a king. If you shrugged one shoulder it would be clear your cards included a cavallo or horse character, while licking your lips is the clue that you have a fante.
I was never good at this game, my facial expressions were non too subtle. I loved the spectacle of my father and his friends throwing down their cards with expressions and curses that ranged from
victory through to utter disgust.
Australian Briscola Championship 3rd Feb. 2019.
Photo credit: Associazione Molisani Adelaide SA facebook.
Hosted by Associazione Molisani Adelaide SA - Molise Association at Serafino's Winery, McLaren Vale. Buy your tickets early. Spectator sport at its best.
But, I think the easiest game to start your Italian card adventure is scopa, which of course, has many variations.
Like Briscola, scopa is played with a 40 card deck. Scopa means a broom and the object of the game is to sweep all the cards on the table. It is usually played between two players or four in two couples. I love it because while skill is involved, so too is a lot of over acting, a bit like soccer, really. First of all, before tempers are frayed and voices raised, agree on the rules of your particular table which can take into account a number of variations.
For instance, if you want to clear the table with an ace, "asso piglia tutto", then you're playing 'scopa d'assi' which can be combined with 'settebello'. You need to remember that the coins, denari, is an important suit for gaining punti. The cards of that suit are also called 'bello' , therefore, 'il settebello' is the seven of coins and 'l'asso bello is the ace of coins. Sometimes, the capture of the Re Bello, King of Coins, also counts as a point. You need to decide before your game begins.
So, let's start. Sitting opposite your partner, the dealer deals out three cards to each player, one card at a time, going anti-clockwise. At the beginning and after every round, a card is put face up in the middle. The player to the dealer's right starts first. If he or she can take a card or even several, she does. If she can't, then she puts down the least valuable. The player must take a matching card even if there are multiple cards making up the card. For instance, the player must take a six even if there is a two and a four on the table. If she can take all the cards in one swoop, then she has a scopa and earns a punto. As the cards are won, they go face down next to the player. One card from each 'scopa' remains face up. I always thought this was meant to mock the others, but it's in the rules apparently.
The set up for two players, one of the players has made an early 'scopa'.
After we have played our three cards, the dealer hands out three more to the players but no more are set down on the table. The player after a scopa puts out the least valuable card.
It seems tame, doesn't it?
The scoring, though, is an art and a science unto itself. The team members combine their loot before calculating the punti di mazzo in the following categories:
most cards in denari
sette bello, seven of coins
primiera, majority of sevens (or see below for serious players!)
number of scope
So, you see why the seven of coins is so highly valued, it features in four of the punti. Having a beautiful, simple scoring set was no challenge to the Italians, so most serious players ramp it up a little and add another scoring method to the equation. Each number now has its own value.
Majority of each number:
sette (7) = 21 points
sei (6) = 18 points
asso (ace) = 16 points
cinque (5) = 15 points
quattro (4) = 14 points
tre (3) = 13 points
due (2) = 12 points
characters = 10 points
I'll see you at next year's Briscola Championship. And if you want to play a hand or two, I'm up for it.
It's your turn. Ma, dai!