Every so often, someone who knows I’m avid card-player says, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to learn bridge!” I generally feel that I’ve got to dissuade them, or at least prepare them for what’s ahead: bridge, despite its prominence in English-speaking culture, is a weird game, with an awful lot of its meat located in an odd information-theoretic metagame played out in the auction, with players making increasingly fine estimations of the cards everyone else is holding according to the often elaborate and often entirely artificial sequence of bids for the contract that will hold back on the actual field of play. And bridge culture is sometimes monomaniacally focused on this single facet of the game, going to great lengths to ensure that no information about one’s holdings can possibly leak into the auction except by the bids, and bridge players can be a bit persnickety about just this point. Not that any of this is necessarily to its detriment, but it’s not really what many of us have in mind after we’ve seen a few civilized games played over cocktails in the room next to the one with the murder in it on Poirot.1
I take it as given that these people aren’t necessarily interested in bridge as a card game, set against all other card games. That is, I don’t think they’re telling me, “I’ve always meant to pick up a 4-hander Whist derivative with fixed partnerships and a granular auction!” So what I’d like to do is say: you don’t want to learn bridge. You want to learn Slovenian Tarok (or Vira, or Scopone, or Skat). I’d like to tell them about a game that will hold their interest and reward skill and deep, strategic thinking just as much as bridge will, but that is more fun, and whose players are friendlier.
We know: that’s not how things work. I’m guessing that my friends have conceived an interest in bridge in this manner:
As native English speakers, born and raised in the United States, Canada, or United Kingdom, they played no card games growing up, or relatively simple ones. They might have played chess, but chess is extremely hard to play casually, and few of us got in at the right angle to get devoted to it. In the US we have a handful of relatively weak or localized cards traditions: Euchre, Spades, and gin might be the biggest ones. If they grew up in a few specific subcultures they might have played one of these games with their friends and family, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that made it outside the bubble. Otherwise they might have played something with a grandparent—a tradition that might even persist within the family—but again, it wasn’t a practice that translated to their larger community. By young adulthood, it’s quite likely that my friends encountered poker and had at least a few late, fun nights with it. To this day poker is by far the most prominent card game in America (though its ubiquity in the mid-aughts now seems like a fever dream), but it doesn’t really work in the same way. When you play poker you’re making a series of wagers against your opponents, with the cards as a series of randomized outcomes to bet on. It’s hard (not impossible, but hard) to have a good time unless there’s actual money at stake, and that means that it can never be a pastime in the same way that other games can be.
So: my friends probably don’t have a deep, intellectually rewarding, civilized-seeming way to recreate in a social, domestic setting. They probably don’t play Go, backgammon, or chess (an alternate version of this story ends with them being interested in playing Go, backgammon, or chess, instead of bridge). It’s much more likely they play or have played video games, but video games are a vivid sensory experience that requires its participants to all turn their attention towards it; they’re like TV and movies in this sense. While they might not make it impossible to interact socially, they’re not an easy fit for interacting through. My friends don’t own billiards tables, and they might not have enough outdoor space to allow a game of pétanque or croquet.
It’s quite possible that my friends have just reached the age that getting drunk and talking about music or movies isn’t as compelling as it used to be.
Bridge is far from the cultural titan that it was in the days of Ely Culbertson, but it’s still probably the biggest thing we’ve got in the world of card games. Qv the aforesaid Poirot. No longer, of course; but for many years, anglophone depictions of domestic recreation featured, by default, bridge. It’s what people did, apparently. It’s worth noting that bridge—and really, any other card game of sufficient refinement—is apparently plastic enough, too, that it can afford all kinds of plot-advancing conversations and intrigues and murders. It’s an effective social medium, in other words, in addition to a recreation. If my friends were French, or simply avid readers of the Maigret books, they might conceive an interest in Belote; if they set their cultural sights farther back in history, maybe whist, Quadrille, or piquet. But for the last hundred years, insofar as English speakers have any card game available to us that seems designed for fun and socialization, bridge is it.
One thing that bridge does share in common with poker, and something like Euchre lacks2, is a body of thought and literature about the game. The English-speaker has access not only to novels and movies which feature people playing bridge, but to books and websites, and even a documentary or two, about the game itself. Its history and personalities, yes, but also its strategy. It’s deep enough to afford this kind of consideration. The bridge novice can study oceans of material, and the bridge expert can make a living writing books and playing at the highest level (this latter part is certainly less true than it was! The money dries up first, of course). And students at any level can discuss the finer points together. The game itself, in other words, is worthy of consideration and discussion.
Closely related: you can even watch people playing bridge. It seems that for this to obtain for any game, you need a certain group of people who can play it at a sufficiently high level, and you need a certain, larger group of people who understand the game well enough to understand and be interested in the first group. And the game itself needs to have enough of a spectrum of skillful play that there’s an appreciable distance between the two groups.
In other words: there’s an entire culture around bridge. It’s far from ubiquitous in today’s fallen age (otherwise the inciting conversations to this blog post would never have happened; my friends would already play, or already know they didn’t like it), but, having perceived in themselves a desire for a particular kind of recreation that they didn’t immediately have at hand, their cultural conditioning and set of references suggested this particular game to them, which they knew of, and had certain associations with, even if they didn’t know exactly how it worked—even if, as I say, my own suspicion is that had they had more detailed knowledge of it, they might not actually want to learn any more about it at all.
By the way: I should make it clear at this point that everything I’ve generalized about my friends goes for me—absolutely (maybe you guessed). I would love to be a part of the culture of bridge! I remember, with what I imagine they call saudade, when they had bridge columns in the Times. I am utterly romanced by the stories of high society’s sharpest minds, in dinner jackets, at bridge until morning. It’s only because I decided to learn it—have decided, multiple times—and found its auction; the holdings messages encoded into it; the multiple conventions thereof; the seriousness and bureaucratic professionalism with which its adherents apply themselves to those conventions to be so charmless that I have bounced off its surface, despite the abundance of literature, the ability to stream matches online even now, and the actual possibility of meeting another player in my life.
It’s probably obvious to everybody except for enthusiasts like myself, who have a tendency to collapse non-formal distinctions and talk about the most popular game in America in the same terms as one whose rules were copied out of a Czech games manual from 1900, that all of the above has just as much to do with the culture and the society in which the game is played, as it does to do with the game itself. To suggest that my friends simply learn Skat, with its voluminous body of German literature, and its German iOS app, and the possibility of a Wednesday-night tournament match shown on German TV, doesn’t cut it. The value of these recreations to the individual is not, in the general case, purely in the play. It is in the matrix of human interaction, accessible through the medium of a shared language, in which the game is embedded.
And yet there is the game itself. We love the games for the elegance of their rules, the flavor of their play, and the dramatic tone that their specifics give to an evening. We card-players are passionate about games that play well, played well; and we have seen above that so much of the cultural dimensions of a game depend on its formal characteristics. A game needs to be good enough to hang a culture on.
Like it or not, then, if such a thing exists, bridge is an example of what we can call a culture-game. As are poker, Go, backgammon, chess, basketball, tennis, wrestling. Just as games themselves are culture, and insofar as they are culture are distinctly beautiful and fascinating expressions both of humanity in its universality and of the times and places in which they’re played: games, these games anyway, give rise to their own cultures. They catalyze art and discussion and study. They give rise to ways of speaking and cultural archetypes; their implements, whatever form they take, become loci of ornamentation and fashion. The player, through the game, feeds the culture and the culture feeds the player.
The evangelist, who has a game they want to see succeed on the market, would ignore the cultural aspect of the thing at their peril. I would even go further; I would say that some of us might want to see our culture of recreation change and deepen. Human beings have always played, but there are games that provide deep channels for interrelation and those that don’t. I’ll go on the record and say that the most popular avenues for recreation available to us right now don’t do a very good job at it, and I’d like to see things otherwise. The romance of stories of dinner jackets is one thing; but also today, to living people, there is the question of how to spend leisure time in a way that’s engaging, satisfying, deepens human connection, leaves the senses perhaps a little refreshed.
A culture-game gives rise to a culture but it’s also embedded in its culture. Baseball stories don’t remain the exclusive domain of baseball fans (this is partially because to be a baseball fan doesn’t have to be a distinct and exclusive identity!); sometimes baseball movies are movies about baseball, but just as often baseball movies are movies about other things that take baseball as their setting. Skat is not embedded in my culture, regrettably, for reasons I’ve outlined above; but neither is Settlers of Catan or Dark Souls. We should closely observe why not.
Take me, now; I’m an evangelist for the games I like. I don’t like poker, I don’t like bridge, and I want more people to play better games, for their sake and mine. What am I to do to provide a credible alternative to my inquiring friends?
It’s hard to escape the thought of trying to work a little on my culture: to influence the games it plays.
I hasten here to acknowledge that sometimes my friends ignore my warnings, and go ahead and learn bridge, and have a very fine time. Sometimes they quite like the information-theoretic angle, and sometimes they find that it isn’t nearly as central to their experience of the game as I’ve made out, and have a lovely time at the card play itself. In any case, I’m not writing this essay to argue that bridge isn’t a very good game; I’m taking it as given that I don’t particularly like it, and wondering what is to be done. ↩
No doubt passionate players of other games that have less prestige in the Anglophone world will bristle at their exclusion from the category of games worth thinking deeply about. To them I say: if there is a book in you on Euchre or Spades, by god, write it! I will read it and I will be your most passionate pitchman. ↩
I’ll tell you about my plan for 2023: I want to embark on a year-long media campaign to plant the seeds of a new card game in Anglophone culture.
Previously I spoke about my ambivalence towards bridge. But that ambivalence comes along with a realization: just because I think bridge isn’t a very fun game, it’s not enough to claim that there are superior options out there and leave it at that. A game makes its way into people’s lives and habits on the strength of their encounters with it in their culture and society, just as much its formal characteristics. If we want a compelling alternative to suggest to people wanting a fun way to spend time with each other, it can’t just be a good game; it has to have a real, full, multifaceted cultural presence. There needs to be writing about it, discourse, Youtube videos. Podcasts.
Well, let’s get started, then.
What makes a good culture-game? A current conviction of mine is: which game it is is actually not all that important. The point is the culture. Of course, certain games are more amenable to consciously willing a culture into existence than others.
It does, among other things, need to be a good game. Even bridge is a good game. I don’t think it’s particularly fun, but I’d be a fool to claim it isn’t good, and to claim that its success is not in part due to its being good. So, embarking on a public-relations campaign, to select the game that has the best chance of challenging bridge in the English-speaking world and to make this exercise worth our while, we ought to limit ourselves to games which are well-balanced, generally enjoyable, and have enough depth to provide interest and delight.
I also have an inkling—this is a bias, but I think it’s a bias that most people share—that modern, commercial, or branded board games and card games have a much steeper hill to climb in this respect. By all accounts Dominion is a great game, but I think it will never be successful outside of the group of people who already identify as board game enthusiasts. Partially this is because you have to spend money on it, and it comes in a big box; partially because all of the different art and card types and (one imagines) little cardboard tokens seem extremely complex and fiddly; partially because those art and card types are simply unfamiliar1; more than anything else, though, there’s stuff like this:
…You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums…
Feodums? Here I must give voice to sheer prejudice, mostly certain that I speak for the greater game-curious public. There’s a family resemblance among games like Dominion, and Magic: The Gathering, and Settlers of Catan; and high medieval fantasy, wizards, knights, and the like; and a group of passionate fans who have already opted into participation in a subculture which has no need to appeal to the mainstream. This family is nerdy, and so many commercial games have nerdy themes and content2. That will be a barrier; it is for me.
Anyway, my personal area of interest is traditional card games, so that’s our focus today.
Finally, let’s restrict ourselves to games for more than two players. This is slightly arbitrary, in that there are many very good and deep two-player card games, and more generally, many of the best and oldest table games around the world are for exactly two players. Nevertheless, I think there’s a subtle difference between games for two and games for more than two: games for two tend to create a closed social atmosphere, one that doesn’t easily expand to accomodate others, and by extension can shut down on socialization. Games for more than two, at their best, become matrices for the pleasurable spending of time by groups of people.
Let’s enumerate a (highly personal) list of games that meet our initial conditions:
All of these are good games. That is, they all meet the basic requirement that they reward skillful play, they have an element of chance and excitement to them, they tend to create enough opportunities to do well for oneself, et cetera. Some are more complex than others.
Let’s say then that a culture-game-in-waiting also ought to be on the deeper side; there ought to be multiple levels of play, with subtle and at-times sophisticated strategies available to advanced players. This gives us room to grow as players, material to write our guidebooks about, and finer points to cover in post-match analyses.
Let’s say, finally: a tarot game has less of a chance to become a sensation in the English-speaking world than other sorts of games. I say this with a heavy heart, because I love tarot games; but the “standard” deck of cards is essentially ubiquitous and cheap, and even German, Hungarian or Italian patterns are easy to get on Amazon and affordable; and games played with those patterns can have an Anglo-American deck swapped in trivially. Tarot decks are harder to find3; when one does find them they tend to be on the pricier side, and the confusion between fortune-telling and games-playing continues to be an annoyance. And, unlike German, Hungarian or Italian games, tarot games require tarot packs, because they’re structurally unique. None of this is a strike against tarot games—the structure of the tarot packs is part of what makes the games so wonderful—but it does mean that introducing them on the Anglophone world stage is more of a varsity maneuver.
That leaves a healthy set to choose from. For which one should we dedicate a year of our lives to building a grassroots community of play and discourse? Back to my conviction: it doesn’t really matter which one. The point is actually to pick one and stick with it, because the one thing we can be sure of is that the public, though they cry out for recreation, are not and will not become enthusiasts. They don’t want to be led through a typological tour of the world’s card game families, and the historical, sociological, or linguistic origins of any particular one will probably not delight them as much as they delight us.
Instead: pick one and stick with it. Play it regularly enough to develop a sense of mastery and familiarity; by the same stroke, to think about it at length and discuss it in depth.
By happy coincidence, I played Ulti for the first time recently, and nearly fell in love.
The one special thing to Ulti is the practice of “robbing” the talon4. There’s an auction5 to determine the contract, which is quite common, but: at each turn, the bidder picks up the talon, names their bid, and discards 2 cards; the next player then picks up those cards, makes their bid, and discards; and so on. Thus players get a chance to grow and adjust their holdings and bids over the course of the auction, as well as getting glimpses of their opponents’ hands—both from what they bid and from what they discard. It makes for a natural sense of drama and escalation that I find really compelling.
It’s got some other qualities that make it a good culture-game candidate:
It’s got another quality that intrigues me: it is already a culture-game, albeit one that has essentially no footprint whatsoever outside of its country of origin. Quoth Pagat:
Although Ulti is the most popular card game in Hungary, it is almost unknown outside its native land.
This is not some historical curiosity we’re talking about; this is a game that is already deeply enmeshed in the folkways, idioms and so on of the Hungarians. It all just happens to be taking place in arguably the most impenetrable language spoken in Europe. Nevertheless, there are dozens of texts already written on Ulti’s history and strategy. It is alive and well. There are, at this very moment, many people that an interested party could play against on Ultistars, as have there been every time I’ve ever looked.
In other words, the ambitious evangelist wouldn’t be starting from scratch. They’d simply have to, you know, learn Hungarian6.
So, it’s settled. 2023 will be the year of Ulti. It seems to have everything we need to make a go of building some sliver of an English-speaking culture, however marginal. I resolve to play it regularly, rather than dipping into different games as they strike my fancy, and actively try to become a proficient player; and to cajole my friends to do the same up to whatever level they’ll tolerate.
If it wasn’t obvious: this is as much a personal matter as a public one. The “us” of this text is, mostly, me; by nature I’m a card games enthusiast, and I play a great many different ones in any given month, and think and talk with my fellow enthusiasts about even more. What if I focused on one, instead? I really enjoy my dilettantism, but I’m interested in the effects of depth, too. As a personal exercise, I’d like to focus, cultivate a degree of skill, and even work with the boredom and desire to hop around that will no doubt arise in time7.
The whole “sliver of an English-speaking culture” angle—well, it’s quixotic at best, I’m aware of that. But having acknowledged that reality, let’s proceed without it. For the next year, let us be campaigners to deepen the recreational resources of our culture. We will imagine a future where Ulti has captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and groups of friends gather at kitchen tables, cafes and bars everywhere and happily while away their hours in friendly, sociable, engaging play. Its genesis is—also happily—the play itself. My theory of change, such as it is, is that the material of the game-culture might, or at least could only, flow from this. The only realization of a game is in the playing; so we shall start there.
Another important bit of guidance to the would-be evangelist, easily overlooked by the enthusiast: familiarity matters greatly! The cards in the German pattern can be mapped, trivially, 1:1 with their Anglo-American equivalents. Even a Russian or Swedish or what-have-you pack look just like the Anglo-American, except the indices might be in Cyrillic, or might say D for Q, et cetera. And yet. When they are dealt to a player who hasn’t prepared themselves for, and has no particular interest in, the act of real-time translation: they can be awfully unsettling. Card players do and always have thrived on familiarity. The cards ought to be so utterly familiar that every detail of them is invisible to the player, and the player knows their suit and rank entirely unconsciously. ↩
We can take this further; commercial board games tend, almost all of them, to be themed: they are about something, a player plays as someone. To the extent that these games are usually introduced with a summary of the theme even before one finds out what kind of game it is. Domnion starts off “You are a monarch…”; another game is introduced with “You play a group of human survivors killing zombies”; the only thing I know about Wingspan, which has been recommended to me many times, is that it is in some mystical way about birds. I don’t want to play a game that’s about anything. I don’t want to play as anyone else. I want to play as myself. I want to interact with the people across from me, in my living room, in the circumstances of my ordinary life. I’m pretty sure this is a bias that’s much stronger in me than in the average person, for whatever reason; hence its relegation to a footnote. But I do think that poker would never have experienced its boom if a new player were introduced to it starting with, “You play a cranky dwarf…” ↩
I’ve recently had a fantasy of pro bono writing a new frontend for http://tarock.net; its confusing interface aside, I want to strongly recommend that site as a convenient source for well-priced tarot (and other) packs in the United States. ↩
The talon, or kitty: a small set of cards left over at the deal, often drawn from or exchanged with as a part of the subsequent play. ↩
The auction is a very common feature of card games: before the players play out the hand, they all go around and bid on the type of game (or contract) that they would be willing to play. The bids are ordered, generally with the more difficult contracts corresponding to higher bids. If you win the auction, you get some privileges which make it easier to win the game, like being able to name trumps, or exchange with the talon (which is why a player wants to win the auction), but you also usually incur some penalty if you go on to lose the hand (whch is way a player doesn’t want to bid a contract higher than they have a chance of playing and winning). ↩
This is a humorous exaggeration. There’s a 90% chance that I won’t learn Hungarian. ↩
I think part of this also has to do with the general thinking I’ve been doing about games-playing. In the traditional communities that gave rise to all of these games, a relatively stable (though always evolving) population often played—and play; this still happens—the same game, regularly, for years, often decades. What’s that like? What role does the game assume for the players when it is so intimately familiar to everyone playing? What role does it play in the community and the greater life of its players when it’s a fixed, shared point of cultural reference? ↩
We are now fifteen days into the year of Ulti.
For the calendar year, we will play and discuss Ulti to the near-exclusion of other card games. The point, at the highest level, is twofold:
Here are some things I’ve been doing thus far:
Resources, roughly, fall into two groups:
As for the strategy—while some of it is coming out of my own insight and conversations with fellow players, most of it is coming from the existing body of knowledge in Hungarian. My primary source, right now, is József Pais’ Kártya.hu (titles aside, it’s a book, not a website), which I’ve been slowly translating on DeepL, which involves a fair bit of editing, interpretation, and consultation with Róbert.
In the future, there are all sorts of quixotic things we can try:
Of course you do. If you’d like to play with me, in person or online, drop me a line:
If you want to learn the rules:
If you want to play by yourself, I like Ultistars. The interface is bonkers, and happens to also be entirely in Hungarian. Some resources to get started:
There’s also an Android app, which I haven’t tried out yet.
If the insanity of Ultistars is too much for you, Jonathan Kandell has created a playingcards.io room, which is a little more barebones and doesn’t have any bots.
If you want to talk about it with people online: