The Benefits of Cheating at Cards

All three children believe they have exclusive usage rights over their grandmother.  As a result, when the Matriarch comes to visit she is never without a child in her lap, and N decides that walking is just too complicated for two-year-olds.  Why walk when you can put up your arms and say “Ga-ma carry me.”?  Under this regime the Matriarch was likely having the least free Independence Day she could recall.  They woke her up at unsociable hours, ate her breakfast, clomped around the house in her shoes, and demanded her attention at every moment.  Now it was 11am and at least the baby was napping, but the Matriarch had been conscripted to play dozens of rounds of Uno with the two older children.

Uno, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a reasonably simple card game.  There are four colour suits: red, yellow, green and blue, and each card has a number as well as a colour.  Players lay down cards in turn, and must match either the colour or number of the card just played.  If they cannot match either the colour or kind of card they pick up a card from the deck.  The game is made more complex by coloured non-number cards that can skip the next player, reverse the direction of play, or make the next player draw two cards from the deck.  There are also wild cards that can be used to change the colour suit, and wild-draw-fours that both change the colour and make the next player pick up four extra cards.  The object of the game is to be the first to play all your cards.  It is called Uno because when a player plays his second-to-last card, leaving only one remaining in his hand, he is required to declare it by saying “Uno!”.

Mrs S has many fond memories of playing Uno at her grandmother’s kitchen table at family gatherings.  The rules were largely secondary to the main objective of the game: to make sure that Uncle K always lost.  “If Uncle K loses, we all win,” the children were taught by Aunt H (Uncle K and the Matriarch’s sister).  Of course, Uncle K is a strategic genius, and combined with his rather flexible approach to the rules, he was nearly impossible to defeat.   If you played fair.  So, in the bosom of her family, Mrs S learned to cheat at cards.

In retrospect, Mrs S has realised that this is one of the most valuable skills she ever acquired.  Everyone should learn to do it.  You need to really know the rules and how to play a good clean game to be any good at playing a dirty one.   Cheating isn’t low-level rule-breaking, like shoplifting or brawling in the street.  Cheating is manipulating the system, bending it to your advantage: think sophisticated smuggling ring.

But the real value in being able to cheat becomes apparent when one is playing games with young children.  This is because young children are terrible at games, but they will not stick at it long enough to get better if they lose all the time; and if they don’t get better, it will never be any fun to play cards with them.  So they need a great deal of assistance if they are to win, assistance that they usuallly do not welcome.  Therefore, helping them along takes a certain knack, a sort of reverse-cheating.  Now reverse-cheating is a powerful concept.  Think about what would happen if the bad guys who sell and smuggle weapons to warlords instead decided to use their considerable knowhow to get food, medicine, clean water and school books to those displaced by war.  Same basic skill set, completely different outcome.

Mrs S’s children are at that terrible-at-every-game phase, and purposeful, well-planned cheating has not so much as occurred to them.  R is preoccupied with playing all the “powerful cards”, not yet grasping that those should always be held until the end, or until there is someone you really need to screw over.  C has a sound grasp of the rules, but applies them inconsistently, as she doesn’t really believe that they apply to her.  This means that the burden of making sure the children each won a roughly even number of games fell completely upon the Matriarch, which must have difficult because purposefully losing at Uno would feel like a betrayal of everything she had been brought up to believe.  Reverse-cheating at Uno is less tricky than reverse-cheating at, for example, Candyland, because in the latter you are battling strong predestination, whereas in Uno the Matriarch only really had the strategic ineptitude of R and C and an occassional run of good luck for herself to contend with.  Nonetheless, ensuring that one always loses at Uno is nearly as difficult as ensuring that Uncle K never wins at Uno, so sometimes, whether through luck or irrepressible competence, the Matriarch won, greatly upsetting her grandchildren.  Mrs S, who was cleaning the kitchen whilst this was happening, wondered how it would end.  Between a six-year-old drunk on the power a wild-draw-four gave him over the next sequential player, and a four-year-old willing to bend any rule, including those defining what constitutes winning, in order to win, the situation could easily turn nasty.

But the Matriarch is a steady hand when it comes to disappointed, power-hungry, rule-averse children.  She quickly deals the next hand, saying “Maybe you’ll win this time.  Let’s see what happens.”  And she guides them through play:

“Are you sure you want to play that card?…Ah yes, that’s better,” she will say, carefully engineering her own demise.

“Oh my, C!  You only have one card left.  What do you say?” she asks.

“Snap!” C said.  Mrs S would have made the four-year-old draw four for not declaring Uno, but the Matriarch is kinder.  She laughs and carries on, and C wins.  Then the cards are dealt again so R can win.

As Mrs S listened she wondered at the wisdom in the Matriarch’s gentleness with the kids.  Everyone was having a good time, and what is more, the game was so friendly no one was worried about sitting in front of a window (a dangerous position in the card games of her chidhood, as if play continued past dark someone was bound to spy your hand reflected in the window, and no mercy would be shown.)  No one was cheating for his own advantage, and, most importantly, no one had asked for a snack in at least half an hour.  And still Mrs S thought wistfully about the raucous, anarchic Uno games around her grandmother’s kitchen table.  Maybe that’s where her thoughts belonged on the Fourth of July: back home with the rebels.

Chess for Beginners

Mr S had taken C to a birthday party.  R had “made dinner” for himself and N, meaning he had put some turkey dinosaurs and oven chips (fries) on a baking tray.  They were in the oven and he had been instructed to find something to play with his little sister until it was time to put the peas in the microwave.  Mrs S was shamelessly and irresponsibly using those fifteen minutes to write.  It was peaceful.  

R came through to the kitchen to put the peas in a bowl.  

“What were you playing with N?” Mrs S asked as R sent peas skittering all over the table.  

“Well,” sighed R, “I wanted to play chess with her, but she wasn’t all that interested so I won quite easily.  And I even started with a really silly move so she would have a chance!”  

Later Mrs S told Mr S that it was sweet that R wanted to give his two-year-old sister a chance to beat him at chess.  Mr S just wanted to know what the silly move was, that R was convinced ceded all the natural advantage that four years, a basic grasp of the rules, and interest in the game confered. 

“Apparently he moved out the queen’s knight,” said Mrs S

Mr S seemed rather irritated that Mrs S did not know that this was not a silly move.  “There are recognised openings that use a knight,” Mrs S heard before completely glazing over.  Mr S is no Kasparov, but the first thing he bought with his own money, at the age of five, was a chess set and a book on how to play.   Now, Mrs S prides herself on being able to take an interest in anything.  Then along ccomes chess and shows her up as an intellectually lazy, strategically deficient stupid-head.  She is always tempted just to call the chess pieces horsies and castles, but Mr S has more than enough upset in his life just reading the coverage of the Greek situation, so she nodded periodically and tried to tweak the paragraphs she had written earlier in the evening while still looking attentive.  She didn’t feel guilty because she was fairly sure Mr S would know she wasn’t listening and wouldn’t be terribly offended so long as she tuned in again when he started talking about something else.  

Once upon a time Mr S thought it would be fun to teach Mrs S to play chess, but she wasn’t all that interested, so he won quite easily.  Then he commented that it would be really good fun to see how few pieces he would need to play with before it was a fair match.  And they have not played since.  But on the plus side they are still married.