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.

Melting, melting!

Mrs S has just survived the hottest July day in the UK since records began.  (99F recorded at Heathrow!)  Based on news reports of travel chaos, and the general angst of her British acquaintances, she is expecting to find tomorrow that her lovely Hertfordshire town has become a zombie wastland, but a well-fed one, for the inhabitants should be able to lap up puddles of melted brains off the pavement.  If the hysteria is to be believed, that is.

The odd thing about the British — and this may be valuable information to you whether you are in fact British or not — is that they seem greatly resentful of their own weather.  All of it.  It always rains, which is dreary and miserable, except when it is sunny, at which point they all develop vampiric solar sensitivity.  In the winter all in the know want to jet off to an Alpine chalet for some snowy paradise.  But should half an inch of the white stuff fall in the Home Counties they shall consider themselves homebound.  (Mrs S is informed every year that they don’t know how to deal with snow because they never get any, though the fact that this is patiently explained to her each year rather calls the opening premise into question.)  In the summer they will choose to holiday in Spain or Portugal or Greece, but should Mediterranean temperatures find their way to the British Isles, the population melts.  Feeling tetchy herself from the unusual temperatures, Mrs S took it upon herself to point out this idiosyncracy to the other mothers at the Wednesday coffee morning and play group.  She was informed patiently, and with a noble self-deprecating spirit that the Continental heat is different: it’s a dry heat, darling.

Now, the United Kingdom was the most perfect place imaginable for Mrs S to make her new home, for it is obsessessed with the meteorological, and she is in fact an authority on weather.  She grew up in Massachusetts, with steamy summers, glorious autumns, icy winters and pollenous spring.  She studied for her B.A. at Bishop’s University, in Lennoxville, Quebec, where for the long months of winter it never quite stops snowing completely.  And she then found her way to Saint Louis University, in Saint Louis, Missouri, for her PhD studies, and spent five years enduring swampy, dripping heatwaves and tornado sirens.  

As you can imagine, the natural superiorty Mrs S enjoys from having lived through so much weather makes her great fun at dinner parties and, of course, mothers’ coffee mornings.  The hard part is hiding from those she is tutting over how much she hates, loathes, and despises the heat.  And this was especially difficult this morning as on the walk up to school with the three children, Mrs S’s sunscreen had joined the beads of perspiration running into her eyes.  This set off a chain reaction: burning, tearing, streaming, mascara running.  She supposed that this cosmetological carnage was well-hidden behind her glamourously-oversized sunglasses until R’s very concerned teacher ran to get her half a box of tissues, as you do when a frowsy, harassed woman arrives at the classroom door with mascara trails running off her chin.  So, while sitting in the church hall, drinking tea — and not iced tea, because that is a base colonial perversion — Mrs S was not sure she didn’t still look like a slightly dissolved goth.  Tutting weather experts should be calm, cool and collected at all times.

The children played nicely as their mothers sipped and commiserated, but they were individually fractious.  This included C, who Mrs S had kept home from nursery because she had a bit of a cough that kept her awake the night before.  C had nonetheless been dragged a mile to school (not too onerous, as she rode on the buggy boad) because R had to get to class and Mr S was driving to Heathrow to collect the Matriarch.  Now tired and hot, C just wanted to go home and see Grandma (the Martiarch), but to avoid another sweaty walk Mrs S had arranged for Mr S to swing by and collect them from the church on his way home.  Trying to explain to a tired four-year-old and her only marginally more amenable two-year-old sister that they had to wait there, even after playgroup had ended, and that Mrs S did not actually know when Daddy and Grandma would arrive was almost as unpleasant as having sunscreen in one’s eyes.  

Of course the Matriarch arrived, and Mr S drove them all home in a blessedly airconditioned car.  And it was hot all day, and C was insanely cuddly for the climatic conditions, again owing to tiredness.  Bedtime was the stuff of nightmares.  But despite all of these trials and perspirations, at the end of the day Mrs S was happy to reflect that even when the heat feels enough to melt your brain onto the sidewalk to be lapped up by opportunistic zombies, and you are in charge of children less able to cope with the temperature than you, all can end well.  The Matriarch has arrived.  Mrs S has her mother.  Even if calm and order do not instantly descend upon the house (and let’s face it: the chances of that were never good), at least there is someone else around to say with the incredulity of an American weather authority “But THIS IS a dry heat…!”