A Conversation With Cards

Four Players are sitting around a table. They each have a hand of 13 cards, which they have adeptly arranged in numerical sequence. The first player places one card, face down, on the table, eyes the group mysteriously, and announces "One ace."

The next player casually mutters "three twos" and places three cards, face down, over the ace. The third player, with an air of profound self-confidence, places one card, face down, on top of the pile, and states "one three." The second player sighs.

The fourth player, with a gleeful air of even more profound self-confidence, turns to the previous player, and says "I Doubt You!" upon which he turns over the top card of the pile, revealing for all to see, the telltale Jack.

As the third player shadedly picks up all the cards in the pile and arranges them into his hand, the fourth, with Sherlock Holmesian clarity, says "You see, my friend, I had all four threes."

They are playing a children's card game called "I Doubt You." The game is played with anywhere from three to seven players, and the object is to get rid of all the cards in your hand. One's ability to succeed depends solely on luck and deception, for when it is one's turn, one must put down something, and that something must be at least one of the cards next in sequence to the card previously played.

The subterfuge involved in playing this game may not necessarily train someone to be a master criminal. Rather it allows players to explore a very particular social phenomenon which arises when it becomes necessary to avoid detection. It is played under an ideal condition in which everyone knows that, from time to time, in order to keep the basic rule of the game, someone must break another rule.

There are many social experiences in which a similar conflict of rules is expressed. For example, in the bartering system, both the salesman and the customer know that each participant will be prone to some kind of misrepresentation, and that there is a penalty for being discovered. The misrepresentation is itself sanctioned by the system but, on the other hand, the system also demands that the misrepresentation remain undeclared.

There is still another fold in the complexity of the I Doubt You relationship. Though a player is penalized for having been discovered, that player, by virtue of then having more cards in his hand, has more evidence to determine when someone else is making a false claim.

I wonder if this is in any way related to the idea that it takes a thief to catch a thief? It is intriguing as a dynamic study of the power and consequences of being the convict: the more you get caught the more chance you have to catch others, and yet the closer to ultimate failure you yourself are. In terms of the game itself, the increased power of the penalized provides continual involvement for all players.

In poker, the penalized (the lower) is supposed to suffer a loss of power. In order to make this obvious, the game is made "interesting" with a little betting.

Five-card draw poker evolves a rather intriguing analogy. At the beginning of this voyage into fate, each player must "buy in" or "ante". Thus the ship leaves the shore. A hand of five cards is dealt. Now, each captain must decide his initial course. He takes stock of his provisions. He must discover the most favorable wind.

Which arrangement of his cards will be the most profitable? Which has the greatest potential? And, when he makes his decision, his very commitment to it is challenged. He must bet on his powers. He must bet on his ability to discover even greater power across an uncharted sea.

But even that is not enough. Others may increase the bet. Others may be forcing him to see that they may have greater chance than he to succeed. Should he go back to shore before the distance is too great and the investment too heavy? Dare he raise even another sail?

At last the challenge is agreed upon. Those who have already met their fate, return to a poorer shore. The others, the wise and the over-confident, plunge forward. They trade whatever they feel they must risk to gain the riches of the new land. And now, the dream is almost realized, the course already foretold.

And now they must challenge each other's victories. There is no more wind. The sea is behind us. Now, let us determined who has the greatest faith in his success.

We bid again. We bid to convince. We underestimate for a while, engage in small comparisons. But then, suddenly, we are dared to the showdown. It has become a duel of confidence between two players. The others have given up all claim. And then, when the bid is finally agreed upon, when the last volley has been fired, the merchandise, the fact of power, the deepest wound, is once and for all revealed. And to the victor belongs the spoils.

Everything the victor has risked is returned to him, along with everything everybody else has risked. Thus the size of the victory is directly contingent upon the amount each player can get the others to risk. What is recovered on the shores of the metaphor is not the riches of a new land, but the penalties exacted of those who are less fortunate, of the meek and of the foolhardy.

Poker is the archtypical confidence game. It is a contest of claims, a battle of bravado, a showdown between the rich and the clever. The opportunity for deception is augmented by the use of symbolic money - those little colored chips which breath an air of playful innocence, until they are cashed in.

On the other hand, we have that most famous and painfully enduring of children's showdown games, War.

The cards are divided equally among the players, and placed, face down in a pile, in front of each player. Then, simultaneously, each player reveals the card on top of his pile. The player with the highest card wins the other cards.

Thus, the players are involved with a continuous showdown. No one is trying to claim or convince. The comparison is immediate and absolute. Unless, of course, there is a war.

A war occurs when two or more players have the same card, unless someone else has a higher card. When the war begins, each of the warriors places three more cards, face down, next to the original card. A fourth card is turned face up. The player with the highest new card wins all the cards played during the war. During the war, the three cards invested are unknown. The players can't tell how much they've risked until the final showdown. What if all three cards are aces? Only after the war can the players determine what they've won or lost.

Thus the simple comparisons of power that occur as the players reveal their top cards are not considered wars. They're skirmishes, chance encounters which are resolved almost as soon as they are revealed. The real wars occur when the powers are equal; when other powers, regardless of their strength, are blindly created; when the ultimate confrontation is delayed.

Oddly enough, this principle of confrontation is found in many adult war simulations. A battle in a game like Diplomacy is the result of a coincidence of equal powers vying for the same positions. Though the format is different, the expression of conflict remains the same.

Two other children's card games in which equality results in confrontation are Steal the Old Man's Bundle and Crazy Eights.

In Steal the Old Man's Bundle, each player is dealt four cards. Four more cards are dealt, face up, to the center of the table. Each player scans his cards, and if any of the table cards are of the same rank as any of the table cards, the player displays the match, and takes the corresponding card from the table, leaving the pair, face-up beside him.

If a player has no match, he discards any card, face-up, on the table. If a player can make another match, he places the pair on top of the face-up cards beside him. Thus, each player creates a bundle of cards. If any of his opponents has a card which matches the card that is on the top of a bundle, that player shows the matching card and takes the entire bundle. When a hand is exhausted, four more cards are dealt each player.

Since two cards are already used to create the top pair in the bundle, the chances of losing one's bundle are slightly less. Thus, it would seem that a player who has been able to gather four cards of the same rank onto the top of his bundle is secure from attack. This is true, however, only as long as that player doesn't add any more cards to his pile. And, if no more cards are added, unless the player already has a large bundle, he can't win the game.

So, in order to win, you have to risk all your holdings. In this game, we delight in the insecurity of wealth.

In Crazy Eights, instead of trying to amass power or fortune, you're trying to get rid of your holdings. When two people are playing, each is given seven cards (or five cards, if more than two are playing). The rest of the deck is placed in a pile, face down. The first card is turned over, and placed beside the deck.

A card may be played from the hand if it is of the same suit or rank as the revealed card, or if the card is an eight. An eight is a wild card, and the one who plays that card declares the next suit that can be played. The game continues. If it happens that someone doesn't have a playable card, he must draw from the deck until he gets something he can play.

Since there are only four suits, an eight or a card of the same rank (and, perforce, different suit) has the greatest effect on the opponent's ability to play. Thus, the strategy becomes to discover the suit which the opponent will have the most difficulty following. At the same time, however, the player must remember to protect himself with an eight or with holdings in other suits, or he will never be able to put his master plan into effect.

The cards have two functions: They serve as vehicles for getting closer to the goal, and obstacles for preventing others from achieving their goals. At the same time, the cards each have two meanings: suit, which extends the flight, and rank, which changes direction. And then there are those mysterious forces from another dimension, the Crazy Eights.

Crazy Eights is a race game. In order to win, you do not necessarily have to prevent others from getting there. All you have to do is be sure you get there first. You win by outfoxing, outguessing, and outlucking.

You try to prepare yourself for any exigency. You are Tallyrand, ready to move in any direction which will allow you to remain in the race. You are Napoleon astride a crazy eight, armed with a deadly string of clubs, preparing to penetrate the frozen heartland of Russia.

Your ace of clubs is met by an ace of hearts. You are forced to take on more and more. There is no escape. By the time you are able to meet the challenge with a heart of your own, you are already too burdened to flee.

You are Tarzan, and in your hand you have the diamond scepter of a fierce king. Can you return it before you are detected? You are a kid, playing a game of Crazy Eights. Are you having fun?

There are hundreds of card games. I am always amazed every time I pick up a deck of cards to realize how many relationships I can explore with such a simple tool.