Thirty-One

Growing up, my family wasn’t the sort that bought the kids sets of workbooks and flashcards to study in the summer. When there was stuff to be done, the kids in the family shadowed the adults; from the youngest age, each kid had their own chores and we learned by working alongside, cooking and setting snares, sewing and building fires, chopping wood and feeding the animals. But when the work was done, we played.

A deck of cards was at the heart of our games. My grandmother loved cribbage most, and I played countless games with her, but when there were more than two people to play she opted for Hearts. My grandfather and I played Thirty-One and I have memories of our spending hours at the game. When extended family visited, we unfolded the Rummoli board and played for chips until the kids were sent to bed and the coins came out.

Of course we kids were learning plenty and developing skills while we were playing cards. The things you would expect and maybe some things you wouldn’t. Mathematics was key; if you couldn’t keep track, you couldn’t play. Social skills were necessary in any game with bidding and trumping. Deduction was crucial for strategy.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned throughout the course of all those games was about being a loser. Nobody in my family simply allowed a kid to win. The adults who played with us were interested in teaching us how to play, in watching us improve, in participating in our quest to participate equally. They were waiting for us to gain the knowledge and skill and experience which would allow us to win.

In the meantime, I got good at losing. (For a short interval, I was also good at whining and bemoaning my plight. That left me alone with my deck of cards. And I was never much for solitaire.)

If my choice was between playing and losing or not playing, I was bent on playing (and, hence, losing). For some time, I believed it would be impossible to win against anyone in my family, all older than I. So choosing to play and lose was not in an effort to become a player who could play and win; it was simply the choice to play.

Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand, sometimes you make an error in judgement, sometimes you have all the aces and the game ends before you can lay them down: if you don’t know how to lose, winning is not as sweet.

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