A game of skill and chance

Originally from France, my maternal grandmother met and married an Irishman just after the Second World War and one of the things she brought with her to Ireland was a little-known card game.

Up until recently (yesterday) we’d considered Crapette a private family game — no doubt invented by one of our French ancestors. The only people we’ve ever met who’ve heard of it are members of my mother’s family and those we initiated personally — my next door neighbour growing up, my brother’s wife… select insiders.

The idea that we had a family card game was pretty cool — but it turns out we don’t. According to the Big Book of Solitaire (of which Crappette is included as a competitive version involving two players), the game is better known as Russian Bank, it’s also known as Crapot in Portugal and Brazil. Either which way, it’s an official card game and sadly, not a family invention.

The Oxford Guide to Card Games traces the game’s popularity:

A notable twentieth-century development of Patience has been the continuing evolution of a two-player folk game which crops up in books in a variety of guises. Any form of Patience can, of course, be played competitively by two or more players (which is a good reason for preferring the word “Patience” to “Solitaire”): we have already seen that the earliest recorded Patience was played by two. The oldest method is for players to play the same game separately with their own individual packs and treat it as a race, the winner being the first to succeed…. [There’s also a] comparatively intellectual version in which two players play alternately, progressing the game as far as they can before getting blocked and so having to cede the turn to play. A particular game of the latter type has been widespread since at least the mid-nineteenth century in a variety of incarnations. It first appears as Rabouge or Robuse; by the end of the nineteenth century it was also known as Crapette or Crippette Just after the First World War it became something of a fad in the United States, encouraging R. F. Foster to publish a mini-treatise on Foster’s Russian Bank. It later resurfaced as Spite & Malice in a book by Easley Blackwood (1970).(Article extracted from Parlett: The Oxford Guide to Card Games, 1990)

The word Crapette dates back to the 12th century when it meant carpenter from the Latin word carpentum which meant two-wheeled carriage.

I did some digging around and found a sociological investigation conducted in 1956 which examined the deeper motivations behind card playing.

The researchers discovered that while some people are lured in by the gambling dimension and others like to demonstrate their skill and mastery, the huge majority of us play card games to cement group ties and if we’re an outsider, to gain admittance into the group.

I’d like to take it one step further to suggest that card games, and especially the two-player kind, have other significant social functions — they can help:

  • overcome emotional clumsiness or
  • ease potentially fraught familial relationships and
  • deepen the sort of intimacy that comes with being quiet together

With respect to newcomers, card games can rescue those of us with a handicap in the small talk department from stressful social awkwardness. In fact it’s possible that the rise of the two-player game might be explained by a very special version of newcomer syndrome otherwise known as newlyweds who’ve spent little time alone with each other, never mind lived together. (Throw in a language barrier and suddenly it seems pretty obvious why my grandmother didn’t leave France without her playing cards.) However rare this predicament may be in Western marriages today, some cultures still rely on arranged marriages where a pack of cards may indeed come in handy.

In a book review of Games for Two in the New York Times from 1931, the reviewer praises Mrs. Prescott Warren for coming to the rescue of helpless “seekers of amusement”  who don’t have the numbers to make up a set for Bridge, “beginning appropriately with ‘Honeymoon Bridge’ which, she says, should send off the newly married couple fortified ‘against a single dull moment’.”

Of course there are other things we can do to develop our small talk and to overcome shyness, but as I look down the long list of advice offered in this online guide (everything from read everything you can, engage in both high and low culture, talk to yourself in the mirror, and eat sushi or try something new every day to expand your horizon), this seems an incredible about of work just to generate conversation when 45 minutes and two packs of cards does the trick just as nicely.


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Filed under Random idea, Relationships

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