Checkers, gin rummy, old maid and more

The holiday season isn’t just about eating, watching football and napping. It IS about gathering together and engaging in some enthusiastic family-fun-and-games competition.


Yes...‘tis the season. Let the games begin.


Back in the day when we would break out Monopoly, Scrabble or a deck of cards, we knew that a quiet day was about to become a whole lot more interesting. One thing was certain... somehow, somewhere in our family “genes,” that inner core of competition would always rise to the occasion. We learned early in life that it feels a whole lot better to win than to lose. We learned that it’s better to play fair than to cheat. We learned that, in the long run, laughter is the best part of any game. And when I say laughter, I mean laughter that begins at the inner core of your being and makes its way through every single cell of your body.


Some of our most played games were checkers, Pit and Spoon. Photo by Rachel Barduson

And yet, board games and card games were not always fun. Losing was horrible, yet important, and we had to learn it. Dad made sure of that. Later, now, we can laugh about it.


I will always remember sitting on the floor, facing off dad, as the Checkers board sat on the foot stool. Checkers was one of the first games that my father decided we should learn how to play. I hated every minute. This was one game that did not originate at the kitchen table. Instead, he kept that darn Checkers box right next to his chair in the living room. He would set it up on the foot stool and, with a smirk, ask, “Who’d like to play Checkers?” Running and hiding was not an option. Instead, we all took our turn in defeat. Right away my sisters and I would know that we were about to learn the big lesson of losing gracefully. Every game with Checkers began with dad telling us that he was not about to “let you win.” He kept a smile on his face and gasped when we made what was obviously a wrong move. He would shake his head and win almost every time. It was painful. It usually ended in tears. Every single time we played dad reminded us that the game was all about strategy, learning the right moves, learning that we needed to know what it feels like to lose... and really, would we want him to let us win? (Frankly, the answer to that was, yes... yes we did. Just once it would’ve been nice.)


The lessons of Checkers are still with me today. I learned how to win fair and square, if I ever did win at all, and I learned how to lose fair and square. I lost much more often than I won in the game of Checkers. Dad said it would make me a stronger person. I would appreciate the lesson later in life, he said.


Thanks, dad. I hope I’m a stronger person for it. If I am, I can say it’s because of Checkers. Oh, and of course, because of my dad. He was right. Yes dad, I appreciate it all.


Today, I have taken that lesson straight to the Checkerboard with my grandsons. Yes, I have warned my grandsons when we start any game, whether it’s Checkers, Connect Four, Sorry, Trouble, or any other number of games... that I will not let them win. I use every single line that my father used with me. Oh, I do win a few games against my grandson, but they’re already way smarter than their grandma. They laugh at grandma when they win and they’re not so happy when they lose. Clearly the cycle of life rings loud and clear. Thanks again dad.


Dad isn’t the only person who created “family-fun-and-games-day” memories. My siblings clearly had a hand in my upbringing. I vividly remember a particular afternoon during Christmas break in the mid-1960s when my brother was home from college. He decided to teach me how to play Gin Rummy. That was his first mistake.


While my sisters laced up their skates to spend Sunday afternoon on the slough, smoothly gliding over the uneven ice on their silver skates, I was sitting at the kitchen table while I beat my brother at Gin Rummy. After the first few games he said it was beginners’ luck. After what seemed like an eternity, he told me that the “cards were falling in my favor.” I gazed out the kitchen window, longing to be on the slough pretending I was Sonja Henie (the Norwegian figure skater my sister had told me about). In playing cards with my brother, obviously, I couldn’t let him win... and yes, the cards were falling in my favor. I was winning every single hand. My life was flashing before my eyes. My brother was still saying, “One more hand, we’re playing until I beat you.” He finally won. Fair and square. I believe the game was not so much about Gin Rummy, and instead, about losing to his sister who was nine years younger than him. Regardless, I didn’t have a chance to skate with my sisters that day.


And then there is that one sister, you know, the one... (perhaps you have one)... who takes it upon herself to be the activities director on any given day. On this particular Sunday afternoon, she decided to create a board game of her own by combining several games into one and making up the rules as she went. We must have really been bored with the existing number of games already accumulated, I don’t even know for sure. At any rate, I remember her combining Old Maid cards with the rules of Spoon and Pit. In the game Spoon you have one less number of spoons in a pile than you have players around the table. You pass cards to the left, clockwise, from person to person, until you have a pair...and then all chaos breaks out as you grab for a spoon. Once you’ve spelled out the word Spoon, by not getting one, you lose. (The same premise as HORSE, and missing a shot in basketball.) In the game Pit you trade commodities until you have nine cards of the same suit, you don’t want the “bear” and you do want the “bull.” Or, is it the other way around? The one thing I remember about the game my sister created was that when she brought a shoe to the table from my mom’s closet, set it in the middle of the kitchen table, told us to pass Old Maid and Pit cards to the left until we got a pair, told us that the spoons and food (like commodities in Pit) would go into the dirty, old, worn shoe until we were either out of cards, food or spoons... well, my mother put a stop to it. My sister named her game: “Mother’s Old Shoe.”


In playing both Spoon and Pit the main part of the game, seriously, was who had the loudest voice. One thing we have always known is that we all have really loud voices. The day my sister decided to create her own game, with her own rules, we laughed too hard to play anything at all before we had a chance to start yelling. And still today, we do know that in any game, laughter wins the prize.


Finally, the most memorable game for me, as well as my own kids, will always be Old Maid with my mother, their “Grandma Farm.” It’s one of their favorite memories of their grandma. She had this sly smile that started from one side of her mouth and spread like sunshine. With a twinkle in her eye, she propped one card up in her hand. She dared them to pick that one card. Of course, they figured that grandma always had the Old Maid, and so they always avoided it. Grandma smiled throughout every single entire game. Her only strategy was making her grandchildren giggle and laugh throughout each hand. And they always did. They played it with grandma on their very last visit with her. They still talk about it today.


Oh, the memories. The lasting memories... of winning, and lessons in losing. Memories of good sportsmanship, strategy, honesty and some teardrops. Lessons in respect and following the rules. And, most importantly, memories of laughter and loving each other forever.

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