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Coping with Covid: ‘Cards of peace’

By Karen Flaten

When Mary Lou Black moved back to Minnesota after living in Wisconsin for several years, she was pleased to live near her family again. She enjoyed getting together with her siblings and extended family, and she soon found that one of the ways they could enjoy getting together was by playing cards. Growing up on a farm near Mantorville, Minnesota, the family of 10 children all learned to play cards to entertain themselves. The game of “Five Hundred” was something Mary Lou had never forgotten, and soon after moving back to Minnesota, she and her siblings and other family members were playing Five Hundred every other week, sometimes as often as every week.

Five Hundred is a trick-taking card game similar to Euchre or Hearts. Some say Five Hundred also incorporates some ideas from Bridge. The name of the game refers to the number of points it takes to win – in Five Hundred, the first team or player to reach 500 points wins the game.

A Mantorville family works to break up the monotony by playing cards over the phone. Contributed photo

Family members had gathered for the last few years to play Five Hundred, but in 2020, as winter turned to spring, the coronavirus pandemic brought restrictions to Minnesota, and the games of Five Hundred were put on pause. Family members stayed in their homes, abiding by the governor’s Stay at Home Order. Soon the family’s social activities had pretty much come to an end. Mary Lou, who lives alone, found herself missing her family, missing their get-togethers. Mary Lou’s daughter, who had been living abroad, returned home, but then had to quarantine for two weeks. It was the beginning of a long, lonely time.

Even though the Stay at Home Order was relaxed, many people in Mary Lou’s circle stayed in. Mary Lou’s many siblings and extended relatives, mainly over 65 years of age, continued to stay home as much as possible. The games of Five Hundred seemed to be relegated to the past. But Mary Lou, missing the games and missing her family, gave herself a problem to solve: how to play cards with people without having to meet in person. And after a few days of thought, on and off, she came up with the answer. She knew that some of her relatives wouldn’t be interested in playing on “Zoom” or “Skype,” even though she had heard of people playing all sorts of games over the internet. Some of the core group she had been playing with did not like computers, and wouldn’t have been comfortable with that type of game.

“What if we could play by phone?” Mary Lou said to herself. Thinking through the process, she came up with a way to work it out. Although it took a little time to figure out the details, it turns out the solution was simple. “It came to me in a dream,” said Mary Lou. “I had been working on this, turning it over in my mind for a few days… thinking about how to make this work… then I slept on it. When I woke up, I had the answer.” In fact, she said, “I felt like a higher power was helping me – like this was something I was supposed to do.”

The solution Mary Lou found was that she could set up a conference call with several people, deal the cards for each player, and then each player could pull the cards from their own deck (having first sorted them into suits and discarded the cards not used in the game). Once the cards were dealt, the game could continue with bidding, each player taking a turn.

Having figured out what to do, Mary Lou knew she would have to convince her family members as well. “There are no computers involved,” Mary Lou explained to her sister. “All you have to do is talk on the phone!” (It does help to have a speaker on your phone, because your hands are busy with your cards.)

Well, it didn’t take long before Mary Lou had found a group of family members who liked the idea of playing Five Hundred over the phone. Through including extended relatives and friends, they had a large core group that included substitute players who could fill in when others couldn’t play. They even found that a sister who lives across the country in New Jersey wanted to play as well. Since she doesn’t live in the area, she has mostly been unable to play Five Hundred with the family (except when she visits) for years, and now is thrilled to be able to participate. “In fact,” said Mary Lou, “she is often the first one to respond,” when Mary Lou sends out an email about a date or time to play.

The group has been playing by phone for several months now. They have found that it is a great way to enjoy a day together every one to two weeks. Mary Lou thinks it may have even brought them closer together.

As one family member said, “It just feels good to be doing something fun!”

Thee card-playing clan playing 500 a few years ago around Christmas time. Through the pandemic, they have switched to playing over the phone. Contributed photo

Of course, as with every family, there are differing opinions about – well, many things. So Mary Lou, who is really the facilitator of this phone-based card game, sent an email to everyone, suggesting that the game not “be a forum for either religion or politics.” This way they don’t have to worry about any differences of opinion amongst family members. She found that others chimed in, one sister saying “The most important thing is family!” Another sister declared, “Now that we don’t talk politics, I feel like I’m getting closer to my sisters.” Still another family member who has had some recent health issues said she “likes to play because it takes her mind off everything else.”

Now the game can be used to have a good time, keep in touch, share news and even repeat old family stories. In a large family of ten siblings the family stories may have been heard differently by the older siblings than they were by the younger ones. This time of getting together by phone has given the family members an opportunity to talk about events and share information. Mary Lou observed that sometimes one person tells a family story and another says, “Oh, really? But I heard the story this way.” Or, “Is that the way it happened? I never knew…” The puzzle pieces of the family lore are coming together just from getting together and talking while playing a familiar card game.

And so what could have been a long, lonely time period during a global pandemic has turned into a way of bringing family members closer together, of continuing old traditions in a new way, of laughing and sharing good times.

As Mary Lou said, “It gave me a good feeling that we had this good thing going – and while so much conflict is happening in the world, we can play these cards peacefully.”

And so she has called the game “Cards of Peace.”

To set up your own game of 500 by phone:

Each player must have a deck of cards.

Each player must have a cell phone or landline phone with a speaker (so you can use your hands for your cards).

At least one player must know how (or learn how) to make a conference call.

Each player sorts their cards into suits.

Once the dealer deals and tells the players their cards, each player takes their own cards from their deck for their hand.

The game continues with bidding, as a regular game of 500 would.

500 can be played with 3, 4 or 5 players and can even be played in teams.

For rules of play and alternate versions, check out the quick tutorial at:

A quick tutorial on how to play Five Hundred can be found online at

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