A Primer to Italian Cards

It turns out that not all playing cards are the same the world round.  While in the US, I never once remember seeing anything aside from the standard 52-card deck, here in Italy, the 40-card deck is much more popular.  And just to make matters more complicated, there are different varieties of the deck, the most popular two being those from Naples and those from Piacenza.  These cards have a history to them that goes way back into the Italian past.  Once a custodian/amateur historian at my school explained it all to me, but aside from remembering that they date back to Dante’s age, and that even the Yale Rare Book Library has sets of them, I don’t recall much else.

I’ve been struggling with these cards for ten years now.  No matter how many times I play with them, something always confuses me.  The number value of a horse.  A mistake in recognizing the difference between a Knave and  King.  Counting the wrong number of spades.  This has proven to be a continual source of embarrassment, especially since I married into a family that takes its card-playing very seriously.

An example:  during a family vacation in Sardinia three summers ago, my brother-in-law Marco and my wife’s grandfather Armando got into an intense round of sbarrazzino.  Though Armando was beating the pants off Marco, a couple of dramatic turns of luck at the end rendered Marco victorious.  After the heavy cursing had subsided, Armando took refuge in a glass of Vermentino, and it was a long time before they ever played sbarrazzino again.

I’m lucky if I can just pronounce sbarrazzino properly, let alone play it well.  If I ever win, it’s usually only because for once I haven’t made some lousy mistake based on the cards.  And it doesn’t get any better with the other games like scopa, ciappanò, or briscola.

Briscola is the king of card games, not in the magical land of Levanto, but in my beloved Parma, where I used to live.  If you go into any bar at any hour of the day (and the old Communist-Party bars are the best for this) you will find old men slapping cards down on the table, drinking Malvasia, and blaspheming loudly.  But the game isn’t limited to old men: if you go into any classroom at any hour of the day during the break between periods, you will find high-school students slapping cards down on the table, and blaspheming loudly.  In a world where so many of the traditional forms of entertainment have disappeared, it’s reassuring to find at least this one which is flourishing nicely.  And given another ten years, I might just learn how to play it.


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