A Trick for Playing Games

On one of our very early dates, my boyfriend and I went to the park, armed with a couple of books, the newspaper, and a pack of playing cards…

I was thrilled to find someone with the same nerdly, paper-centric interests as me. We worked on the crossword together and played a few rounds of gin rummy. Back then, we were new enough to be on our best behavior. I don’t even remember who won, only that we had a good time.

As our relationship progressed, however, card games had a tendency to get more heated.

Have you ever noticed, when playing gin rummy especially, that sometimes one player will get on a hot streak? Whoever was winning that day would win, like, five games in a row. It wouldn’t even be close. “HOW is this possible?” the loser would lament. “It’s like I never even have a chance to do anything, and you already have gin!”

Then the winner would feel bad, because the loser felt bad, and suddenly everyone felt bad. As it turns out, card games between two people who are highly competitive yet empathetic are the opposite of fun.

“No more cards!” we threw up our hands in frustration. “It’s not worth it!”

For a long time, the playing cards lived in the cabinet, tucked away with the puzzles and a dusty backgammon set. And then, we were asked to stay at home. For over ninety days.

Back in March, when New York first released the stay at home order, I floated the idea of playing a friendly little game of cards. We were indoors, after all. What better time for games? Fast forward to a few hours later, when one of us (fine, it was me) may or may not have stormed into the bedroom shouting “I AM NEVER PLAYING THIS AGAIN!”

Then one day, I had an idea. “What if the winner buys the loser a coffee tomorrow morning?”

It worked like a charm. As it turns out, I am both competitive and frugal. “Loser gets a prize” has saved us from ourselves and made card games extra fun again. Winner gets the glory, loser gets the goods.

We vary the prizes from time to time — we might make each other dinner or run an errand or buy the other person a bagel. These are all things we’d take turns covering anyway, but it’s the gesture that counts.

After sharing this story with friends, I discovered we are not the only ones to create our own rules around games.

“My partner and I play games together with no problem. But if we play with a larger group, we cannot be on the same team,” confessed one friend. “She’s way too competitive, and if I make a wrong move or don’t know an answer, she gets so pissed about it — way more pissed than if she teams up with someone else.”

Laments another friend, “We used to have holiday game nights, but we don’t anymore, because when we play with my husband’s family, he cheats. He’ll take a strategic ‘bathroom break’ so he can try to see what cards you’re holding or he hides the Monopoly money under the board. His brothers all do the same. They’re beyond help.”

Do you have any tricks (or traditions) when it comes to playing games?

P.S. Easy party activities for grown-ups and the best birthday party game. Plus, four games to play while lying down. ;)

(Illustration by Joelle Avelino for Cup of Jo.)