Monday, October 11, 2004

The Left or the Ace

I was accused of being a sneak. And a weasel. I played the Left instead of throwing the Ace so my father-in-law branded me a sneak. I explained they they were both, in fact, identical but he refused to hear me.

This past weekend was Thanksgiving in Canada and, consistent with tradition, we spent the weekend with my inlaws at their cottage. Our celebration is considerably more laid back that the holiday of the same name that our southern cousins celebrate next month. We still manage to devour turkey in honour of those ancestors who brought us to our new homeland. The traditional season-end tasks of laying in firewood and stocking the root cellar, however, have been replaced. In our case, we celebrate by winterizing outboards, draining p-traps, and laying down mouse poison. We also play Euchre.

Euchre is a card game. According to our cottage copy of the Concise OED--a Scrabble staple--Euchre is an American game. The terminal "re", however, casts some personal doubt on the validity of the OED. I suspect that the game has some deep Canadian (or at least Anglo) roots. Indeed, the full OED provides an interesting quotation:

1889 Pall Mall G. 27 Feb. 3/2 Euchre was probably acclimatised on the Mississippi by the Canadian voyageurs, being a form of the French game of triomphe.

There it is: Canadian. I'm not, however, writing this piece to discuss the nationality of the game of Euchre but rather to explore my official status as a Euchre sneak/weasel.

In last night's game, the player to my right threw the Right Bower (the jack of the trump suit and the highest card). I had to follow suit, which was trump. I held two: the Left Bower (the jack of the suit of the same colour as trump and the second highest card) and the Ace. I threw the left. There were gasps around the table and the player on my right--my Mother in Law--was congratulated for having taken the second highest card. A few hands later, I took a trick with the Ace (which led to my weasel status). It seems that in Euchre of the sort favoured by my in-laws it's expected that you always through the lowest trump you have in your hand.

To me, the Left and Ace were essentially the same card. Since I held the Left, the Ace could only be taken by the Right. By throwing the Left, the Ace became the top card. Despite different markings, the cards had the same ontological status. To other players, however, the markings on the cards clearly still dictated that the cards were not equivalent.

The practice of our game, however, was driven by a whole set of local conditions. Our various interpretations of the markings on the cards were a function of our expectations and experiences as shaped by the rules of the game, the traditions in which we learned the game (i.e., Sevens-and-up? Score with 2s and 3s or the 5s? Egbert rules?), and our relationships with each other. Our individual local knowledge and cognitive processes also had a profound effect on our interpretations. Only I, for example, knew that I held both the Left and the Ace. And my father-in-law was probably the only one who actually counted the cards and calculated probabilities in real time. This combination of local knowledges combined to form very different interpretations of the cards.

To me, the markings designating the Left and the Ace were moot: the cards were essentially identical. To the other players at the table, the markings were still very much intact. Their interpretation of the markings was also limited by understanding of social expectations and role taking. In the grander scheme of things, however, the Ace took on considerable more value than the mere nominal value of its markings. Due to the social expectations of my in-laws, the didn't expect the Ace to be in my hand and they played in a manner that enabled me to effectively use my cards. They didn't necessarily make mistakes from a game-play perspective, they were merely blinded by their own Euchre epistemes.

To sum up (as Foucault write ad-nauseum): to me the Ace had the same value as the Left; to my in-laws cards had their traditional value; to the actual game play the Ace took on considerable greater value in terms of total tricks taken.

This little vignette demonstrates that the significance of markings and interpretations are rooted in local social practices...

Hmmm... it feels like I've written myself into a (Wittgenstinian) corner. And I'm not sure that I like it! Let me figure this out:

1- markings interpreted different due to local practice
2- what about the role of the cards themselves as physical objects? The interpretation--and the entire social practice--is obviously afforded by the cards


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