If you really want to know your family, play cards.
Our family’s game of choice is spades. It’s the Goldilocks of card games: not too easy, not too hard.
Our nuclear family of four ranges from ages 14 to 62. Sometimes, when we are in a “family time” mood, my wife and I and our two sons will clear the dining room table and settle in for a short game of spades. Most people play the trick-taking game to 500 points, but our attention spans are short, so we stop at 200.
Spades, according to online sources, was invented by a Mississippi family in the 1930s and popularized by troops worldwide during World War II. It reportedly was spread to college campuses by vets on the GI Bill.
The game requires some skill and concentration, but not so much that you can’t play, chat and eat cake, too. I played as a kid, and so did my wife. Our sons picked it up on family vacations.
I like watching people play spades because it reveals their personalities.
In our family you can boil each player down to a one-word descriptor. I am cautious. My wife is competitive. Our older son is observant. And our younger son is social.
Here’s how that plays out.
* I’m a risk-averse person. If you said I could have a 90% chance of becoming rich or a 100% chance of never being hungry, I’d go with the food guarantee.
This plays out in a spades game with underbidding. If I think I can take five tricks in a hand, I will bid three.
There is a small points penalty for underbidding, but my partner and I rarely go “set” — the word for failing to make your bid and losing points. This infuriates the other pair because it’s the tortoise-style path to victory, slow and steady.
* My wife is competitive. She really, really wants to win. Far from a character flaw, this is actually a nod to self-motivation that I really admire. It makes her try harder, care more.
It also makes losing a bit harder for her to swallow, but that’s OK. The net effect is positive.
* Our older son is a borderline card shark. He has a near photographic memory for what cards have been played. As a result, he often knows how a hand will play out about midway through. Sometimes being the smartest person in the room has its drawbacks because it removes the mystery from the course of play. But he’s a good sport and doesn’t rub it in.
* Our younger son, who is 14, is a people pleaser. He want to win but he also wants everyone to be happy.
As the “baby” of the family, he does sometimes use his status as the youngest player at the table. When somebody offers him a do-over because of his tender age, he is more than willing to take the advantage.
Our games usually last about 30 minutes, and then we all scatter back to our screens — TVs, laptops and phones — where we lose our personalities and become passive one again.
Expression drains from our faces. Our jaw muscles go slack. We somehow become lesser versions of ourselves.
As we huddle for Thanksgiving this week with smaller family gatherings, why not break out the playing cards and board games.
Take it from those of us born in the 20 century, in-person human connection is something to be thankful for.
Email Mark Kennedy at [email protected]