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Old Italian card game spreading with ease
VITAL TRIFLE, BY LAURI GROSS
Old Italian card game spreading with ease
I once had a million-dollar idea that didn't earn me one red cent. There's this card game that my family has been playing for generations, and I thought of a way to package it by adding a few bells and whistles. I imagined selling the idea to a big game manufacturer, several of which sent me official forms for submitting my idea.
Along the way, I Googled the game, known as Cuckoo (koo koo). The Internet contains plenty of information about this game, and it turns out that game manufacturers are not interested in paying people for ideas that already exist in the public domain. I decided to go back to enjoying the game as I had all my life, rather than hope to profit from it.
All the branches of both my parents' family trees are rooted in Sicily, and, according to Wikipedia, Cuckoo originated in 17th-century Italy. The game is ideal for large families, because it is best played with about 10 to 15 people. Also, kids as young as 5 learn it easily, and it's still enjoyable for teens, adults and senior citizens.
Here's how it works: All players receive a number of chips, usually three to five, depending on how many are playing. The more chips everyone starts with, the longer the game lasts, so, if there are more than 10 people, three chips are about right. If there are seven or fewer players, you could try five chips each.
The dealer deals each player, including herself, one card and keeps the rest of the deck at her place. Everyone looks at their own card but keeps it hidden from others. At each turn, a player decides to keep his or her card or swap it with the player to the left. The player to the left of the dealer is the first to make this pass-or-play decision, which is based on trying to avoid having the lowest card at the end of the round. Play proceeds around the table, with each player deciding whether to keep the card or try for a higher one -- or risk getting a lower one -- by switching. If a player decides to switch, the other player has no choice but to comply, with one exception: Players cannot trade a king. Kings are the highest card in the deck and known as the Cuckoo.
A player dealt an ace, the lowest card, or a 2 or 3, would be desperate to trade for something better, but if it turns out that the player to the left has a Cuckoo, he or she is are stuck with the low card.
When the play has circled the table back to the dealer, the dealer shows her card and announces if she will keep it or try for a better one with a blind grab from the deck. Since there are no more players to her left with whom to trade, the dealer instead gets to "trade" with the deck itself. When the dealer shows her final card, all others do the same.
The player with the lowest card must pay one chip into the center pot. (My boxed game was going to include a really cute pot.) If more than one person has the same lowest card -- say, if two people each have an ace -- then each of those people pay a chip. For each round of play, there is a new dealer, as the deck moves one player to the left for each round. The last person with a chip wins.
My family plays this game whenever many of us are together. Imagine a kitchen or dining-room table crammed with three generations of very loud Italians hooting, hollering and laughing through the evening. Now that some of us have married non-Italians, it has become a multicultural affair but no less noisy.
We used to begin by having each person place $1 in the center of the table, which the winner would claim at the end. Now, instead, my parents place $2 or $3 in the center. If a grandchild wins, they claim the money. If an adult wins, my parents keep their money.
When my parents' first grandchild -- now 19 years old -- was old enough to play, we added the "lap" rule, which states: Any player age 13 or younger who gets out of the game may sit on the lap of the adult of their choice and continue to play as that adult's partner and may claim the winnings if the adult partner wins. My 12-year-old son is the youngest grandchild and the last to be able to invoke the precious lap rule.
Some of our Cuckoo traditions came from my maternal grandmother. To indicate that she wanted to keep her card, rather than trade, she would say, with her Italian accent, "I sticka withuh glue." When she had a king, she would burst out, "Koo-uh-dee-Koo!" Also, I think she was the one who taught us the evil eye, or malocchio, a spell to cast on a player who has the most chips. One casts the malocchio by holding their ring finger and middle finger under their thumb and waving their pinky and index finger at the target. My paternal grandmother hated the malocchio, which only made us want to do it more.
On a suggestion from my brother-in-law, we all sing "Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye" when someone pays their last chip and gets knocked out of the game. (My boxed version of the game would have included an electronic device that would have played this song, but I'm not bitter.)
Several family members have taught the game to others around the country and the world. Little by little, the game of Cuckoo is spreading around the globe and the Internet, and that's gotta be worth something.
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