We have some family friends that my parents have known since school. I love them dearly, but I hate going to their birthday parties. I just have nothing to talk about with the people in their social circle. Not because they're bad people, just because we're too different. So when we went to their sons' joint birthday party on Friday, I found myself sitting alone at my table as usual, working through a combination of Candy Crush Saga, The Simpsons Tapped Out and staring blankly into space.
It was being held at the Campania Club - an Italian social club that's been around since the 70s and has since turned into a very successful pizza place. They've gone from being a single room with a kitchen and a bocci court to having a playground, video games and a million-inch projector screen which takes pride of place in the hall and is always playing sport. I found myself looking at the bocci court wondering if it was new enough to count as my new thing for this week. But then this announcement came over the PA:
'Attention everyone. At about 9 o'clock, we'll be starting our briscola tournament. Anyone who's registered if they can meet up the front in half an hour. If you haven't registered and you're interested in taking part, it's a World Cup-style tournament. It's $25 to register and all the proceeds go towards the Leukemia Foundation. Then at 1:30 we'll be watching the Italy-Costa Rica game. Get a team and see me up the front if you're interested.'
I turned to Dad who was sitting next to me and said 'How about it?'
'Nah, it would be too rude for me to do it. But you can.'
'Ah come on, what are you going to do here? Make small talk for four hours?'
'Looks like it.'
'But I need a partner.'
'Just register yourself. They'll partner you up.'
*sigh* 'Alright then... Man, this is going to be awesome.'
'And it's for charity.'
'What? Oh yeah... that too.'
I put my name down and the organiser partnered me up with his brother Pierro. We introduced ourselves and tried to work out how good we'd be as a team. Pierro was an Italian-Australian, like everyone else who had registered. He was stout, smiling, middle aged and wearing a Socceroos track suit. He didn't seem all that fussed whether I was good or bad at the game, he'd just joined up for a laugh like me.
Now for those who don't know (most of you), Briscola is the mother of Italian card games. It's equivalent to Poker here, where it's pretty much the only card game that's played seriously by grown-ups. I won't get too technical about it, but it would be wise to watch this three-minute video explaining the rules.
What the video doesn't explain is how the rules change when there's four players.
A four-player game will be played in teams. Team mates sit across the table from each other and communicate to try and win more points than the opposing team. More often than not, a game will have two rounds and the team with the highest combined score wins. As for some other terms in the game, the threes and aces are nicknamed 'cartichi', throwing out a card that's worth no points is called a 'lisho' and a woman, horse or king is referred to as 'punti'.
So there were 24 teams of two who ended up registering for this tournament. They were split into six pools, World Cup-style and the top two teams from each pool would go through. The first team we came up against seemed to be peas from the same pod as Pierro. They wore Italian soccer track suits, one of them was stout and wearing one of those old fashioned fabric caps and the other one was taller but had slicked back hair. We dealt the cards and, well... Won quite comfortably. It was something like 76-44 in the first round and 72-48 in the second round. It put me at ease - as long as we weren't winless, I was happy. But instead of moving on to the next team, we shuffled up and played another game with the same team.
'Aren't we done here?' I asked.
'No, it's best out of three,' said Pierro.
I see. So we weren't going to play every team in the group, we were just going to play this team three times. That's less fun. But no matter, we'd just have to win this second one like we did the first one. Shouldn't be too hard.
We lost the first round 79-41 and the second round 69-51. We were back on level pegging. At this point I realised I wasn't happy with just winning one game. I wanted to go as far as possible. I didn't want my $25 entry fee to go to waste. Well it did go to charity, so it may not be a waste... But still!
We played the final game and lost the first round 76-44. We needed 77 points in the next round and to hold them to 43 or less. We played the final round like we were dismantling a bomb. Carefully deconstructing the cards in our hands until we started to get the hurry-up from organisers.
'What, you guys are still playing? Come on, everyone else is done!'
We got to the end and let the other team count their cards. They had a lot of them, but a large proportion had no value. Eventually the guy counting placed down his last card and said "39".
Pierro and I caught the attention of the whole club with our celebration. We shouted and jumped out of our seats, pumping our fists in the air. I went to high-five him, but we missed. So I shook his hand instead.
'Good, now onto your second matchup. Michael, you and Pierro are facing Donna and Elisa. Bruno, you two are facing the Zappias over there.'
What? you mean the other guys weren't eliminated? Turns out it was still a round robin tournament anyway. We got all excited for nothing.
Donna and Elisa were two girls in their twenties who had also won their first matchup. It didn't take long to figure out why. They'd worked out their own little code so that they could talk to each other without revealing their cards. All through the game, we'd hear things like
'I've got an Esposito. Do you need that?'
'I've got a Brusciano in Western City Strikers.'
'I'll just Leppa. Do you want me to Lep it?'
Pierro and I had trouble concentrating on the game because we were trying to figure out this code. In hindsight, I think Leppa was code for Lisho, but that's all I could figure out. Some of the older people around us were warning us not to lose to two girls. That sparked whatever little feminist DNA I had in me, because I was like "Hey! They're tough! They could beat us! Although we did end up beating them three games to nil, so maybe they were right.
So I was feeling pretty safe when we came up against the third team. The team consisted of an imposing middle-aged man who mainly called the shots while his young male counterpart followed orders. He would say things like
'Now, one of these two has the three of swords, so I want you to play your eight of cups.'
'Ah, he played his brisk. That's music to my ears.'
'We've won the next three tricks, so that'll get us a few points.'
This guy knew what he was doing. I was amazed when we took out the first game. How could we be going so well? We were both amateurs.
'Hey, well if you don't have the cards, there's not much you can do,' the man said.
Fair enough. Maybe we were just getting lucky with our cards.
'Have you won all your games so far?' I asked.
'Nah, those bloody girls threw us with their code. We couldn't concentrate.'
The younger one piped up: 'I think because they both play soccer together, the names correspond to the numbers they wear. Then they just picked four soccer clubs to represent the suits.'
There was a collective "aaaaaaah..." of recognition from the rest of us as they realised that made perfect sense.
The man and his team mate took out the second game. It seemed clear that whether we won or lost was totally up to him. We managed to do well in the first round of the last game, going down 65-55. All we needed was 66 points and we'd leave the group stage undefeated. We ended up scoring 63. We lost that third game by 4 points. Oh well, at least we got through.
Heading into the first round of elimination, there were twelve teams left. One could assume that the group stage had weeded out all of the crap teams and there was only quality left. From now on it would only be one game per matchup (we checked).
Just before the game started, I approached Pierro.
'I was thinking. That guy knew every move we were going to make. I think we should come up with our own code like the girls.'
'Alright, I like that,' said Pierro.
'Okay, so what should cartichi be?'
'How about um... caps?'
'That works! And lishi should be Crows!' We were both Port Adelaide supporters, so we thought we'd take a little swipe at their rivals.
'Yeah! and what should brisk be? Brooms?'
We came up against two boys in their late teens called Gab and Tony. They were confused by our little code, and it seemed to work. We smashed them in the first game and they couldn't catch up with the second.. Our total score for the game was something like 145-95.
Now because there would only be six teams left, they let the two teams that lost by the narrowest margin stay on. We heard the organiser say
'Tony and Gina. You made it through. You scraped in by two points. You'll be facing Pierro and Michael over there.
We were brimming with confidence now. These two jokers who were bumbling their way through the competition had made the quarter finals quite easily and were about to face the worst team from the last round. But isn't it always the case that as soon as you start thinking "this is easy", you end up going downhill fast? Our first round against Tony and Gina, we lost 83-37. We prepared for the round of our lives to catch up. Because technically, it was the round of our lives for this tournament. We agonized over every decision. During the very last trick we sat there contemplating every possibility until they yelled at us to hurry up. At they end, we counted up...
'56? How did we still lose that round?' I said incredulously.
We were out. I thanked Tony and Gina and I thanked Pierro for such a good night. We'd lasted until one in the morning, I was satisfied with that. I went up to the organiser and thanked him as well.
'That's okay mate, thanks for your support.'
Support? Oh yeah, right. The leukaemia thing. Glad to play my part.
|Our first opponents.|
|Practising the game on my phone beforehand.|