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Hot to Trot

On whist.

Not long ago my wife reminded me that it was time to cancel our subscription to the service we pay to watch the Detroit Tigers. Not that I spend a great deal of time watching them. My preferred medium for baseball is radio, followed by reading boxed scores in the newspaper. Unlike football, baseball loses a great deal of its appeal on television. The contemplation of baseball statistics is an incomparably holier act than watching or even listening to a game, a Pythagorean act of worship; even going to a mere sublunary ballpark, while sometimes an enjoyable social experience, is a slatternly concession to our bestial natures.

Anyway, as I say, the end of summer means the end of baseball, though of course practically speaking for the Tigers the season ended months ago, before Pentecost in fact. It also means, in our household, the end of whist.

For the last four or so years, on nearly every Sunday afternoon of the year except during football season, my wife and I have played whist with my grandparents. For those who have never played (or read the notes to an annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility), I could say by way of explanation that whist is the noble ancestor of all the other trick-taking games. It is not, like euchre, one of those games played only in the Midwest; in fact, I am unaware of its being played anywhere in the United States except at my grandparents’ house.

The appeal of whist is its simplicity. The game is played in pairs, and there is no bidding, nor do players take turns choosing the trump. Instead, each pair tries to win a majority of tricks in a succession of rounds in which trumps change according to a set pattern; the first trump is hearts, followed by spades, diamonds, and clubs, and then a no-trump round in which the highest card of the played suit wins; this sequence is repeated as necessary. For each trick over six taken a team is awarded a point—one for seven, two for eight, three for nine, and so on. The first pair to win seven points is the victor.

I have played very long games of whist, in which the no-trump round was reached twice, and very short ones—I have once seen a pair (not mine) dealt all thirteen hearts. Unlike any other game I can think of, I have only ever played it with the same foursome, divided into the same pairs. Our tells are thus firmly established. For example, if I lead with the king or queen, my wife (who invariably partners with my grandmother) knows that I also have the ace or the king and the ace as well—she calls this somewhat tedious habit of mine “playing with your food.” Sometimes when my wife or my grandmother lays down a card in a non-trump suit in which I am void, my grandfather will reach for his card immediately even though he will be the last to play; when he does this, I know he has the ace and I save my trump. When this happens, we always say that Grandpa is “hot to trot.” (Though it is effectively a form of table talk, no one minds, and even if someone did, he would not be able to help himself.)

Anyway, this brings me to the interesting question of “entertainment” and how much we pay for it. By now I suppose millions of words have been written about the fraud perpetrated upon Americans who blithely accepted that cable television could be replaced by one or more “streaming services.” In practice, this would-be economy has meant that we all pay more now than we ever did to watch the same number or fewer things than we would have done ten years ago. The same cable package that would once have given viewers a whole season of Tigers baseball now includes nothing except Sunday Night Baseball on E.S.P.N. and some of the postseason.

If you read the culture sections of newspapers and various high-toned websites, you will have come away with the impression that until very recently there were at any given time something like a dozen television programs not only worth watching, but more or less essential to the “national conversation,” such as it is. But to see even a fraction of these programs, one would have to pay for an astonishing number of streaming services. As I write this Netflix costs between seven and seventeen dollars a month; Hulu is eighty dollars per year. I learned two weeks ago that Peacock (which somehow obtained the rights to Michigan’s first football game) is only slightly cheaper than these two, at six dollars a month. I have not pulled up the figures for Paramount Plus, Apple TV, Disney Plus, E.S.P.N. Plus, H.B.O. Max, or any of the others, but it is just about possible that a person whose primary means of entertainment is watching so-called “prestige” television is spending somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars a year.

This is one reason why I prefer games. It is true, of course, that traditional American board games of the sort most of us grew up playing—what I call “canonical” board games, such as Monopoly—are poorly suited to two players. It is also true that even in larger group settings they suffer from the discovery of can’t-lose strategies, such as buying the magenta and orange properties. One of the few broadly positive changes in American society over the course of my lifetime is the rise of obviously superior board games such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan, which are no longer the province of enthusiasts but unremarkable fare for ordinary bored suburbanites.

Still, in my experience very few two-player games can compete with the sheer pleasure of an evening spent with one’s spouse playing cribbage. Cribbage is the greatest game ever devised for a pair of human beings. Unlike chess, it does not require “strategy” as such; there is no vast literature associated with the game, no “openings” to be committed to memory. And, as a kind of bonus, playing it allows one to sharpen one’s skill at arithmetic, always valuable in an age when we are all tempted to reach immediately for the calculator (or simply type a sum into our browser’s address bar). For the price of a standard deck of playing cards, which even with inflation costs less than a single medium-sized drive-through coffee, you can enjoy each other’s company (and perhaps that of an occasional bottle of wine) for hundreds of hours.