Last card

After Christmas dinner was over and everything was cleared away, he wanted to play cards. He wanted to play a game of hearts.

The accumulated memories of his 94 years have shrivelled into an out-of-sequence, compressed, non-linear kernel containing only a tiny part of his long life – the 1940s when he was in his prime, of course. This he re-runs in vivid, urgent micro-detail as if it were happening right now, while nearly everything that occurred in the previous and subsequent decades has gone missing. Yet his fondness for the pleasures evoked by a pack of playing cards, imprinted in his youth and repeatedly endorsed thereafter, somehow endures. He had played newmarket as a boy, pontoon as a juvenile, contract bridge as a student, whist as a respectable young husband, brag in Birmingham hotel lounges with fellow pharmacy reps, rummy at Saturday evening suppers with other suburban Cardiff couples…and throughout there was always hearts, his favourite card game of all.

Up until comparatively recently everybody used to play cards and every home had a pack lying around. Competitive but civilised, simple but complex, fun but taxing, playing cards was a social glue that cut across class, gender, race and culture, the perfect context for friendly interaction minus the strains of forced conversation and the stresses of clashing outlooks. The infinite variety of card games concocted by human ingenuity over the centuries means that there was always a game to fit any group, any situation and any mood. From the raucous hurly-burly of snap or cheat for squealing pre-pubescents, via the soporific intimacy of shithead or sevens for spaced-out night owls, all the way through to the leisured complexity of canasta or president for gnarled sophisticates, each different game was learnt in the field directly from other people, by observation and experience, reflecting the evolving stages and the random circles encountered throughout a life. Learning doesn’t happen like that anymore. Openness to new knowledge for its own sake and willingness to be taught by sources beyond the homogenised mainstream have been eradicated in no time by the privatisation and atomisation of every aspect of society. And card games, with their intrinsic reliance on mental exercise, mental gymnastics, strategic thinking, lateral thinking, intuitive thinking, indeed THOUGHT itself, have been especially vulnerable in a dumbocracy of supine passivity and shallow egotism. The more obscure and esoteric card games, like rare apple varieties, are dying out, leaving just the American-imposed gambling games that can be monetised and commercialised, predominately poker. I enjoy my poker nights, but I feel the loss of blackjack, switch and gin. When nobody plays them any more there will be nobody around to pass the secrets on to the next generation.

The full extent of the deep influence of these 52 pieces of cardboard is shown by the numerous card-playing phrases and terms that have gone into common parlance, such as: above board, ace up your sleeve, beats me, call your bluff, cards on the table, come up trumps, discard, follow suit, force your hand, hold all the cards, house of cards, in spades, keep your cards close to your chest, left in the lurch, on the cards, pass the buck, play your cards right, poker face, raw deal, shuffle the deck, strong suit, up the ante, when the chips are down, wild card…

Cards once had another entertaining function as the perfect tool for magicians. The performing art loosely called ‘Magic’  developed many branches since modern stage magic was pioneered by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin* (1805-1871) in Paris in the 1840s; chiefly illusion, escapology, conjuring, hypnotism, mentalism and prestidigitation. Presti-what? I’ve spellchecked, it’s correct: prestidigitation…sleight-of-hand…legerdemain – the ultimate test for the close-up magician, requiring years of continual practice to master. Only an extraordinarily single-minded and dedicated individual is able to train his hands to palm, switch, ditch, load, conceal, simulate and misdirect objects with enough skill to smoothly and naturally pull off the perennially delightful tricks of the accomplished prestidigitator.

Three outstanding practitioners are acknowledged by the cognoscenti to be the supreme exponents of this highly refined art: American Howard Thurston (1869-1936), Canadian Dai Vernon (1894-1992) and, greatest of them all, Welshman Richard Valentine Pitchford (1895-1973) from Mumbles, Swansea, or, to use his stage name, The Great Cardini. What he could do with a pack of cards, self-taught in the WW1 trenches, has to be seen to be believed:

But we wanted to go home. Malc was tired; I was driving and needed a drink. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t give him the little bit of carefree fun he wanted. And on the way home my heart broke.

: YouTube
*From whom Harry Houdini (1874-1926) took his stage name