Fall 2012

 

 

LIVING

 

Being a Two in a Game of Briscola

 

by Mark Bednarczyk

 

Being a Two in a Game of Briscola by Mark Bednarczyk

When one thinks of Italian culture and its influences upon civilization, what usually comes to mind are the names of masters like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini, Giotto, Dante, Verdi and the like. For some students at Loyola High School in Montreal, even those who have been to Italy with their families or as part of an organized school trip, Italian culture is sometimes measured by one’s ability to gobble up enormous quantities of panini or tasty “sangwiches,” or by one’s passion for playing briscola. While the consumption of delicious Italian comestibles is not considered a yardstick by which one measures one’s immersion in Italian culture, knowing how to play briscola, for many Loyola students, seems to be just that. After all, it has been said that it is impossible to find an Italian male who does not know how to play the game.

 

Briscola! Most dictionaries define it as a type of card game, usually for four players in partnerships of two. Calling briscola a card game is like calling hockey a game played on ice, or soccer a game played on grass. For some, no, for many, briscola is a passion, a preoccupation, a mania, an addiction. And at Loyola, some of the game’s greatest addicts are not only young men with names like Casoli or D’Avilla or Gattola, but also young men with names like Smith, Cowell and Yu. (I know, it sounds like an international law firm.)

 

As I enter the packed cafeteria, I listen for the sounds of briscola games being played at some of the tables. The ambient noise of the lunchroom can’t disguise the banter that accompanies all serious games of briscola. At a table near the entrance, I hear a game in progress and head for the table to speak with the players.

 

What makes the game of briscola such an appealing, even addictive, pastime? I ask four briscola players, both Italian and non-Italian. Nicholas Iacuessa plays “… because it’s a tradition and an enjoyable pastime; albeit, the most important aspect of playing briscola is connecting with family, my grandfather, my uncles, my father… it’s a multigenerational phenomenon.”

In Pasolini’s 1960 film La lunga notte del '43, two characters have the following exchange:

 

“I'm a lousy bridge player.”

 

“Certainly. Bridge is a game for intelligent people.”

 

“Exactly. So you'd better stick to briscola.”

 

“Goodbye. Have a good time. Bye Franco.”

 

“Good evening.”

 

I mention the film to these four intense and focused young men who are immersed in their favourite post-lunch pastime. I argue that, according to Pasolini, briscola players do not require the intellectual acuity needed by a bridge player.

 

Alex Venditti, an honours student says Pasolini is wrong and that “…briscola works the mind.” His nonno taught him to play when he was in grade-six and it has been a passion ever since.

Justin Yu has never heard of Pasolini and does not care what this giant of Italian cinema may have said about the game of briscola. His reason for learning the game was straightforward. “My friends,” he smirked, “needed a fourth player and they convinced me that I should be the one. They made me an offer I could not refuse.”

 

James Smith, who may have some Italian ancestors, was taught to play briscola by a friend who learned the game from his nonno. James adds that he purchased his cards in Genoa while on a family vacation. He actually made his father take a detour to Genoa in order to buy four packs of briscola cards, two of which were “Genovesi.”

 

As someone who does not particularly care for card games of any kind, I cannot understand the passion for briscola displayed by these young men. What is it about the game that so captivates their imaginations? If I cannot find the answer through observation, then I will have to find out through participation. I read up on the rules of the game: the names of the suits, the rank and value of the cards, the scoring and the “signals.” Armed with this knowledge, I search for, and find, a game of briscola about to begin at one of the cafeteria tables and ask whether I might play. Reluctantly, one of the players gives up his spot and I sit down, ready to join the game and find out for myself what about the game makes it so popular and so addictive.

 

My partner, a secondary-five student in my English class, asks if I have ever played before and when I answer that I haven’t, he grimaces. But being a good sport, he is prepared to indulge me and my need to satisfy my curiosity about the game.

 

Our opponents have been playing together since secondary one – they are now in secondary five. So we know that our chances of winning (even with inordinate amounts of luck) are almost non-existent. The speed with which these young men play is terrifying to a first-time player. My lack of expertise slows the game and they become a little impatient. “Gentlemen, I am a neophyte and need some time to consider what card I should play next.” They understand, but do not care. My partner and I manage to win a few tricks and wind up losing badly.

 

I am asked if I want to play another game and when I say that I would love to, disappointed looks appear on the faces of the students. The next game is not much different from the first, but I play with a little more confidence and a lot more speed. Still, we lose. Games three, four and five are a lot more interesting than the first two and I begin to see how one might develop such a passion for the game.

 

When the bell rings to summon the students back to class, I feel disappointed that I have to stop playing and return to teaching literature. Ah well, I think, there is always the next lunch-period, or before class, or after class, or the Loyola briscola tournament … or …

 

 

Mark Bednarczyk was born in England of Polish and Ukrainian parents, and raised in Canada. He is a teacher at Loyola High School in Montreal. 

 

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