Gambling on the Day Thread (4/3)

In my family, the pastime of choice when we get together is bourré, a trick-taking card game similar to spades, in the sense that snorkeling is similar to deep-sea diving.

In bourré (best played with three to eight players), first, everybody antes. Then, each player is dealt five cards. The dealer flips his/her fifth card over. The suit of the flipped card is the trump suit for that hand (the trump suit beats all other suits, such that a two of the trump suit will beat an ace of another suit [aces are high]).

Once all cards are dealt, the players go around and say whether they plan to play the hand or not. Any player who chooses not to engage is free to fold, with no further money forfeited. Players who remain in the hand then trade out as many cards as they want with the dealer. The dealer may choose not to reveal his/her intention to play the hand until all other players have traded out unwanted cards.

From here the gameplay is very similar to spades (or euchre, apparently, whatever that is). The first active player to the dealer’s left throws a card, followed by all the other players in turn. High card of the led suit wins unless trumped, and players must play a card of the suit led unless they are holding no cards of that suit. There are a few unique rules, though:

  1. Players must play to win. In other words, if a player has a higher card of the same suit that led the round, he/she must play it. Similarly, if a player doesn’t have a card of that suit but does have a card of the trump suit, that player must play a trump card.
  2. Players must “over trump.” This means that if another player plays a trump card, any other player playing a trump card must play a card higher than the trump card already played, if possible. In other words, if hearts are trump, and Sally throws the four of clubs to start the round, then Billy throws the three of hearts (because Billy doesn’t have any clubs), then James throws the ace of clubs (because James has to follow suit, damnit), and Sarah has no clubs but does have the two of hearts and the ace of hearts, Sarah has to play the ace of hearts even if she’d rather sacrifice the two and save the ace.
  3. Players must play to bourré other players. This is the trickiest rule.

Let me explain.

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To “bourré” means to win zero tricks in a hand. Any player who bourrés must match the pot at the start of the next hand (after everyone antes up). So, if a player knows he/she has the cards to take the next however-many tricks to bourré one or more players, he/she must play those cards. This is easy to deduce if, say, a player holds the queen, king, and ace of the trump card. However, let’s say a player holds the seven, jack, and ace of trumps, and the eight, nine, ten, queen, and king of trumps have already been played. If that player doesn’t then immediately play the seven, jack, and ace of trumps (all guaranteed winners at that point), then the player forfeits the hand.

Now, at the end of the hand, whoever won the most tricks gets the pot. However, if, as often happens, it’s a split pot (meaning two or more players won the same number of tricks), the money remains in the pot for the next hand. This, then, is why bourréing is so dangerous, and why players should think carefully before announcing they intend to play a hand: Anyone who bourrés must match the pot at the beginning of the next hand. If the pot has been steadily growing as a result of split pots (and often previous bourrés), “matching the pot” could mean serious money – like, “I need to write a check to cover this” money. Some games are merciful and have a pot limit, but don’t count on it.

I Googled to learn how to properly spell bourré and discovered that it was apparently the game of choice for young NBA players in the early 2000s after LeBron James taught it to Chris Paul in 2005 (why Ohio-born James had to teach a South Louisiana card game to a New Orleans Hornets player remains a mystery to me). There was even a bourré tournament for charity prior to the All-Star Game in 2013.

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Bourré is also apparently why Gilbert Arenas pulled a gun on a teammate in the Wizards’ locker room, leading to his indefinite suspension, but, uh, hate the player, not the game.

Anyway, this high-stakes gambling game was a cornerstone of my childhood (a tradition that continues, as attested by the fact that my nine-year-old nephew cleaned us all out last night), and while I will probably never know why my dad crows, “BULLSearcatNIP!” whenever he takes a particularly tenuous trick, I’ll always have a fondness for bourré.

Have a great day, Avocado! Play to win, or at least have fun!