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Card Games Historically Played by the Black Community

by Greyfax

For Black History month, I decided to describe card games I played as a child in the Black community. Since I’m now 66 years old, it’s been a minute since I played these, but among my very large family, these games were very popular, we played at least some of them at every family gathering.

But before that…

Rule #1

Players have to know how to riffle shuffle. None of this granny shuffling or stuffing cards together. I spent hours and hours perfecting the riffle shuffle so that the older cousins would let me join them in playing these games.

Tonk

Tonk is a rummy variant that folks were always up to play. It’s a betting game. You need two jokers to play. At the start of each round, each player is dealt a number of cards: five cards for four players, seven cards for three, or nine for two. The rest of the cards were the stock, or the deck as we’d call it in the hobby.

From the start of the game on, a player can call a drop. When a drop is declared, all players lay out their cards on the table and tally their points:

• Face cards – 10 points

• 10-2 – face value

• Ace – 1 point

If the player who declared drop has the lowest point total from the cards in their hand, they win the game; if not, they lose and must pay an equal wager to each player who had fewer points than they did.

If a player doesn’t drop, then they can spread, that is, play a three- or four-of-a-kind or a run of at least three cards. They can also add one card to an existing spread as no one owns a spread once it’s been played. Jokers and 2s are wild and can replace cards in a spread. Also, AKQ is a legitimate run.

A hand ends once a drop takes place, or a player (or the deck) runs out of cards. It’s called a tonk when a player runs out of cards, e.g., “I tonked out.” If the deck runs out, then it’s treated as a drop, and the player with the fewest points wins.

Note that the fewer points, the better, so a player is quite motivated to dump face cards.

As with the following games, we had a lot of fun playing Tonk!

Reference: Tonk card game rules at Cool Old Games

Bid Whist

Bid Whist is taken from the original game of Whist, played in the 1600s and 1700s. It’s a bidding version, of course, although I’ll note that it’s not like Bridge. In fact, I’ve never played Bid Whist because both my parents played Bridge and looked down on Bid Whist because it was too random.

Bid Whist was known for “Rise and Fly” gaming, meaning that if your partnership lost, you and your partner got up so that others waiting could play. A method that could work today!

Rules: Bid Whist at VIP Spades

Keep in mind that Bid Whist games can get quite feisty, as those of you who play Tichu may have experienced. The game was a staple at parties I attended in my teens and twenties.

And speaking of Bridge, the American Bridge Association (ABA) was started in 1932 by Black tennis players. The American Contract Bridge League refused to allow Black people to play Bridge in their league until 1967. The ABA holds annual duplicate tournaments, which my mom and I participated in until her passing in 2006.

For a complete history of ABA, head to its website — and take note of the 54th spring national tournament taking place April 6-12, 2024 in Hanover, Maryland.

Spades

Spades was my favorite card game for a long time.

While I know there is a common card game called Spades, the Spades we played was not the common game. First, we played Spades with two, three, or four players; with four, play in two teams.

Second, there are no null bids in Spades played in the Black community. Instead there’s a concept of “board”. Board is decided by the table, and it’s generally a number between 3 and 5. The number indicates the amount of “books” (tricks) that must be taken in order to win. Doesn’t matter what your hand looks like — you don’t win if you don’t make board. And while each trick that counts toward board gets you 10 points, tricks over board get you only 1 point, so there’s motivation to bid accurately.

Another difference is that you can’t lead a spade until spades have “cut”, meaning until a player has run out of a suit that was led, then played a spade.

Rules: Spades courtesy of Ramsey

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing other variants of games you’ve probably played before. Perhaps you’ll give them a shot and see why they are so popular in the Black community.

Jennifer Schlickbernd

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