While having lunch with some friends not long ago I was asked how many articles I’ve written. The answer: over four hundred. One of the guys then asked if I remembered the first one. The answer: vividly.
It was about forty years ago and I’d made a bet with a friend that I could get an article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, which I did. I got paid fifty dollars for the article and won another twenty-five on the bet.
I submitted it without a title and the editors at the Globe called it “Count the Cards.” Here it is.
What Canadian game inspires sweet old ladies and clergymen to cheat unabashedly, can last for hours or 90 seconds, and thrills and enrages players from nine to 90? It’s Forty-five and unless you’re from the Maritimes you’ve probably never heard of it. You don’t know what you’re missing.
Hoyle calls it Spoil Five and states the requirements for a game to be 2 to 6 people and a deck of 52 cards. But every Maritimer knows that the requirements really are: a deck of 52 cards, more or less, a supply of nickels, 2 to 8 people and (more about this later) a very sturdy table.
I’ll never forget the 11-year-old farm girl explaining the game to a bewildered American tourist who was about to be separated from a supply of nickels. “It’s easy,” she enthused, “the five of trumps is the best card, the jack of trumps is next, the ace of hearts is always the third best and the ace of trumps next.” She paused for breath as she skilfully riffled the deck, then continued, “from the 10 down in black cards low beats high and in red high beats low. OK?”
She dealt two hands of five cards each and turned one card up on top of the remaining deck. The cards are dealt in two rounds: first three cards to each player and then two. The turn-up determines the trump suit.
The girl took up the explanation again, “You don’t have to follow suit if you trump; if you don’t trump you have to follow suit if you can; you can hold off a trump if it’s the five, jack, or ace of hearts but you can’t hold the ace off the five or jack or the jack off the five.” The tourist offered to give the little girl a quarter to forget the whole thing.
The rules may seem complicated but every rural Maritimer knows them by heart before the age of ten. However, what really makes the game so intriguing is how it’s played.
Games of Forty-five are sometimes planned but the best often take place 15 minutes before supper is served or five minutes before leaving for church on Sunday morning
There are traditions. The five or jack of trumps is always played with a house-shaking smash of your fist on the table. Frail, octogenarian ladies have been known to rattle the dishes next door when slamming the five of trumps (always worth 10 points) down on an opponent’s jack.
And everybody cheats. The strange thing about cheating in a game of Forty-five is its acceptance. If you are shrewd enough to do it with infrequent detection, you’re looked upon with respect. As alluded to earlier, I’ve seen clergymen cheat.
Just last year while holidaying in Morell, Prince Edward Island, I was embroiled in a wild, dish-rattling, table-thumping game which had been going on non-stop for about four hours. A late-arriving kibitzer noticed a card on the floor and called it to our attention. “Wait a minute,” I yelled – you always yell in a Forty-five game – “let’s count the cards.” The Islanders (which included an elderly matron and a Minister of the Crown) fixed me with a stare reserved for Maritimers from Toronto, but they let me count.
The deck had 43 cards and I was down 75 cents.