Looking for the fool at the card table

Originally published on October 14, 2014
10.14.14
The other morning I walked downstairs, saw the boys in the playroom, and thought: uh-oh, Wally. They were sitting across a small table from each other, playing the card game War. In the first hand I saw, Wally flipped over a Queen and Jay played a Joker, the top card in our house. “I win,” Jay said, and Wally cheerfully handed over his card, happy just to have a seat at the table.

Growing up, I cheated a lot at War. My brother and sister, quite sharp now, were a step slow during a few crucial years and probably wouldn’t have said anything if I’d played five aces in a row. The easiest way to cheat was to replace high cards on the top instead of the bottom of my pile. The best way to cheat was to fabricate wars—Oh, did two nines just come up? What are the chances of that—and use the tiebreaker process to rook my brother and sister’s best cards.

So, when I saw Wally sit down at the card table with his big brother, I knew what he was in for. Yet that day, and the several times they played War together in the weeks afterward, I never saw Jay cheat. Sometimes he’d win several hands in a row and exclaim, “I’m getting good at this!” revealing a kind of myopic attention to his own perceived skills. Meanwhile, and perhaps undetected by cheery Jay, Wally was growing steadily less content to fork over his cards. Games grew volatile, and often ended in a fight, or with Wally refusing to play a card he didn’t want to lose.

This weekend, though, Jay and Wally sat down to play War again, supervised by their Grammy. The first few hands went fine and then a war hit, a big one: two Kings. Jay’s eyes went wide at the sheer improbability of it, when really they should have narrowed. He played his war cards, three down, one up, with the last one being a respectable Ten of Spades.

Across the table, however, it became quickly apparent that Wally meant to engage the fight in a different way. He peeked at his top card. Yikes, it was a Joker, the last card you want to lay down sacrificially in a war. So, rather than play it that way, Wally tucked it between his chin and his shoulder, and placed the next three cards in his pile face down. Then he removed the Joker from beneath his chin, placed it face up, looked across the table at Jay, and broke into celebration. Jay, seemingly in the same room as the rest of us, was none the wiser to this brazen treachery. He didn’t even object when, lo and behold, Wally’s marauding Joker came up again on the very next hand.

I’ve written a couple posts recently (here and here) about the tough lot of younger siblings, and I do feel for Wally, whose view is often obstructed by Jay. At the same time, we’re most exploitable at the exact moment we think we know something for certain. I don’t think it’s conceivable to Jay (or maybe me) that Wally could pull one over on him, and I suspect he may pay for that presumption more than once throughout their childhoods.

Related posts:

A tale of two Wallys

Last night at soccer practice, I realized you can’t treat a second child like a first child

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