Sicilian card games

Sicilians have their own unique playing cards. They look like this:

Sicilian cards1

The fishermen in my village are always out on the seafront, playing cards on upturned barrels between their fishing excursions. They all shout loud enough to startle the dead at certain card plays. They smack their winning cards down rather like a butcher hacking through bones with a meat cleaver. Sometimes they almost come to blows.

Most villages and town squares have a full-time squadron of old men who have been kicked out of the house by their wives (like putting out the cat at night), and who play together every day to pass the time.

The old men play serious complicated card games, but all Sicilian families play simpler card games after eating lunch at Christmas. These games are hilarious and ridiculous, but my husband realised recently they are great way to trick children into practising mental arithmetic without realising it. Since then, my household has turned into a mini gambling den.

Sicilian coins
Sicilian cards – coins

Sicilian playing cards date from medieval times and supposedly were introduced by the Arabs. They come in a pack of forty-two, with ten cards in each of the four suits. The suits are coins, cups, cudgels and swords.

The number cards go up to seven, and then there is the equivalent of a young lady/princess, a cavalier, and the king.

Sicilian clubs
Sicilian cards – cudgels (this is my favourite suit as it reminds me of Fred Flintstone)

Nearly all the games have to be played by putting up stakes, and the game doesn’t really work without the betting. The children love this, because their parents give them a small stack of 20 or 50 cent coins and they sometimes win more. And parents don’t mind, as it gives kids even more maths practise.

Well, now I’m going to describe some great fun Sicilian card games. You can play them with ordinary cards just as well, or if you want to get in the Sicilian mood you can order Sicilian cards online from Amazon. (NB. I have not personally ordered cards from here, I get them for one Euro in the tobacconist in my village!)

Sicilian swords
Sicilian cards – swords

“Buona Sera Signorina” (Good evening, Miss)

The cards

A Sicilian deck of 40 cards is used. Suits are ignored.

The players

Equally fun with children, or drunken adults in a pub. This game works with anything from 2 to about 8 players. Everyone needs to be able to reach the stack of cards at the centre of the table. If you have a rectangluar table, make sure the biggest people are at the ends and the little kids are along the sides.

The play

Deal all the cards. One player at a time turns up one card at the centre of the table, working anticlockwise around the table.

The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards. One by one players are eliminated and the game continues until one loser is left.

•             If the card is a young lady, everyone must say “Buona sera, Signorina” (Good evening, Miss)

•             If the card is the Cavalier, everyone must say “Buona sera, Signore”. (Good evening, Sir)

•             If it is the king everyone must stand up, whistle and salute. (People who don’t know how to whistle are allowed to blow a raspberry instead)

•             If it is an ace, you must slap your hand down on the pile of cards (or the hand of whoever got there before you).

The last person to perform these actions, or anyone who does the wrong action, must take all the cards from the centre of the table. The last person to slap their hand down on the stack of cards (and hands) when an ace is turned up has to take all the cards.

You are out of the game when you have eliminated your cards. The loser is the person who ends up with all the cards.

Now you’re realising how silly Sicilian games are, here’s another one that starts quite sensible then degenerates…

Sicilian cups
Sicilian cards – cups (or “Awards”, as my little boy calls them)

Cu Cu (pronounced Cuckoo, quite appropriately)

The cards

A Sicilian deck of 40 cards is used. Suits are ignored.

The players

Three or more players can play this game but the more players there are, the better.

The play

The game begins with every player putting three portions of an agreed stake of money on the table, e.g. each player places three 50 cent coins in a row. These represent the player’s three “lives.”

Each player is dealt 1 card, kept secret. The objective is to hold the card with the highest value. Play works around the table, starting with the person to the right of the dealer.

If you are dealt a low value card, when it is your turn, you pass your unwanted card to the player on your right, and they have to give you theirs in return. You make this exchange if you think their card is likely to be better than yours is. If you are dealt a relatively high card, you say “pass” when it is your turn, and keep your card.

If a player has the king they do not have to give it up. When it is their turn, or if challenged to swap, they announce Cu cu!, turn up their King card for everyone to see, and the player to their left must keep his card. Play continues around the table.

At the end of the round, the dealer, who is also the banker, turns up his card. If it has a low value, he can split the pack to take another card, but if that is worse than the one he had, he still has to keep the new card. At this point all the other players reveal their cards.

The people with a lower value card than the banker hand over one of their coins to the bank at the centre of the table. If the banker has the lowest value card, he pays up one of his three “lives” to the bank.

For the next round of play, the person to the right of the original dealer becomes the new dealer. The role of dealer moves around the table, changing with each round of play.

When a player has lost all three coins and has no more money, he is “dead.” This means he can no longer play and nobody can speak to him. If anyone makes the mistake of speaking to a dead player, they must give him one of their 50p coins – a new life – and then he is back in the game.

The fun of this game really starts when players “die” and try to trick their companions into speaking to them to bring them back to life. Some players resort to kind offers such as “would you like a cup of coffee,” whereas others pretend to be zombies trying to strangle the other players, or wailing ghosts, in the hope of provoking a rebuke. My brother in law this year took to washing dishes and putting them in the wrong places, which guaranteed a comment from my mother-in-law. My son discovered tickling people’s feet under the table worked well. No tactic is disallowed other than extreme violence.

If you decide to play either of these games, let me know how you got on! And if anyone wants to know the rules of some more adult, complex games, just ask and I’ll add another post.

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27 thoughts on “Sicilian card games

  1. I have just returned from two weeks of wonderful relaxing holiday in Sicily. We stayed with Mrs Sensible’s family. During meal times there was always at least 6 around the table and sometimes as many as 12 relatives. I spent the holiday playing scopa, scopone and briscola with the Scilian cards. I have never played cu cu, but maybe next time.

    Good food, great wine, fabulous people and many games of Scopone what more could an Englishman ask for… did I mention home made grappa?

    Happy New Year

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  2. I’ve taken a pack of Sicilian cards (given to me by my beloved sister) to the Croatian house for our future guests…. I will print your post so they have some explanation and instructions on how to play! happy new year and happy blogging

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  3. This looks like fun! I’ll have to get those cards and teach my 6 1/2yr old grandson the games next summer when I see him. He loves card games and all games. When I was a child in a three flat, all-related-family building (all but my dad were of Sicilian ancestry), we used to all play a card game together called “Seven of Diamonds”, which I now suspect was an Americanized version of a Sicilian game. We played for pennies in those days. No one had money to lose. But as a little kid I was very excited to win a pot occasionally and trade in the pennies for a shiny DIME!

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    1. They do have their own version of playing cards in Naples… and because of your comment I had to go look them up on Google. They look very similar, with subtle differences in the way the aces are drawn and a few other details – but basically, not vastly different.

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      1. There are generally three styles for the playing cards traditionally used in Italy, the Italian, the French and the Spanish. The French being traditionally the preserve of north-west (Turin, Milan, Florence and Genoa all have traditional playing cards in French style), the rest of the country is divided between the Italian and the Spanish style. Both the Sicilian and the Neapolitan playing cards are examples of Spanish style cards. Interestingly, while it make historical sense for those, and the Sardinian, as these were all parts of the Spanish empire, I don’t really know why the Piacentine or the Romagnolo playing cards are in Spanish style as well.

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      2. That’s really interesting. I am slowly learning more and more about the history of these cards. As a result of this book, I have been commissioned by a Sicilian publisher to produce a version in Italian, and they have asked a very well known Sicilian historian (Gaetano Basile) to write the history of playing cards as a long introduction.
        He did tell me when we met that all these different types of cards were spread around the Mediterranean by the Arabs but they were invented by the Jews. I cannot wait to read what he writes!

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    1. Hello! I’m glad you’re keen to have some Sicilian playing cards.
      The cheapest way to get some is to order from Amazon. Although they’re cheaper from the shops here in Sicily, the postage costs more!
      On Amazon America:
      http://www.amazon.com/Italian-Sicilian-Scopa-Playing-Cards/dp/B000FH6GZQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359193168&sr=8-1&keywords=sicilian+playing+cards
      On Amazon UK (cheaper option for Europe):
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Delightful-Modiano-Italian-Sicilian-Playing/dp/B00AXJHMF4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359193119&sr=8-1

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    1. That’s interesting. You’ve just inspired me to read the Wikipedia article on Tarot cards (about which I knew nothing at all) and it says the earliest non-occult versions were used in Italy, as playing cards – and did, as you say, have exactly the same suits as Sicilian playing cards. Thet started in northern Italy and worked their way down, and there was also a specific version of Sicilian tarot cards (called Tarocco Siciliano in Italian) which had those suits, but some of its own trump cards different from the north Italian ones. So I suppose the tarot cards and the modern Sicilian playing cards must once have been the same thing, and gradually evolved down two separate paths.
      The article also says that all over Europe people do still use tarot cards for playing card games, which I didn’t know, and that using them for divination and not playing is a recent (C18th) idea and fairly specific to English speaking countries.
      Well, thanks for your comment – it led me to learn a lot of interesting new things!

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      1. Thank you for your Blog. My mother’s side of the the family are sicilian. My grandfather Vincenzo Mineo was from Bagarea(sp) near Palermo. Grandmother was Camaniti. I believe there are relatives there. You have truely captured the English humor and perspective in a most loving and adoring way. Love your pictures, Bella!

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      2. Wow, that is amazing. I will see if I can find and scan the few pictures Nana had from when she was in Bagheria(thanks for spelling) in ’58. I would be surprised if there weren’t relatives still there. I never got to meet my Nanu Vincenzo(everyone called him Jim, so that’s what they named me), but I did get to meet Nana Rose’s father who was in his 90’s also from sicily I believe. He was a pretty dark, scary old man when I was young.

        It’s funny, different cultures tend to live together like oil & vinegar in a bottle. They separate naturally, but when shaken up together they are quite wonderful.

        I found some pictures. It seems that there were probably relatives in Santa Flavia from pictures and addresses. It is becoming a bit more important as time goes by and the threads of our past become thinner and break to identify them. Nanu died in ’53 (2 years before I was born) at only 49. Nana died in ’04 at 96 and my mom died in 2012 just shy of 82. I know a regret I have is never having been able to go with them to see Sicily.

        Thank you so much for taking the time and your wonderful heartfelt perspective.
        James Winer

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  4. looking for anyone who played a sicilian card game with 2 of clubs we called it :miniged: but we are looking for the correct spelling

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  5. Wow, so cool you are in Bagheria. My mom’s side of the family is from Aspra. I went there once in the early ’90s and loved it there. Scopa is the only game I really know for the cards and have taught many friends to play. Nice blog, thanks for writing.

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    1. Glad you’re enjoying the blog!
      If you come here again, get in touch…. I’ll take you out for some fantastic arancine and panelle that they make in a new friggitoria on the seafront in Aspra! Aspra has been jazzed up since you were here, BTW. We have a little “port” to protect the fishermen’s boats in storms, and some sculptures by local artists on the new beach promenade.

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