Sicilians have their own unique playing cards. They look like this:
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 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.
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!)
“Buona Sera Signorina” (Good evening, Miss)
A Sicilian deck of 40 cards is used. Suits are ignored.
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.
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…
Cu Cu (pronounced Cuckoo, quite appropriately)
A Sicilian deck of 40 cards is used. Suits are ignored.
Three or more players can play this game but the more players there are, the better.
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.