I have a new group of friends. Luis, Brian, Emel, and Junior – all between the ages of 10 and 12 - come to my house every afternoon to play desmoche, the national card game of Nicargua. Here is how we became friends: one day I was playing my guitar and singing in my house, when I had the sensation that someone was watching me. It turned out that someone was – four someones in fact. I sang “Oh Susanna” for them, and I showed them how I can play the guitar and the harmonica at the same time. Then they found out that I own a deck of playing cards, and that pretty much sealed the deal.
Now every day around 2:00 my new friends come over to the house. I clear all of my junk off my plastic table, and we sit down to play desmoche. Only four of us can play at a time, so the loser of each round has to give up his/her seat. Brian almost always loses. Throughout the game there is a lot of talking. “Dame algo bueno, hombre.” Give me something good, man. “Ay, vos, porque me jodiste?” Aw, dude, why did you screw me like that? “Que clase de juego que tengo. Van a ver.” I’ve got this game, you’ll see.
Overall, the play is pretty free-wheeling. If I hadn’t learned the game from other Nicaraguan friends, I don’t think I could have caught the rules from the way these boys play. Desmoche is kind of like a combination between seven-card stud and gin. You have to assemble a ten-card winning hand like in gin, but you don’t get to replace the cards in your hand. Instead you pick up a card from the stack. If you can make a set of three or four using the card you’ve drawn and two or three others from your hand, you do it. If not, you put it down, and another player can take it. Supposedly each person has a chance at the card, in order, but in our games it never works like that. Pretty much whoever grabs the card first gets it. Also, shuffling is not these boys’ strong point, so the deck sometimes turns up three aces in a row, or a run of hearts.
Desmoche also has a lot of arbitrary rules – e.g. cards have to be arranged black-red-black, and you can win outright by drawing four of the same card on the first deal or by having all of your cards be the same color. A friend commented recently that desmoche is a big brother game, in the sense that you might be winning and then your big brother would suddenly claim that you’d lost for not doing some silly thing like arranging your cards according to color.
I’ve taught my new friends some other games – Crazy Eights (Ochos Locos), Hearts (Corazones), and a dice game I had lying around – and they catch on very quickly, all except Brian, who always loses. The best part is that these boys are very sweet and polite. They talk a lot of smack to each other during the games, but they don’t usually use bad words, and they’re always very respectful to me. When they leave they always push in their chairs, thank me for playing with them, and as they file out the door not a one forgets to say “adios.”