We are ready to roll the bones as we look toward Grandson Jonah. He holds six dice in his small hands and as he shakes them his whole body vibrates. He’s learning to play ten thousand, a favorite family winter game. Ten thousand is also called Zilch or Farkle and is played with six dice. We wait for Jonah to let go of the dice. He shakes and shakes until his mother, Nikka, is laughing so hard that she can’t speak to remind him to throw the dice. Finally he opens his hands and the dice topple as if in slow motion onto the table.
Long before modern cube-shaped dice, ancient people used sticks, sea shells, nut shells, smooth stones, fruit pits and animal knuckle bones.
Ancient peoples used dice to determine inheritances, predict the future, and even choose who ruled a kingdom. What numbers you rolled were once considered to be controlled by gods. Lady Luck favors Grandson Jonah. “You have a thousand! You’re on the board!” we cheer. We show him which numbers to look for: ones and fives and three of a kind. He’s starting the game off well, but in a few rounds his attention span will likely wane and he’ll go join his cousins dancing to Wii in the adjoining room.
The first mention of card playing was in the year 868 (CE), when Princess Tong Chen of China played a leaf game with her family.
Every Friday night, four generations gather to play cards, dice and board games at my sister’s house. It started after my sister and I moved back home to Wrangell following our retirements and our grown children moved back “home” to raise their families here. We needed something to do in the winter but game night soon evolved to something we do year round. We’ve had game night in mid-summer on my sister’s patio. Game night is not just for games but for sharing food and stories. We’ve had seafood night and bacon night and even night with foods from Mexico, India and the Philippines. We’ve had pizza night and soup and bread night too. And we always have iced tea or lemonade made from local berries.
It’s against the law to race horses in Alaska but the state allows dog mushing and games associated with nature and local cultures.
In Alaska there’s local Bingos everywhere and there’s the Canned Salmon Classic, a couple of goose classics, a cabbage classic, and the Deep Freeze Classic. There are fishing derbies and bull moose derbies, lots of ice classics, and king salmon classics, and numerous mercury classics. There’s mushing sweepstakes and rain classics, and even snow machine classics are allowed. Social in-home gambling is allowed. So, we’re good: All we’re doing is spitting in the ocean.
Spit in the Ocean was our Grandpa Pressy’s favorite poker game. My sister has memories of playing the game with him. Spit in the Ocean is played with wild cards and huge pots of money — and in our case, candy — are at stake. Each player is dealt a hand of cards face down and combines them with cards that are face up on the table to make a poker hand. And yes, someone usually pretends to spit in the ocean.
In 1377, a Paris gaming ordinance mentions rules meant to keep the phenomenon of widespread card games in check.
Before television came to town, Wrangellites went house to house and played card games and board games. People met regularly for Cribbage, Pinochle and Rummy. Various types of games rolled through our house like fads: Blackout, Nertz and Mancala. Aggravation, a marble board game, was one of our favorites. Sometime in the late 1970s, Liverpool Rummy swept everyone up in its vortex. A makeshift shack that doubled as the harbor office for an out-the-road harbor also served as a late night card-filled extravaganza. Sometimes called Frustration, Fascination, Shanghai Rummy, Contract Rummy, Progressive, and May I, what began as an opportunity to shoot the breeze and pass the time playing cards game during the dark winter, grew to folks of all ages sitting shoulder to shoulder, as fishermen laid down two sets and a run while telling you where the good spots were to drag your shrimp trawl.
Dominoes possibly descended from dice in China and spread to the West during the 18th-century.
My sister’s brought Chicken Foot, a dominoes game, back from her trip to Seattle. I figure it must be fancy having come from the city, but when my sister spreads out the tiles face down and explains the rules, I think it’s just a kids game. Chicken Foot likely originates from Texas or even Mexico and is similar to Maltese Cross.
We pick our tiles from the pile in the center and set them on edge in front of us so the other players can’t see them. The object of the game is to use all the dominoes in your hand and get a low score.
“Oh, and you have to cluck like a chicken,” she says, “when you run out of tiles.” She shows us how to make a chicken foot with a double value domino. “You have to say chicken foot, when you make one, and then everyone plays off of your foot.”
The game progresses with the colored dominoes and after a minute someone says, “Chicken foot.” And when all the tiles are almost used up my dad bends his arm in a wing-shape: “Cluck, cluck,” he says. He’s out of tiles. We play more rounds and sip iced tea and invent versions of the game we might play the next time: Dinosaur foot, Unicorn foot, Salmon foot and we laugh trying to figure out what a salmon might say in place of cluck cluck.
The longest Monopoly game was played for 70 straight days.
Our winter games do not consist of the luge or curling and we don’t get medals. Food is our opening ceremony and laughter is our prize. A few hours of laughter and games and we remember why family is important.
Sometimes I lean over and pretend to spit. My sister clucks like a chicken. Nikka laughs. My dad tells a fishing story. Jonah shakes his whole body and the dice go rolling round the floor. My niece, Rhiannon, moves the Wii controller in the air and grandson Timothy and grandson Jackson, wiggle their bodies, dancing beside her to a disco beat.
Sometimes we end our game night with a game of Sequence. Sometimes that’s all we play the entire time. Sequence is my dad’s favorite game. He’s good at it and he wins a lot. Sequence is a game of strategy, wits and luck, a mix of bingo and a card game using poker chips.
“Sequence!” my dad exclaims. This is the second time he’s won. Time to go home. It’s 8 p.m. and that’s usually when we call it quits after playing games for several hours.
“Awww,” says one of the grandkids.
We roll away the game board, put the chips in the bags. In a few days’ time, we’ll be texting one another planning the next game night: Who’s bringing the veggies and dip?
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.