An Inexpensive Diversion

My digital era middle-school-aged son has adopted the use of a low-tech, low-cost entertainment device. I have put much effort into convincing him to balance his love of technology with quieter pursuits that don’t require electricity, batteries, or cash, so when he took a break from making Youtube videos (produced using hypercam to record computer-screen action, then edited via PowerPoint), I was pleased. He loves the versatility of his newfound toy; I love the price tag.

His turnaround came after a week at Boy Scout camp, where electronics are banned and card games are taught. Shortly after coming home, he begged for a deck of cards. I couldn’t find any at the house, so I went to the dollar store, where I purchased a pack for, oddly, 50 cents plus tax. (I paid using change).

Then, he told me that cards are superior to the typical board game because you could play lots of different games and weren’t tied down to one in particular.

My scout taught our family his favorite game from camp, “Mao,” beginning with the rule that you can’t tell the rules, which the observant person will find is in violation of the rules. For more on Mao, see this Party Games website or Wikipedia’s article on Mao.

My older son had a similar, though less dramatic, experience after several days at a youth retreat in the mountains. He spends less time tinkering with the computer and more time reading so playing cards didn’t make quite the impression on him. Still, he enjoyed playing El Presidente and then teaching us (my husband, his younger brother, a friend, and me) the card game on an overnight hiking trip.

Here’s his version of the game:

  • Equipment: full deck of cards
  • Number of players: at least 3, better with 4-7
  • Setup: all cards are dealt, as evenly as possible; everyone sits in a circle or somehow close enough to pick up and put down cards with ease, but not see others’ cards; the person who has the 4 of clubs starts the game
  • Object: to get rid of all your cards and be named El Presidente
  • Rules:
    • 3 is the highest value card, then 2, Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4.
    • Each game usually involves multiple rounds; the person who starts the game or wins the most recent round, decides whether cards should be placed in singles, doubles, or triples (that is, if one 7 is placed at first, then that round is singles; two 7’s, doubles; three 7’s, triples); when the round is over, then the deck is cleared and a new round starts.
    • If all 4 of the same face-value cards (such as all of the Queens) are used in a round, then the deck is cleared.
    • If two cards with the same face value are played in sequence (such as a 5, followed by a 5), then the next player is skipped (this “skip” still counts as a turn).
    • Game Play: after the first card is placed, then the next player (clockwise or counterclockwise depending on what the dealer decides) must place a higher value card of any suit or pass on the turn; a round is over and the deck is cleared when someone plays the highest value card (a 3 in this version); if a card can’t be topped and all players have had a turn (either skipped or passed) – the person who has placed the last card down wins the round.
    • Order of winners: the first person who gets rid of all his/her cards is declared El Presidente and the second person is Vice Presidente; the last person is Bum 2 and second to last person is Bum 1; all others are Middle Men.
    • For the next session, Bum 2 must give El Presidente his/her two best cards in exchange for any two cards; Bum 1 must give Vice President his/her best card in exchange for any one card. El Presidente starts the next round.

Rules for this card game or any others can vary depending on the inclinations of the players. The ability to make a game more or less complicated is yet another advantage of cards.

A deck, with all its cards tucked away in a small box, is easy to transport in a backpack or duffle bag, providing ready entertainment at home, on camping trips, at off-the-grid lodges, and in airport waiting areas. Though I played cards some as a kid, I don’t think I recognized the value of a full deck as a highly portable, flexible, and inexpensive diversion, until now.

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Guest's picture

President is a drinking game. LOL. It's played almost the same way, but you have to drink on skips, can't go's, 4's or 2's, and whenever someone with a higher rank tells you to.

Although these rules are slightly different.

They will be drinking to it soon enough...

Julie Rains's picture

the price goes up but the game is still flexible. I thought it would be nice to have a family-friendly version of the game on the Internet as all my searches turned up not-so-friendly versions.

Fred Lee's picture

Though I'm not a tecnho-phobe and want our kids to be tech-literate, it is nice to hear when kids embrace a simpler, more accesible way to entertain themselves. Being tech-savvy is probably an asset in our culture, but not being completely reliant on it, especially for entertainment, is not a bad thing, especially when it involves the whole family.

Nice inspiring post, it makes me feel like there's hope that life can still be simple and rewarding, not to mention quiet.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Solo card games are a great way to pass the time on super long flights. And if you are up on the games (I admit to being totally out of practice on nearly all of them), it's fun to take a set in the backpack. Not something we currently do, but I've seen others use this as cheap entertainment for extended trips on the road.

Guest's picture

The best thing about card games -- interacting with family and friends.

When my family gets together, we always play cards. Our favorite is a progressive form of rummy called Shang-hi.

It goes like this:
Shuffle together 2 decks of cards, including all four jokers (Jokers are wild).
Deal 11 cards to each player (at least three; it gets precarious with more than 6).
Each round you are trying to a get a different combination of cards:
1) 2 sets of three cards of the same value (may be of any suit) for 6 cards total
2) 1 set and 1 run (four cards of the same suit in order) (7 cards)
3) 2 runs (8 cards)
4) 3 sets (9 cards)
5) 2 sets and 1 run (10 cards)
6) 1 set and 2 runs (11 cards)
7) 3 runs (12 cards)

As you can tell the seventh hand is impossible without this rule -- The "May I."

At any time in the game, in any hand, a player may "May I." If someone discards a card you want, "May I" it. If no one ahead of you wants the card, you can pick it up and take an additional card off the top of the draw pile (for a total of two cards). You can do this 3 times in a hand (no more than 17 cards per person).

After you lay down your meld (whatever you're going for in that hand), you can play other cards in your hand on other people who have also laid down. The goal is to get rid of all your cards first.

After one person goes up, everyone else counts their points:
1-7 -- 5 points
8-King -- 10 points
Ace - 20 points
Joker - 50 points.

After all seven rounds, the person with the lowest score wins.

The game is simple, but it gets cutthroat (and fun!) as people try to predicate what others are holding and steal "May I's." We've been playing this game for more than 30 years (I've been playing for about 10) and have yet to get tired of it.

Guest's picture
Andrew A

It is great to see that someone else's family plays this game. My grandmother and her "posse" used to play all the time and our whole family plays when we get together. Seeing your post just reminded me of so many great times around my grandmother's breakfast room table (my sister has the table at her house and we play there now) we even modified the game to play with one deck and only two people (you gotta get your fix) same rules except there is no picking out of turn so we deal 13 cards for the last two hands. By the way, we throw out the jokers and all 2's are wild and the scoring is slightly different 15 points for aces and 2's are 25 pts.

Guest's picture

I remember my first week of scout camp, and the withdraw symptoms from my beloved PlayStation. Well, it wasn't that bad.

Here's another great thing to keep most kids busy, at camp or otherwise: making lanyards with boondoggle. Most camps have this available at the camp store, and there's plenty of people who know how to do it and can teach. I made a ton of these at camp when I was a younger scout--great way to pass the time.

Here's a good site with some basics:


Guest's picture

Another neat thing about cards is that many games teach kids to do arithmetic quickly and painlessly. Two friends of mine -- brother & sister -- grew up in a home where the parents loved to play cards with them. Not only did the kids get the outstanding benefits of interacting with adults and other people of all ages, they both are very good at math.

LOL! The brother made a lot of pocket money when he was a young fellow in the Air Force, poker.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the ideas everyone. Christopher, it looks like scout camp taught (or reinforced) patience, which surely is required to make lanyards as you describe. And it seems that cards can teach math and strategy!

Guest's picture

Ok... not for playing in the car because it's hard without a table, but my family always keeps a deck of cards in the car because inevitably we end up needing a diversion in line somewhere or at some beach party or coffee house. Having a spare deck in the car always makes it a much more plesant wait/afternoon.