Grab a deck of cards, pick up the bower and get in the barn with Indiana's favorite game.
Twelve years of living in Southern Indiana, and I'd never played euchre.
Granted, I'm not a Hoosier native, but a Colorado transplant, who missed the rite of passage at the family picnic or sleep away camp. I managed to exit my entire teenage years without so much as playing a game of Kemps, and with only passing knowledge of the existence of the cultural behemoth that is euchre in the Midwest.
It's the go-to game of fundraising tournaments and lunch-breakers the region over. Brought to the region by German settlers, the game enjoys brief nationwide popularity before being deemed a passing fad, eclipsed by Bridge and pinochle. For reasons that amount mostly to tradition, euchre's popularity has remains steadfast in pockets of America, most notably in the heartland.
Who better, then, to teach me the region's favored card game than a gang of thoroughbred Midwesterners? My friend Eli's family has lived in Southern Indiana for five generations and plays euchre regularly; they were the sort of people to have euchre accessories, counters and pre-designated game-night libations. With a hopeful heart, I recruited them as partners and opponents and scheduled a three-hour block later for my personal euchre boot camp.
The Henlines, in their cozy, wood-heated home built entirely by Eli's father, insisted the game was easy to learn, a Hoosierization of the simpler hearts and the more complex pinochle. It was fun, they said, once you've learned the rules. During a 30-minute lunch break at the Indiana University power plant, Eli's father and coworkers can rip through a 10-hand game with time to spare for a cigarette break. It couldn't possibly take three hours to teach, he said.
To this I returned a laugh.
On a thundery evening designed for card play, I sat across the table from my partner, Eli, flanked by his mother to my left and father to my right and begun my first round of the Indiana pastime.
From the very beginning, the game is steeped in superstition and tradition. As the guest of honor, I was allowed to deal first, and was startled at the outcry that resulted from my equal doling of the cards. Euchre, as a game, is sprinkled with a healthy dose of regional quirks. Dealing the cards, apparently, was one of them.
"You have to deal 2-3-2-3, 3-2-3-2. Five cards each. Or 4-1-4-1, 1-4-1-4."
"Is this a rule?" I asked, bewildered.
"No. But it's just how you do it."
"Because this is euchre?"
"Because this is euchre."
Easy as euchre may be to the average Hoosier, I could barely cobble together a playable hand, let alone quickly grasp a game with a quirky lexicon entirely of its own.
The concept of the "trump" suit was familiar. Reneging made some logical sense, in that a player caught withholding cards for later hands is punished by the opposing team.
Totally foreign, however, were the right and left "bowers." These jacks of same color hold the most power in the game, as the noble bauer (farmer) of German lore. Players confident in their hands can declare they want to "go it alone," and relieve their partners from that hand's duties. Euchre is played with the upper half of the deck, from the nines up through the aces. Though the card isn't used, the joker--or jucher, in German -- provides both the name of the game and the ultimate disappointment -- avoid getting "euchred," or jokered by losing more than two tricks in a suit you called yourself.
A casual player, or one in a pinch, would use a four-card to reveal the symbols on a six-card as a way of keeping score--but never the other way around.
"Six over four and you get no more," Eli explains. "The six weighs down the four."
At my blank expression he says, "Superstition."
To avoid the potential hexing, and as a testament to their zeal, the Henlines proudly procured their handcrafted euchre counter, a metal disk constructed by a family friend, with 10 holes around its perimeter for the metal counting peg to move around. The duo to first complete a full rotation around the disk would emerge victorious.
For the collector or die-hard euchre player, there are many such accessories: die and rollers can be set to display the "what's trump," eliminating an extra element of memorization each hand. Frankly, I'm glad the Henlines stopped short of purchasing one; the game would have lost significant texture without the frantic calls -"wait, wait, WHAT'S TRUMP!?"--throughout the match.
Like learning a foreign language, reading the cards took time, and immersion. After resigning to referring to spades as "the shovel" and clubs as "puppy feet," the pace accelerated, the playing grew easier, and I was able to sneak in a few bites of pita bread between hands, rather than clench my cards tightly in a cold confused sweat. I winked, leaned and nodded at my partner, growing ever slyer at the "talking across the table," or stealth communication, that is at once verboten and integral to the partnered game. Hand after hand - six of spades, nine of spades, Queen of diamonds, right bower!--the cards came to life in my hands. Finally, a decent hand felt like currency, not just paper cards.
The game was brought to the area by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Joke's on Eu: Euchre was the first card game to add the jokers to the deck (late 19th century)
Die-hard euchre fans can collect all of the bells and whistles for euchre playing. Rather than pulling out the 2 through 8 every time, players can buy pre-stripped euchre card decks--though often at the same cost as a full deck
While we at 812 Magazine favor the harder-to-find handmade variety, machine-made euchre counters and "What's Trump?" die can be readily found on the Internet. Try FrogWild.com for Fishers resident Lawrance Morrissey's online store that deals locally manufactured (though mass produced) euchre die.