Friday, July 22, 2011

Barracuda: A Family Tradition

One of the major milestones of my childhood was being old enough to participate in the Barracuda game. I used to go to bed sulking when we visited Granee and Granddad, knowing that the grownups were sitting around the table in the breakfast room and playing late into the night.

Barracuda is a version of rummy that nobody else has ever heard of. We don't know where it came from and why it's called what it's called (although we speculate that it's because typical gameplay involves a lot of watching and waiting and then a sudden fit of activity). Since the great-grandparents are no longer living, we can't ask them. But we still play it, just three generations of us now, always pausing at the beginning to say "Who's keeping score? I don't remember how to keep score. Barney, do you remember how to keep score? No? Look, here's last year's score pad. That doesn't look right. I think we did it wrong last year. Does anybody know how to keep score?"

The game is a little less serious now, with two snarky teenage boys at the table, and with Patrick, who married in and doesn't know the tradition of severity in our game play. (He likes to try to make my mother panic by staring at her and wiggling his eyebrows when it's her turn.) Back when I was the only participant of my generation, we played in silence, each of us hunched over, staring at our hands and at the table. Sometimes one of us would grunt or hiss quietly when we drew a card we didn't want or saw the card we needed vanish into the discard pile.

Granddad would occasionally pull a card out of his hand, hold it in the air for a moment, and then slam it down onto the table, his massive, meaty palm slapping onto the hardwood and making us all jump.

"We're playing Barracuda, Dad," Barney would say, and Granddad would sigh and slip the card back into his hand. 

"I was just checking to see if you were paying attention," he'd say.

"Yeah, right," we'd respond.

Now we play at a pair of card tables at Barney's house, and Granddad less frequently forgets the game and more frequently points out, with glee, the playable cards that the boys and Patrick have absentmindedly discarded. 

We play for cash, non-negotiable: a penny a point, a nickel a game. When I was little, I always lost, and Granddad always footed the bill. Last year I had to dig into my wallet and pay the youngest cousin one dollar and thirty-eight cents. I thought he was under-appreciative of the winnings, not understanding that it's not about what a dollar thirty-eight can (or can't) buy, but about bragging rights.

Newcomers don't usually take to it right away. "Why don't you play poker, or bridge, or something more interesting?" they say. "And why won't you let me draw that card right there under the queen? I need that card. If this was normal rummy I could draw that card. These rules are stupid. Nothing has happened for six turns. This game is never going to end. What did you just do? Are you about to go out? Oh, come on! Are you serious? You just won? That is so stupid! . . . Yes, okay. I'll try one more hand."

We're going to be vacationing in the Blue Ridge next week. Nine of us, crammed into a three-bedroom house. I've packed my cards and a handful of change.

Now, because it doesn't seem to exist there, I'm sending the rules out into the internet:

  • Standard 52-card deck. 
  • Three or more players, play moving clockwise.
  • Each player starts with seven cards.
  • Turn play is: draw one card, make one available play, discard one card. You cannot draw more than one card or make more than one play per turn. You must discard at the end of your turn.
  • The first player must draw the top card from the deck. Subsequent players can choose between drawing the top card from the deck or the top card from the discard pile. Only the top card may be drawn from the discard pile.
  • You may only draw from the discard pile if you use that card in the same turn.
  • Aces are low, face cards are high.
  • Cards are scored with numeric value. Face cards are 10 points each.
  • The goal is to run out of cards. Any cards left in your hand at the end of play count against you.
  • Each hand ends when either one player runs out of cards or there are no cards left in the deck, whichever comes first.
  • There are three plays to decrease the cards in your hand: 1) Three-card run of a single suit; 2) Three-card set of the same rank; 3) One card added to a run or set already played by any player.
  • Runs cannot go lower than the Ace or higher than the King; e.g. you cannot add an Ace to a run of 9-10-Jack-Queen-King, and you cannot place a King at the beginning of a run of Ace-1-2
  • Scoring: there are two scoring columns, one for points and one for hands. In the points column, each player is scored with the value of the cards remaining in his/her hand at the end of each hand. The first player to break 100 points ends the game.
  • On the hands column, each player loses one point for each hand lost, loses no points if the hand ends when the deck runs out, and gains one point for each other player if the hand is won. Total points for each hand comes to zero. For instance, if you are playing with three other players and you win the hand, you gain three points and each other player loses one, for a sum of zero.
  • At the end of the game, the winner is determined by the player with the highest score in the hand column. All other players pay the winner a penny for each of their points on the points column, and a nickel for each point that the winner is up on the hand column. (This is where there is something wrong with our scoring system. I'll let you know if we figure it out.)
  • If the younger players look like they are going to cry when they find out that they owe money to the winner, and you feel that they are young enough to get away with it, it is protocol to cover them.


  1. I love this post and am impressed with your instructions-- until it gets to the scoring. Then a sort of mist interferes with my eyesight, and my brain goes kind of wonky. Just pass the scoring pad to Barney, it says.

  2. barracuda is a well known card game in our family and I think many others here in Oregon