When we Voyaged around Italy, we kept seeing men in the piazza or in their storefront clubs playing cards. The cards were very fancy looking, something like French cards I saw years ago. But what is this game that gets the men so absorbed they rarely look away from the game? When it seems sudden passions arise and they forcefully slap cards on the table--with a kind of macho panache. We saw it played in the north, down in Basilicata, in Molfetta and most small towns. I discovered they were most likely playing one of the two most popular Italian card games: Briscola (literally, Trump) or Scopa (broom, or Scopare--to sweep).
The cards are very beautiful and interesting. A deck of Italian cards consists of forty cards, divided into four suits: coins (Denari, often looking like sunbursts), swords (Spade), cups (Coppe) and clubs (Bastoni--not the same as our clubs. Theirs are actual clubs or bats.) The number value of the cards range from one through seven (not up to ten like our cards). There are also "picture cards" in each suit: Knave (Fante), Knight (Cavallo), and King (Re). The Knave is man standing. The Knight always has a horse somewhere. The King wears a crown. Count the symbols for the number value of the cards. The Ace (Asso) of Coins is a bird with circle in the middle, and other Aces always have one of their symbol.
Briscola is also played in Croatia, Libya, Spain and Portugal, Malta, Slovenia. and even Puerto Rico, its poularity more than likely spread by sailors who played the game in various ports and aboard ship. It is played by two to six players played with a standard Italian 40-card deck. The game is said to originate from an older Dutch game, evidenced by the word cappotto yelled when one team wins--very similar to the Dutch word "Kaput" meaning to be defeated (though capotto means jacket in Italian).
Basically this is a trump following game, although the rules allow the trump to be suddenly changed by players, making it a bit more unpredictable. The four and six player versions of the game are played as a partnership game of two teams. Each card has its own point value-- Ace 11, Three 3, King 10, Knight 4, Jack 3. A deck has 120 points total. To win a game, a player or team must get more points than any other player.
After the deck is shuffled, each player is dealt three cards. The next card is placed face up on the playing surface, and the remaining deck is placed face down, sometimes covering half of the up-turned card. This card is the Briscola, and represents the trump suit for the game. Before the game begins if a player has the deuce of trump he may retire the briscola. This move may only be done at the beginning of the game or first hand. Before the first hand is played (in four player game), team players may show each other their cards. Dealing out cards and the players turns go in a counter-clockwise direction. The player to the right of the dealer leads the first hand (trucco) by laying one card face up. Each player subsequently plays a card in turn, until all players have played one card. The winner of that hand is: if any briscola (trump) has been played, the player who played the highest valued trump wins; or if no briscole (trumps) have been played, the player who played the highest card of the lead suit wins. Players are not required to follow suit, that is, to play the same suit as the lead player.
The winner of a trucco collects the cards he just won and places them face down in front of him. Each player maintains his/her own pile. Then each player draws a card from the remaining deck to replace the one previously played, starting with the player who won the trick, proceeding counter-clockwise. The last card collected in the game should be turned up and become the new Briscola (trump). The player who won the trucco plays the first can. During the game and only before the next to the last hand is played, a player who draws the card with the seven (7) of trump can take the briscola. This may be done only if the player has won a hand. Before the last hand, people in the same team can look at each other's cards.
After all cards have been played, players calculate the total point value of cards in their own piles. For multi-player games, partners combine their points.
Scopa is the other popular card game played in Italy. Scopa in Italian means broom, and the game is one when a player sweeps all the cards from the table. It is an easy game to learn but difficult to become really good at it. It's a game of both skill and luck. Again, this is an excitable game, with body language, hand gestures and a bit of cursing being the norm during play. It is also played with the 40-card deck of cards, either with 2 players or partnerships from 4 to 6 players.
Members of the same team sit opposite each other. Only one player deals the cards and hands out 3 cards to each player, and then deals four cards face up on the table in front of him. A table card may be dealt before the deal begins, immediately after dealing a card to one player, but before dealing to the next player, or after dealing all players all three cards. The first player (going counter-clockwise again) decides from one of two options: place a card on the table, or play a card to capture one or more cards.
A capture is made by matching a card in the player's hand to a card of the same value on the table, or if that is not possible, by matching a card in the player's hand to the sum of the values of two or more cards on the table. The card from the player's hand and captured cards are then placed face down player and considered out of play. If the player captures all cards, this is called a scopa, with additional points awarded at the end hand.
After the players have played all three cards, three new cards are dealt to each player, with the new play starting with the player on the dealers right side. That player then begins play again. No additional cards are dealt to the table. This hands are repeated until no more cards remain. In the last hand, the player who most recently captured is awarded any remaining cards, and points are calculated for each player or team.
When calculating scores, each scopa (sweep) nets one point. Then a player or team gets one point if he took the highest total number of cards, the highest number of Coin suit cards, the seven of Coins (called the settebello). Calculating the primiera (prime), is also usual. To award the primiera, each cards is given a value. You sum up the points for each card and the highest total is the primiera. The primiera is worth one point towards the total score.
There are many variants to the traditional game of scopa, just like in poker. One of the most popular is the Asso piglia tutto (ace wins it all). The player that plays an ace can take all the cards on the table. This can count as a sweep or not, according to the variant in use.
The next time you see men playing on their little table in the piazza, stand for a while and watch. See if you follow the play. Just don't make any side bets...
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