Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Five Wounds: Card Games, Part 2

Cuckoo the trickster
[Discussion continues from the previous post:]

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is a card player: Cuckoo (above). In a crucial chapter of the book, ‘Pick a card, any card’ he explains his theory about the iconography of a specific card in the Tarot pack: trump number 1, ‘The Bagatto’, a name of uncertain origin which is usually (mis)translated into English as ‘The Magician’. The Bagatto, almost uniquely, also has a recurrent and unusual role in game play, in that it is a card to which a high number of points are assigned in the count at the end of each hand, even though it is the lowest ranking Trump card. Cuckoo has a theory on how this role might, pace Michael Dummett, relate to the card’s name and iconography, a theory that is (as far as I know) original, i.e. I’m pretty sure that I invented it. You’ll have to read the novel to find out more, but in that context the point of the digression is that Cuckoo’s theory about the Bagatto offers a commentary on his relationship with his wife Gabriella, to whom he is speaking.

In the early versions of Five Wounds, I specified Cuckoo’s favourite card game as Mitigati, and I described the basic structure of its rules. Mitigati is a Piedmontese game played with a Tarot pack, the rules of which were first described in print by Dummett. Mitigati shares with many other Italian card games a fiendishly elegant scoring structure, in which players are assigned a score at the end of each hand in terms of their deviation from a mathematically average performance. In Mitigati, there are 129 points at stake in each hand, which means that, since there are always three players, the average score for each player in each hand is 43.

How does this work? Let's consider a hypothetical hand, in which player 1 wins cards that add up to 73 points, and player 2 gains an exactly average total of 43; by definition, player 3 must therefore have gained 13 points. The three scores for that hand are then calculated by subtracting 43 from the number of points gained by each player, so that player 1 scores + 30, player 2 scores 0, and player 3 scores – 30. If you add these three scores together, you will always, and again by definition, get a total of 0.

Let’s say that our three players then play a second hand, in which player 1 gains 53 points, player 2 also gains 53 points, and player 3, again unlucky, gains only 23 points. The score for that hand will thus be + 10 for player 1, + 10 for player 2, and – 20 for player 3. These individual scores are now added to those from the first hand to yield the running, cumulative total: player 1 has + 40, player 2 has + 10, and player 3 has – 50. Note that this running total again, by definition, must add up to 0.

The extraordinary elegance (or rigor) of this system is now revealed. The running total continues to indicate the player’s deviation from an exactly average performance, and it does so in the precise ratios in which players will settle their debts at the end of play, since before commencing play, a fixed monetary value is assigned to a point. If our three players were to conclude their game after only two hands, the running total indicates that player 3 should pay player 2 a sum equivalent to 10 times the value assigned to a point, and pay to player 1 the value assigned to 40 points.

This scoring structure is common to many Tarot games. The thing that distinguishes Mitigati among them is that it commences with a bargaining phase, in which each player only receives part of her hand. On the basis of this partial hand, and based on their calculation of the likely outcome of a game played with the cards in their possession, all three players then negotiate by 'asking for' or 'offering' points. If they agree on their respective prospects (that is, if the three bids on the table add up to 0 at any point), then the deal is abandoned.

Much of the art of Mitigati therefore consists in avoiding playing when it is disadvantageous to do so.

The original account of all this in Five Wounds was less detailed than that provided above, but it nonetheless fell victim to the editor’s pen, with good reason. My original point was that Cuckoo’s preference for Mitigati revealed his approach to life, but that point was not made very efficiently or elegantly. The published version perhaps errs on the other side by not providing enough detail about Cuckoo's activities as a gambler. Readers who know nothing about cards will probably assume that he plays Poker. I actually had the ancestors of that game in mind – Primiero or Brag – but it does not much matter, since the description is so generic as to be applicable to any similar game of this type, and that now seems to me to be a weakness in the novel's worldbuilding.

There is, however, one remaining trace of the original account, in which Cuckoo, contemplating his own death, observes that:

When it happened, his face would dissolve into a final nothing. His open, unbreathing mouth would become an exactly average zero.

I remain fascinated by card games, which are a constantly evolving artform, but one with an open and continuous history, in which newer forms do not always displace their older variants. Like Cuckoo, I am fond of gambling metaphors, and I believe that card games offer the most sophisticated versions of these metaphors – but I no longer play Mitigati.

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