Trumps and Triumphs


We played a family game of cards last night – five of us. Some of my best family memories are of playing cards. As children we memorably played “solo whist” with Great Aunt Bertha and Great Uncle Alf and our grandparents and assorted distant cousins in a little wooden bungalow near the sea in Cumberland. Here we learned how to deal and shuffle, to lead and lose, to trump and triumph. To risk all on an Abundance Declared (winning every trick) or how to succeed through failure, by bidding an exotic Misère Ouverte (losing every trick). There is, of course, as Dylan expressed, no success like failure, and failure? – it is no success at all.

As one of my wise sons observed last night – when I lose it is a raw deal, a bad hand, unlucky. When I win it is skill, experience, memory and courage. He is not wrong.

Of course, we can make the best or the worst of a hand. As in life, we can enjoy a “first mover” advantage. In the absence of trumps, we can win by leading a 2 of Clubs, or lose by throwing away an Ace of Diamonds. Having the right suit – as in business – is crucial (or the right frock of course). Following suit can be fine, so long as you have the higher card. But having a trump is the secret of success. Friend Reunited lead with a Ten of Social Networking, Myspace followed suit with an Ace, and looked good for a while. But Facebook trumped with a 6 of Simplicity, and the rest is history.

We should win magnanimosity and lose with grace (note to Messrs Ferguson and Wenger). It particularly matters how we respond to each – meeting with Kipling’s Triumph and Disaster and treating those twin impostors just the same. It matters how we lose. How we respond to setbacks. Can we come back to win, with a few better cards, having learned from experience? And can we win and then rejoice when someone else wins?

Of course, it is not winning or losing which matters, it is how you play the game. I had that poster on my wall as a student. It was a great comfort to me.

Life is not all about winning. There are millions of people born in this world every year with a dreadfully poor deal – often nothing higher than a four, and certainly no trumps. It is a cliché, but none the less true, that we can only play the game of life with the cards we have. We can make the best of a bad situation, or the worst of a good situation.

And the real fun of the game is not winning or losing – it is the interaction, the rapport, the jokes, the teasing, the smugness, the great injustices, the exaggerated gesture, the laughter, the great levelling.

We did very little as a family together when I was a kid. We fought more than we functioned. But we did play cards on holiday, in a tent, on a groundsheet, illuminated with a flickering light, warmed by a camping gaz stove, me and my mum against my sister and my dad. The rapport, the jokes, the teasing, the smugness, the great injustices, the exaggerated gesture, the laughter, the great levelling. I learned that enjoyment in life was not about winning or losing, self-interest or self-promotion.

Oh the excitement of those blind doggy moments in life, when we are poised with our single card, face down, not knowing whether it is the Ace or Trumps or the 2 of Hearts, ready to toss it in on a whim with courage and a smile, with a chance of winning all or losing all. But knowing that whichever it is, we are playing the great knock-out whist game of life with those we love and love us.

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