I grew up playing cards. I played normal cards — the kind with Kings and Queens, Jacks and Aces. But I also played the kind of card games designed specifically for those religious groups who cast a suspicious eye at those one-eyed Jacks and Queens of Spades.
Though my own parents had no qualms about the use of playing cards, my family tended to Rook anyway. I learned it at my parents’ knees, whiled away many a study period in high school with it, and continue to play it whenever the family gets together. We play Dutch Blitz, too, but Rook is easier for the slow of hand but quick of mind.
Outside of family events, I pretty much never play Rook any more, having gravitated away from the game of the one-eyed bird, but I played it enough in my youth that I can still hold my own. I know it as a quintessentially Mennonite game, though various fundamentalist Protestant groups play it as well and many a Mennonite can Blitz with the best of them but can’t tell a trump from a tailpipe and have never learned to call an orange card “yellow.”*
Despite having a less universal appeal than Dutch Blitz (or crokinole for that matter), Rook has a couple elements to it that make it supremely Mennonite.
Chief among the ways in which Rook is well-suited to the Mennodom is its ability to incite petty divisions among us. Just as we have minor differences in theology, food preferences and modes of choosing our leaders, each little group of Mennonites has its own rules to Rook. There are 4 or 5 variations of the game in the official rules but the official rules don’t matter. Get a handful of Rook-playing Mennonites together and each will have their own definitive set of rules that bear only a passing resemblance to the rules printed in that little booklet. That I managed to impose my Rook rules on all of my high school companions was perhaps my greatest social adolescent achievement. I ruled the Rook table like the Regina George of the Rockway Rook club.
Yes, I know how pathetic that sounds. Also, no. There was no official Rook club at my Mennonite high school; all card playing in study periods was strictly on the QT.
Having mellowed with age, I am now willing to consort with a certain number of Rook players who play by different rules. Unity in diversity and all that. I mean, I don’t actually play Rook with them but I can engage in small talk and give all appearances of accepting their Rook aberrations as just something about who they are. I try not to judge.
I draw the line, however, at players who deny that the Rook card is the lowest trump. Rook is a trick-taking game, like Bridge or Euchre. Unlike those games, however, the number of tricks taken is less important than the points conferred when certain cards – the 5, 10, 14,1 and the Rook card in my rules – are captured. A round of bidding begins the game and the highest bidder decides which suit (black, red, green or yellow*) will be trump. The trump suit can take cards of another colour but can only be played when led or when the player is out of the led suit.
The Rook card is a special card in the game, like a joker but less fun and also less demonic. In many versions of the game, the Rook card — that singular card with its image of a cawing, card-playing blackbird — is the most important card in the deck but also the weakest of all of the Trump suit. All other trump cards can capture it but it is still the most valuable. It has a certain vulnerability to it that speaks to the branches of Christianity that revere the suffering of the servant, and the power in weakness. It is a card that causes trembling as much as joy.
Metaphorically, playing the Rook card is something like a humblebrag. It’s a way of saying, “Who me? I’m really small and insignificant but I also know that I’m spiritually better than anyone else.”
Which has nothing to do with Mennonites whatsoever.
But still I cannot abide variations of the game in which the Rook card is a simple high card. Perhaps out there in a world where “might is right,” the Rook card could be both powerful and important but here in the mennosphere, we like to imagine that power and importance are nothing like synonymous. Sure, in a more touchy-feely game, every single card would be valued for its contribution and no one card would have any more importance than any other. But, c’mon, we’re not complete utopians. We just want a little status reversal every now and then. Something to remind us of the revolutionary potential of the Magnificat without really, you know, upsetting the boat.
It is, after all, only a card game.
Today’s cocktail is called The Rook Card and it is based loosely on an existing cocktail called the Crow, though I think its name is derived from the bar that created it, rather from any similarity to a large black bird. You want to use good quality homemade or small batch artisanal grenadine for this one. The drink comes out a slightly orange-ish colour. Be sure to call it yellow.*
- 1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
- 3/4 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 oz unsweetened cranberry juice
- 1/2 oz grenadine
- cocktail cherries for garnish
Toss all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with a couple of ice cubes. Shake vigorously just a couple of times and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish artfully with cocktail cherries and serve. This recipe serves one but Rook is never played alone so you’ll want to multiply this by your number of players.
*One of the peculiarities of Rook is that it includes the colour yellow as a suit but, because it is difficult to see yellow on the cards’ white background, the yellow portrayed is closer to orange than yellow. Since Mennonites see colour recognition as a high educational goal, this always creates a bit of a crisis.