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Sheepshead

Continuing a weeklong celebration of some of our favorite staff contributions to the magazine over the years, Michelle Wildgen learns to play cards like sausage and discovers a Wisconsin tradition in the process.

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From our Games People Play issue.


Something strange happened to me the second time I moved to Wisconsin. I’ve lived here once before, during and after college, and when my husband and I returned after seven years in New York, we slipped into a crew of friends—some we’d known for years and others we’d just met—who welcomed us into their rounds of dinner parties and farmers markets and movies and Sunday basketball games as if we’d always been there.

When I first arrived in New York I felt no such ease. Instead, I realized for the first time that I was indeed a Midwesterner, and sometimes this made me turn a little insecure and crazy. If I went to a party, within minutes I would hear myself talking about the fact that I was there for graduate school, as if to stake a little claim among the Ivy League. But this was no big thing—everyone had gone to graduate school. Other times I found myself delivering nonsensical twitterings about something I called “reverse provincialism.” I’d lost a little ground, is what I’m saying. And so when we returned to Madison, I now knew enough to appreciate a group of funny, accomplished people who opened their ranks so generously. I invited people over for great vats of fresh pasta and cultivated my limited talent at basketball.

Part of the routine of living in a place like Wisconsin is the ritual survival of winter. Some people flee for months at a time, some set fires, the vast majority drink, and some organize games nights. I thought a games night sounded perfect, so I trekked out into one of the first bitter cold nights of our first winter back and encountered a Wisconsin tradition I had never heard of before: a little card game called Sheepshead.

The name alone is pleasingly strange and perhaps literal in some quarters—that wouldn’t shock me. And although I am generally too lazy and not competitive enough to pay close attention to most card games, I still settled myself at the Sheepshead table with a pleasant delusion of untapped aptitude. It’s just a trump card game, I thought, not so different from hearts or euchre, and how many times had I learned euchre, drunk, in college? (At the time I did not know that euchre is considered the lackwit cousin of Sheepshead.) Apparently everyone I knew could play it and thought nothing of it, so even though I had never heard of the game I decided it must translate well to all people, the analytic and the creative, the public policy people and the counselors and the veterinarians and the restaurant owners. Already I had decided to view Sheepshead as yet another democratic gift from the state that brought us progressive politics and discovered a use for the curd before it was even cheese—a game accessible to each and every one of us! Figuring I would play one open hand and then have it down, I called out rather grandly for another local beer and got comfy. When I suggested the open hand, I received a steely glance from my friend’s father and was otherwise ignored.

Every player had a handful of coins to begin, the less skilled ones a Ziploc full of silver and the more confident ones the buck or so they’d dug out of the glove compartment. The hand commenced in a flurry of unknown language, peppered with the occasional bit of poker terminology. As befits a game whose original name was “Schapfkopf,” Sheepshead carries with it its own Germanic lingo, filled with schmeers, schneiders, and maurers, and all of it put me in the mind to eat cheese and grow a mustache almost immediately. It became evident that one wished to schneider (to gain at least thirty points) but that to be called a maurer (pronounced mauer) was a grave insult. (Subsequent research on the handy Web site Sheepshead.org pinpoints its meaning as the German slur for “coward,” based on its root as “der maurer,” or stone mason, a builder of walls. That got morphed into an association with cautious playing, or in other words, being a pussy. In the context of this game, such a tortuous etymology comes to seem entirely appropriate.)

My first problem was remembering what was trump—a whole bunch of cards are trump, of varying suits and faces in a random, counter-intuitive order. Without trump down, I realized with a touch of cool sweat across my face, I had no idea what was happening in my hand or on the table.

The next obstacle was finding my partner, or figuring out who others’ partners were. In each hand, whoever gets the jack of diamonds is designated the partner to the picker. But it is a point of strategy not to show it if you have the jack of diamonds, to either help your partner anonymously or hurt the others anonymously for as long as possible, and so one must ferret out who this partner is. Here the conversation took on an uncertain, deeply emotional urgency, as if everyone was vetting a prospective FBI agent or an arranged marriage. “I just don’t trust John,” someone said. “It’s just something in his face.” Another player, counting out quarters to the victor after a losing hand, just said mournfully, “I could have been somebody.”

The hands continued. People were chucking cards into the center of the table and crowing, “Play like a sausage, pay like a sausage.” There was a scornful mention of a “Bethesda,” which turned out to refer to a mental hospital near where two of the players had grown up and, impolitically, denoted a hand even an idiot could win. When someone played a heart, it was de rigueur to note sagely, “Every pig’s got one.” Unlike schneiders, schmeers, and maurers, which are accepted terminology, these were simply informal phrases that had evolved over the years within the group around me.

I began to see that this game had a great deal of agriculture in it, and in its dense and complicated rules I could see why such activities pass the Wisconsin winters, played over some sausage and limburger, or why a posse of hunters and ice fishers might pass the time waiting for prey over six amusingly cutthroat hours of Sheepshead. Later I would hear about one person who, during a rainy day at deer camp, had played from 10 a.m. to midnight.

I stayed at the table with a cheat sheet at the ready that explained the trump cards, but things did not improve. Cards that seemed perfectly good to me turned out to be harbingers of doom. We should play leasters, one person said, but was shouted down—apparently leasters always sounds like fun, but no one ever actually has fun playing leasters. By now I had largely given up and was playing a word-associative game in my head, and I decided leasters might be poultry-related.

Amidst all of this table talk—a crucial element of the game—I became uncertain whether people were joking. Everyone had lost the general veneer of good-heartedness and openness that is pretty much a prerequisite to citizenship in Wisconsin. Laughter was common but mocking, and parents were now expressing intense disappointment in the character of their children. I thought at first this was specific to this group, but when I later asked someone else why he loved Sheepshead, he said wistfully, “Well, I only play Sheepshead with my family, so it’s really about sticking it to your brother or dad.”

So I drank my beer and tried to remember what was trump and how I would determine who was the partner. I suspect that for several hands I was the partner without knowing it. I also began to harbor suspicions that maybe I had never heard of this bizarre and Byzantine game not because it was too insignificant to mention but because, like Freemasons, they had all been hiding their rituals from me for years. This is what it would feel like if I discovered all my friends spoke fluent Tagalog in my absence, or performed the odd bit of macular surgery when the need arose, having picked it up as children. I began to perceive that people’s gazes were skirting past me in pity, and it was around this time that I may have informed the group at large, as if it would help, that I had a masters degree.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Sheepshead, despite its archaic language, which calls to mind nothing so much as an old farmer with blood beneath his fingernails and milk souring in the barn, is that in some ways it is a game of the young. While some of my friends grew up playing it with families, most agreed that kids taught kids, rather than wizened headcheese makers teaching kids, as I would have thought. Many learned from friends, in college, or in childhood, from an older sibling. My own older sister taught me swear words and dirty jokes, but then, Ohio was a grittier realm. And like an obsession with the thermostat or previously latent religious beliefs, one discovers an inherited devotion to Sheepshead when one least expects it. My friend Kate once called her father at three in the morning from Puerto Rico, where she and her roommate had suddenly become obsessed with Sheepshead, and, coinless, were playing with dried beans. There were no hellos, just a quick, slurring précis of the hand, ending with, “and I’m down to two beans.” Her father told her to play the ace and that he was going back to bed.

It is a family game, though each family might play by different rules. No one seems to have heard of Sheepshead being played in the United States outside of Wisconsin, though in Berlin, one friend of mine was taught a card game he recognized immediately as a distant cousin to Sheepshead. However one learned, there was generally some element of throwing the child into the lake to teach him to swim. People tended to learn best after college roommates took all their money. Others took it on as a challenge in adulthood, but even years into it were still casting sideways glances at their more knowledgeable friends for strategy. Sheepshead is a point of pride both in terms of skill and regionalism, and as befits a game played solely in the land of eternal winter, it is a time passer, a family ritual, and an obsession.

While I maintain a thorough mental block about the game itself, I have discovered that being around it makes me oddly happy. I have begun just pulling up a chair and listening to the chatter. I like pretending to be part of the generations of family players, and the theatricality of the table talk pleases me. It’s not that a simple round of Sheepshead genuinely makes people rabid—that’s reserved for crazed European soccer fans or anything involving the Green Bay Packers—but everyone understands the fun of pretending that it does. After a few hours of card tossing, taunts about skills and trustworthiness, and the heartfelt wish to destroy one’s closest relatives, life goes back to normal.

Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House magazine. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Bread and Butter, the novels You’re Not You and But Not for Longand editor of an anthologyFood & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications and anthologies including the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices 2004, Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009, and elsewhere.

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Posted in Essays, From The Vault

Comments: 1

(1) Comment

  1. The Jack of diamonds is partner is the Dutch version of Sheep’s head. I will bet long money the friends you were playing with were named VandenSomthing, VanderSomething, Van Something, or Ter Something, any of which could end in Burg.

    The book you cited in the article (How to Play Winning 5-Handed Sheepshead) describes the German variant were the partner is the person holding the ace of the called, fail suit (i.e. the holding Ace of Spades, Ace of Hearts, or Ace of Clubs).

    The play rules concerning the “called suit” and the “called Ace” make the Jack of Diamonds variant seem simple.

    As a person who learned to play Sheepshead in college from the VandenLangenburg brothers, I can assure two decades later, playing with the Muellers, my and Paul’s first several hand were interesting to say the least. I and my partner who grew up in the Fox Valley violated every play rule regarding the called suit/called ace. It was laughable as 2 of us had played Sheepshead for decades and had never heard of this Called Ace thing, and the 4 others at the table had played Sheepshead for longer and had never heard of this Jack of Diamonds thing.

    The moral is that before sitting down always ask: Is the Partner the called Ace or is the partner the Jack of Diamonds?”

    Both variants of Sheepshead are fun. Both use the same deck, same pointers and same trump, but when it comes to cards on the table, the play is that of two different games.

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