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Biddin' High (Playing Cards)

Biddin' High (Playing Cards)
Photo of Millard Bearden, his wife, Bessie, and their daughter, Barbara.

As a child, I loved watching my parents play hand after hand of Rook with my Aunt Bessie and Uncle Millard.

The famous deck of cards was always brought out after everyone had their fill of fried chicken and pecan pie on those twice a month Saturday night gatherings.

I spent many hours of my youth walking around the kitchen table, peering over the adult's shoulders to see who had the famous crow in their hand. They never worried that I would spill the beans because even at a young age, I knew the importance of keeping a straight face in the entertaining game of skill and intuition.

In 1906, the most successful card game ever published by Parker Brothers made its debut to the world. Rook wasn't an immediate success, but by 1913 had become the best-selling game in the country. Today, more than 55 million decks have been sold.

George Parker invented the game because Puritans denounced standard playing cards, proclaiming they had evolved from tarot cards, which were considered by many to be of the devil. George wanted to publish a game that would be worthy of religious approval.

Along with his wife, Grace, they renovated the regular deck by replacing the Ace with a "1" and jack, queen and king with "11," "12," and "13" cards. The "14" was added as well. The hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs were substituted with suits of colors: red, green, yellow and black. The fifty-six card game lacked a title, and Grace, for unknown reasons, suggested naming it Rook, after a type of crow. George had an illustration drawn that pictured a rook holding a fan of cards in its right claw while perched on a branch. The photo was added to an extra card, thus completing the set of fifty-seven in the deck.

There is no one set of regulations for playing Rook. The official instructions even include five or six different playing methods and many variations exist across the country. My family had their own set of rules for the game. Upon opening a new pack, the one, two, three, four and five cards were discarded. The rest of the deck was dealt between the four players, who were divided into two teams. In our house it was the men against the women. Five cards were placed in a "nest," and the bidding began in intervals of five.

The only cards of value were the "5," "10," "14" and the Rook. The fives and tens counted at face value, while the fourteens counted ten points and the coveted crow represented twenty. In the game my family played, a total of 120 points was possible.

The person brave enough to make the highest offer was awarded the "nest" of extra cards and allowed to decide which color would be "trumps." The trump cards were then regarded as the superior color throughout that match, meaning they would take tricks of other colors, regardless of the number on the card.

My uncle, Millard Bearden, was the best Rook player in the family. My mother says as far back as she can remember, he was an expert at the game. The slim man with wire-rimmed gl****es and an easy-going smile wasn't afraid to bid high … sometimes even before the entire deck was dealt. Most times his usual offer was 100 points.

I can still remember how excited I felt when Uncle Millard would slowly pick up his cards one at a time and get that twinkle in his eyes. With a cigarette dangling from his thin lips, he would say in a slow southern drawl, "Dalton, I'll go ahead and bid 120 this time." Everyone then knew who had the "birdie" that go around. The greatest part about it was that he usually made what he had bid and rarely went "set."

Through the years, my family's Rook games began to dwindle further and further apart. They soon stopped completely when Uncle Millard died in the late 1980s.

On a recent visit to the local discount store, I was surprised to see a row of shiny new Rook cards. On impulse, I bought a pack and have been trying to teach the nostalgic game to my three children. They enjoy it immensely and have caught on pretty quick to my family's old set of rules.

Sometimes when I pick up my cards and see the one with the "birdie" on it, I think of Uncle Millard … and start the biddin' high.

Biddin' High

By: Sandy Williams Driver
Published U.S. Legacies: October 2004

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