Gambling Lessons I Learned from Playing Card Games with My Family
Published on July 30, 2022
When I was growing up, my family played cards at reunions and other special occasions. It wasn’t something that we did on regular days, but when we all got together, the cards inevitably came out.
I wasn’t allowed to play when I was a young child because I didn’t have the patience to sit through the entire game. But by the time that I was nine or ten years old, I joined the game and learned how to play.
To me, playing cards with the adults was a sign of maturity. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I was so anxious to grow up, but I always was. When I got tired of arguing with my sister or when I didn’t want to play the game she was playing, I went to play cards with the adults.
It felt like I was special because I was old enough to play, but the reality was probably that the adults were just putting up with me out of pity. But no matter the reason, I started playing cards, and I loved it.
The joy I got from playing cards with my family has carried over to my gambling hobby. Card games like blackjack and baccarat are still my favorite. I learned a lot from our family card games, and those lessons have also influenced my gambling interest.
Some of the things I learned were specific strategies that apply to almost any card game, and I want to share those examples with you. But first, let me give you a little bit of information on my family and our game of choice.
My family always played a game that we called Calcutta, especially when we were with my mom’s side of the extended family. Through many card games with friends, I gradually learned that my family was the only one that played this game. Only one of my friends has ever claimed to play anything similar.
The closest game that I can find is Phase 10, but apparently what my family called Calcutta is, in reality, a different variation of the game rummy. After the cards were dealt, we played ten rounds with a different goal for each round.
In our version of the game, a “set” was three cards of the same number, and a “run” was four cards of the same suit in order (such as eight, nine, ten, jack of clubs). Our definitions were similar to other types of rummy, except that most games only require you to have three cards to make a run, while we expected four. We also allowed jokers and black twos to be used as wild cards.
Each round had a different requirement for the combination of sets and runs that you had to have before you could “go down.” I have since learned that what we called “going down” is called melding in other forms of rummy. Once you were down, you could play on other people’s hand as well. This is called “laying off your cards” in regular rummy.
Every time it was your turn, you had to draw a card, either from the discard pile or the rest of the deck. If you were ready to go down, you could do so on your turn. Otherwise, you had to discard. The card that gets discarded automatically belongs to the person who has the next turn.
But if it wasn’t your turn, you could yell, “I want it,” to claim the card as your own, as long as the person who has the next turn gives you permission.
But you had to be careful because you were never allowed to have more than 17 cards in your hand (we started with eleven), and you had to draw an extra card if you were picking up out of turn. So, you only had three chances to pick up out of turn before you reached your limit.
Rounds ended whenever someone “went out” by laying down all of their cards. Everyone else would count up the total cards still in their hand, not including the ones that had been laid down.
We tried to make the math easy by saying that jokers were worth 50 points, black 2s were worth 25, aces were 20, face cards were 10, and everything else was 5. At the end of the ten rounds, the person with the lowest score was the winner.
We occasionally played other games, like the more traditional form of gin rummy and blackjack. But Calcutta was our go-to game of choice, mostly because we could play with as many players as we wanted.
I have played this game with three players, and with fifteen. The more players that you have, the more exciting the game gets, and all you have to do is add another deck of cards for every few players.
I think that the most important lesson I learned from playing Calcutta with my family was just how much fun it was to play. Some of my greatest family memories come from some of those card games with each other. They always made me smile, laugh, and feel closer to my family.
It never mattered if I won or lost, and trust me when I say that I lost a lot! My family was not one of the families who let me win because they felt bad for me. But no matter how many times I lost, I always had fun.
That same spirit of joy has transferred to my gambling hobby. I enjoy playing baccarat and blackjack and many other games just for the sake of playing the game. To me, any money I lose is just an entertainment expense, the same as when I lose money when I buy a movie ticket instead of watching it at home.
The reason that I am willing to be carefree about the money I am losing, while also being smart about managing my bankroll, is because I learned to enjoy games for the sake of the game.
As long as I have fun while I am playing, I don’t worry about the money I am losing. And I find that it is a lot easier to enjoy yourself when you are not worrying about every penny that you lose.
Another lesson that I learned while playing cards with my family, is the joy of building relationships while you play. I remember having a crowd of family members all spread out around a large dining room table, laughing and talking. We teased each other, talked about life, and made memories in between hands of Calcutta.
Whenever I started dating a new guy, I would bring him over to meet my family. But only serious boyfriends were invited to play cards with us.
If a guy could follow along while several of my family members interrupted each other to explain the rules, learn how to play our family game, and participate in the banter around the table during the game, I knew he was good enough to stick around, at least for a while.
We still play card games when we get together as a family today. And now, some of my nieces and nephews are getting to the age where they are old enough to stick around for an entire game of Calcutta.
Teaching them how to play has been one of my favorite ways to bond with them. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment that one of my nieces asked to play that game, instead of Uno, even when the rest of my family wasn’t around.
Whenever I go to a casino, I bring my family or a friend along with me, and every time, we leave laughing and feeling closer than ever. Of course, I enjoy playing online by myself sometimes, too, but when I have the opportunity to play with a friend, I take it.
I know that the game will be more fun, and I will worry less about the money I am losing if I can see it as an investment in my relationship with that person. Taking a friend to the casino is the same as meeting a friend for dinner at a nice restaurant.
It is true that I will spend some money, but I also know that my friend and I will be closer because of it, so I don’t mind paying the money.
The joy of the game is not the only thing that I learned from playing cards with my family. I also learned how to be a strategic and intelligent player. Even though I never got upset about losing, I did win every once in a while.
It turns out that winning is a lot of fun, especially when you get to tease your dad about his loss for the next couple of days. But you have to know how to win, and that takes some critical strategies.
One of the most controversial aspects of Calcutta was the ability to say no when someone wanted a card that had been discarded. The player with the next turn automatically has the right to pick up the card or to allow someone else to pick it up if they have mentioned that they want it.
If multiple players want it, the one who yells the signal first is the one who gets it, but only if the next person doesn’t want it. When that player doesn’t allow another player to pick up the card, they must take it themselves.
Here is an example of an intense play where this situation comes up. Let’s say that it is my turn, I have already laid down my cards for the round, and my dad only has one card left in his hand.
When I draw, I am lucky enough to pick up a joker, which is a highly-coveted wild card. However, if my dad goes out, I would be stuck with the extra fifty points.
First, I would see if I could play the joker in some way, but for the purposes of this example, let’s assume that is impossible. It is not worth the extra points to me, so I decide to discard the wild card.
My sister is sitting to my left, so she has the next turn, and the joker is rightfully hers to pick up or give to someone else. Next to her is my mom, and my uncle is seated between my mom and my dad.
Of course, my mom and uncle both want the wild card as well, but my mom especially does because she only needs one more card to be able to go down. If she doesn’t get that joker, she may not go down at all.
Not going down before the round is over would mean that she would have eleven to seventeen cards to add to her score, depending on how many times she had picked up a card out of turn. They both yell that they want it, but my mom yelled it just a second earlier than my uncle.
Now my mom’s fate for the round rests in my sister’s hands. She could either take the joker for herself, or she could generously allow my mom to have the card.
Her choice would no doubt depend on the cards in her hand, but for this example, let’s say if she takes the joker, she could lay down all of her cards as a new set and go out, meaning that she would have no points added to her score. If she gives my mom the joker, she would probably end up with a score of ten points, but she would have graciously saved my mom from hundreds of points.
In this case, it may seem like taking the joker for herself is the smart move, but it may only be smart for the short-term. If my sister instead uses this as an opportunity to create an alliance with my mom, she could use that to get ahead in future rounds.
My mom would most definitely remember this hand as either an extension of grace or a betrayal, and that would influence how she treats my sister for the rest of the game.
A good example of what I learned is that, when I play poker, sometimes I have to fold on a decent hand so that the other players don’t begin to notice the patterns I use when I play.
It sucks to forfeit a possibly winning hand, but it is worth it when other players don’t know how to read my habits. Then, I can get away with raising on another hand and win more than I would have on that decent hand.
When we play Calcutta, the most common strategy is figuring out what cards the other players are holding. You can use that information to be strategic about which cards you do and don’t discard. The best way to discover which cards the other player is going for is by paying attention to what cards they pick up from the discard pile.
For example, if I notice that my mom has picked up two fours, she is most likely working on a set of fours. If she is the player next to me, I will try to hold onto any fours that come to my hand because I know that any time I discard a four, it will be directly playing into her hand.
It gets a lot more complicated when I have to figure out if my mom is going to use that four in a set or a run. When it could be either, I have to try not to discard anything that could work in both possibilities.
It is easy to get confused as well because a player doesn’t need multiple of the same cards when they are working on runs. If my mom is working on a run with a four of clubs in the middle of it, and another player plays a five of clubs, I would expect her to take it.
I would assume that the four was being used in a set because she didn’t take the five. But when there are multiple decks in play, it is possible that she already has a five of clubs. I had to learn not to get fooled because a person doesn’t do what I expect them to.
It is impossible to focus on building your own hand while also worrying about not discarding cards that other players need all of the time.
Sometimes, you have to discard into a player’s hand because otherwise, you would have to let go of something you need for your own hand. But the more I played, the better I got at figuring out the hands that my family members were working on, and I used that information to slow them down whenever possible.
The opposite is also true. My family can figure out the hand that I am working on by paying attention to the cards that I pick up. To make sure that they can’t use this against me, I try to have multiple options as much as possible.
So, I will pick up both a four and a seven to try to build a set out of either one of those. Every once in a while, I will ask to pick up a card that I don’t really want, just to throw them off of my trail, or in hopes that the extra card I have to draw will be something that I need.
Every type of poker includes trying to read your opponent’s actions. When other players call or raise, that tells me something about their hand. Playing Calcutta with my family when I was a child and teenager taught me the skills I needed to be able to read other players when I play poker now.
Playing card games as a family taught me several skills that have carried over to my gambling hobby. We never put any money on the games, so I learned to take pleasure in them for the sake of enjoyment.
And now I can enjoy casino card games, no matter whether I win or lose. But I am also glad that I learned a few strategies that help me to win more often! I am grateful for the techniques that I learned, but I am even more thankful for the memories I have of playing with my family.
I strongly recommend that you make a tradition of playing card games with your family. The memories that you make and the relationships that you build during that time will be priceless. And you will all be better gamblers thanks to the practice.
This game you call Calcutta is one I grew up playing in Texas in the 1980s. Our families, and views on child participation, are also keenly similar! You describe the rules to a near perfect T, with only a few slight differences. The words we had to say if we wanted to claim a discard out of turn were "May I?" (instead of "I want it"). We started with 10 cards instead of 11, and we had no limit on the number of cards we could have at once. We simply called this game "Rummy". It wasn't until I got much older that I realized Rummy is a huge group of games, not just one. And I have yet to find any version like my own until now... Calcutta. Thank you for the memories and an official title!