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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 13, 2020
Say trump in Cape Breton and most people know what you mean. Say it at a gathering of Cape Bretoners in Toronto or Calgary or Yellowknife and odds are most would recognize the term.
I’ve been saying it a lot lately. Plus, other words or phrases that if you’re not from Cape Breton or have some connection to here, may seem like code.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March those hunkered inside went back to older tried and true pastimes like jigsaw puzzles, board games and cards.
My wife, son and I took to playing two games of tarabish after supper every day.
It’s believed tarabish came to Cape Breton in the early 1900s with Lebanese immigrants who were drawn to the Sydney area by the lure of the recently built steel plant. The game was perfect for working men because you could play a game with two, three or four people in 15-20 minutes. All you needed was a deck of cards, a pencil, and a cigarette package to keep score on.
“It’s your say” is the first phrase you hear after everyone gets dealt their initial six cards. The person with “say” has to decide whether “to go,” meaning picking the trump suit. If you say “pass” then the next person has to decide. You have to decide beforehand if you are playing “force on the dealer” or not. If it’s “not” then you toss them in and deal again. Most play “force.”
Once trump is picked, three more cards are dealt out and people may start saying 20 or 50 before making a single play.
To the uninitiated, this seems bizarre as the players then discuss whose is higher and the phrase “yours is good” gets used. A 20 is three cards in the same suit in a row and a 50 is four.
To win a hand at tarabish, the player or team that called trump must get the highest number of points per hand, a hand is made of tricks, and the last trick is worth an extra 10 points. It’s the only scoring in tarabish that doesn’t come from the actual card’s worth. If you “went on trump” and don’t make the points you go “bait.”
Bait is a terrible end product of a hand implying you didn’t have enough good cards to go on, or you just played badly. The only redeeming bait is the “force bait,” because in that case you had to go because you dealt and no one else wanted to go. Worse than just going bait and losing all your points in a trick to your opponents is the dreaded “split bait.”
The “split bait” means you called trump and made the exact same number of points as your opponent. They end up with their points and you get none. It’s a humbling defeat, that somehow comes across worse than a regular bait. Only a tarabish player could understand this.
Through card games people have been able to socialize for hundreds of years. There is little or no cost to playing cards, unless you’re gambling, and no one gambles on tarabish.
In Cape Breton, tarabish defies age, gender, class; literally any artificial classification you can come up with is superseded by the desire to play.
Tarabish games in Cape Breton break out anywhere, visiting with friends, at weddings, parties, even after wakes and funerals. For more than 100 years, tarabish has been a mainstay of many the Cape Breton kitchen tables. In many homes the cards never leave the table.
Rarely does an eyebrow get raised in a tarabish game, unless a “misplay” is made. A “misplay” or “renege” means not following suit; playing a trump card to win a trick when instead you should have played a card from the suit led.
The great misplay of today is what if we couldn’t get back to playing cards with our friends due to social distancing rules. Cards were invented to get people together.
But has a virus dealt us our last hand? I’ll bet years from now when science has this disease conquered, young kids will be learning to play tarabish with their parents and grandparents, just like I did.
Paul MacDougall is an educator and writer. He lives in Sydney. His column appears monthly in the Cape Breton Post.