The Joy of Bragging Rights at the Bid Whist Table

Bid whist is the African-American community's grand elder to the common card game "spades." Whist is all about art, style, tradition — and smack talking. It's also a gathering point for friends and family as they throw down at the card table.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. On what is unofficially the first day of summer. Maybe the gas prices have you cutting back on travel plans. You're thinking fun yes this summer, but cheap fun. Well that is so Day to Day. Here's our advice. Grab three friends and try a card game called Bid Whist. It's kind of like Bridge, or Spades, or Hearts, and for black Americans, Bid Whist has been a favorite pastime for nearly 150 years. Christopher Johnson reports.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: When you come to a Bid Whist Sunday picnic, you'd better not sit down at a card table on an empty stomach.

Mr. BRIAN PORTER (Bid Whist Player): We have ribs with chicken, and we're getting ready to have a fish fry. And we've got a brother that you smack your mouth the way he cooks - the way he fries his fish.

JOHNSON: Brian Porter's a professional Bid Whist player, but for now he's on grill duty at a Los Angeles park. Brian is cooking for about 50 people relaxing at card tables in the nearby shade. A lot of them have come to Los Angeles from all over the U.S. for Bid Whist Across America. The two-day event is like the Grand Prix of Bid Whist showdowns. A group called Sharks Incorporated put the whole thing on.

Unidentified Man: We had a nice little tournament this weekend, and we decided to sponsor a little barbeque for, you know, people who just come out and play a little bit more cards, a little something to eat and just fellowship.

JOHNSON: Most of the card tables had casual, quiet games. Partners sit across the table from one another just like in Bridge. They take bites of sock it to me kid, they stare poker faces at cards.

Unidentified Woman: You want a hand like that? You want a hand like that?

JOHNSON: But look, this is Bid Whist. And somebody got to act up.

(Soundbite of people talking)

JOHNSON: All that carry on at the Bid Whist table helps distract an opponent from the larger goal, which is to win all 54 cards. One of the sweetest parts of the game is when one player runs a Boston on another. That's a flawless hand that Bid Whist pros compare to pitching a no hitter. Legend says that the phrase dates back to the game's early days when black railroad attendants played during their runs to Beantown. Even if you don't get the rules, Bid Whist still promises a show. Cards get slammed, flicked, and thrown. Trash talking is king along with the occasional victory dance. The heart of Bid Whist, though, is tradition.

Ms. TRESSA WILLIAMS (Bid Whist Player): My family, you know typically would play it New Years and at family reunions, so most of our history moments were made at a Bid Whist table.

JOHNSON: Tressa Williams is a Whist junkie right down to the playing cards tattooed on her arm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: You weren't supposed to mention that. My mom will hear this, and it's supposed to be for luck and you know, I would never get a real tattoo right, but this is a henna tattoo, so it will be gone, Mom, soon.

JOHNSON: Tressa works two day jobs in Nashville, and still turns up at just about every Bid Whist Across America tournament. The contests are held eight weekends throughout the year in major cities from L.A. to New York. Sometimes 200 people show up for one weekend of play. That all takes a lot of planning, and Tressa helps out sometimes. She does it for free, motivated by a love for Bid Whist that runs deep down her family tree.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I can look back at 19 you know 75, and remember my uncle running the Boston on my dad. And 76, 77, 78 on, and on, and on almost every year reminding my dad about the Boston he had in 75. I'd say you remember that Boston in 75? Here it is again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: So it's deeply rooted in family tradition.

JOHNSON: Historian Herbert Johnson writes the blacks have been crazy for Bid Whist since the Civil War. That's when white Union soldiers taught the game to the blacks fighting next to them. And black folks held on, even as other card games trumped its popularity for much of America.

Mr. CHRIS JONES (Bid Whist Player): I got into Bid Whist at a young age going around with my mother in Washington, D.C. She had taken me and my sister with her wherever she went, to a girlfriend's house, to the rent parties.

JOHNSON: Chris Jones a.k.a. the Whist Master, has written a how to book on the game. Jones learned Bid Whist by being a nuisance.

Mr. JONES: I started sitting at the table with my mother watching her. What you doing? Why did you do that? Why did do that, why did you play that? And she said, boy I'm going to teach you how to play because I do not have a partner, and I need a partner.

JOHNSON: Bid Whist helped Jones and his mom connect. He and other Whist fans say young people aren't playing the game as much today, and they're worrying about it dying out. He encourages families to play a lot. Jones says Bid Whist is a great way to stay close and keep the game alive.

Mr. JONES: While you're playing cards you can also say, come say how was your day, how did you do in school today? Six no bid, OK, but yeah, you know, you're still playing, you're still having fun, but you're communicating and you're bonding.

JOHNSON: Bid Whisters talk a lot about family and not just their kin. Sharks Inc, is made up Bid Whist clubs nationwide, that's about 1,000 members, and each tournament is like a big family reunion. Chris Jones says that love reaches way beyond Bid Whist table revelry.

Mr. JONES: You can come so close, so one hurt, we all hurt. I think there's nobody in our group that don't think that if they were to get in to something that the community won't step up and help them.

JOHNSON: They proved that big time nearly three years ago during hurricane Katrina. Members of a New Orleans Whist club were hit hard by the storm. The Bid Whist family members took up a collection during the tournament raising thousands in a matter of hours. There are good times, too. Harold Flowers is the founding chair of Detroit Elite Whist Society Club.

Mr. HAROLD FLOWERS (Founder, Elite Whist Society Club, Detroit): This year in Detroit we actually have a Bid Whist wedding, two of the people from our organization actually playing cards, are actually getting married.

Unidentified Man: We're not throwing rice, we're throwing decks of cards.

Mr. FLOWERS: Yeah, yeah.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, we're throwing cards.

Mr. FLOWERS: Yeah, we're throwing diamonds, and clubs, spades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Like all things Bid Whist, the Sunday picnic is a family affair. A few kids, sugared up on soda are running every which way. Uh, oh. Someone's cranked up their car stereo. If you grown folks dare to shuffle, it looks like something like the electric slide.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: After two days of tournament play and a picnic that's been going on for several hours, these Whisters just won't put down their cards.

(Soundbite of people talking)

JOHNSON: A Brooklynite named Essie(ph) is handling business at her table. She's flown all away across the country to play cards. She's also here to be with the Bid Whist family. And like many players, Essie sees this as one more chance to indulge in something that was off limits when she was a little girl.

Ms. ESSIE (Bid Whist Player): When we were growing up we weren't allowed to play with the adults. We had to play in another room, and couldn't go near the door, we couldn't go play Whist. We got older, that was all.

JOHNSON: And on and on. These games just don't stop. Some folks will play til sunset, then they'll probably head back to someone's house, cook some food, talk trash, and run Bostons all night until somebody drops. That's when tradition meets addiction, and even though some feel that the game is fading in black America, Bid Whist seems to have a pretty strong hand with no signs of folding any time soon. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Johnson.

CHADWICK: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. Madeleine's back tomorrow. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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