There’s no winning a fool’s game

Farm Forum

My grandparents lived next door on the farm. One side of their kitchen table was kept clean for meals and card games. The other end was cluttered with outdated reading material.

Grandma was thrifty. Plus she refused to waste paper for the sake of the trees (she loved nature). Mom provided last season’s gardening and decorating advice through old issues of Good Housekeeping. Another stack consisted of week-old copies of the Aberdeen American News with Dad’s name in the margin.

At the table’s edge the monthly church devotion rested on top of Grandma’s Bible. The Lutheran devotion booklet had to be kept current but everything else was just fine expired. Alongside the outdated periodicals a worn deck of cards was held together by a tied rubber band.

My sister and I knew each corner fold that marked an ace or king. I suspect Grandma did as well. It was easier to avoid losing that way. See, there was no winner in our favorite card game, Durak. Rather, the entire point of the game was to avoid being the loser.

Durak is pronounced durr-auwck, and be sure to ‘roll’ the ‘r’. Grandma said durak meant ‘fool’ in her native German tongue. The loser of the game, the one left holding cards, was the durak, or the fool.

Recently I googled ‘Durak card game’, hoping to re-learn the rules and play it again. It’s awesome what one can find online. Even more amazing is the fact that someone took the time to put such obscure content on the internet.

I learned that durak is actually the Russian word for fool. Grandma was German-Russian, so that wasn’t a big surprise. And apparently Durak is a popular card game in Russian pubs. That tidbit was surprising. I couldn’t imagine my conservative Grandma in a pub.

Then I found a how-to-play-Durak video with an app to download onto electronic devices. The video showed the basics of the game. At first my son wanted to play exactly as the internet video was teaching, not the way he accused me of making up (to my own advantage) as we went along. But I was merely remembering bit by bit, not cheating. It took some time to recall what had gone down at Grandma’s table.

He wanted to learn it the way today’s youth considers ‘official’: through a how-to internet video. I disagreed. I wanted to revive Grandma’s version. Our discussion grew a bit heated. Just like the game I was trying to re-learn, there would be no clear winner; only a loser. I appealed for help. In other words, Dennis intervened. Grandma’s way easily won.

A few weeks, and many games, later our son was hooked. After clearing the supper dishes one night he immediately dealt our hands onto piles, waiting for me to join him. For some reason the cards kept falling in my favor that evening. He accused me, again, of cheating. He watched me closely when it was my turn to deal. After he realized I wasn’t doing anything sneaky, he accepted that certain things were out of his control (and mine as well). Then he became very good at using his wits no matter which way the cards fell.

During this game re-learning process I recognized that Grandma was no durak (fool). She was content, (dare I say: happy?), with week-old newspapers and fellowship with her grandkids. I attribute this quirk of character to several things. She lived through The Great Depression, a time that had stripped her of all the extras in life. Grandpa’s brain surgery and subsequent epilepsy affected her as well. By the time I came along Grandma seemed impervious to the dissatisfaction and restlessness that plagues younger generations. The trials of life had made her a good sport. She was content to win or to lose.

It seems significant that I wanted to re-learn Grandma’s card game in recent months. Perhaps it was the passing of time and a few trials of my own that made me realize winning isn’t everything. Or maybe the falling commodity prices, a drawn-out wet wheat harvest, and now an early frost, reminded me of card playing. Farming can be like a game of Durak. Some years you just try to avoid losing. And while experience and smarts can take you pretty far, in the end you can’t control the way the cards fall.

Therein is the paradox of farming, the paradox of life itself. The lack of control brings with it a strange mix of both dread and comfort. If it’s out of our hands anyway, we may as well relax around the table with the kids. What better way to teach them how to be a good sport—in good times or in bad.

Andrea Beyers lives in Roscoe. Contact her at