Home > Uncategorized > 16 – Life lessons I learned by playing cards with my grandfather

16 – Life lessons I learned by playing cards with my grandfather

My grandfather was the son of immigrants from Italy.  He served in the US military during World War II, and spent the rest of his career after the military as a carpenter.  He had a wife, 2 children, and 7 grandchildren.  I don’t remember when, but at some point along the way, he taught me a card game that he used to play with his parents and grandparents called “Escoba”, which means “broom” or “sweep” in English.  He taught it to all of his grandchildren, but as far as I know, I was the only one of his grandchildren that played it with him on a regular basis.  I didn’t see Grampa all that often, maybe 2-3 times per year, but when we saw each other, we would more often than not make time to sit down and play cards.  I didn’t realize it at the time (and maybe he didn’t either), but he was teaching me a lot about life by playing cards with me.

Have a strategy 

Like many card games, Escoba has a few simple rules which are easy to follow.  However, as with many games Escoba was simple to learn, but difficult to master.  I had to learn what certain combinations of cards would do, and I had to learn never to leave critical combinations of cards on the table for my opponent to use to score.  This is as important in cards as it is in life.  If you don’t have a strategy, then the game controls you instead of the other way around.

The cards don’t always go your way

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how great of a player you are or how solid your strategy is.  Sometimes the cards just don’t go your way and you get your clock cleaned.  Life is this way too.  You might have the best plan in the world, but life – and card games – sometimes turn on dumb luck.

Don’t expect any freebies

After he taught me the basic rules and he knew I had an understanding of the basic strategies, Grampa was ruthless.  He played every game to win.  It didn’t matter that I was his grandchild and he loved me; when the cards were on the table, he was a ruthless competitor.  So many parents today seek to shield their kids from the agony of defeat.  Grampa taught me it was okay to lose as long as I came back at him just as hard to win the next time.

The game is more fun when you talk trash

I must have been 7 or 8 years old when he taught me how to play.  When he was winning, he gloated.  He giggled with glee when he scored points.  He reacted with equal vigor when I scored points against him, frequently complaining, “you screwed me up” when I’d ruin his plan.  I recall vividly the sight of his eyes peering through his glasses and over his cards at me when he had a decision to make.  I could see the gears turning in his head, and I knew I was either in for some gloating on his part or some glee on mine.  Our culture frowns upon people who gloat and puff themselves up.  However, when you’ve done something great, it’s okay to be proud of what you did and take a victory lap with the people who love you.

The process is just as important as the rules

The start of the game followed a very specific process.  One card would be dealt face up, then one to each player.  Repeat until each player has three cards, and then put a final card face up, so that each player had 3 cards and there were 4 cards face up between them.  If I ever deviated at all from the process, even if the right number of cards ended up in the right places, he would stop me and make me do it all over again.  This adherence to the process has stuck with me throughout my life both personally and professionally.  In fact, it is the cornerstone of most modern Quality Management Systems: if you do everything the same way every time, you will always end up with a high quality product.  Then, you can improve the quality of your product by improving the quality of your process.

Never pass up an opportunity to say “I love you”

Grampa had prostate cancer, and went through surgery to remove it.  I recall shortly after his surgery that he needed someone to stay with him for a weekend.  I don’t recall why, but I was the one chosen to stay with him.  What I do remember is that I didn’t want to go, and I pouted a little bit about having to go.  I don’t remember why, it could very well have been that I was a 19 and I thought I had better things to do.  We played Escoba that weekend, and I recall sitting with him at his kitchen table.  Grampa had his faults – many of them.  For example, he wasn’t the kind of man to express his emotions, so it took me by surprise when he said to me out of nowhere, “I love you, Kevin”.  I responded in kind, “I love you too, Grampa” and scored again.  After a short pause, he said, “My balls really hurt.”  We both had a chuckle as the game ended and we counted up our points and retired for the night because it was getting late.  I went home the next morning.  That was that last conversation I had with my grandfather.  About a week later, a blood clot broke loose from his surgery and he had a stroke, killing him in his sleep.

Pass on what you learned

My Grampa died in January 1992.  Since then I haven’t had an opportunity to play Escoba until this past month.  Over the past month, my wife’s 85 year old grandfather has been staying with us just to visit.  I learned that he used to watch his father play Escoba, but never learned how to play the game.  I taught him the rules and we’ve been playing every other night for the past couple of weeks.  As I sit across the table from him, it takes me back to that kitchen table.  From the ebb and flow of the game, to the constant mutual accusations of cheating, to the old hands of a blue collar man across the table from me handling the cards.  I can hear Grampa’s words all over again, and I can see his face, scheming behind his cards.  Even now, two decades later, my Grampa is with me, and I feel closer to him for having passed his card game on, and I promise myself I will pass it on to my child.


In loving memory of Pasquale Armand Liguori, who passed on January 30, 1992.

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