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Italian Card Games: The Ladies and Gentlemean of Burraco

“A deafening silence falls throughout the room and no one breathes. I […] feel overwhelmed by an unmanageable tension.”

Whether it’s Christmas Eve, in the summer under an umbrella, or on Sunday with the family, the cards are always there, grouped in a deck slightly worn by the years, ready to be shuffled and distributed.

There is only one thing you need to know about our beautiful pastime of Burraco: as soon as the game starts, there will be no mercy. Everyone will become as competitive as they’re capable of and within seconds, those who used to be friends and family are now skilled opponents who should never be trusted. Burraco is a Rummy-like game that uses two decks of cards and their Jokers (108 cards in total). Usually there are four players, who face each other in teams of two. The objective is to create sets and sequences from your own deck and throw them on the table before your opponent does.

After growing up with Scala40, Scopa and Briscola, I thought I had seen it all. But one Sunday in early spring, I decided to accompany my friend Marta and her grandmother Lucia to a “harmless” Burraco tournament. We entered a tent in Shuster Park, located in the San Paolo district of southern Rome. Here, fierce elderly meet on a monthly basis and are willing to do anything to win the first prize: a leg of ham, a bottle of wine and a large piece of Parmigiano Reggiano. 

In the large tent, I see tables already set with decks of cards. Before entering the competition, it is necessary to form your team of two and sign up in pairs. Only after registering everyone’s names can the draw to define the challenging pairs be made. Half of the couples are fixed at a table and never get up from it; the other half are itinerant and at the end of each round, move to the next table.

A funny-looking gentleman is the moderator of the Burraco tournament: it is he who is in charge of announcing the disposition of the pairs. His eyes are lively, but he moves very slowly. These two things make it impossible to guess his age: either he is a young man who looks old or an old man who looks young. I don’t ask him anything, but I keep observing him with curiosity.

He begins to call names and their table placements–“Table 3 – Fiammetta and Marcello” and again “Table 11 – Paola and Natalino”–using names that are now rare amongst the younger generations. Some couples find their assigned seats, some grumble and still others ask again where they should go. It takes a while for everyone to be seated and ready to play. I discreetly observe the people present, their expressions and their gestures. Someone makes the sign of the cross. Another performs a gesto di scaramanzia (a superstitious act to ward off bad luck). There are those who have come up with their own rituals to relieve the accumulated pressure.

There is disorder, a lot of noise and shouting that gives me a headache. There is agitation in the air. Very few laugh. Everyone comments on the organization or the inconvenience of this year’s chairs.

From the back of the room, one of the administrators overcomes the general shouting: “Silence, the tournament is about to begin!” All the tables shuffle the decks and deal the cards, but they remain facedown so that no one can see them yet. The gentleman comes forward: “So, at my start. Turn the cards, go!” At that exact moment, as if by magic, all the noise and chatter suddenly stops. A deafening silence falls throughout the room and no one breathes. I, just a simple observer, feel overwhelmed by an unmanageable tension.

I am sitting near my friend Marta, just behind her chair. She plays in a pair with her grandmother who is sitting in front of her. To their sides sit the opposing couple: a husband and wife who take the game very seriously, too seriously. After the first few hands, Marta and her grandmother start scoring a lot of points and take the lead: their two opponents, who are nervous and a bit envious, begin to claim that Marta and her grandmother are cheating. The scene is surreal; their aggression leaves me speechless.

This Burraco tournament obviously started off on the wrong foot, but luckily the following challengers are more peaceful. The first heat is won by Marta and Nonna Lucia, who proudly move to sit at the next table. Between one round and the next, there are 10-15 minutes of rest to go to the bathroom, freshen up or simply take a breather from the anxiety of the game.

It begins again. Again, the gentleman’s go-ahead and again, the deafening silence reigns supreme. No one cracks a joke, not even a gnat flies. All eyes are fixed on the cards and on the opponents. A big timer marks the countdown of each heat: the minutes pass by. Again, the games are over, the tables are changed and a new challenge is started. After each round, the couples accumulate a certain number of points which they promptly score on the notebook offered by the organization. Play continues like this for a couple of hours, until the key moment arrives: each team adds up their scores. The highest scorers are the finalists, who must now compete against each other. 

To ease the tension before the last round, pizza by the slice and a few beers are offered. Everything is very well organized: when we Italians have to eat, we’re extremely professional. Many plates are made with different pieces of pizza: margherita, diavola, crostino, courgette flowers and anchovies.

For a few moments, we forget about the competition and have a snack on the benches outside. The sun is setting and the temperature is perfectly mild. One lady begins to tell us about her great love, while another continues to bring us plates full of pizza, in case we haven’t eaten enough. Right at the most beautiful moment, when the climate is serene and convivial, a voice from within brings us back to reality: “Everyone inside!”

In a moment we are back in the tent, Burraco competitors again. The couples with the highest scores are announced and sit at their assigned tables without a word. The tension is skyrocketing. It’s like one of those Olympic tournaments in which no one moves to avoid losing focus on the players. These are intense minutes in which the champions of the day compete against each other. At the beginning, we met one very fierce couple; now they are all fierce, without distinction.

The last second of the last heat strikes and the gentleman of uncertain age officially declares the tournament finished. The participants hand over the sheets with the scores. A few seconds and there is a crowd around him. The silence of a few moments before is a memory: now they are all there to complain about their opponents or their last hand.

The organizer asks the competitors to leave, so that they can concentrate, count the various results and decide the victory. The chatter is very strong now and the agitation makes everyone more hyperactive and talkative. Then the voice, always the gentleman’s, whom I’ve become a bit fond of, again asks for silence. He has the names of the winners.

“First place: Iolanda and Francesca!” There’s buzz and applause, and the awards are brought out. The winners ask to be photographed with their rewards: baskets full of delicacies, covered with plastic in full 90s style. Some losers look annoyed; perhaps they thought they had victory in hand. But then there are those like Nonna Lucia who forget everything and run to congratulate, offering a hug and a few laughs.

With a calm and harmonious pace, everyone heads towards the exit holding arms and hands, touching shoulders. They’re satisfied with this intense afternoon, full of emotions and memorable moments. It’s already dark–8 p.m. on a not-so-normal Sunday. The participants disappear quite quickly. “It’s time to go, otherwise who will be preparing dinner?” notes a gentleman.

I am among the last to leave. The room is now silent, empty of everything I had seen when I arrived four hours earlier. Throughout the afternoon, I often thought about my grandparents: I don’t know if they would’ve ever come to this Burraco tournament, but I would’ve liked to go home to be able to tell them all about it. The lights go out and the day already feels like a fond memory.