News & Politics » Feature

Old Hands

It may be your grandma's game, but with its cussing and gambling and trash talk, bid whist isn't for the fainthearted.



By Ted Kleine

When it comes to card playing, says Saadiq Kamail, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun got game.

It's a Saturday night in August, and Saadiq, a Northwestern University grad student known to his friends as Seven, is hanging out on the second floor of the Shark Bar, a glittery River West nightclub with a majestic view of alpine skyscrapers looming across the river. Standing on the Shark Bar's veranda is like standing on the deck of a ship moored alongside tumbling glaciers.

Tonight, Moseley-Braun's campaign has rented the club for a $50-a-head bid whist tournament. Seven, who's played the game since he was a boy, is paired with his friend Tina, a musician and poet he's known since they were students at Hyde Park Career Academy. Both in their 20s, they're the youngest players in the room, and a few sartorial classes below the rest of the crowd: Seven is wearing a wrinkled casual-Friday shirt with a black tie, while Tina has on a long, kinky wig whose hairline is concealed by a black headband.

A few feet from Seven is the "Kool Gent," V103 radio personality Herb Kent. Kent's standing in the DJ crow's nest, looking sharp in a salmon sport coat, black cowboy hat, and gold chains. He's spinning dusties, the 70s R & B hits the senator and her friends love.

On her mission of meeting everyone in the room, the senator approaches the bar to introduce herself to Seven and Tina.

"You play bid whist?" the senator asks, mock surprised that two people so obviously under 30 are into the game. Smiling brilliantly, she focuses like a searchlight on the two young constituents.

"I just learned to play," Tina shrugs.

"Anybody said they're a beginner at bid whist is lying," the senator scolds cheerfully, before moving on to befriend more strangers. Seven is impressed with her confidence. She acts like a player, not a politician who's holding a bid whist tournament to convince the community that she's still a south-side girl.

"She got game," he says. "Just the way she carries herself. She ain't bragging or anything. She's just mellow. You know who else got game in here?" He nods at the crow's nest, at Herb Kent. "He's just one of those old-school people who can do everything natch. He can step, he can play bid whist, darts."

Kent cuts off the music and the senator commands the floor for a short campaign speech. According to the latest polls, she says soberly, she's in a "statistical tie" with Peter Fitzgerald and needs the help of everyone in this room to continue her work on behalf of families, working people, etc, etc.

"I hope you're all putting your cards on your head," she says, referring to a popular bid whist practice of sticking a trump card facedown to your forehead to let your opponents know something big is coming. "This'll be the first time in the history of the United States of America that a card with a United States Senate seal has been slapped on someone's forehead."

Among her political firsts Moseley-Braun can also claim to be the first senator to play bid whist. The game got its start in Louisiana and Mississippi, but that doesn't mean Governor Huey Long or Senator Trent Lott ever learned the rules. It was introduced to Illinois in the 30s and 40s and is now played fanatically in bars on the south and west sides, especially among older people. You've never seen a picture of Paul Simon with a playing card stuck to his forehead. Uh-uh. It wouldn't be his game.

Bid whist came to Chicago on the same trains that brought up the blues. Everybody's grandmother from Clarksdale or Hot Springs knows how to play the game and handed the rules down to the kids and grandkids, along with recipes for greens and chicken, Bible verses, and other lessons in the school of life. Always, always at a family reunion, someone will say "Let's play bid" and the cards will come out, whirling around the table until they're greasy with barbecue sauce from being handled by so many fingers.

Whist, the common ancestor of bridge and bid, "got started in Scotland and then it came here during slavery times," says Seven. There was no bidding to whist, and trump was established by turning over a card. "The slaves decided it was too boring, so they said, 'Let's play it this way.' The whist style was constructed to fit our style of living and our style of doing things."

Seven was initiated into the game during card nights at the home of his grandmother, who came up from Arkansas during the great migration. Early in the evening the women sometimes needed a fourth, so they put Seven at the table until a real cardplayer showed up. He played at family reunions too, because everybody plays at family reunions, but not until after college did he get serious about the game, throwing cards on Friday and Saturday nights in south-side lounges dedicated to bid. Not many young people play bid whist--it's too down-home--which may be why the senator acted surprised to meet him.

"Most older people can play," Seven said. "For some reason, it's being lost. Some people are introduced to spades and they stick with that. [In spades, that suit's always trump.] Only half the people under 30 can play. They say, 'That's shit old people play. That's what my grandma and them play, they be screaming and hollering.'"

The rules: The game uses a 54-card deck, including a pair of jokers that outrank every other card. The dealer distributes 12 cards to each player and sets aside 6 for the kitty.

Like in bridge, bid whist players bid the number of tricks they think they can win beyond a six-trick "book." Unlike bridge, they bid high or low, depending on whether they're "running uptown" (holding high cards) or "running downtown" (holding low cards). The highest bidder sets the trump suit and wins the kitty, which counts as a trick and which he can use to replace cards in his hand. The highest bidder throws out the first card, then the other players follow with a card of the same suit. If they don't have one, they can play a trump. High card in the suit led wins--unless the bid was "low," in which case low card wins. Better yet is a high--or low--trump card. High or low, the ace wins the trick--unless it's topped with a joker.

Despite the senator's call to exuberance, Tina isn't expecting to see the kind of rowdy, down-home bid whist she learned in the lounges of the south side, the kind where players taunt each other with loud, spicy insults like "If you keep acting like a pussy, you're going to get fucked" and slam down winning cards with a pop like a pistol shot.

"This is going to be a little more conservative," she says. "There's not going to be a lot of shit talking. If the senator said, 'Yeah, motherfucker, sending your ass to Boston,' I think everybody else would do it. But I think it's going to be a calm game. I would love to see her slamming cards."

Up on the veranda, the air feels thick, damp, prickly hot. It rained hard earlier tonight, and the light around the lamps is still soft-focus. Tina and Seven are sitting at a table with a mesh iron top, waiting for their first opponents.

"We're giving away an Annie Lee print," Herb Kent intones over the PA.

Tina and Seven bump fists. That's "giving dap."

"I can see an Annie Lee in my house," Seven says.

This tournament is "rise and fly," the bid whist term for "losers walk," and it's double elimination, so if you rise and fly twice you're back at the bar or the buffet table. Tina and Seven take two out of three hands from their first opponents, who then fly, opening up a pair of seats that are filled by women named Paula and Donnalear.

"You must be winning," Paula says. "We're gonna try to change that for you so you can eat."

The taunt arouses Tina.

"That's winner s-h-i-t talk," she says. "This is the kind of game I like."

In the first hand Paula is running downtown, so she bids five low and names spades. Tina messes up early, wasting a good trump card by throwing out a five of spades after Donnalear has already laid down a three of the same suit. The shit-talking women sweep up most of the cards on the table.

"That hand was like having gasoline drawers on in a fire," Tina moans. "You're burnt."

"Tina gave her a cheap book," concedes Seven.

Paula and Donnalear complete their triumph on the next deal, forcing Seven and Tina to rise and fly.

Meanwhile, up on a wooden deck gloriously exposed to the glowing moon and the gleaming towers across the river, the senior senator from Illinois, who's drinking Mo‘t champagne and holding a fistful of black cards embossed with a gold Senate seal, thinks she's about to score a bid whist landslide, taking all 13 tricks in a hand. That's called a Boston because, well, no one knows for sure why (one theory says it's named for the Boston massacre), but it's inspired all kinds of shit-talking put-downs. Players who keep up with the NBA hit you with "You better go get your boy Rick Pitino, 'cause I'm about to send your ass to Boston," while the old folks taunt, "He's got a one-way ticket, he's goin' to Boston."

The senator's partner, sitting across the table, is cackling and making U.S. history by slapping cards against her head. The senator, who has to maintain the dignity of an office once held by Stephen A. Douglas and Everett Dirksen, isn't wearing any cards on her head, but she's crowing, "Uh-oh, UH-OH, I hear a train coming!"

The train pulls up short. The senator and her partner capture only 12 tricks.

"You only got to Cleveland on that," one of her opponents shoots back.

Seven and Tina have just lost another round, which means they're out of the tournament. No Annie Lee print tonight.

"They have some good players here," marvels Seven, sounding surprised that such a bourgeois-looking crowd could whip him at bid. "That lady that beat us, she still hasn't gotten up."

Since they can't play bid whist at the Shark Bar anymore, Seven and Tina decide to ditch the senator's party and head to a south-side lounge that's open until five in the morning for cards, drinking, and stepping.

As she passes the parking valets on her way to the car, Tina gives her theory on why the senator held a bid whist benefit. "Playin' bid whist, that's how she keeps her ghetto pass," Tina says. "A ghetto pass means if you live in the hood and you get rich, you playin' on no airs or nothin'. You can go back to the hood and talk to your homies. You still down for the peoples. I think she likes to play bid whist. I don't think she gets to do a lot of what she wants to do 'cause she is in the Senate."


"This is the real stuff." Tina is walking through the door of Frances' Cocktail Lounge, at 307 E. 75th St. "No politicians. No suits."

On the walls are a poster for the Million Man March and a print of Ernest Watson's juke-joint mural Night Life at the Studio, the painting you see in the closing credits of Good Times. There's a grimy hand-lettered sign: "You Must Buy a Drink Before Playing Cards. No Profane Language Allowed." Frances' is right next to Lem's, a take-out barbecue hut, and if you sit close enough to the door you can smell the smoky tang of Lem's sauce.

Four middle-aged men are sitting around a poker table upholstered with worn corduroy, tossing down cards with harlequin-patterned red diamonds on the back. Seven and Tina sign the waiting list, a sheet of legal paper clamped to a clipboard resting atop the radiator, then sit down to order beers from the bartender, the obsequious Papa Joe, and watch TV until it's time for their "down," their turn at the table. Lou Rawls is holding his annual telethon for the United Negro College Fund, and right now he's got Patti LaBelle on. She's singing "Over the Rainbow" bigger than any woman's ever sung it before.

"When I get famous," Tina announces, "I want to eat at Patti LaBelle's house. Every famous black person that ever ate there said she can cook. She's very respected. She still got that down-home thing."

The owner and matron of Frances' Cocktail Lounge is Miss Frances, who bought the bar 32 years ago and is proud that it's one of the few places in town where gambling at cards is banned. The rules are simpler here than in other bid whist lounges: there are no jokers and no kitty. Miss Frances thinks the game is more challenging that way. Using a kitty, "that's the baby way of playing," she says dismissively. "When you play here, you bid from the strength of your hand. That keeps people from lying. They'll lie to get the kitty."

And Miss Frances won't tolerate anything but an honest, clean game in her place. No cussing, no gambling, no lying, no slamming cards on the table.

"We keep a nice place to play cards," she says.

Miss Frances keeps a color photograph of Harold Washington next to the cash register and, on her wall of fame, a photo of Michael Jordan sitting uncomfortably at the poker table, a crowd of people behind each broad shoulder. Jordan is from North Carolina, where almost nobody plays bid whist.

"He didn't win a hand," Miss Frances laughs. "So I told him the way he played bid whist is the baby way."

Redd Foxx used to come here when he was in Chicago, but "Redd didn't play no cards. Redd drank." And one night Don King brought Mike Tyson in, then went over to Lem's and passed out $100 bills.

"When people come from out of town, they hear about this place," says Miss Frances.

Tonight Miss Frances's sister is celebrating a birthday, so Miss Frances has laid out a soul food buffet in the walled-in courtyard behind the lounge. It looks like someone's been up since seven in the morning preparing a picnic: steaming inside the foil trays and casserole dishes are barbecued chicken, fried okra, white beans, corn bread, potato salad, deviled eggs. Tina fills a plate and carries it inside to one of the back tables far from the card game by the door. She's played one round of bid, now she just wants to chill. As she eats her chicken she nods faintly to the beat of Teddy Pendergrass's "Turn Off the Lights" playing on the jukebox.

"Most of the music associated with card playing is dusties, soul, R & B," she says. Indeed, later on, when the O'Jays' "Use ta Be My Girl" bounces out of the jukebox, the whole bar, old folks and young, sings along.

Seven, meanwhile, is having a cold night at the bid whist table but can't quit playing. Every time he gets bounced he signs his name on the clipboard again. At two in the morning he and a partner named Hat sit down to play a couple named Mary and Ervin, who've held the table for over an hour, defeating all challengers. The first two games are a split. Then Ervin picks up the deck to deal the decisive hand.

"Go to the rubber hand, gimme a Trojan," says Ervin, who learned the game from his grandmother back home in Mississippi and has been playing at Frances' for 30 years.

Experience trumps youth, as it always does at the card table.

"He's hot," Seven says. "But the person you really gotta see if you want to learn bid whist is Mr. Giles."

"Mr. Giles, he's an older man, he loves to play cards," Miss Frances is saying.

It's a Friday night weeks later, and Mr. Giles is sitting at a table with two cronies, playing an endless game of pinochle. He's keeping score on a legal pad. Mr. Giles always has to keep score. Later on, when he moves over to the bid whist table, he'll take control of the sign-up sheet, recording the name of every waiting player in his firm, italicized cursive.

"Every day, never miss a day unless he's sick," Miss Frances continues. "He'll be here from the time I open up to the time I close, and then he goes to breakfast. You see, his wife died last year and he doesn't have anything else to do. He calls himself King Boogaboo, and when he's winning, he'll say, 'You can't beat King Boogaboo.'"

During a break in his pinochle game, Mr. Giles is informed that the players at Frances' consider him the dean of the bid whist table. The old man crumples with laughter.

"They say that because I'm here all the time playing." And because he got started on the game in the 1930s in Poplar Bluff, a little town in the Missouri lowlands where poor folks didn't have much entertainment beyond card playing.

"Let's see, I'm 73," he recalls. "I started playing it when I was 12. My mama taught me how to play. My mother was the cardplayer in the family."

Mr. Giles left Poplar Bluff in 1943 to fight in World War II. He never went back, except to visit. "It was a small town, nothin' to do. It's like they say--once you see the bright lights, you don't want to go back to no hick town."

In Chicago he worked awhile for the CTA, then did 31 years on a riveting gang at Bethlehem Steel, retiring in 1990. Here in the big city he found a community of fellow migrants from the lower Mississippi Valley, people who knew his game.

"Everybody on the south and west side of Chicago plays bid whist," he said. "Everybody from Chicago is from the South, and they play it down South. They don't play it as much in New York, 'cause people there come from Carolina and Florida. They don't play it as much in California either, 'cause people come from Texas and Oklahoma."

Mr. Giles pauses in his life story to take a call on the lounge's pay phone--"Come on over," he hollers, "we're playing bid whist"--and then he's called to the table for his down. King Boogaboo strolls to his throne. Since it's his down, his name at the top of the list, he gets to choose his partner. He picks Miss Frances, one of the few players he considers a peer.

When Mr. Giles takes a book, regardless of the house rules he pops his trump card on the table as though he's swatting a bug. And every winner comes with its own Mr. Giles gotcha. "Get on off o' me and tell 'em who sent you," he'll growl. Or "I'm gonna take it." Or "I'm the master here." As he wins a book, he sweeps in the captured cards like a croupier gathering chips, then pulls a new lead card from his hand and skims it across the table.

When Mr. Giles finally loses, he curses the cards.

"Yeah, they got lucky on me," he says. "They had the best hand, but Miss Frances needed to hit a trump and she didn't. We could have had 'em."


When it comes to bid whist, the south side and the west side are just different, says Marguerite Payton, who's played in both parts of town. Payton lives in Hyde Park but she grew up in Lawndale, where her father owned a tavern at the corner of Christiana and Ogden. Everything's got a rougher edge out on the west side, she says. West-siders play bid whist for money, and they don't listen to sweet soul singers like Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass when they play cards. They listen to the blues. On the west side, people are more down-home, closer to their southern roots. She says they even dance better than south-siders.

"When people did come to the North, they migrated to the west side, that's where they came first," Payton explains. "You had a few of them that moved to the south side that were the doctors and lawyers. They were more into the intellectual pursuits. They might play chess. But everybody who came from Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri--most of them lived on the west side of Chicago. West-siders play, when they play, they want to win. In bid whist especially. I have some brother-in-laws on the west side--Jesus Christ Almighty. They'd be talk, talk, beating on the table, talking through the game to manipulate you to mess up."


"Deal, Jackson," a no-nonsense Irene Dixon orders, as Weddie "Action" Jackson fans a deck of cards across the table. Jackson's huge hands press the cards back into a stack and he begins flipping them around the table to Dixon, her card-playing pal Lizzie Murray, and a woman named Yvonne who'll be his partner for this round. It's 7:30 PM and Jackson is dealing the evening's first hand of bid whist.

Here at the 5105 Club, 5105 W. North Ave., the patrons play for coupons worth $2 toward a drink at the bar. Best two out of three hands takes the round. "Drink or smell," one regular calls the system. "The winner drinks, the loser smells."

In the first game Jackson finds himself running downtown and winds up at six low clubs, meaning he and his partner have to take 12 of the 13 tricks. They do, but Irene and Lizzie win the next hand. The round, and the drinks, ride on the rubber game.

"This is like the Bulls playing the playoff game," Jackson rumbles as Lizzie deals. "This is who wins it. We'll see how the coupons go. I need a cold beer anyway."

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch," scolds Irene.

"Eggs always good," Jackson retorts.

Irene wins the bid at five low diamonds, but she and Murray can't take the 11 tricks they need to win.

"Cold beer! Cold beer!" Jackson cries as he slaps down the card that clinches victory.

Scowling, Irene pulls two coupons--tickets stamped $2 on the front and "5105 Club, Action Jackson" on the back--from a stack bound with a rubber band. Jackson goes to the bar and returns with a bottle of Sharps. He can't drink a real beer because 5105 is his club and he'll have at least 50 bid whist players coming in between now and 2 AM.

A big, goateed man who works as a mail carrier by day, Jackson has owned 5105 for 12 years. He's turned it into the bid whist capital of the west side. "That's what I bought it for," says Jackson, who came to his club straight from work and is still wearing his U.S. Postal Service shirt. "To play bid whist. It's a bid whist university. People come here to get a lesson."

Jackson was born in Mississippi, but he wasn't introduced to bid whist until he joined the army.

"I started playing cards when I came to Chicago in 1964 to finish high school," he explains. "I played tunk, pitty pat. In the service, in Vietnam, I started playing bid whist. We played anytime we could get a rest. Most of the time we played at night, on the base. Then I was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. My wife and I, that's all we did, was play bid whist."

Jackson's bid whist university, hidden behind a blue metal door on a commercial block in Austin, consists of a bar, a blues jukebox, three long card-playing tables, an electronic dartboard, and a back room for dancing. There's a charcoal drawing of Jackson pinned up across from the bar, as well as a handwritten poster listing the "5105 Club Whist Rules." In his excitement over winning a cold one, Jackson has already broken number six, "No talking during the game," and number seven, "No hitting cards on the table."

As the clock rounds nine, DJ Marvelous Murph takes his seat in the back room, where he starts cuing up the blues and old-school R & B that 5105's middle-aged crowd likes to hear when they play bid whist. He'll play Tyrone Davis, Mel Waiters, Johnnie Taylor, Tina Turner, Jesse James. He'll throw in some Mase and Mary J. Blige too, but "mainly, it's a blues place," Murph explains, because that's what Jackson wants to hear.

"It feeds the energy of the players," Murph says. "They love to hear good music. They go crazy."

Dub Richmond, who wears a baseball jacket with the club's name printed on the back and "Dub" stitched on the front, stops by Jackson's table to bullshit and wait for a player to drop out.

"You ain't playin', sit down," Irene shoos at him good-naturedly. "We don't need your echo here."

Sitting at the bar is Tom "Hosea" Hozier, a lifelong Chicagoan who learned bid whist by "watching the elders play at house parties" in the 1940s. As he follows a basketball game on TV, Hosea explains why a good game of bid whist is as important to an African-American family reunion as a good barbecue.

"Most times when you have a family gathering, you'll have a bid whist game," says Hosea, who has won several citywide tournaments. "The barbecue'll be outside, and we'll be playing whist, and the cards'll get all greasy."

Eventually Hosea makes his way to Jackson's table, where he pairs up with Irene. In their first game they sweep up all 13 books.

"That's a Boston," Hosea says. "We call that ass-kickin' time."

Besides allowing players to rag their opponents (at 5105 some say, "Thanks for riding Greyhound--watch your step down"), a Boston automatically ends a round and forces the losers to pay two $2 coupons apiece to the winners.

"That's the ultimate in whist," Hosea gloats. "Rolls-Royce of whist."

The 5150 is so lively tonight because it's a "club night." The Wild Ones, one of 5150's four bid whist clubs, are in charge of the card parties every Thursday. Irene is the president, and she's such a well-known player on the west side that the schedule on the wall lists Thursdays as "Irene Club Night."

"Jackson put that up there," she says, rolling her eyes. "Don't believe everything you read."

The club system works like this: at the beginning of the evening Jackson stakes the Wild Ones to $400 worth of coupons. They refund him the value of the tickets they can't return when the night's over, but in exchange he cuts them in on 25 percent of the take from the bar, and they collect $2 whenever they beat players who haven't yet won coupons to wager with. Both sides profit. Jackson gets customers, because the Wild Ones talk up their club night at the other bars where they play bid whist. The Wild Ones get money, which they divide among themselves twice a year.

"It's like a savings club," says Irene, who works as an instructional aide at Webster Elementary School. "We get a percentage of the bar and we put it in the bank. We break down twice a year, in June and December. Last year there was three of us. At the end of June we each had a thousand dollars."

The Wild Ones use some of their cash at Christmas to hold an appreciation party where "we buy gifts for regulars--lotion and soap, a lot of toiletry that men and women use," says Irene. They're also responsible for feeding the club on Thursdays. This night was Irene's turn to cook: she made beef over rice with green beans and a slice of white bread to sop up the gravy. Around 11:30, when everyone starts to notice the time and realize how hungry they are, the Wild Ones serve supper, bringing out plates balanced on big pewter-colored trays.

You try to learn bid whist at 5105, you're going to get your ass kicked. At Frances', they sit novices down at the corduroy table and tell them, "We gonna make a bid whist player out of you. Tonight." At 5105 they just take your money.

One night this summer, a guy who'd never played bid whist before walked into 5105 and said he wanted a game.

"You think you can play this game?" challenged a player named B.J. who said he once won one of the tournaments Miller High Life holds around the city. "It's some tough shit."

But B.J. agreed to take the beginner on as a partner after the poor fool--we'll call him Mark--offered to cover all losses. They lost $20 in less than ten minutes, and the fact that it wasn't B.J.'s money didn't make him any more patient with the greenhorn across the table. B.J. wants to win, no matter the stakes.

In their first game Mark chased an ace with a queen of the same suit.

"Don't throw away your good cards like that," B.J. snapped. "Throw away low cards."

A few books later Mark threw his card out too soon. In the few games of bid whist he'd seen, the game moved so fluidly that he assumed everyone was throwing down a card at once.

"Don't play out of turn," B.J. ordered. "I need to know what to play."

They lost that game. On the next deal Mark drew a terrific hand, with two jokers and two aces. But he was too unsure of himself to bid, so his opponents, regulars named Duck and Buzz, called five no trump. When the bid is no trump, jokers have no value. Duck and Buzz ran a Boston, doubling Mark's losses.

Nearly broken by his one game of bid whist, Mark went to the bar. Drinking is a much cheaper pastime. He ordered a beer and struck up a conversation with a woman who comes to 5105 several times a week to step, but never goes near the bid whist tables.

"I won't play here," she said. "They're just cutthroat."

One thing you notice right away at 5105 is that almost everyone is over 35 years old. It's the kind of crowd you'd see at a Bobby "Blue" Bland concert or an African Methodist Episcopal church picnic. Up to a point, the cardplayers like that--because, as Hosea says, "with adults you never have any incidents." But they also worry that bid whist is like the blues and will die out with the older generation, the generation that migrated to Chicago from the South, or whose parents did.

"The young folks couldn't get along in here," Hosea says. "Young folks aren't interested in staying still the way we are. They want to dance."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.

Add a comment