Every time I meet someone from a different country I ask them to teach me a card game from their homeland. It’s a wonderful piece of cultural tradition that lets me learn something about a place I’ve never been to, and it’s a good bit of fun! I’ve learnt how to play games from all over the world, and along the way I’ve learnt about what different cultures value in card games, where these games are typically played, and by whom.

Thais commonly play Pok Deng at funerals as part of their grieving process, while in Iranian tea houses, shouting routinely breaks out over the contentious game of Manfee. In India, card games such as 7, 8 favour the player with the sharpest memory, by contrast, the Brazilian game of Truco Paulista rewards the cheeky bluffer.

Grab a friend, shuffle a pack, and deal yourself in for a hand of good ol’ fashioned fun from South America. Here’s one of my favourite card games in my international collection…

Truco Paulista

A marvellous Brazilian bluffing game from the state of São Paulo with quick rounds of trick-taking.

Set Up

Remove the 8, 9, 10 and Joker cards from a standard 52 deck, the order of strength of the remaining cards is from low to high:

4 5 6 7 Q J K A 2 3

This game can be played with two people, or four people in two teams of pairs sitting opposite one another. The objective of the game is to win 12 points. A player (or a team) wins points by winning the best of 3 tricks that make up one round. One point is scored for winning one regular round.

The Deal

Each player is dealt three cards, then one card is turned over and placed face-up, underneath the rest of the cards but sticking out, perpendicular to the deck so that it can be seen. This card is called the ‘vira’. The card that follows the vira in the sequence above is called the ‘zap’. For each round, the zap is the strongest card of all. For example if the vira were 6, then 7 would be the zap, and would be the strongest. If the vira were 3, the 4 card would be the zap. Note that in gameplay, the suit of the card is irrelevant, except when it comes to the zap card where the order of strength from low to high is:

♦︎♠︎♥︎♣︎

Gameplay

The order of play is clockwise, the role of dealer changes with each round, also clockwise.

The player that dealt leads every trick in the round, this means she must play the first card and place it face-up in the centre of the table. Let’s say the vira was 5, so the zap is 6. Assuming a game of two people, if the dealer plays a jack and her opponent plays an ace, he wins the first trick because his card is stronger. The score is therefore 0–1. The next trick proceeds. The dealer once again leads, this time she plays a 2, her opponent plays a 4; the dealer wins and the score of tricks in this round is now 1–1, so we proceed to the final trick. The dealer plays the zap card, 6♠︎, but her opponent plays a higher zap card: 6♥︎. The non-dealer wins this round and scores 1 point for winning two out of three tricks.

Now for the ~spicy~ part

Before each of three tricks is played in a round, any player can ask for truco. This means proposing that the round go from being worth just one point, to being worth 3 points. If one player asks for truco, their opponent has three options: they can either accept, so the winner of that round will win 3 points instead of 1; reject, in which case the round is over and the player/team that propsed truco automatically scores 1 point; or they can respond by asking for 6. The opposing player/team would then have the same three options: accept and play for 6 points, reject and allow the opposing team now to automatically earn 3 points, or raise the stakes further to 9 points. This can continue up to a wager of 12 points.

If playing with two pairs, whenever a truco is proposed, both teams may momentarily swap hands with their partners to understand the combined strength of their hands and then respond to the truco proposal afterwards.

Other rules

Tied tricks

Since a round is won by winning two out of three tricks, there is special protocol for the event of a tied trick. If players play the same card (not a zap) in the first trick, then the winner of the second trick wins the round. If players play the same card in the second trick, then the winner of the first trick wins the round. As previously mentioned zap cards cannot tie because the order of suit comes into consideration.

Mão de onze (Hand of eleven)

If one player/team reaches 11 points game play changes slightly. After the deal, the team with 11 points has the opportunity to consider their hand and decide if they wish to play this round, or not. If playing in teams, partners may exchange hands as this decision is made. If the leading player/team chooses to play, the round is automatically worth 3 points, if they choose not to play then the opposing player/team automatically earns 1 point and the cards are reshuffled and re-dealt for a new round.

Mão de Ferro (Iron hand)

If the score gets to 11–11, with both player/teams needing just one point to win the game, gameplay is special. By this point, neither team has been able to win by skill, so the game is ultimately decided by pure luck. Both player/teams are dealt cards but may not look at them, and must place them face down in front of them. Following the order of play, the players proceed to play the best of three tricks blind, turning over one of their cards for each turn. Whoever wins the best of three tricks, wins the game.

Strategy

The dealer of any round is at a significant disadvantage because they have to play first. If the dealer plays a card that can be beaten by more than one card in her opponent’s hand, the opponent has the opportunity to play the weakest card that can still beat the dealer’s card — reserving his stronger cards for the second trick.

Only one hand is unbeatable: one that holds the zap of ♥︎ and of ♣︎. Of course, if you are dealt a strong hand it is best to try to capitalise on this by baiting your opponent into asking for or accepting truco. However, if you are dealt a weak hand, you could bluff and ask for truco in an attempt to discourage your opponent from playing the round at all and instead forfeiting a point to you. Similarly, if you have a weak hand and are asked for truco you could respond with 6; a risky strategy but one that is awfully satisfying if well executed.

Travel the world with a pack of cards