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Deal three cards to each player, face down, in a row.

Deal three cards to each player, face up, one on top of each of the face down ones.

Deal three cards to each player. This is the player's hand.

The remaining cards are placed in the center as the draw pile.

Players look at their hands. They may change out any of their cards in hand for any of the face up cards. They may combine multiples of the same card (for example, they could put 3 Queens together.) Strategically, they want to lay high cards or special cards face up.

The player to the left of the dealer plays first, if he/she has a 4 in his hand. If he/she do not have a 4, play passes to the next player until someone can play a 4. If no one can play a 4, the cycle repeats with 5, et cetera. Cards played are placed in a pile on top of one another next to the draw pile.

Each player in turn lays one card (or multiples of the same card) that is equal to or higher than the last card played (4 being lowest, Ace being highest) or a “special card.” If they cannot, they pick up the pile of played cards. If a player ever has less than 3 cards in his/her hand, they must draw from the draw pile.

There are 4 “special cards”:

2 – “Start over” - If the previous player played a 2, the next player can play any card.

3 - “To the side” - If a player draws a 3, it is immediately placed out of play and the player draws another card.

7 - “Go lower” - If the previous player played a 7, the next player must play a card lower than 7 or a special card. Play resumes as normal after that.

10 - “Too many cards” - When a player plays a 10, the entire pile of played cards is placed out of play. The player who played the 10 then begins a new pile with whatever card he/she wishes.

Four cards of the same denomination act as a 10, whether played in continuous sequence (e.g., A plays a 4, B plays 2 4's, C plays the final 4 – the played cards are removed from play) or as a set by a single player.

Once the draw pile is exhausted, players without cards in hand use their face-up cards as their hand. Once those cards are exhausted, a player uses his/her face-down cards at random, without looking at them, when it is his/her turn to play.

A player wins when their hand, their face-down and face-up cards are completely exhausted.

The game is called Shithead. My friend Drew taught it to me. He learned it from a group of rugby players. Rugby players are very uncomfortable with anything that doesn't involve swearing.

While the rules as described here seem complicated, trying to remember what each card does and so forth, within 2 hands, almost everybody I've met who has ever played it has got it. In fact, it becomes rote. You don't have to think about it after awhile. Playing is almost automatic.

The game is pointless. Winning and losing don't matter. Every strategy in the world disintegrates when the final moments of the game are really left to chance.

It is something to do with your hands while you pass the time.


A few weeks ago, I visited my friend Drew for his 40th birthday (he'd come down for mine in July). I've known Drew since the second grade. We were each other's best men at our respective weddings. I live in Nashville. Drew lives near where I grew up, in upstate New York. We're both married with full-time jobs. Drew has two adorable daughters besides. We don't get to spend as much time together as we would like.

After the party, Drew and I set up the card table, pulled out a deck and cracked open cans of beer. We were up playing Shithead until 3:30 in the morning, even though we were going on a hike at 7 a.m. We talked about old times – hikes in miserable weather (see the Marcy story), drunken debauchery, misspent youth – and new – the wonders of marriage, the lack of time to do everything we want, the minor aches and pains that come with the passage of time.

We play cards and reconnect. We stop only to get more beer or get rid of it. (Because you don't buy beer, you rent it.)


rosepurr got a call Wednesday and we headed up to Kentucky to say our final goodbyes to her uncle. He had gotten the diagnosis before, but now they were measuring his time in days, not months. When we got there, he wasn't very communicative, but he said hello and waved to us. He slept a lot. The sleep was a mercy, I imagine, coming from the medication, avoiding the pain.

The family gathered. I taught them Shithead. We played as he slept. We talked and laughed, remembering good moments, the whole time keeping an eye on him as we slapped down our cards without much thought. I'm sure he heard our voices and our laughter and knew we were there. We drank Diet Pepsi from cans. Something about the rhythm of Shithead lends itself to pop-top percussion.

He was a deeply religious man, and his wife set her iPhone by his ear, playing gospel music. When the time came, we set the cards aside and gathered around him, saying a prayer.

We dealt with the formalities – I should say his wife did, while we stayed to be strength if she needed it. There are huge gaps of time between someone's passing and the visitation and the final service. In those times, as visitors came to offer their condolences and food – always food, we filled the time with the game. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes we cried. Through it all, we just played

The game is something to do with your hands, but what matters is not winning or losing. It's what you're doing with your mouth and your heart while you play.

[Posted for Week 1 – LJ Idol – Empty Gestures]


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 21st, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC)
I sent hugs to rosepurr but also wanted to send them to you for the loss of her uncle. This was a wonderful entry, one of your best I think.
Oct. 21st, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 21st, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful way to help people as that time draws neigh.
Oct. 21st, 2009 10:34 pm (UTC)
I hope so.
Oct. 21st, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
i liked this post a lot...well done.
Oct. 21st, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC)
Oct. 22nd, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)
I liked the pacing and theme immensely. Great piece of work!
Oct. 22nd, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
Thank you.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 22nd, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 03:45 am (UTC)
I like how the constant idea of the card game became a thread around which you told the REAL story
Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:54 pm (UTC)
Oct. 22nd, 2009 04:17 am (UTC)
I love how you gave us the instructions on how to play and then gave us circumstances where the game was played. I like specially the last bit with the family funeral and how the game worked into it.

Nice work!
Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
Beautiful entry, beautiful memory. Thank you for sharing.
Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
Good entry! My favorite line? "Rugby players are very uncomfortable with anything that doesn't involve swearing." Brilliant!
Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I really liked that line when I wrote it. Good to know someone else out there appreciates my sense of humor.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Very interesting take on the topic. Thanks for sharing :)
Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading. :)
Oct. 24th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)
*Hugs* to you both - and a very well done entry, to boot!
Oct. 25th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 24th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC)
Cool entry...
Oct. 25th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 26th, 2009 06:35 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. It brought back a lot of memories of growing up around a big family, playing cards and passing time just being together.
Oct. 26th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
rosepurr comes from a big family but I don't. It's a whole different experience, but I'm learning. Thanks for reading.
Oct. 26th, 2009 06:47 am (UTC)
Reminds me of Fluxx before it was created.
Oct. 26th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
I love Fluxx. And Zombie Fluxx. And Monty Python Fluxx. :)
Oct. 26th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
I like the thread of continuity in this piece; it really highlights the thread of continuity you describe in always having the card game available to play.
Oct. 26th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Great observation; I didn't even think of that.
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )


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