You’ve probably never played Belote.
Until two years ago, neither had we. It’s a card game, little played elsewhere but in certain parts of France – like here – almost a way of life.
We first encountered it when we were persuaded along to a meeting of the local commune’s ‘Club d’Amitie’, a fortnightly social get-together for retired people. I admit having been a little trepidacious about this: it sounded suspiciously like a Darby and Joan Club. “If they start singing folk songs, I’m out of there”, I told Madame.
They didn’t, and we stayed. I still have no idea whether there’s any inclination to hold sing-songs on these occasions, but I do know that they wouldn’t have time to anyway – they’re far too busy playing belote.
It’s a funny old game, played between two teams of two, using a pack of 32 cards (from seven through to the ace in each of the four suits). At its most basic level it’s pretty straightforward, but there are quite a few rococo refinements that make it peculiarly French, at least to an outsider.
With every card having a points value, each hand has a total of 162 points up for grabs – including 10 points for winning the final hand. It gets weirder: the scoring system is rather counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to trumps (à tout), where the top card is the jack (valet), followed by the nine, for no apparent reason. Odder yet, if you’ve picked trumps and don’t win the round, all 162 points go to your adversaries, while a whitewash – winning all the tricks in the round – is worth 250 points. There’s also something about ‘belote/rebelote’, which has to do with holding the king and queen of trumps, that gets additional bonus points, but the niceties are beyond me.
The French have played Belote all their lives, and do so at a breakneck pace, slamming the cards down in a blur. Although I’ve never seen anyone come to blows, voices have been raised. We tend to steer clear and play, rather more sedately, with another (usually the other) English couple.
Twice a year, though, this genteel way of passing a Thursday afternoon takes on the more competitive form of a ‘Concours de Belote’. Last month we succumbed to our compatriots’ assurance that it was ‘an experience‘. Amen to that.
Admittedly, a Concours is more whist drive than high-stakes Vegas poker tournament, but it’s a competition nonetheless and the locals take it very seriously. After all, there are prizes at stake and at the very least everyone wants to get back the value of their entrance fee – in this case a not inconsiderable €8 per head.
The prizes aren’t cash, but take the form of comestibles of various types. The overall winners might come away with a hamper of goodies with a nominal value of maybe a hundred euros. Further down the list, there are pork joints to be won, or fresh chickens. One peculiarity is that each member of a team gets an identical prize (so two hampers, two chckens and so on).
A big selling point is that there’s a prize for every team, albeit the dubious honour of coming last stretches that definition somewhat as, by tradition, it’s a pig’s head. Although come to think of it, for the hardier locals that’s actually quite a delicacy.
We played our four rounds against four pairs of French opponents. Things didn’t start out too well, as we gave up 250 points in two out of our first three hands.There’s little consolation in the fact that this was against the team that proved to be the ultimate winners, since our miserable initial showing undoubtedly contributed to their high score.
After this initial thrashing, things picked up a bit and we outscored two nice ladies, although at the end one of them – a little ungraciously, I thought – informed us that we had only won because they didn’t cheat. Well, we didn’t cheat either – (a) because we’re honest and (b) because we wouldn’t even know how to. Our third set of opponents included the parish priest, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt as well. Another pair of ladies took us to the cleaners in the final round; not so sure about them.
Out of ninety-eight teams that entered (people come from miles around), we came what I thought was a quite creditable eighty-fourth. In recognition of this achievement, we ‘won’ two jars of white asparagus. We don’t like white asparagus.
Our English friends came 92nd (a bad day, they usually wipe the floor with us) but got two bottles of St Emilion and two packets of biscuits. There’s no justice.
But fortunately, no pig’s head either.