OK, not serious gambling. But playing cards was something everybody did, from small children to old ladies. There were simple children's games and there were complicated grownup games, and as a child I loved watching grownups play. Occasionally I would be allowed to join if a fourth partner was missing. I was hopeless with strategic games where you need to remember which cards have been played, but in games of risk I was as good as anyone. Poker was one of the favourites. The stakes were not high, but a card debt was a matter of honour, grownup or not. In my student days, we played poker with one-kopek coins that a friend had collected, a three-litre glass jar of coins, must have been quite a fortune.
My father brought a roulette set from abroad, probably taking a risk, even if it could pass as a children's game in the customs. We played it for a while, but never really got hooked.
Dice, on the other hand, was popular, and there were periods we would play regularly and very seriously.
Then a friend of my parents introduced us to mahjong, and we were lost. Our first mahjong set was homemade from wooden bricks on which my father and I meticulously burned circles, bamboos and characters, winds and dragons; then coloured them in with filt-tip pens. Later my parents found a real mahjong set in an antique shop, and the wooden set was passed down to me and my friends. The friend who first taught us wasn't a sophisticated player, and the rules she remembered were vague. I went to the national library and found a mahjong handbook in English that I carefully translated in handwriting (I wasn't allowed to borrow the book, just read in a reading room) and then typed up with four carbon copies. It became our bible. I made lots of silly mistakes in my translation that nevertheless lingered and became part of our everyday jargon,
We took it very, very seriously. At weekends, at the countryhouse my parents were renting, a table would be arranged after dinner, covered with a soft red throw. There were usually more than four of us so we would build teams, and the game could go on for months, all scores carefully written down after each round. Cash was never used, but scores were, for fun, calculated into cash. We used 0.01 koper per point, but the winner might end up with a hundred roubles or more. With the compex rules from our bible, there were infinite variations of the game; we never got tired. And no other game would ever be as exciting. The ritual of it! The magic of the language! In what other games do you play "Moon from the Bottom of the Sea" or "Northern Gate" or "Dragon Tail"? And all those poor people who had no clue what you were talking about.
I stopped playing for a while when I got married and had a baby, but after my divorce I found a new mahjong gang, and we would meet and play every week for many years, again keeping scores for ever and ever. I wonder whether there is still an unfinished game.
In Sweden, I bought a mahjong set, but I never found partners. When my parents visited, we would occasionally play a round, Sergej joining us, but it wasn't the same obsession. I am not sure who of the children kept the set when we moved to Cambridge.
Earlier this year – sorry, last year! - an overseas student was moving home and sold most of her possessions through facebook. I bought a couple of things, and then I noticed that among her items was a mahjong set, and it was gone, gone, gone! So it wasn't meant to be.
(Of course, you can say that I can get a mahjong set from amazon any day. But then you have misunderstood the purpose of this blog).