The ritual of truco
If you catch people playing in Buenos Aires, you’ll immediately sense that for a Porteño truco is much more than just a card game: it’s a ritual that unfolds after barbecues with friends; it’s an excuse to get together, and a reason to extend a gathering a little longer. It’s a grandfather teaching his grandson, and it’s the challenge of beating the cousin who always seems to hold all the cards.
We Porteños are good liars, which is perhaps why we excel at a game whose name translates as “trick” and in which it’s necessary to be a master of deception. The trickery of the game involves making our opponent believe that we have better or worse cards that we really have. Sounds fun? Then read on to learn more.
Prepare yourself, because truco even has its own languages. Languages in the plural? you’re thinking. Yes, because as well as having its own oral vocabulary, truco also has its own sign language, used to allow players on the same team to communicate with each other. By now you may, rightly, be getting the impression that it’s a somewhat complex game, but fear not: here’s a breakdown of how it works and a few tips to allow you to join a round as a newbie to the game.
How many players?
- Truco can be played by two, three, four or six players. When there are more than two, the game is played in teams.
- If there are three players, the game is called “truco gallo” and the teams rotate so that each hand is played two against one, but each player notches up points individually.
- Each player is dealt three cards (traditional Spanish playing cards are used, the suits being swords, batons, coins and cups). Players play cards in turn aiming to win the hand by beating the opponent’s cards - but wait! Here come the trick! First the envido and then the truco itself.
- Early in the game, if a player calls for an envido, players tot up the value of any two cards of the same suit that they may hold to achieve a minimum of 20 and maximum of 33 points (face cards are worth only 10, other cards add their value on top of the ten.)
- Winning an envido is worth 2 points, but the score is increased if the opponent raises the stakes by repeating the call for “envido” or by calling “real envido”, or even “falta envido,” this last call being a challenge to play for all the points that are needed to win the entire game.
- The truco is the second stage of the game, and to win the trick here you’ll need to learn all the cards’ values, which are different to at the envido stage and which don’t necessarily correspond to the number of the card, for example a 2 or a 3 “kills” a 5 or a 6, and the 7 of coins and 7 of swords beat any face card. We did warn you that it was complicated, didn’t we?
- Winning a truco is worth two points, but if the opponent says “quiero retruco”, the bet is raised to three points, and if that is met with the call “quiero vale cuatro”, and we accept the challenge, then the stake is raised to a hefty four points.
- The player to the left of the dealer always cuts the deck.
- Cards are dealt clockwise. The first person to receive a card is referred to as “mano” (hand), and the last “pie” (foot). If there’s a draw in the envido or truco, then the mano wins..
- Games are played to 30 points, divided into 15 “malas” (bad ones) and 15 “buenas” (good ones). It’s an arbitrary distinction because in the end the winner is the first player to reach 30 points.
- A third “trick” in the game, on top of the envido and truco is the “flor”, or flower. This is the name for when a player has three cards all belonging to the same suit, and it’s worth three points, but it’s a controversial element of the game because it comes down to pure luck, and many players prefer to play without it - a decision that must be agreed upon at the beginning of the game.
The language of truco
As we said already, there are two languages specific to truco: the words and the signs. Here are some of the words and phrases you should know:
- Mano: "hand"; each round of the game.
- To be mano: to be the first person dealt a card, to the right of the dealer.
- Ganar de mano: to win by being “mano” in the event of a draw.
- Ligar: to be dealt good cards.
- To be cargado: to have cards with very high values.
- Irse al mazo: to drop out of a round, giving points to your opponent.
- Ir al pie: when played in a team, to let the last player win the round.
- Pica pica: a round of individual face-offs played at an interval of every two rounds when the game is played with six players,
- Negras: the face cards: sota (jack/knave), horse and king.
- Ancho falso: name given to the ace of cups and ace of coins.
- Ancho: name given to the ace of swords and ace of batons.
- No veo: said when one’s hand is very poor.
And now some of the gestures, which the participants of each team try to use to discreetly communicate to each other what cards they have without their opponents seeing, In order of decreasing value:
- Ace (ancho) of swords: raise your eyebrows.
- Ace (ancho) of batons: wink one eye.
- Seven of swords: move your mouth to the right.
- Seven of coins: move your mouth to the left.
- A three of any suit: bite your bottom lip.
- A two of any suit: mime a kissing gesture.
- Bad cards: close both eyes.
Truco may be complicated, but it’s a great deal of fun. Don’t be shy if you see a group playing in a bar, park or square. You’ll always find a fanatic willing to teach you the rules and initiate you into this social ritual.