PEDRO, BOURRÉ, AND FAMILY
Ali Rouse Royster, a third-generation owner of Rouses Markets, pulls out a printed notebook with Rouses Official Pedro Score Pad printed across the top. There are two columns, each with a heading for team names, and grids for tallying scores.
“When you start the score sheet, the only proper way to have team names is to write ‘Winners’ for the name of your team, and ‘Losers’ for the other,” she says. “Those are the only acceptable names.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t just print that on the sheet,” says Chris Acosta, the category manager of Rouses and another third-generation team member.
“Because your dad prefers to write it in!” says Rob Barrilleaux, the company print manager.
If there is one constancy for the Rouse family during gatherings, holidays and vacations, it is the presence of good food made from old family recipes. But if there are two things a guest can pretty much count on, it’s a deck of cards and an inevitable game of Pedro. “If you wake up at the camp and there’s whitecaps in the ditch, you’re not going fishing. This is what you are going to be doing,” Rob says.
If you have never played it before, it is a staple card game in the Houma-Thibodaux area, and is pronounced PEE-dro. It is a follow-suit, trump card game. It is a little like Spades in that you play with a partner, but cannot communicate your hand of cards or how you intend to play them.
I recently spent a day with members of the Rouse family when they had time to play their card game of choice. I watched them sit across from one another, handling cards like Vegas magicians, calculating hands and scores and the motivations of partners and rivals, and blasting through entire rounds with the speed of a cashier on a 10-key. I witnessed the finest taunts and trash-talk this side of professional wrestling, all hurled about like javelins. And to quote the Book of Job, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Members of the Rouse family endeavored earnestly to explain the rules of Pedro to me, and I took copious notes and recorded audio and played hands with them and brought back score sheets and had them explain things repeatedly, as though I were a small child — but reader, the game remains a mystery to me. Maybe you just had to be born in Terrebonne or Lafourche parish. Maybe it is part of a secret ceremony or cultural initiation that you experience when you buy land there, or a superpower acquired after drinking the water of Bayou Lafourche.
“Look, we taught this game to people in Texas,” jokes Rob. “Surely you can learn this.”
All I can say for sure is that if you are an outsider, you basically have to be a psychic accountant to understand this game. The rules as described here are reported here to the best of my abilities. Just typing them out caused my computer to run slow, because not even its multicore microprocessors could handle Pedro in principles and practice. The point is, I’m counting on my editor to make sure I get the rules correct. We play Spades in Gonzales.
THE RULES OF THE GAME
“If you find somebody in Houma or Thibodaux who doesn’t know how to play Pedro,” says Rob, “they are the exception.” (He was one of many who tried to explain the rules to me.) The two towns have a sort of Hatfields-and-McCoys antithesis toward one another with respect to Pedro rules, as was repeatedly explained. The Houma way, according to the Thibodaux players, is bedlam, chaos — a grim, lingering look into the mouth of madness. Ask any player from Houma, and you’ll see the feeling is apparently mutual.
“My wife is from Houma,” says Lee Veillon, the human resources director of Rouses Markets, “and I got transplanted from Thibodaux, so I’ve had to adapt to the rules depending on whom I’m playing with. We have to decide in advance which way we’re going to play. It’s a big deal. If you talk to anybody on my wife’s side of the family, we’re all wrong.”
“Well, it’s because they don’t want to follow the rules,” says Tim Acosta, the Rouses director of marketing and advertising.
Pedro is a four-player game with partners sitting across from one another. Each player is dealt nine cards, three at a time. (The dealer rotates each round.) Only five cards in the game have any value: aces, jacks, 10s, and twos are each worth one point; fives are worth five points. Based on the cards dealt, players bid the number of points their team hopes to earn.
“Talking across the table is forbidden,” says Rob. “You’re not allowed to tap yourself on the heart or touch the diamond on your ring.”
Regarding bidding: if a team shoots the moon, they could bid for a theoretical maximum score of 14. (Only the fives of the same color are worth five; the active suit is the high pedro, and the other, the low pedro.) A team must bid, at a minimum, a score of seven. With me so far? Are you sure? If you intend to play at home, you really ought to google the rules.
After the cards are dealt, the player to the left of the dealer can either bid or pass. This goes all the way around the table — bid or pass — and you can only bid higher than the current highest bid. If everyone passes, the dealer is forced to bid seven. Once play begins, teams must, at a minimum, win the number of tricks they have bid, lest terrible consequences befall them. The player who bids the highest chooses the trump suit. In other words, if he or she chooses clubs, only the ace, jack, 10, two, and both black fives are worth points.
Next, players (other than the dealer) discard from their hands any non-trump-suit cards, and are dealt enough cards to bring their hand up to six. For example, if you discard seven of the nine cards you are holding, you would be dealt four cards. 9-7+4=6. (Look, it’s even more confusing when a Rouse is explaining it to you because, again, they are all Jedi Masters at this game, and I think it’s hard for them to conceive of somebody not playing pro-level Pedro.) The dealer, meanwhile, gets to look through the entire remaining deck and builds his or her hand entirely from the trump suit. This might mean holding more than six cards. It’s good to be the dealer!
“There’s a lot of psychological warfare in this game,” Ali warns me.
PLAYING THE HAND YOU’RE DEALT
The highest bidder goes first. He or she can play whatever suit is desired. Each subsequent player must either play that suit or the trump suit. (THIS IS WHERE HOUMA DIVERGES FROM THIBODAUX. People from Houma play a “cutthroat” variation where you do not need to play the active suit.) If you aren’t holding the active suit, you can play any suit you would like. The highest trump wins the trick, or the highest card of the active suit. The winner of the trick leads off the next round.
That’s my understanding, anyway. “If diamonds were declared at the start, but the high bidder starts by playing a heart, everyone has to play a heart?” I ask.
“If you have one. Except the five of hearts, because technically for that round, it’s a diamond,” says Ali, and I begin to question the career choices I have made that led me to this card table.
Just to be clear about something: the pedro card — the five of the trump suit — does not automatically win on its own. It is the most valuable card, but a six could easily beat it; your partner would have to protect that card (by playing a high card). Whichever team wins the trick, wins the pedro — and thus its five precious points.
“If you play an ace, you want your partner to play a pedro,” says Cindy Rouse Acosta.
Once all of the cards are played, the point cards in each of the tricks are counted up. If a team bid eight, but only scores seven, their score for that round is negative eight. Meanwhile, the opposing team, who did not bid, simply adds up their points and adds the total to the score sheet. The next player clockwise becomes the dealer, the cards are shuffled, and the deal begins again. The game ends when a team reaches 52 points.
Everyone at the table has been playing the game for as long as they can remember. “I learned to play when I was about 10 years old,” says Chris. He learned from his grandfather, who held weekly games. “Imagine like 12 grandfather-age men eating hardcore South Louisiana meals every Sunday night,” he says. “They would play cards and eventually we would get in [the game].”
Because Pedro is a four-person game, the losing teams would rotate out, and a new duo would be dealt in.
“My dad always knew what everybody had,” Cindy says of her father, Anthony Rouse, founder of Rouses Markets.
“Or he just made everybody think that,” jokes Chris, who is her son. “We all played it as a family. Papa Rouse, when he wasn’t playing, he would still stand over the table and watch everybody and mumble under his breath sometimes, ‘Ahh, don’t play that hand’ or ‘Who dealt this?’ just trying to gauge the table.”
A BLESSED RESPITE WITH BOURRÉ
After a raucous round of Pedro, players swapped out and they decided to play Bourré (pronounced: BOO-ray), also a trump or trick-taking game. “I knew how to play this before I knew how to play Pedro,” says Tim. If Pedro is the 1040 long form of card games, Bourré is the 1040EZ. More so than Pedro, Bourré is a betting game and, before each round, players ante up.
“When I was a kid, I used to play Bourré a lot with my grandmother,” says Lee. “And she would play for money — I’m not talking about a lot. We played with pennies. She always made sure your money went in the pot. But when it came time for her to put in her money, she would mysteriously have these mental lapses of old age! You had to watch her!”
“It’s the grandmothers that are the craftiest,” says Ali.
“She was the sweetest, soft-spoken like Ali’s grandmother. Amazing how she never seemed to remember to put money in the pot.”
Ali says, “My grandmother had a little jar of change she kept, and when we would come and play, that would be our antes so we could ‘play for money.’ I don’t think we ever took it home.”
In Bourré, five cards are dealt to each player, and the dealer turns his or her fifth card face up. That will be the trump suit. Clockwise from the dealer, each player declares if he or she is in or out. Those who remain discard however many cards they choose, and an equal number of cards are dealt back to them by the dealer. By the end of this, everyone’s hands should be back to five cards.
The winner of each trick, starting with that initial face-up card by the dealer, begins the next trick. Any suit may be played, and players must “follow suit.” If you lack the active suit, you may play a trump card. The highest card of the trump suit — or absent a trump, of the suit that led that play — wins the trick. You must win the trick (i.e., play a card higher than that which is currently winning) if your hand allows it. If you lack an active suit or a trump suit, you can “throw off” with any card you like.
The player with the most tricks each round wins the pot. (If there is a tie, no one wins the pot.) If you have won no tricks at all, you have gone bourré. Your ante for the next round is the entire value of the pot just won. (In other words, if there were $10 in the previous pot, your ante for the next is $10.) The player to the left of the previous dealer is now in charge; he or she shuffles the deck, and the process begins again. There are nuances to the game beyond the scope of this simple explanation. After all, haven’t you read enough rules by now? That’s what Google is for.
As I left that day, I was struck by the memories shared over the course of an afternoon. It is a near certainty that I got some of the rules of the game wrong here, but it doesn’t really matter because that’s not really what I learned. There is something so quintessential about family game nights. A certain kind of bond can only be formed over cards or board games. People you know and love and live with and work with are suddenly put in a mild and amusing form of jeopardy, and you get to see how they respond. Inevitably, you learn something of their craftiness, or of the joys we bottle up or sometimes never otherwise get to experience or share: a small victory, a rally from behind. Even in defeat, there is joviality and relief. You might already know what it looks like when a family member experiences a significant loss in life. So here is what it looks like when the loss need have no consequence. Take my pennies. I’ll get more! The games go on. And across decades, it all melts into a single fond memory, uninterrupted, pure and shared across generation.
Left to right, cousins Nick Acosta, Ali Rouse Royster, Blake Richard and Chris Acosta