The Origins of Fizzbin

images-3I spent a winter term abroad teaching on one of Dartmouth’s Language Study Abroad programs in France. We got a ten-day break in the middle of the term and almost everyone skipped town to make good use of our Eurail passes. I palled up with Stanley Weil to visit Nice, Monaco, Florence and Munich. To keep our costs down, we took midnight trains between destinations and, splitting a couple of bottles of wine, slept as best we could on the hard third-class seats.

He had a deck of cards and we wore it out, passing the time between destinations. We played Spades, Hearts, Crazy Eights, Gin and anything else we could remember. At some point we had had enough. All the games had been played out.

“What if we came up with a new game?” I said.

“Can it be a drinking game?”

“Of course.”

I suggested we start with a double trick; the highest card played between the two half-tricks would take the point.

Stan insisted that we deal to the right, because he was sick of the fact that all card games dealt left.

We ordained that cards couldn’t be dealt one at a time but had to be distributed in ones, twos, threes and fours, until ten cards in all were given to each player. We also were determined to find a way to use the two lonesome jokers found in each deck, and to give the tens a more-than-prominent role (after all, why should the royal cards have all the fun?).

We started playing and had to make up rules as we went along. What if all the cards tied? Play another round.

The train pulled to a stop and two girls entered the car. It is 1:00 a.m., remember, and we’re somewhere between Florence and Munich. One of the girls rushes into our compartment and jumps into Stanley’s arms.

She was a “friend” of Stan’s from high school. She and her buddy also were on their way to Munich. And as bizarre as this incident was, our only conclusion was that it gave us an opportunity to play this new card game with partners.

Bidding became important, the jokers, essential. Suddenly, we were playing in earnest. We got to Munich at 8:30 a.m. and went straight to the train station bar to keep playing. We were obsessed and played for hours, foregoing friends who were supposed to meet us at the Hofbrauhaus.

It was, we decided, a game good enough to name. I called it, “Fizzbin” after a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk gets trapped on a planet with a society based on the Chicago mobsters. Kirk invents a card game on the spot with random rules to distract the guards. “It’s called Fizzbin,” Kirk said. “We used to play it on Beta Antares IV.”

I came back to Dartmouth in the Spring, my last term on campus before graduating. Stan had the term off and I fell back into the daily rhythms of life in Hanover. I was living at the Theta Delt Lodge on Wheelock Street. One night a few of the boys were up in Sugarbear’s room, listening to Fleetwood Mac.  B was there and there was a deck of cards on the table.

“I’ve got a new game to show you,” I said to B. We started playing. Pretty soon people became curious about the double trick. They wanted to play. We started a tournament and ended up playing all night. For the rest of the term, there was always a game going on in S.Bear’s room.

Summer came, and I stayed on campus, painting houses. With the seniors gone, I found willing Fizzbin partners in Benny, Little Sully, George and Roger. They began using strategies we hadn’t thought of and the games became less about drinking and more about winning. By the end of the summer, the whole house was playing.

As summer turned into fall, I knew it was time for me to move on. Life was calling. My days in Hanover had to end. I moved to Washington D.C. and forgot about Fizzbin.

Four years later, I dropped by my folks’ lake house with Bobby Deason. My younger brother Steve shows up with some of the Theta Delt Lodge boys from his class (there were ultimately four Gleasons in the Lodge).

“Where’s the guy who invented Fizzbin?” One of his friends bellowed.

Surprised, I raised my hand.

“I’m the best Fizzbin player in the world,” he boasts.

I looked at Bobby; we took the challenge. And we won the game in three straight hands.

I used to say that it had to be a good game because I was only on campus for two terms after inventing Fizzbin and the game perpetuated itself for four years. Now I find out from Benny that there are Lodge boys who have been playing it in a Florida tournament every year for the last twenty years.

I should have had the damn thing copyrighted.

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