Don Marco shuffles the cards and then lays them in front of the player to his left to cut. Then, beginning with the player to his right, he deals five cards to each of the four of us sitting around the table. Our eyes study what has been dealt to us. From the other side of the table, don Marco’s partner, Bolívar, looks up from his hand. I look at Alan, my partner.
“Ronda,” I quietly say. A bottle cap – a tanto or two-pint marker – is placed next to me. My declaration means I have a three of a kind in my hand.
It’s my turn again. There are a jack and four on the table. I opt to lay a lower card, in the hopes of adding cards together. The more cards, the better the chance to gain more points at the end of the round.
Bolívar takes my card. “Caída,” he says, and places another bottle cap with his team’s points. Dang.
Don Marcos lays a card face down in front of him. His thin index finger lightly touches it. When his turn comes, he confidently turns it upright and sweeps the table clean of the 5-6-7 and Jack. “Limpia.” Another bottle cap is added to his team’s mound. Now there are five caps. “Perro.” They are replaced by a card.
The last play of this hand. Don Marcos looks at me. “I know you have this. Take it.” This bantering is part of the game. I shake my head. “Nope. Sorry,” and I lay my seven down. He leans back in his chair, slapping his thigh. “Dang, you also hang on to a seven to the last, Guarandeña!”
The round ends. We count the cards each team has taken. We only have 17. Don Marcos’ teammate continues to count. “Nineteen,” then begins a separate pile, “Six, seven, eight, nine. Perro.” Ten more points.
We are now down, our four points to their twenty. But the game isn’t over yet. It won’t be until one team reaches forty points.
We are gathered one cool evening in El Cachito #2, a traditional café in the colonial heart of Quito. Every Wednesday evening, people gather here to play games – chess (ajedrez), checkers (damas), Rummikub … and that quintessential Quiteño game, cuarenta.
Cuarenta is a game born of Quito’s inner city barrios (neighborhoods). When and how it emerged is lost in the mists that swirl through this Andean valley. And although it is the emblematic game of Ecuador’s capital, it is played throughout the country, with regional differences in the rules and dichos (sayings).
Quito, however, remains the ruling seat of this card game. Throughout the year, in small cafés like El Cachito, neighbors get together to play this iconic game. And every year, during the city’s birthday celebrations the beginning of December, it hosts an international Cuarenta tournament.
It’s my turn to deal the cards. I shuffle them, and pass them to don Marco to cut. I look at Alan as I deal out the next round and give him a thumb up. We won’t go zapatero. At least I hope not.
This round goes quickly. It seems every card our opponents lay down, either Alan or I take. The word caída cascades from our lips. The bottle caps heap, and change to perros.
When the second hand of this round is dealt, I silently jump when I see that 3 in my hand. I hope … and yes, there Don Marco lays a Q. I have a clean sweep. In one fell swoop, I clear the table of the 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – J – Q. I thank don Marco for making it even sweeter. Another bottle cap goes into our growing mound of points.
The end of this round. Don Marco shakes his head at their thin cartón. Alan counts ours off: 19 … six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Twelve points: Another perro and tanto. In this hand we are up to 34 points to their 24.
Cuarenta has its name for two reasons: 40 cards are used in the playing deck, and the goal is to reach 40 points.
This game is for two players or for four (who play in two teams). A standard, English-style deck of playing cards is used. The 8s, 9s and 10s are removed; these are used as 10-point markers. What remain are the Ace (valued at one) through 7, and J, Q, K.
During the course of the game, a player picks up a card of the same face value, or adds up cards to equal the card he or she has in hand. For example: An Ace and a 6 are on the table; the player takes them with a 7. (In some places, it is allowed to take up to three cards that way, e.g.: Ace, 2 and 3 are taken with a 6.) Only the numerical cards (Ace through 7) can be added up. The face cards (J, Q, K) do not have point values. No importance is placed on suits.
Another way to capture as many cards as possible is by remembering to pick up all cards in sequence. On the table are:
5 6 7 J K
I capture the 5, and also take 6, 7 and J. (Because K does not sequentially follow Q, I cannot take it.)
One goal is to have has many cards as possible at the end of a round. Each player (with two players) or team (with four players) counts up their captured cards. Upon reaching a count of 19, then the point count begins with six. If an odd number is counted off, then it is rounded up to the next even number.
Points are also accumulated during the course of play. In the traditional Quiteño way of play, everything has a value of two points:
ronda (round) – being a dealt a three of kind
caída (fall) – capturing the card the player before you laid down
limpia (clean) – when all cards are swept from the table
When a player or team reaches 38 points, the rule is “38 que no juega” (38 doesn’t play). This means that in order to reach 40 points during the course of the game, a caída must occur; the extra two points cannot be made with a ronda or a limpia.
Another aspect of Cuarenta is that every player is a raconteur. Many standard sayings are used during the course of the game – primarily to throw opponents off, and to make them lose count of cards that have already been played. If one is certain the next player doesn’t have an Ace, you’d say As que no caerás (Ace, you will not fall). Upon laying down a Jack, you might say Joto, or something more elaborate like José me llamo (José is my name). If a very talkative player’s card captures a card, another might say, Dale al lorito (Give it to the parrot).
Le toca a Bolívar to deal.
Don Marcos has a ronda. Two points for them.
I study my cards. Where do I begin? I opt to open with a face card.
And in rapid succession, cards fall, the table is cleaned. The bottle caps are changed to perros. It is now 32 for don Marco and Bolívar, to Alan’s and my 38. The next hand of this round is being dealt.
“38 que no juega,” says Bolívar. We are two points from winning. But we must take a caída. Anything else – a ronda or a limpia – will not count. I look over at Alan. He winces. He has a ronda – but it does us no good.
The play resumes. My card falls to Bolívar, Alan’s falls to don Marco. Our opponent’s points are mounting. I look nervously to Alan.
Bolívar turns his card over. “As que no caerás,” he says confidently.
Alan’s smile brightens his face and he slaps his Ace atop Bolívar’s. ¡Caída!
We’ve reached 40 points. ¡Cuarenta! We Win!
To sum up, this is all you need to know to play Cuarenta.
When you’re in Quito (or elsewhere in Ecuador), ask your new friends to let you join in on a game.
If you have any questions (or tips!), reply in the comments below.
And may the best win!
- 1 regular deck of playing cards, with the 8s, 9s and 10s removed.
- 8 bottle caps or matchsticks, for maintaining score. Each counts as twopoints.
- the perros – that is, the removed 8s, 9s and 10s, which mark 10 points earned.
- 2 or 4 players
SEQUENCE OF PLAY
- Cutting the deck is to the left (clockwise).
- Dealing of the cards is to the right (counter-clockwise).
- Play is to the right (counter-clockwise).
- Only the numbered cards (Ace through 7) are added together
- A player may take all cards in a sequence that is on the table. For example: The 5, 6, 7, Jack and Queen are on the table. The player plays a 5, and takes the entire sweep of 6-7-Jack-Queen.
- If the player forgets to take the sequential cards, the opponent(s) take them.
- At the end of the game, the cards taken are counted. After counting off 19, then the point-count begins at six (i.e., card 20 is worth six points). The resultant point count is rounded up, and the points added to the tantos and perros.
- The game ends when a player or team reaches 40 points. The last two-point play must be a caída.
Cartas, naipes, barajas – Playing cards.
Palos – Suits.
- Corazón or rojos – Hearts.
- Trébol – Clubs.
- Diamante – Diamonds.
- Pica or Corazón negro – Spades.
Jota – Jack.
Ku or Reina – Queen.
Ka or Rey – King.
As – Ace
Barajar – To shuffle the deck of cards.
Repartir – To deal out the cards.
Cortar – To cut the cards.
Te toca / Me toca – It’s your turn / It’s my turn.
Ronda – Having a three-of-a-kind dealt to you. Point value = 2.
Caída – When you take the card of the player before you. Point value = 2.
Limpia – When you clear the table of all cards. Point value = 2.
Caída y limpia – In some versions, 4 points is given for this; others, only 2 points.
Cartón – The cards taken from each play. These are counted at the end of the game. For 19 cards or less, no points are given. With the 20th card, the count begins at six.
Perro – A 10-point marker, usually represented by one of the removed cards (i.e. 8, 9 or 10)
Tanto – A 2-point marker.
Zapatero – When a player or team has fewer than 10 points at the end of the game.
Dichos – Typical sayings used during the course of play.