Playing games is a much-loved tradition in my family. And I don’t mean the psychological games described by Eric Berne in “The Games People Play.” I mean card games and board games ranging from War, Old Maid, and Go Fish to Trivial Pursuit, Cranium, Scattergories, and 10 Second Rule, with Parcheesi, Sorry, Dominos, Scrabble, Cribbage, Canasta, Samba, Hearts, Bridge, and Pinochle in between. But Flinch is the game that has remained the favorite throughout the generations.
The game of Flinch had a history on both sides on my family. The back of the box says the game was developed in 1905, though I would have thought earlier. At any rate, the story goes that , shortly after the game’s introduction, my grandmother’s two sisters, Mae and Catherine, were visiting Boston from California where the game was very popular. They had brought the game with them, but were taking it back when they left, so my grandmother and the aunts made cards from cardboard so the Saunders kids (And I use the term kids loosely as my mother would have been 15 at the time but always loved the game and the story.) could continue playing the game. At some point someone must have bought an authentic set of Flinch cards as I have them to this day. Although we play with a newer set now, the cards are still the same.
On my father’s side, he and his sister, Florine, and assorted childhood friends would spend many summer hours on the wrap-around porch of their house, shifting locations with the sun, playing games with traditional cards. The story goes that my grandmother would not allow cards in the house, calling them “The Devil’s Prayer Book,” so Florine and my father kept the deck in a small tin box which they buried at the end of each day. Now my grandmother would allow Flinch in the house because it was played with “innocent” cards, displaying simple numbers. So at the time that my mother was playing Flinch in Boston, my father was playing Flinch in New Jersey.
To play the game, you need a deck of 150 cards made up of ten series numbered 1 – 15. Cards are shuffled and divided into “hands” of five cards. The dealer, puts together two of these for the Flinch pile which goes in front of each player, only the top card being visible. The object of the game is to be the first to deplete your Flinch pile. Each player is then dealt one hand, and the game begins. If anyone’s top Flinch pile card is a 1, he/she begins play by placing that card in the center and then adds any others in succession from his hand. If he plays out his hand, he gets a new one. If there are no 1’s all players lay down their cards in front of them, side by side. This continues until there is at least one pile in progress in the center. In each turn, the player may add cards to the game piles in progress in the center, or pass if none fit. The player ends play by placing a card on any of the five reserve piles begun in front of him. And there must always be five piles. More experienced players have a system for adding to the reserves so they can better recall what is under the top card. ( I loved that Florine had what she called a “Scraggly pile” where she put down cards she couldn’t fit in reasonable order on the other piles).
At any given time, there may be a number of play piles in progress, so it is necessary to pay attention not only to those piles but also to your Flinch pile and the Flinch piles of others. In addition to playing off your own Flinch pile, you want to block opponents whenever possible. As play continues, if the player fails to put out a 1 as soon as he draws a hand, or if he fails to play off the top card from his Flinch pile, the player who notices shouts, “FLINCH,” loudly and with great satisfaction, and , sight unseen draws a card from the bottom of his Flinch pile and adds it to the bottom of the other person’s Flinch pile. If you’ve ever watched a player jump when an opponent cries, “Flinch,” you know where the game got its name.
I have so many happy memories of playing this game through the years with varying combinations of my parents, Dot, Sam, and , whenever she came to visit, Florine. Sometimes we would play as partners, and then the losing partnership had to provide the snack. I always made tea and cinnamon toast when it was my turn. Anyway, it is a game that has stood the test of time despite its simplicity. To this day I am overjoyed when one of the younger generation walks is and says, “Wanna play Flinch?”
© Dorothy C. Judd
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