Newcomers to Costa Rica encounter many challenges: A language barrier for non-Spanish speakers, cultural differences, dietary adjustments to name just a few. And for anyone who enjoys the distraction of games, there are small, curious variations to get used to.
The first time I ever played a game of pool in a rural campesino bar, I knocked my first shot in a corner pocket, and before I could line up another shot, my opponent stepped in, pulled my ball out of the pocket and spotted it on the table, and took his own shot. I was bamboozled. What the hell just happened?
Then I saw a semi circle drawn around both side pockets. The number 1 was inside one circle, the number 15 inside the other. Before you can attempt to run the table, you must first put the one ball or the fifteen ball into the corresponding side pocket.
Once you have successfully sunk one, you may then proceed to play the rest of your ‘stripes’ or ‘solids’. I would forget and not shoot for the one or fifteen, and nobody would say anything until I made an illegal shot. Cost me a few beers before I got used to it
Once you are done with your game of billiards, you may be invited for a game of cards. If there are three or more players, do not be surprised if they deal and play in counter-clockwise order, the opposite of how its done pretty much anywhere else I have been. When it is your deal, don’t do as I did and deal clockwise. “Like we do in los Estados Unidos,” I would say.
My turn to deal always brought confusion. It dawned on me that the most annoying people I had ever known always wanted to show you how it was done where they came from. And no matter what the game– poker, rummy, gin – there is a good possibility that the 2s will be wild cards. This is called a ‘comodin’ in Spanish, not “Carta loca’ or ‘Carta salvaje’ as I found out when I made the error of trying to translate directly.
I remember my first game of Checkers a la Tico. My opponent advanced to the king’s row, was crowned, and the piece now had super powers – it could jump any checker in its path no matter how many spaces away. I was flummoxed. In the checkers I grew up playing, a crowned piece can move and jump in any direction, but only one space at a time.
I am sure that at least one time, I told my opponent that en los Estados we don’t play that way. No Superkings able to make quantum leaps all over the board. In Tico checkers it is game over if you reach the king’s row and get crowned first.
If I want to do some bamboozling of my own, I can whip out the Chinese Checkers board or the Backgammon set. Those are games as foreign to most Ticos I know as dealing counter clockwise or having superkings in checkers is to me. To each his own. Respect how the game is played, and most importantly, don’t ever tell them, “That’s not how we do it in Los Estados Unidos.”