The city was growing dark, as the sun began to hide behind the buildings and the trees. The expanding shadows were a much-welcomed arrival from the hot Southeast Asian sun. Ace and I had been at the bar for several hours while most of the other hostel occupants, those more prone to sightseeing, hadn’t yet made it back from their daily excursions. Only the fresh new arrivals scattered meekly around the quiet bar. I was already drunk and slouched trying to keep up with Ace’s drinking pace, while Ace sat tall and seemingly unaffected by the mass alcohol we had already consumed. A childish grin of excitement plastered across his face just like it did at the beginning of every night, before the drinks caught up with him, and before the sadness in his eyes arrived. But as we sat in the early moments of the night he was full of eagerness and hope as he began his routine of explaining a card game to new hostel arrivals.
“Can I use these cards?” the young woman asked, pointing to the cards on the table, confused, and, at the least, a bit drunk. “No! No! No! You can’t touch those cards until you finish discarding the cards in your hand,” Ace said, smiling. I think he enjoyed seeing people struggle with the rules, and if you were drunk, then even better.
The game was called Shithead. The game started with each player holding three cards in their hands. On the table were three cards face down and, on top of that, three cards face up. This was a common card game played among backpackers in hostel bars. I’d played almost nightly since I had arrived in Asia. Ace had taught me the same way he was now teaching the new arrivals.
Ace took a large swig of his beer, emptying the remaining liquid into his mouth. He quickly put the empty beer down and exchanged it for a new one. The brief pause to fill his mouth with beer was the only time he took a break from talking. After a large swig from his fresh beer, he continued his explanation and shuffled the remaining cards in a Hindu shuffle that he had perfected over the years in backpacker hostels just like this one. The cards floated around his fingers with ease and moved with speed and efficiency. On most days it was actually quite entertaining to watch, but today I was annoyed with his antics.
I knew the rules. I knew Ace was going to keep talking. I knew how this night was going to go, as I had seen it night after night since I’d been traveling. And I knew that Ace would need another beer soon, so I excused myself to get everyone a fresh Tiger beer for the game. If I was lucky, I would be able to skip most of his performance as well.
When we started the game, the hostel bar was quiet. A few people milled about the room checking their phones or talking on FaceTime to someone back home. Others gathered in small groups having quiet conversations. The only other sound was Ace’s loud voice that boomed around the hostel bar. Two players at our table had just arrived and were fresh into their first week of a three-month travel stint in Southeast Asia. They were Ace’s favorite kind of people to play with, not because he gained an advantage by knowing a winning strategy, but because it gave him a chance to explain the rules and be in control of the table. Every question and comment would go through him.
His speech continued, “The goal is to get rid of all your cards. The winner is the first person to do that, but no one gives a shit about winning this game. The real goal… is not to finish last! Because, you see, if you finish last, you become the shithead, and if you are the shithead, you have to finish all the beer left in these beautiful Tiger bottles.” He tapped his fingers gently against his almost full beer and took another large swig of it.
The basic rules of the game were simple. To start, you would flip a card over from the center pile, and then in a clockwise direction the next player would have to put a higher card down and so on. If you didn’t have a higher card, you were forced to pick up the ever-growing pile of discarded cards.
“Seems easy enough,” commented the other girl in our game. “Yes! That part is easy!” Ace proclaimed. The next step is where everyone always got confused. Ace paused to survey the audience, like he was making a formal speech, making sure to look everyone in the eye. “However,” he paused—he always paused here, just long enough to add a bit of dramatic effect. I had seen him teach this game so many times that I had practically memorized his lines. Every time Ace taught the game, he made it a show, as if people had come to see him perform. I was sure he liked explaining the rules of the game more than actually playing. “The twist of the game is there are four magic cards,” he continued. That was true, but rules changed dramatically depending on who was playing. “The magic cards are… the 7, the 8, the 10, and the jack.” He loved calling them magic cards and emphasizing the word “magic” to make it seem more mysterious.
He went on to explain what each magic card did and how to use it in the game.
“Everyone got it?” He looked around the table with a mischievous smile. No one ever did; new players always stared back at him with bewildered expressions. “You will get the hang of it as we play,” I chimed in, looking at the other two faces as they tried to remember all the rules they were just explained.
“Now, let’s play!” Ace announced, and we all clanked our beers together.
The game moved fast, and cards were thrown down quickly, almost as quickly as we drank the beer from the bottles. Soon the empty beers and pile of cards in the center of the table grew and everyone became desperate, trying to avoid picking them up. But eventually, no matter what, someone would not possess a higher card and would be relegated to picking up the pile of discarded cards. That was, unless they had one of the specified magic cards that could be used at any time. This is where strategy diverged, and each person developed their own style to either win or become the shithead. Ace always threw down his magic cards as quickly as possible, trying at all costs to avoid picking up the discarded middle pile, no matter how big or how small that pile was, and making everyone react to his play. It was carefree and loose and was almost spontaneous to a fault, as if he had gained no knowledge from past mistakes. I, on the other hand, waited patiently and opted for a more conservative strategy. I tended to hoard magic cards, and would wait for just the right moment, for the perfect opportunity to strike. Sometimes, though, that opportunity sailed past me and I would watch someone else glide into victory as I stared passively at a handful of unused cards that were now no benefit to me in future games.
As suspected, the two other players picked up the rules quickly, and after they had played a few rounds, the game flowed beautifully. Cards were placed down fast, and reactions to smart plays were congratulated. The empty Tiger bottles piled across the table, and it looked like a streak of tigers resting in the jungle. We grew louder, and everyone became more animated, the more we drank. Soon the quiet bar was no longer quiet, and other travelers who were checking their social media pages were now drawn to our table. In Ace’s eyes, that would usually deem the night a success.
We would open up the game to new players, and, once again, Ace could run through his spiel of the rules. After several games, and with everyone in the hostel now participating, the night had truly sprung to life. Soon enough we would all be drunk and stumble our way through the bars, where we’d sing and dance to American pop songs. The beautiful people from around the world would try to hook up with other beautiful people. If you were unlucky in that department, you would find yourself happily stuffing your face with the delicious street food from vendors who made a killing on the loose pockets of drunk Western travelers. This was the hostel life I had come to know, but I was waiting and hoping that, in all this, there was something more. Something other than the bars and parties and the long drunken nights.