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A Foreigner’s Guide to the Game of Truco

The Bubble gives you the essentials of Argentina's favorite card game.

By | [email protected] | July 17, 2019 9:00am

Truco deckPhoto via ML Static
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There are many things about Argentina that can be puzzling to a foreigner. Why is this Uber driver telling me to sit in the front and refer to him as primo? Why are these old men shirtless when they’re in such terrible shape? Is everyone else even seeing these traffic lights? However, out of all these conundrums, none is perhaps as confusing as the card game Truco, which is both extremely popular and seemingly inaccessible by design.

The code words, lack of official association or organization, special cards, and customs can confuse even experienced players, so my editors thought it would be funny to make me explain the game and its culture in less than 1,000 words. So, here goes: The Bubble takes you on a deep (but not so deep that you drown) dive into Argentina’s favorite card game, the ever elusive, deceitful and mysterious Truco.

If you’ve ever seen two, four, or six Argentines playing cards together, looking like they’re desperately trying to contain whatever emotions they’re feeling (besides the stress which is ever-present) then you have witnessed a game of Truco. It is said to be the most popular card game in the country, and I’ve seen it played in bars, parks, private homes, sports clubs, and asados alike.

The cards

Photo via Mercado Libre Uruguay

To start playing, you (obviously) need a deck of cards. Do I see you reaching for your standard French playing cards that feature clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts? A naïve, foolish mistake my friend. You see, Truco is played with a completely different set of cards, that not only has no royals and only numbers, but also a vastly different value system. If you walk into any kiosco in Argentina and ask for a deck of playing cards, expecting to see what you use to play poker, you won’t see the familiar spades at the top. Instead, you’ll find swords, sticks, gold coins, or cups, the four suits of the Truco deck.

I won’t explain the card valuations in full; that kind of knowledge can only be absorbed after six mates, two Fernets, and a healthy dose of Argentine condescension, but here is a taste: the 1 of swords beats the 1 of sticks, which beats any 3, which beats the 1 of cups or gold but not the 1 of swords or sticks, but beats any 12, which loses to the 7 of swords and gold, but beats the 7 of cups or sticks. Confused yet? Buckle up, because I’m just getting started.

What the game looks like

Photo via Guillermo Viciano on Flickr

The key to the game is similar to poker: you have to know when and how to lie, bluffing your opponent into folding when your hand is bad, and goading him into large bets when it’s good. Truco is different however, because it’s not usually played for money. Instead, you bet points as opposed to cash, and while people put money on games, it’s not nearly as essential to the game as it is in poker. Argentine Truco is a pure, untainted dishonesty, it sees lying as an end in itself, rather as a way to earn money. If only our politicians felt the same.

While it is impossible to explain even how to play basic Truco in three paragraphs, here is a short, rudimentary, hopelessly incomplete guide to the rules and stages of Truco for the unfamiliar reader:

The game itself involves two different games within the game (think of it as an Argentine Inception, except it’s in Chinese and the whole thing is played backwards) – the Envido and the Truco. Both have their own peculiarities – shocker – and ways to earn points, which are completely different from each other: in the Envido, you want two cards of the same suit that add up to a large number, whereas in the Truco you want to play the highest rated card in 2/3 of the rounds.

Each round has a Truco, and you can opt in or out of the Envido. There can be as many as 30 rounds or as few as one, depending on how many points are wagered in either the Truco of the Envido. First to 30 points wins. Still have no idea what’s going on? Don’t worry, nobody does on their first, second, third or even fourth exposure to the many Chinese boxes of the game.

Truco can be played in groups of two, four or six. Two (one-on-one) is definitely the easiest for beginners, if only because your partner won’t bad-mouth your play or look absolutely mortified when you don’t realize you have a 33 (a very good score) for envido. However, four (two-on-two) is probably my favorite way to play, as you can scheme with a partner and share in the victory. It also has the added difficulty of needing to communicate secretly with your partner so you can coordinate moves without giving anything away, which is as fun as it is frustrating.

How can I learn?

So, now that you are sufficiently convinced that Truco is confusing, how do you learn it so that you can finally be accepted by the cult of Argentina? How does anybody? Well, it appears that most native-born Argentines are sat down by their parents or classmates on their first birthday and put through a rigorous training process from which they emerge a competent Truco player (can you imagine babies playing cards?). Not so that they can play the game, but so that they learn how to lie convincingly and unscrupulously. This is perhaps the most important tool in surviving the Argentine experience, now that I think about it.

If you missed this first birthday appointment or committed the heinous crime of not being 100 percent argentino, then the process is a little different. I haven’t been able to find any service that provides lessons on how to play, so your best bet is probably asking an Argentine friend or relative, and then being extremely patient.

If you have no Argentine friends or relatives who want to teach you (very possible, since teaching Truco is a thankless, dense task), then I would recommend watching the following YouTube videos, which are a bit quick, but provide a good foundation if you can remember everything in them. Warning: they are in Spanish so consider this a good opportunity to expand your vocabulary. The tutorial on the Truco Blyts app is also in Spanish, but very helpful, and once you have the basics down, it’s a fantastic way to practice (it is also just incredibly fun; my phone is telling me I have played seven hours over the last seven days).

In addition, here are a couple of websites that have breakdowns of the rules and card valuations which are actually in English (celebrates in yanqui).

Once you have the basics down, there is no substitute for practice. The app is good, but nothing beats the live game, as experienced players (which means any Argentine compared to you) can teach you the nuances, strategies, and different ways to play. I’ve found that they tend only to teach you something after they’ve used the strategy to beat you a couple times, so expect to lose a bit until you understand exactly what pescar or saltar means.

When and where can I play?

Photo via Cómo Funciona

As far as where to find a Truco game, the only answer I can give you is that it is played everywhere and nowhere. There really is no level at which Truco isn’t inaccessible and mysterious. Google searches for truco schools, tournaments, and clubs come back fairly empty, and while there are occasional tournaments hosted by sporting clubs, they aren’t regular, and the couple of Facebook groups dedicated to organizing tournaments seem equally sporadic and small.

There is an Argentine Association of Truco (of course there is) with an official rulebook and all. While it was reported that they were planning a national championship for Truco, there is no information available about it besides that, and they did not respond to The Bubble when asked for comment.

However, Truco does have a pretty signifcant place in Argentine culture. Borges wrote a love poem to Truco. A member of the Association of Truco is quoted in La Nación saying “It’s the holy trinity [of being Argentine]: Football, Asado and Truco” (notable omissions: feriados, strikes, and tardiness). There is a video of Maradona playing Truco and, best of all, losing. My family regularly plays Truco at meetups, the kids at my high school would play during breaks, and it’s very common to see a couple of old men outside at a cafe with a deck of cards. Best case scenario is that three old timers need a fourth to complete the group. It is also helped by the fact that it seems as if so many Argentines know how to play, so if you have a deck of cards and a group of 3 or 4, you can almost always put together a game.

Why learn?

Truco is a complicated, inaccessible, but wonderfully Argentine game. A friend of mine showed me how to play when I was 15, and it has helped me delve deeper into Argentine culture, make friends, and feel a part of many events that I had no business feeling at home in. If you can get past the learning curve, it is rich and full of nuance, with each player calculating and predicting, a balance of having the right strategy and being able to read your opponent. It is also very, very fun. Argentines love it so much for a reason, and every foreign friend I’ve been able to get past the original hump has kept it with him even after he’s moved away.

I know I’ve relentlessly made fun of its strange card system and confusing rules, but it comes from a place of love, and I think that learning Truco is a great way for foreigners to become part of another aspect of Argentine life. If you’ve gotten used to finishing a night out at 7 AM and using traffic lights as mere suggestions, I would urge you give this final tradition a go.

Some Truco peculiarities with no context because it would take too long:

  • If a player says the name of the game “Truco” they are raising the bet. So, if you want to have some fun, go up to a group huddled around cards and ask them what game they’re playing.
  • Players on the same team blow kisses at each other to indicate what cards they have. Yes, this is a thing. Do not fear. Embrace.
  • If a dealer passes the cards to his right (as opposed to their left) for “cutting” (don’t worry about it), then the person has the right to smack them out of his hand. If the player on the dealer’s right reaches to cut the deck, the dealer can smack his hand away. God, I love this game.

Oh, and just because, let’s relive one of the funnier moments of Videomatch with this prank sketch centered around Truco: