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Playing the game 3/9/02

There is a bit of skill involved. Even if you're lucky enough to get the cards, you've still got to know how to play." — Tony Newhook, St. John's. (Photo: Joe Gibbons/The Telegram)

By ROB ANTLE, The Telegram

It’s a game that spans generations, one that untold numbers of Newfoundlanders have learned at the kitchen table with only a well-worn deck of cards and the patient instruction of a parent or grandparent.

That’s the way it was with Tony Newhook.

He was just 10 years old when he learned how to play 120s from a master of the game — his grandfather.

“He was the man, too, buddy, let me tell you,” says Newhook, a lifelong St. John’s resident who is now 38.

“We had games after he died when people would say, ‘If Grandfather was here now he’d roll over in his grave.’ ”

Newhook has carried on to this day the tradition his grandfather taught him.

In the summer, Newhook and his buddies play ball together. In the fall and winter, the game of choice is 120s.

Every Tuesday night, he and five friends get together for their weekly game. They play call-for-your-partner, known in some quarters as “railroad.”

Their weekly games culminate in a season-ending party to mark the end of the long winter.

“It’s something to do for a laugh — throw in a few dollars, build up a little kitty and go up to one of the b’ys’ cabins at the end of May. That way, then, if we all decide to go, nobody has to take anything out of their pockets — just (by) throwing in five dollars a week, all the money is there.”

Newhook also has a regular game on Sunday, at the West End Club on Hamilton Avenue.

“We sit down and have our few beers and have a game of 120s down there, too,” he says.

He’s been going to the club for about 20 years, since before it moved to its current location from Water Street.

On Sundays at the pub, the games are rollicking.

“God only knows who’s going to be sitting in on that. There’s probably only three or four regulars, then who-ever else is around. That’s a real game of Growl. You know now, the b’ys sitting around having a few beers — they get right into it.”

The 120s version of choice there is partners, three sets of two.

“There’s so many different ways of playing the game: there’s call-for-your-partner, partners — you can even play on your own,” Newhook says. “We usually do that a lot down to the club, too, with only four of us.”

The game involves a dash of skill, a pinch of luck — and a healthy dollop of social interaction.

“There is a bit of skill involved,” Newhook says. “Even if you’re lucky enough to get the cards, you’ve still got to know how to play …

“It’s been on the go a long while, and there are a lot more people at it, too. I know of at least two other people who have their clubs on the go. It’s a great game to pass away a bit of time.”

The card game many Newfoundlanders know as 120s has many different monikers: among them are Auction and Growl.

There is also an abbreviated version of the game called 45s, usually just played by two or three people.

One Hundred and Twenties involves an occasionally complex series of bidding. When the bidding is complete, the cards are played to win tricks for points. The target total is 120, the number for which the game is named.

The best card is the five of whatever suit is trump. The ace of hearts is particularly powerful and, some would say, devious; it is always the third-best card no matter what suit is trump.

It is a game where players wish they had the psychic abilities of the Amazing Kreskin, and routinely become more argumentative than Andy Wells on a field trip to the Goulds.

It’s also undeniably a part of the rich fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador life. Many a dining room table is scarred by wedding rings slammed down in the joy or frustration of playing a particularly passionate card.

Members of the band Great Big Sea have said they play the game regularly — in fact, one of their recent Web site postings is a cryptic ode to the game.

West coast author Al Pittman’s last collection of poetry before his death was titled Thirty for Sixty, after the ubiquitous 120s bid.

The old Thomson Student Centre at MUN was, throughout the 1990s, home to day-long 120s marathons.

And one example that has since passed into local lore happened during the massive electrical failure that came to be known as Blackout ’94. The battery-powered open-line radio updates were interrupted by a caller inquiring about a topic of grave importance: just what cards could he renege in what was, by all accounts, a heated game of 120s. The jack? The ace of hearts?

The open-line host paused, asked someone in the studio, then went back to the latest news on the power situation.

While we may think of 120s as inherently linked to Newfoundland as Purity biscuits and Jigg’s dinner, there are other places that claim the game as their own.

“It’s strong amongst the Irish population of the Merrimack Valley area here,” says Shawn Harty of Lowell, Mass. “It’s extremely popular in this area. In Newfoundland, you thought it was mainly (played) there; people here think it’s only here, and people have an intense fondness for the game.”

The Merrimack Valley is comprised of three Massachusetts mill cities — Lowell, Haverhill and Lawrence — about a half-hour to 45 minutes north of Boston. The population of the valley is slightly more than Newfoundland and Labrador’s.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants — many of whom would have made their way through Newfoundland — settled in the area.

Harty, aided by the Internet, has traced the history of the game Newfoundlanders call 120s. (People in the Merrimack Valley call it 45s, even though most rules are the same as the Newfoundland game, and the winning score is still 120. “It’s totally illogical down here calling the game 45s, but that’s what it’s called,” he acknowledges.)

The game’s roots are thought to trace back to Ireland and Scotland in the mid-16th century, when it was called Maw, then Spoil Five.

It is believed to have made its way from there to Newfoundland and parts of Nova Scotia, then on to the Merrimack Valley.

Harty, now 43, started playing the game when he was a teenager.

“My father always played, and he taught me the game,” he recalls. “I’m not sure how long he played — I’m not even sure if my grandfather played. I guess I’m just assuming that they did and that’s how he learned.”

His love for 120s — and desire to keep it alive — led him to foster the development of a computerized version of the game.

Harty, who is president of a computer company, and his partner, software developer Bill DiSanto, have created an Internet site promoting and selling a computerized version of the game.

It can be found at www.The45s

They have sold and shipped 200 copies of the game. Three-quarters, or 150 of those, were purchased by people in the Merrimack Valley. The rest were dispersed around the U.S. to “what I would call transplants —

(people) who used to live here, played the game all their lives and now don’t have anybody to play with in California or Colorado,” Harty notes.

It’s all part of the game’s revival in the Merrimack Valley, after worries it would fade into obscurity.

“Two generations ago, it was probably played extensively. … The family kind of revolved around it one or two nights a week,” Harty says. “Then, the last generation, less so. Then with our generation, with the competition of the Internet, TV and video games, it’s really a dying game.”

Another Merrimack Valley man, Bob Reichert, has written an “official” rule book for the game, in an effort to keep it alive and get more people playing.

“I’m not the only one; quite a few people feel strongly about trying to preserve the culture and continue the play of the game for the next generation,” Harty says.

There are several leagues active in Harty’s area. Many people in Massachusetts believe the game is their own, he notes.

“The people in Ireland have no clue about who’s playing it in Newfoundland, and the people in Newfoundland have no clue about who’s playing it down here,” Harty says. “All of us love the game, and it’s a common thread in terms of the way the population immigrated, but no one knew who else was playing it.

“I think that’s an interesting aspect of the game. Everybody who seems to play it seems to say, ‘OK, we’re the best at it, and we’re the only ones who

play this game the way it should be played.’ ”

Back on the Rock, Olive Atfield and members of the Golden Age Club in Conception Bay South can’t do without their weekly game of 120s.

Every Wednesday, 60 to 80 seniors spend the afternoon at the club, cards in hand. The seniors’ club runs other activities, including square dancing and a darts league. But the numbers are always highest for the weekly game of 120s.

“That seems to be a must; we have to play cards,” says Atfield, who has been involved with the club since the mid-1980s, serving as president for the past 12 years. “If I say, ‘Look, we’re going to have entertainment or something (instead),’ it’s ‘What? No cards?’ It’s like the end of the world, you know. …

“When the game is over, if there’s still enough time, they end up playing 45s for a quarter each, something like that, just to fill in the afternoon.”

The game is very popular in the area, Atfield says. “Up here on the shore, there’s 120s played every night of the week.”

Atfield spent much of her life out of Newfoundland, in the United States. But even while she was away she still managed to play the occasional game of 120s with two other expatriate couples, one in Brooklyn, the other in the aptly named Newfoundland, N.J., near where she was living.

She can’t remember exactly when she learned the game, just that it’s always been around.

“Being Newfoundlanders, I guess we learned years ago, growing up.”

And her time away didn’t end that.

“We still remember the game, and we still play it, you know.”