Monday, August 15, 2011


Korean Adventure (October 18, 2002 Chautauqua)

"Go-stop" is a traditional Korean card game, usually played in smoky rooms with beer bottles and money scattered about. It is Korea's most popular gambling amusement.

The cards themselves come from a mixture of the deck used by the Portuguese sailors who sailed into these waters in the mid 16th century, and the deck that was in use in Japan at that time. Western-style card playing was made punishable by death in Japan in 1633, so changes were made in order to preserve the game that had arisen. The faces on the cards were changed to reflect Japanese culture, and the cards continued to be changed and modified as the years went by.
Japanese soldiers introduced their game, called "hanafuda," to Korea in the late 19th century. Koreans made some changes, and began calling the game "hwatu." The most popular game played using the cards today is "go-stop."
There are 48 thick cards in a deck with 12 different suits representing the 12 months of the year: January/pine, February/plum, March/cherry, April/black bush clover, May/orchid, June/peony, July/red bush clover, August/pampas grass and moon, September/chrysanthemum, October/maple leaf, November/paulownia, and December/willow and rain.

The first step to learning how to play is to study these cards, and recognize and match the colourful pictures. Two cards within each month are almost exactly the same. These can be called plain cards, equivalent to western junk cards.
The next step is to study the following cards: three blue ribbons with writing, three red ribbons with writing, four red ribbons with no writing, five with small round dots, three with pictures of birds, and eight with a potpourri of pictures: deer, pig, butterfly, insect, pillar, strange iris, chrysanthemum with soccer ball, and a pile of dung.
The rules state that three to five players are needed, with the action moving counter-clockwise. Deal out seven cards per person. Koreans have a very simple way of shuffling cards, and whenever I shuffle cards in the classroom (a very simple box shuffle that would be laughed at by any serious card player) I get "Oooh!" Aaaah!" and the occasional round of applause.

To continue, before placing the remaining cards facedown in a pile, flip over six cards in the middle of the playing area. Players take turns matching a picture in their hands with a picture on the floor. If they match, the player collects both cards and puts them in front of him face up. These are the cards that will score the player's points.
Before the player's turn is over, he gets to flip the top card on the deck and try to match that picture with the remaining pictures on the floor. Again, if they match, he collects both. If they do not, he leaves the card face up on the floor.
The strategy is to collect as many cards as possible, thus scoring more points. The goal is to collect enough cards to score three points. When this is achieved, say "stop" to end the hand. If, however, you want to gamble and double the money, say "go." The risk in doing this is that more points must be added during the next turn. If another player gets three points in the meantime, that player can stop the game and win. What is the penalty for your risk? You pay for the other player as well as your own loss.
The points are counted thus: three red ribbons/three points, three blue ribbons/three points, five birds/five points, three dots/three points, four dots/four points, five dots/fifteen points, 10 plain cards/one point (each extra plain card is worth one more point), one "go"/one point, two "go"/two points, and three "go"/double points.
There are a few interesting things to be said about the cards themselves. The blue and red ribbon cards represent old Japanese scrolls where poets penned their deepest thoughts and feelings.
The old man holding an umbrella in the December rain card is actually Ono No Toufuu, the founder of Japanese-style calligraphy. The August moon that sits atop a hill is nicknamed the "Buddhist monk." The single oldest card in existence today, made in the 16th century, is located in the Miike Museum in Omuta, Japan.
The novice should be aware of the professional player, who plays the game as a full-time job. There are stories of players who have lost cars, homes, and even wives! Some Korean families will not even allow the cards into their homes in strong disapproval.
I thought that playing the game would be an interesting way to bridge the language barrier with my students. However, the first time I took them into the classroom, I was handed a note by the Korean teacher. They believe it is a game for adults, and not for children. The feeling was that if the students even see the cards, let alone play the game, the school would be inundated by calls from outraged parents, calling for my head on a stake.
It was kind of embarrassing, but I guess that's all part of the experience of exploring new cultures.

I got most of the information from an article in "The Korea Herald," by Everett McGuinty, who is described as a "Contributing writer."
Once, when I took the ferry over to Japan, I saw a group of Korean men playing the game in one of the common rooms. I was sharing a beer with another teacher I had met (who was making his visa run) and we idly chatted as we watched the game. There was money scattered on the table, and it occasionally changed hands, so we imagined they were betting on the game.
A little later, some kind of crewmember passed by the table, took a look at what was going on, and said something to the players. They all looked like guilty little boys caught with their hands in the cookie jar as they tried to hide the money in their pockets.

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