Once there was a game of cards at the home of the Cavalry Guard Narumov. The long winter night went by unnoticed; the company sat down to dinner after four in the morning. Those who had won ate with great gusto; the rest, distractedly, sat before their empty table-settings. But the champagne arrived, the conversation became livelier, and everyone took part."What did you do, Surin?" asked the host.
"I lost, as usual. I must admit that I am unlucky: I play mirandola [without increasing the stakes], never get overexcited or thrown off by anything, but still I lose!"
"And you've never given in to temptation? Never played routé [sharply increasing the stakes]?... Your firmness astonishes me.
"And won't you take a look at Hermann!" said one of the guests, pointing to a young engineer, "He's never held a hand of cards in his life, never bent a single parole [doubled the stakes], and yet he stays up with us till five a.m. and observes our game!"
"The game fascinates me strongly," said Hermann, "but I am in no position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of acquiring the excessive."
"Hermann's a German: he's just calculating, that's all!" observed Tomsky.
- Pushkin, "The Queen of Spades"
The games they play in this story do not include preferans, but it was that same milieu that produced the enduring Eastern European dedication to this singularly long-lived game. Some Russians spell its name, in roman script, as "préférence," as if the game were French. The word is, yes--but the game is not. (And it's not clear what préférence has to do with preferans anyway.) I haven't done enough research to figure out what the true origin of the game may have been; the German Wikipedia page, at least, claims it to be of late eighteenth-century Austro-Hungarian origin. Perhaps the origin is unimportant, anyway, for Eastern Europe is the only place it actually survives. (The monumental Russian Wikipedia page, with its enormous glossary, testifies to that. And the English one is honest with its spelling.)
What is preferans? It's a card game, similar to bridge, in which one always plays for money (though often for small stakes). The game is centered around the making of contracts and one's ability to fulfill them; thus, if I make a contract that I will take six tricks, I must take six tricks or pay a penalty. If I order eight tricks, the penalty, and the potential reward, is correspondingly larger. The usual method of play is to define a fixed number of points, say, 30, which each player must reach before the game can end. (A six-trick contract gets you 2 points; seven tricks, 4, and so on up to 10, the total number of cards in each hand.)
It's always masturbatory to indulge in cultural generalizations on the basis of isolated cultural facts, but in the case of preferans the temptation is irresistible. It's easiest to start with some basic moments. The library of folk wisdom that every preferans player keeps in his head includes some subtle sociopolitical insight (which is accessible, alas, only to players of the game). Even the rules are suggestive. When one player "closes," or earns all the necessary points, any points she earns from then on go to the player that is closest to closing. But this isn't some kind of allegory for krugovaia poruka or the Russian commune: each point increases the debt owed by the receiving player to the giver. This is called "American aid."
In fact, there is something quintessentially Russian about the way the game is even played. In bridge, its closest analogue, each contract must actually be played (as far as I know). In preferans, with experienced players, most are not. One sees the cards that one is dealt and knows immediately the limits to one's possible success. To struggle against this fate is pointless--and one risks even losing money in the process. A good preferans player knows exactly what risks to avoid; the big risks are the domain of clueless newbies.
Then there's the raspasy, when no one offers a contract. Then your goal is to take as few tricks as possible, and to break out of raspasy into an actual game becomes harder and harder (the penalties for taking tricks get higher and higher, and the contracts necessary to break out move to seven, then eight, and so forth). The result is a nightmare, in which submission and fate break down and each player struggles not to get stuck with a series of ever more toxic tricks. Getting ahead is impossible. The only thing one can do is not to get drowned. (It is hard not to associate this with Russian society in its worst moments.) The logical conclusion of this aspect of the game is the mizer, which is a contract not to take any tricks at all. Characteristically, it is the second-most-valuable contract in the game. It is the intellectual's solution to the inability for anyone to get ahead: throwing the ticket back in God's face. (The stakes here are high: each trick you take puts you as much in the hole as you would be if had taken only 1 trick on a 6-trick contract. One must be willing to carry the project through if one takes the intellectual's path.)
But the best contract is still the 10: the claim to take all the cards in play. Rarely is it ordered; rarely is it successfully played. At least the aspiration remains, and few are the players who, bogged down in failed misers and six tricks in raspasy, don't dream of pulling off a tenner or two. The dream, it seems, keeps the whole machine going.