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  Swimming with card sharks  



I did it once in a dark caf in eastern Tibet. Another time I was in an unheated, out-of-use movie set tucked inside Beijing's Haidian district. I did it a few times in the back of a van crossing Shandong province at breakneck speed. I have even done it online.

Play cards, that is. Specifically, a game called Fight the Landlord.

Think back to the last time you walked by a crouched street-side card match. The arrogant slapping of the cards onto a makeshift cardboard tabletop, the excited trash-talk from players and bystanders alike, the gloating as single kuai bills exchange hands.

You were most likely witnessing the simultaneous heart-pounding action and time-killing power that is Fight the Landlord, or in Chinese, Dou Dizhu.

The first time I learned how to "fight" was on a road trip with my American friend Julia. We were driving through Yunnan, Tibet and Sichuan with her cousin's boyfriend and his friends.

Julia and I had just arrived in China a few days before, and though her Mandarin was rusty, mine was non-existent. We needed a way to communicate and pass the time on the road with these people we had never met before.

So one night we sat in a bar in Tibet, drinking beer under a cloud-painted ceiling bathed in low yellow light, and Lawrence pulled out a deck of cards.

Born in Hainan but now from Hong Kong, Lawrence had the best English of the bunch and he wanted to show us this game.

We played for about three hours, but for the rest of the trip we barely touched the deck. It's only when we arrived in Lijiang, Yunnan, where the addiction became apparent.

Julia and I were staying at a place that took a five-minute walk from the small hotel and restaurant that Lawrence owned. At first we would timidly show up in the afternoon at his place, making small chit-chat before one of us would suggest a card game. But soon we recognized our need for a daily fix, and we would show up several times a day with a challenging swagger. For his part, Lawrence would greet us with bravado and smack the paper with our running score down onto the bar.

In his Lijiang bar, Bob Marley posters loomed above while we played late into the night. Julia and I would eventually surrender to exhaustion and walked home by the light of our cell phone LCD screens. In bed with the covers pulled close, the cards would not stop flashing through our minds. Deuces and jokers tempted us, incomplete straights taunted us, and we would count the hours until our next session.

Lawrence was never satisfied to just play for "points". He insisted we make a bet, even if it was 1 kuai per game. If you were the landlord and you lost, you had to pay a total of 2 kuai, 1 to each player.

We also learned that if you "bomb", the round is worth double the original bet. If one round includes several "bombs", the bet continues to double itself. Eventually, even a 10-kuai bet can become pricey if you are the landlord, and you have to pay out to several times that to both players.

Most true aficionados agree that it is not worth "fighting" if there isn't any gambling involved.

My regular Beijing card-playing crew usually plays from after dinner until after sunrise the next morning.

Your average card-addict off the street cannot always afford to drop a few thousand RMB in an evening, but chances are he may do that several times a month given the chance. But don't feel too bad for him - as the saying goes, if you are lucky in love, you are unlucky in cards.

I, on the other hand, usually consider myself lucky when I find people who are willing to play with me. When a new opponent sees I am a foreigner, I always encounter skepticism about whether I am capable of mastering the game.

Not only as an American, but also as a woman, I find myself in the landlord-fighting minority. There are many exceptions of course, including a very memorable night in Shanghai where I played for five hours with only women.

One place that I do find a lot of women players is online. Fight the Landlord is just one of the games Chinese youth love to play through the QQ site.

You enter a "game room" and join a virtual "table" for 3 players. Each player has a simple cartoon of either a boy or a girl standing in a white undershirt and shorts. If you are willing to pay with real money, or with your virtual points from winning, you can upgrade your characters with clothes and graphic tricks, like the ability to turn into a sparkly princess, or angrily splash another player with a glass of water.

If the cartoons weren't enough to guess my opponents' genders, I could also use the chat function; one of the auto-text questions is: "Are you a MM (meimei, younger sister, or beautiful eyebrows) or a GG (gege, elder brother)?"

Today, games like Fight the Landlord are considered more popular among city-dwellers and young people, while mahjong and xiangqi (Chinese chess) remain the favorites of older people and country folks.

Xu Wei, a Beijing card-addict who grew up in a small village near Laizhou, Shandong, explains that these other games are more suited for village life. "In rural areas you know your neighbors, you have more time to play. Fight the Landlord is more fast paced, and you can play with higher bets."

In fact, the popularity of Fight the Landlord is not a recent phenomenon in China. When I first learned how to play, my friend Lawrence told me a humorous story about people playing the game decades ago.

There was a high government official who was one of Mao's favored colleagues. When Mao came to this man's province to check on what he had been doing for the past several months, the man sheepishly confessed he spent the whole time "fighting the landlord". Mao earnestly replied: "Excellent! What a good example for the people."





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