For Family, Card Game Trumps All Others No, The Game Isn't Bridge, But Oh Hell. And It Has Become A Ritual At The Mathews Home.

Posted: March 15, 1992

Jack Mathews is holding his cards at chin level, his creased, ruddy face as tranquil as a sunbathing snake, his china blue eyes scanning an assortment of spades, clubs and diamonds. Twin jets of stinging, gray cigarette smoke issue

from his nostrils and glance off the tops of the cards. On the card table are two tall tumblers. In them, ice cubes that have melted into ellipses bask in schools at the surface. The ice clinks in the glasses when any of the three other card players moves. Mathews watches those moves, starts to play a nine of clubs but hesitates. He tucks the nine back into his hand and places a lower club on the table. To his right, a scream of disgust rips through the cigarette haze. Mathews' move is a winner. His face remains a mask of indifference. But he is thinking. The trophy is within reach.

This is the card game Oh Hell at its finest.

Coming into this game, the trophy - a statuette presented by the game's international governing body and, by some, nearly as coveted as the America's Cup - was held by the player to Mathews' left.

But John B. "Jack" Mathews, 71, a cagey grand master in Oh Hell, is charging. One way or another, Oh Hell history will be made and duly recorded by the end of this 104-minute, Sunday afternoon game - after apparently scathing rebukes between players, after brave posturing by the less fortunate, and after many groans of agony and frequent cries by losing players of "Oh, Hell," the remark that legend says gave the game its name.

This is just a tune-up.

On March 28, Mathews and about 40 other Oh Hell players will do this all over again. They will vie once more for the trophy, a 2-inch bronze reproduction of the Belgian landmark sculpture Manneken Pis, a naked, urinating urchin.

At that time, the International Oh-Hell League Inc. will hold its annual Championship Tournament of All Creation, upstairs at the Riverton Fire Hall. A record crowd is anticipated.

Card playing, once a social thread that bound together individual families and whole communities, has generally been displaced by television and other diversions, but Oh Hell is on the rise.

Canasta parties and games of pitch, whist and cribbage that once enlivened fire halls and town halls and church basements have mostly faded into the vapors of nostalgia. But the number of Oh Hell players at the annual tournament has nearly quadrupled in the last five years, reaching 40 last year, said Mathews. The game has its own not-for-profit corporation. It has 29 masters and eight grand masters.

By a coincidence of history, the epicenter of this activity is Burlington County. On this pre-tournament Sunday afternoon, Mathews, a World War II infantryman who battled from Normandy, past the Rhine, is battling for the title in one of the nation's most frequented Oh Hell dens - his Cinnaminson living room.

Oh Hell, according to Hoyle's book of card games, first surfaced in New York parlors in the 1930s.

The game arrived in Riverton in the early '60s, brought by Jack Mathews' brother William G. to the big Victorian home where Jack Mathews' children were raised. Mathews began playing the game with his children. They began playing it with their friends. Two married and introduced their spouses to Oh Hell, and, in a largely unreported sociological reversal, televisions were being switched off in homes scattered across Burlington County and elsewhere, the better to concentrate on Oh Hell.

Faced with such fecundity, Mathews and some other grand masters two years ago incorporated the International Oh-Hell League.

It's not yet the equivalent of the 65-year-old American Contract Bridge League, with its 200,000 members in 4,200 local groups and its $7 million annual budget.

But then, the Oh-Hell League's 96 members, living as far apart as Arizona and France, are of different emotional fiber than most bridge players.

A sampling of the rules for the forthcoming tournament gives some insight:

1. No spitting on the floor.

2. No mating in the hallways.

5. Under no circumstances are camels or llamas permitted on the playing floor.

Jack Mathews evolved into an Oh Hell player slowly.

His first card playing was in kids' games such as Slap Jack and Go Fish. His parents played "auction bridge," but cards were not the center of family life.

In the service during World War II, Mathews played poker. He remembers the games aboard HMS Strathmore, a British ocean liner converted to a troop ship sailing from the United States to England. The soldiers played cards in the opulent lounge, with the other ships of the convoy framed in the vessel's

windows.

In 1940, Mathews had joined the National Guard, and a little more than a year later, on Friday, Feb. 13, 1942, he was one of 13 men in his unit assigned to the Army Officers Candidate School. He joined OCS Class 13, was shipped across the English Channel to Normandy, France, on ship No. 13, and landed in assault boat No. 13. Later, his Jeep was No. 13, and he was assigned to the 313th Infantry Regiment.

When you know more about Oh Hell, you will see there was something prophetic in those numbers.

Mathews, who had married Virginia Murray in 1943 and who from day to day during the war did not know if he would see her again, scrambled across France, "ducking most of the time." When his company commander was killed in action, Mathews got a field promotion to captain. His unit was at the taking of Paris and was among the first to cross the Rhine. But even on the battlefields, when there was a lull in the action, there was poker.

When the war ended, Mathews went to Temple University Law School under the GI Bill and then entered private practice in Palmyra. In those years, he played cribbage and bridge, although he often found bridge too intense because of its complexity and because you have a partner who can "criticize you if you don't do right."

The day about 30 years ago when Oh Hell came into the Mathews household, it settled in as comfortably as an old dog in an upholstered chair. Perhaps

because the game was less complex, or perhaps because it involved Jack Mathews' lucky number 13, Oh Hell became a family matter, evolving into routine Thursday night games.

Oh Hell normally requires four players. Each player is dealt one card on the first hand, then two cards on the second and so on, until, on the 13th hand, every player holds 13 cards. The next hand, each player gets 12 cards, and 11 on the next and so on, back down to one card.

In each hand except the 13th, when the entire deck is dealt, the first undealt card is exposed, and its suit becomes trump.

Each participant plays one card at a time, until all four have played one card. The highest card in the suit that is led or the highest card in the trump suit beats the other cards, and the player who played it is said to have won a "trick."

The point of the game is to guess and declare, before play starts, how many tricks you can win in each hand. That guess is called a bid.

If you make the number of tricks you predict, you get points. If you fail, you get no points. The highest point level after all 25 hands are played wins the game.

Mathews and his children played often.

Mathews won a lot.

According to the computerized records of the International Oh-Hell League, Mathews is on record with the only perfect game. (He made all his bids.) He is a grand master, a founder and chairman of the league.

The league was formed in 1990, when the annual tournament, which started two years earlier with 12 players, needed more room than the old family homestead in Riverton afforded. The Riverton Fire Hall was rented. To avoid personal liability, Mathews decided to incorporate.

"Being a lawyer, I got visions of somebody falling down or eating a rotten hot dog," Mathews explained.

The rules of the league had been evolving even before the incorporation.

Master points are awarded according to the number of wins in games where two or more masters are playing.

A master "may only become a grand master and member of the International Grand Tribunal by appointment and fiat of the International Grand Tribunal," the rules state.

Mathews, his sons J. Barry and Neal F., his son-in-law John R. Bradshaw, his friend James L. Don, his nephew S. Kirk Murray, and his niece Maureen G. Murray are the grand masters.

Virginia Mathews, Jack's wife, is an honorary grand master.

"The reason for that is obvious," Mathews said. "I have to live with her."

If the control over the Oh Hell hierarchy seems rigged, there is even less fairness in possession of the Manneken Pis.

A beginner can't win the trophy, even if the victory is over a master,

because only a master can be a trophy holder. Moreover, the trophy can't leave the Mathews household.

That rule was determined one frantic evening when Russell Prince, a cousin's husband, hit what became an unstoppable winning streak. He seemed to have the trophy in his grasp, and he threatened to take it home with him to Glen Ridge, N.J. But the family members refused to let the game end, playing until 4 a.m. when, fatigued, Prince's luck lapsed.

Immediately, the grand tribunal decreed that to win the statue was not to possess it. The urchin was returned to its place atop Grandmother's antique French clock on the Mathews' mantel.

*

Coming into the game this particular Sunday afternoon, the trophy, although it cannot be possessed outside Jack Mathews' home, is claimed by Neal Mathews, 34, a chiropractor, who sits to the left of his father, Jack.

John Bradshaw, 41, is across the table from Jack. Maureen Murray, 36, is to his right, sitting with her back to the living-room love seat and facing Neal, the mantel, the clock and the trophy.

The game begins at 2:21 p.m. Quickly, Neal falls behind in points, and his grip on the trophy is weakened.

"Ooh, threw himself on the grenade once again," Maureen Murray sneers

from across the table when Neal fails to make his bid.

Jack Mathews is the scorekeeper. He's wearing a blue Oh Hell grand master sweatshirt. His soft moccasin slippers rest on a carpet that is nearly the color of his eyes, only a slightly grayer blue. He bums a cigarette. Its smoke rises thinly from an ashtray by his left wrist.

You have to be crazy to play Oh Hell, he declares.

The setting for this game is very sane, very conventional. On a small table near Bradshaw and Maureen Murray is a glass-domed clock with a spinning pendulum fitted with four brass balls. On the wall behind Jack Mathews is a gallery of color portraits, each in a heavy wooden frame, of family members.

Children and other relatives come and go, looking over shoulders to see how the game is progressing.

"People's personalities come out in the game," Jack Mathews will tell you.

Neal plays a card that costs Maureen Murray points.

"Neal, you scum-sucking lowlife," she snarls.

"We've never actually had a fight break out," observes Barry Mathews, huddling near the table.

As the game moves into its second hour, conversation shifts away from the play, wandering in stream-of-consciousness to the type of junk food the players would prefer to be consuming. (During the tournament, players stuff themselves with doughnuts and hot dogs. No liquor is allowed. Profanity is encouraged.)

"Whatever happened to Ewell Gibbons?" wonders Bradshaw.

"He ate too many berries and died," Maureen Murray replies.

Jack Mathews ignores the conversation, quietly making his bids, recording the scores. He is in the lead, and he will hold that lead until 3:55 p.m. Then, with the dealing of one card to each player, the game comes to an abrupt end, each player playing that card simultaneously.

The trophy will not move from the clock on the mantel, but it is now Jack Mathews'.

Those wishing to enter the tournament need only know the game's rules, found in Hoyle's book, and send a $5 fee to Maureen Murray, 30 E. Charles St., Palmyra, N.J., 08065.

When the March 28 tournament has come and gone, another master Oh Hell player may lay claim to the tiny trophy. But within a week or two, someone will have had an opportunity to take the title away.

Jack Mathews and three other grand masters play every other week. Maureen Murray runs a monthly Oh Hell game. The rest of the world is on its own.

"It's a fun game," Mathews says. "With a lot of people, it's sort of addictive."

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