Fourteen-year-old Zach Davis learned to play Pedro just this
year, yet he knows exactly why he spends every half-hour lunch
break at school playing the fast-paced card game.
It’s fun; it’s intense. I like it when I have high cards, and I
like taking risks,
Zach said, pausing between words as he eyed the playing cards
poised in his hands and considered his strategy.
Fourteen-year-old Zach Davis learned to play Pedro just this year, yet he knows exactly why he spends every half-hour lunch break at school playing the fast-paced card game.
“It’s fun; it’s intense. I like it when I have high cards, and I like taking risks,” Zach said, pausing between words as he eyed the playing cards poised in his hands and considered his strategy.
Zach is one of about 17 students at Rancho San Justo Middle School in Hollister who gather at lunch and after school three days a week to play Pedro, a numbers-based card game that supposedly was invented in San Juan Bautista in the late 1800s by a man named Pedro Carlos.
The game spread throughout the United States and even the world, with variations in Finland, Canada, Ukraine and Nicaragua. Although its popularity has declined slightly, Pedro – pronounced PEE-dro – still is played in parts of California and the West Coast.
The middle school students are part of a Pedro club organized this year by John Tognetti, a math teacher at Rancho San Justo. Last week, the group traveled to King City to compete against about 20 other teams from all over the Central Coast in a Pedro tournament, with players ranging in age.
“They really get into it. They get real competitive,” Tognetti said of his students. “Each month there’s a player of the month. We might hold a tournament at the end of the year with all the players of the month, or something like that. We’ll see.”
A Gilroy resident, Tognetti grew up playing the card game in King City with his parents and friends of the family. He now plays every Wednesday evening at the Gilroy Elks Lodge.
Tognetti said he’s disheartened by what he sees as a generation gap between older adults who know and love Pedro and today’s youth, most of whom have never even heard of the game.
“I remember when the Italian Catholic Federation would hold games and tournaments at Saint Mary Church in Gilroy. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore,” Tognetti said. “It seems like it skipped a generation. The thing is, I see kids playing games on computers now, and they’re so secluded. There’s no social interaction. The kids I play (Pedro) with at school, they go back home and play with their parents and grandparents, and it’s great to see. It gets them back interacting with people and with their families.”
Pedro has evolved several variations over the years, but in the basic game, four players partner up and sit opposite each other. Playing with a standard 52-card pack, the highest bidder chooses one suit that trumps, say, for instance, hearts. The five of the other suit of the same color, in this case, five of diamonds, also becomes a trump and is known as the low pedro, or left pedro.
Each team makes a bid for how many points they think they can pick up in one game, which is six rounds. If a team bids eight, for example, their goal is to pick up that many points. If they don’t, the other team gets the eight points at the end of the game. The highest and lowest bids are six and 16.
Deal and play are clockwise. Each player is dealt six cards, but the only cards that are worth points are the cards that belong to the trump suit (and also the low pedro).
The cards in the other suits are discarded, and the dealer replenishes each player’s hand to six cards.
Cards in the trump suit and the low pedro each are worth five points, except the jack of trumps, which is worth three, and the ace, 10 and deuce of trumps which are worth one. Kings and queens pick up the total value of the lower cards in the hand.
The first player passes a card to the next player, who will decide whether to keep the card or pass it on. Players must have six cards in their hands at all times. Teams have six rounds to accumulate their bids.
The object of the game is for teams to win tricks containing the most valuable trump cards and achieve their bid, but each individual player keeps a cumulative score. The winner is the player with the highest score at the end of a pre-determined number of rounds.
Eighth-grader Kevin Wilson, who was the middle school’s first player of the month, keeps a personal record of 61 points. He said his favorite part of the game is when he gets a double Pedro, or two cards each worth five points.
“I like (the game) because it’s fun and it’s exciting,” he said between bites of lunch during a recent afternoon game.
When Kevin and Zach start high school next year, they said they’d like to introduce Pedro there and maybe organize a club. Kevin said he also wants to teach a few incoming eighth-graders how to play so they might carry on the new tradition at the middle school next year.
That’s fine by Tognetti, who said he enjoys Pedro for its challenge and ability to bring people together. It’s also good for his math students, he said, as the game stresses a command of integers.
Joann Kessler, assistant director of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, played Pedro when she and her husband lived in San Carlos. When they moved to San Martin in the late 1970s, Joann said the couple had a hard time finding other couples who also played Pedro, and they became too busy with work and other obligations to organize a club.
The Kesslers now participate in once-a-month local games of Bunco, a dice game, but Joann said she has fond memories of Pedro. The group used to play into the “wee hours of the morning,” mostly on Fridays and Saturdays, she said.
“I loved it. It’s just fun; it’s really fun. It’s good social interaction and a great way to enjoy each other’s company,” she said. “We’d be so involved in the game, no one would want to make dinner. So we’d order a pizza and just keep on playing.”
And that’s the kind of scene Tognetti would like to see more of.
“It’s a Renaissance of sorts,” Tognetti said. “At least, that’s what I’m hoping.”