My existential fixation on tennis generally, and Roger Federer particularly, is so acute that whenever he suffers a bruising defeat, people text me to make sure I’m doing OK. After Sunday’s Wimbledon final — during which Federer lost an epic five-set match to his younger rival, Novak Djokovic, after holding TWO CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS — I had to turn off the phone so I could scream into a pillow all afternoon undisturbed.
Yet this was only the second-most ego-deflating thing I experienced over the weekend. The previous night, I was at a friend’s rented family cottage, where after consuming a seasonally excessive amount of vacation beer, we all spent several hours reducing each other to smoldering heaps of thwarted ambition and mortal dismay. Which is to say: we played UNO.
You might associate UNO, the multi-colored family-style card game, with some vaguely pleasant childhood memories that, revisited in hindsight, reveal themselves as formative traumas. Alliances that were formed and shattered. Mercy that was begged for and denied. The indignities of adult life that were previewed in microcosm.
UNO’s rules are simple: two or more players take turns, clockwise, playing cards face-up that match the previous player’s discard either in color (red, yellow, green or blue) or number value. First to shed their hand wins the round — after, of course, shouting “UNO!” when there’s only one card remaining.
But wait. If you can’t play something, you must draw until you can, even if you spend half the deck getting there. And within that 108-card deck there are action cards that allow a player to reverse the order of play, skip an adjacent player’s turn, change colors and, best of all, force a player to draw two or four cards.
UNO was invented in the early 1970s by a barber in suburban Cincinnati. But unlike that other great Midwestern card game, Euchre, UNO features no teamwork, no camaraderie, no shared triumph. Instead, there is stinging failure and brutal vanquishment, which makes it the perfect pastime for a summer family getaway, when distractions are minimized, proximity is enforced and generational grudges are there for the perpetuation.
UNO is “World War IV fought with plastic cards, where aggressive counters to fellow players and sweat-inducing climactic moments abound,” wrote Nitish Pahwa last year in a series of tributes to classic games on Slate.com. “It’s the most combative such a game can be without resorting to sheer cruelty, an occasion for fierce individual grit to shine within the family unit and, in its way, the best manner in which to reveal your loved ones’ most cunning sides.”
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand my own childhood UNO experiences as part of a larger family narrative. When I gleefully shouted “UNO!” one summer at the cottage my parents had rented, my mother coolly dropped a Draw Four and sent reality crashing down upon the victory I could practically taste. Her eyes sparkled with satisfaction, as if she were delivering preemptive revenge for every bad grade I’d get, every lie I’d tell, every night I’d come home smelling like cigarettes.
Your family probably has its own way of playing. Some groups let you skip or reverse a draw card to another player. Some forbid you from winning the game by playing an action card, although UNO’s official Twitter account recently clarified that there’s no rule against this. It also said earlier this year that you can’t play a Draw Four card unless you have no other option, which ... wait, what?
No matter how you do UNO, its grim life lessons are roughly the same. One minute you’ve got a single card and you’re ready to slam the door. A few Draw Fours and luckless hands later, you’re holding a load of cards that resembles a TV test pattern. One minute you’re serving for the Wimbledon championship. A half-hour later, you’re holding the runner-up plate, blinking tears out of your eyes and wondering what just happened.
Life happened. And UNO, in its elegant nastiness, helped prepare us for the disappointments that awaited.