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Hit the deck: Inside a Snerts circle in Barrow

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 11, 2016
  • Published December 4, 2013

From Marc Lester in Anchorage —

Marjorie Solomon told us not to bother calling before we came over for Snerts. She might not have heard the phone anyway. Three or four nights a week, it gets noisy in Barrow when friends and family gather there for the fast-paced card game.

When a cab dropped us off at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday in mid-November, games were well under way. Cards flew as Marjorie, her husband, Eli, and four others played the game that some said they've been playing all their lives.

Soon, young married couple Dominique and Martin Edwardsen came through the door, just off the plane from a trip to Anchorage. They were greeted with, "You're late!"

"Our parents used to have friends over to play," said Ora Elavgak, who partnered with her husband, Fred, in the early rounds.

Marjorie remembered sitting under the table as adults played when she was a girl. Now, a giant portrait of her dad, whaling captain Norman Leavitt, watched over them from the living room and countless other family pictures were posted all around.

That lifetime of practice showed. The speed at which they played made it difficult for a newcomer to see what they were doing. And playing a couple rounds barely helped.

This much I gathered: Each player starts with a deck of cards. When play starts, they build same-suit piles in the common area at center, trying to get rid of their own stacks as quickly as they can, by building down from kings and up from aces.

Or something like that. On her blog, Dana Stabenow took a shot at explaining the rules.

When Kyle Hopkins and I jumped in for a try, we were clearly a speed bump among race cars. I think I technically scored more points than he did, but I was situated between Dominique Edwardsen and Tracy Benson. Both of those women played my cards for me after they got rid of all their own.

Despite our lack of skill, our hosts were gracious. They offered us bites of uunaalik – bits of bowhead skin and blubber --- which she recommended I dip in salt and pepper. They're tender because she boils the strips before freezing them, she explained. She also shared her pickled muktuk with jalapeno peppers.

Watching the experts play, I remarked that it seemed to take a lot of focus and concentration. Marjorie said it had the opposite effect on her. It was relaxing after a day working as a family advocate for the Native Village of Barrow. There, she and some of the other players are sometimes called on to assist families and children in dire situations.

"It's easier than what we have to deal with," she said.

Ora held up their Snerts group as an example of sober, family-friendly fun that beats the alternative. "It's better than going out and getting drunk," she said.

Here's another look at the game, posted by Phyllis Kailek on YouTube.