Thursday, February 12, 2009

Learning to Play Mus

This article was published at The Buffalo Bulletin:

Calling a spade an espada

Preserving a tradition is in the cards for Mus players
Grant Smith

Last Sunday something important was happening.

As decks of cards were cut and idle chatter filled the Catholic church’s recreation hall, it was difficult to see the event as anything more than a typical afternoon gathering.

But like a slow drifting evening fog, Basque words began to fill the room, and it became apparent that it wasn’t just another church card tournament.

It was a continuation of a deeply cherished tradition.

“A lot of our players are dying off, it has been over a century since the Basque people started coming to Buffalo and we’re beginning to be stirred right into the melting pot,” stated Big Horn Basque Club member Mick Camino. “I think it’s very important for people to learn the game of Mus. The Basque government highly encourages us to promote all aspects of the Basque Culture and we basically have a directive to pass it on, and also it’s a great way to spend time with family.”

The Basque card game Mus is more than an important tool for promoting the culture, it’s a fun and easy game to learn.

Incorporating the traditional language into the game, players learn Basque numbers and simple phrases, while experiencing first-hand a favored pastime of their sheepherding ancestors.

Taking a break from the action, several storied Mus players weighed in with tips on the nuances of the game, noting that a full explanation of the rules can be obtained easily over the Internet or by contacting Camino with the Big Horn Basque Club at 217-1575.

Starting out

“It’s a really easy game to learn,” noted Camino who has been playing for more than 20 years. “It’s just like learning a board game but the great thing about it is that no matter how far down you are, you still have a chance to bet the entire game and win.”

The game is played with four players making two teams and a special Mus deck that can be obtained at a Basque tournament or by contacting Camino.

For someone just starting out, club member Daniel Escoz recommends contacting the club to find out about local tournaments or instructional events.

“Back in December, we had a gathering at the VFW that featured Basque dancers and they taught Mus,” noted Escoz. “Currently we are trying to organize a group of kids to get together and learn how to play.”

As far as the best way to be introduced into the game Camino and Escoz are split.

“The game is not difficult at all to learn if you learn it in English,” noted Camino who learned the game that way at a North American Basque Organization music camp. “It takes some patience and for someone just starting out they don’t need to know all the ins and outs like facial signals and such.”

Escoz prefers the full immersion method.

“I learned Mus about 20 years ago from my dad in the sheep camps,” he stated. “I think it’s easier just to learn it in full with the Basque terms so that you’re playing it right, and you just get it all done with at once.”

Picking a partner

For Mick Camino and his partner Jason Camino, a good balance is what they seek when choosing their teammate.

“I would classify myself as a little more of a wild player, I take more chances, where as Mick is more conservative,” noted Jason. “I think that balance helps make us a good team.”

Mick agrees.

“Really what makes a good partner is someone who gets good cards all the time,” he noted. “But if you can’t find that, you want someone that is not going to make the big mistakes like betting the whole game when they don’t have the cards to do it. It really helps to have someone that plays a little different from your style just to keep your opponents on their toes.”


While it always helps to have a pat hand, fate might not fall in your favor. In such a case, there is always the opportunity to bluff your way to a win.

“Bluffing is a pretty big part of the game,” explained Jason. “If I don’t have a good hand but come out pretty strong I might bluff the other team to fold, but sometimes it can backfire on you.”

Mick uses his conservative style to make his bluffs more believable.

“I really don’t like to do it that often, so that when I do they think I’m telling the truth,” Mick stated.

Escoz is on the other side of the spectrum from Mick.

“I bluff every chance I get,” he stated. “It’s just a matter of having a good poker face.”

Giving the sign:

You can communicate with your partner about your hand via facial signals — or kenuak — throughout the game. The only problem is the signals are fixed the same for everyone and open for your opponent to steal.

“That’s when it helps to have a really heady uncle for a partner like Mick,” Jason said. “He knows what’s going on at the table and is good about giving a single when it is necessary.”

“If I have a high hand or a low hand I can give my partner a signal to let him know what I’m playing with,” noted Mick. “You really only want to use them if you can sneak it by your opponent. There’s a time to use it and a time to not. But you can never lie on the signal to try and throw off your opponent.”

Caminos claim local Mus title

On Sunday, Feb. 9, the annual Big Horn Basque Mus Tournament was held featuring eight teams of two players competing in an elimination style contest lasting well into the evening.

“This card tournament is sponsored by the North American Basque Organization,” noted a press release issued by the Big Horn Basque Club. “The game, unique to the Basque people has a list of official rules. Rule number one is that during the game a player may speak with his partner, may ask his partner any question and may answer any question as he sees fit — whether those answers be truthful or not.”

The winning team on Sunday was made up of Mick Camino and Jason Camino who have the opportunity to travel to Chino, Calif., to compete in the national tournament in July.

In the youth bracket, Baileigh Rodriguez and Tommy Fieldgrove beat out Ana Fieldgrove and Micheala Rodriguez.

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