Playing Pig in Appalachia - a card game keeping a community alive

Image source, Terri Likens

What keeps a general store going in the days of shopping centres and online shipping? Lisa Coffman makes a visit to where a unique card game keeps a community connected and a store open.

As Highway 127 winds its sometimes lonesome way across the Cumberland Plateau, the road passes an unlikely structure in tiny Forbus, Tennessee - a century-old general store that hasn't closed like the rest.

That's because, tucked inside, another Appalachian relic abides. Often during operating hours - and you can tell for certain by the number of trucks in the lot - a game of Pig is raging.

Maybe raging is a little strong, but Pig does speak to the competitive spirit.

It's a card game native to just two counties on the Plateau. Four people, two partners, and a wily bidding war for who gets to set the trump card and, with it, the prized Pigs - the five of trumps and its same-colour doppelganger.

Image source, Terri Likens

Pig's been around Forbus as long as anybody can recall. Kids at recess played it. Families who went visiting played it. People hanging out at the gas station pretty soon got out a deck.

But Pig's epicentre was and is the Forbus General Store, where the fastest and most merciless version of the game still commands daily troops of the faithful.

Every morning at 05:30 local time, 68-year-old Colin Huddleston opens the store, starts a fire in the stove in cold weather, makes coffee, and waits to play Pig. It's not even his store.

Soon, the before-work crowd - loggers, mechanics, and farmers who yet haven't fed their cows - shows up to get in a game.

Pig subsides and picks back up through the day. Retirees drift in. The lunch players come, usually including the local game warden, whom everybody razzes. ("He'd arrest his own momma.")

There's no money involved in Pig - it offers something more vital.

"I'd go into DTs [withdrawal] if I didn't get to play Pig at least once a day," says Jim Buck, an insurance salesman who lives half a mile from the store.

"It's how you learn what's going on. Somebody's been at a cattle sale, you find out what the price of cattle is, what the pigs are doing. You find out who's sick, is Joe out of the hospital, you know. We just talk about everything in the world."

Image source, Terri Likens

The Forbus area is wild hill country, deeply rural. It can forge outsize characters. There is native son Alvin C York, the World War I hero credited with capturing 132 Germans in a single raid.

There is fugitive Billy Dean Anderson, who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list when he was killed near his mother's home by an FBI sniper in 1979.

And there are the Pig players.

In 2001, Jim Buck hit on the idea of taking Pig to the next level. He and his wife saw a World Monopoly Tournament during a trip to Las Vegas and thought, why not Pig?

The World Pig Tournament at the general store was born. Thirty players showed up the first year; a few tournaments later attendance grew to more than 100.

Image source, Terri Likens

Attendance varies. This year a local band provided some after-Pig entertainment.

But every year, on the last Saturday in February at high noon, World Pig commences in Forbus for five straight hours of the game.

I went this year strictly to watch. I grew up in Appalachia, although not anywhere near Forbus.

But I get out that way, and when I do, I go in the store and loiter around the back near the Pig table. I don't know another general store and card game that have conspired to survive this way.

I love the calibre of banter ("Lord, she's drawing like a good flue!"). I love that Pig gives lower cards bigger points and stiffs the kings and queens. I love watching the players read each other.

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It's the vicarious thrill of a what a country store once meant - a community and connectedness that belong to the past. Except both Pig and Forbus General Store are stubbornly, so far, staying present.

This year's tournament drew 48 players, some of them expats.

Jennifer Maddle came in from several counties over with her mother and sister, all Pig players since childhood. Rick Vitatoe drove for seven hours from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he teaches labour law. Real estate developer Hal Boles travelled nearly 600 miles (965km) from Washington, DC.

Image source, Terri Likens

But aren't you at a disadvantage, compared to the locals who play every day, I asked Boles. "Oh, they kick my patootie!" he said cheerfully and went back to playing.

Sure enough, 10 games in, one of the General Store regulars won the tournament: Larry Padgett, a 66-year old nurse who'd been runner-up a few years before.

"Hard to win," he said modestly. "Them people in there are good."

Although tournament players spanned a range of ages, I noticed the group tilted solidly toward retiree - a worrisome note for Pig.

An 18-year-old player, Emilee Anderson, told me she'd come to love the game while working in the store - "just listening to older people tell their stories while they played," she said.

"I feel like everybody should get to have a Forbus."

How to Play the Forbus version of Pig

Object: Be the first team to score 52 points. (Or to send your opponents 52 points in the hole.)

Deck: A 52-card deck, plus one Joker. Players: Two teams of two partners.

Bidding: Each player starts with nine cards. Each bids on points they think they can capture with their hand. The highest bidder wins and names the suit for the trump cards.

Points: Point cards are the trump suit for Ace, Jack, Ten, Five, Two as well as the Joker, and the "off-Jack" and the "off-five" (the suit of the same colour as the trump suit).

Each is worth one point except for the "Pigs" - the five of the trump card and the off-five - which net five points each. All the other cards in the trump suit can win a round but will not bring points.

There are 16 possible points per game. But a Forbus provision allows aggressive bidders to double the highest bids. A team can possibly score (or lose) 28, 30, or 32 points in a single hand.

Play: Once trumps are named, players have one round to discard and draw from the remaining deck to make a hand of six.

The highest bidder starts the game, laying down a card. Play moves clockwise until all four play a card. The highest trump takes the "trick" and wins the round.

Because trump card rank runs numerically, with the Ace and royals at the top, a trump that carries no points, like a Queen or eight, can win. The player winning a trick starts the next trick until all six rounds are played.