Math, Morality and Gambling: Card-games and Kids in the Himalayas

As concerned adults, we often struggle with the sequence and pace of bringing the outside world into children’s lives, sometimes delaying or even denying the entry of unfavourable events or difficult themes. This also raises concerns about overprotection and isolation, the consequences of which can be equally frightening. One important decision relates to handling cash, and children can learn a lot from the ways in which money is used around them. As our economies move further away from direct cash exchanges, conversations about money and related process like profit, loss, value and probability are also affected. In this post, we invite you to a discussion around an observation Vishwas Raj made during our Himalayan Chai project, and welcome your comments regarding card-games and young children.   

The video and pictures here depict a group playing cards outside a residence-cum-tea-shop for travellers. There are three children, two girls and a boy, and one adult, the mother of one of the children, perhaps the girl in pink pants. It was Diwali season when Vishwas and his team visited Landruk, Nepal, during which schools are closed for a month-long holiday of festivities and feasting, Diwali, or Tihaar in Nepali, is also a time for regular bouts of gambling, and winning is considered auspicious for profits in the forthcoming year. Small groups of people, mostly men, can be seen huddled seriously over card games. A dramatic win is always celebrated, although losses are also accepted as an eventuality. Most of these games happen with friendly competition and community spirit, but things can sometimes get out of hand, especially when there is a big loss or underlying animosity. Besides being an annual event during Diwali, card games are also a common pastime for unemployed men for whom the indulgence can be wasteful and destructive.

The card game onlookers

Given the seasonal sanction, it isn’t surprising that these kids playfully engage in a mid-morning round of Rummy, a game that works towards building trails or sequences from the pile of cards discarded by others after an initial hand of ten cards each. Although the episode is mostly lighthearted, there are moments of sparring and competitiveness between the two teams, the girls on one side, and the little boy and his adult partner. Some verbal threats by the little girl in the mauve hoodie are also provocative, although she doesn’t follow up on them (“I’ll kick you”). The rules of the game seem to be somewhat different from Rummy, but it could also be a different game altogether. Also, these kids are playing with real money and we will pick that up for discussion.

Here is the video:

The card game

Gambling: A children’s game?

Ordinary events can tell us a lot about people’s way of life, what we call their culture. Instead of being random or inconsequential, everyday interactions are in fact organised around significant social principles, values and beliefs and one can learn a lot from careful examinations of such events. This is the underlying assumption of using this card-game to explore and illuminate aspects of this Himalayan community.

Card-games that involve the use of money are usually not seen as appropriate for children among middle-class, urban educated families, at least that is our assumption. Yet, in board games like Trader or Monopoly, realistic-looking (fake) money is used to measure success in strategy. In fact, most games are planned to have some sort of winning and losing, even when there is no ‘money’ involved. But children’s play with money is believed to be somewhat corrupting. This doesn’t seem to be the case in this observation, where Nepali currency (five, ten rupees) is being used.

Some groups approve and even celebrate contained gambling as a source of entertainment, especially during festival time. Among others, cards are treated with suspicion, and any indulgence in gambling is strictly forbidden. Vishwas remembers being socialised into believing that gambling of any kind is morally corrupt and seriously damaging, both for an individual as well as the family. Elders in the family would use the famous gambling scene from the Mahabharat to instruct children regarding the risks of gambling. As the story goes, Yudhishtra, the eldest and most upright of the Pandava brothers, looses everything he owns and more in a game of dice, believed to be a ritual that leaders are compelled to accept when challenged. Despite his immaculate reputation, Yudhishtra had one weakness (another life-lesson?), he enjoyed gambling and thus, easily falls prey to his wily cousin’s manipulation. It was when he pawned his brothers and their common wife Draupadi, that his life and his reputation are ruined. Like all mythological stories, this one too is wrapped in layers of meaning. Dice-throwing can be seen as symbolic of the cosmos and family feuds as inevitable steps in social renewal, Yet, when Vishwas confronted this group of kids happily engaged in a game of cards, it was his early socialisation that he confronted, and watched in awe as this group was cheerfully engaged in the “forbidden” game. What could be the objective of playful engagement with gambling? What was being achieved? Wasn’t the game potentially harmful? All these questions and his own early socialisation came flooding in as he watched in awe. Let us examine some of functions such an activity may be serving.

The games we play

So what was the purpose of this activity? Was it just a time of fun, togetherness, festive fever? Surely such exchanges have significance for the players, even if it may not be immediately evident. What could be the underlying lessons children can get from an episode like this?

Reshu reminisces about childhood games with siblings and cousins when card games like ‘Teen-Patti’ and ‘Turup’ would occupy them for hours. She feels that card-games seem to have lost their charm for children, perhaps with all the additional toys that we have access to. Card games were a lot of fun, and we learnt important lessons from that, just like the children in the video. It was an important activity that kids did together. She also acknowledges that watching this video had refreshed her memories, since life has changed so much, materially and otherwise, that she had forgotten about her own card-playing, especially during the long summer vacations from school. Other activities included board games like carrom and ludo, as well as outdoor ones like hide-an-seek, dhappa, pitthu, solah-parchi and taada-pani! Card games helped us build skills with math and develop strategies for winning with what one is dealt by chance, estimating others’ hands, and also, accepting how to take a loss. “I realise now that it should be fun to go back and play some of these games with my family to refresh our memories when we get together again so my daughter can experience it too.”

Apart from keeping children occupied with an activity where an adult could participate, some other objectives could be to learn rules, collaboration, decision-making, strategising and how to accept defeat. These are serious enough lessons for a child, but ones that are transacted within a benign setting, in playful engagement with family. The elements of security and comfort are mostly missing in formal, planned activities; and the dynamic play between collaboration and competition that is lacking in individual games with machines.

Diwali season and gambling

This is a time for fun, when children are home and celebrations are in the air and is perhaps the only time of the year when women and children spend time in playful activity together. Men of course, play through the year. Cards are easily available, and setting aside our moral judgement, card-playing can be seen as lessons in mathematics: probability, chance, counting, sequencing, prediction and profit. The fact that the children play with real money adds to the drama, as does the presence of an adult, although in this scene, she too is child-like in her conduct. Towards the end, she does take a call on the next game when she rejects the proposal to play a hand of ‘Teen-Patti’. The messing up of the card pile towards the end is also an indication of the playfulness that is permissible in this setting. It’s really hard to say whether such engagement encourages the trend for gambling in later life, or prepares children for a seasonal indulgence.

Sangeeta, a recent immigrant from Nepal who lives in Mumbai with her one year-old daughter and husband, enjoyed watching the video with me when I asked her to translate the conversations. Quite amused with my line of work, she couldn’t help asking why I was bothering with these children, a query that I am very familiar with. She explained that although during Tihaar time, card-playing can be fun, and this video seems quite harmless, it can communicate an approval of gambling to the children concerned, something that she and her family would not approve of or practice. The element of ‘evil’ in card-playing is obvious in her facial expressions, a curl of the mouth, rolling of the eyes. Of course men play, she adds, but outside of festival time, the gambling is forbidden in most homes, especially for women and children. Only wayward women (who also smoke) play cards regularly, but that’s not the case here, she quickly reaffirms.

Collaboration, competition and the balance between

The game between these three children and an adult has both collaborative and competitive dimensions. Between partners (the two girls on one side and the mother and boy on the other), there is mostly cooperation, but each player seems to have his or her own winnings, which suggests that they could also be playing individually. Although these details are not perceptible in the still shots that follow, the video clearly displays that cards are exchanged and players are permitted to glance at each other’s hand to make decisions or pull out a card. The players egg each other on to play the next move (Sangeeta translates for me), as discussions about winning and losing are negotiated. One of the girls playfully lunges towards the mother’s feet where her stash of money is hidden, to the amusement of everyone around. This seems like a common place to keep one’s winnings as can also be seen in the following picture. Bystanders also join in with their comments and advice, cheering on the players. Vishwas and his team members were invited to join in, but they declined for fear of being routed by this sprightly bunch of youngsters.

A winning hand under the left foot. And some peanuts on the side

The children’s competence

The children’s competence in the game struck Vishwas and his colleagues instantly. Some of them (the visitors) were locals, and they were still quite surprised to see the game being played so well by young children. The way the cards were held, shuffled, how small notes were carefully held down out of reach from others, and negotiations with the game were very impressive. The children appeared to be way beyond their age in competence. Besides, they were well-versed with the rules despite the fact that the Rummy-like game seemed to have been adapted somewhat, likely with shared consensus. Rather than individual players, the two little girls and the woman and boy had paired up to play.

Playful heckling: The competitive dimension

There is some heckling among the children, and particularly between the two teams in this loosely structured game and messing up the cards towards the end of the video was an interesting conclusion to the play by the two little girls, the one in the mauve hoodie is particularly expressive. I am assuming the girls lost, and that is why some of the exchanges were directed at the others. Although the boy was threatened with a kick (in words only), she tried to pull out the mother’s spoils from under her feet. Jumbling up the cards prematurely was also something I remember doing when I was younger, because as the youngest of four, that seemed like the most powerful way of disrupting an imminent loss. Small wonder that my older siblings spent much of their time avoiding me! 😛

Adult-child continuity

The sharing of cards and the discussion between partners seemed like a simplification of the game for the children. Yet, there was also a child-like atmosphere in the exchanges which even the mother was engaged in. Both the adult-like skill of the children and the child-like play of the adult are noteworthy. This signals towards an important observation, the lives of children and adults is marked by continuity rather than separation. This continuity does not, however, assume a constant presence. Children are often seen without any adult in the vicinity, fending for themselves, going about their daily activities autonomously for very early ages, if we compare them with their urban counterparts.

It is interesting to note that the mother is synchronized with the children in the sense that she does not seem to be adopting any instructive role during the exchanges. In fact, she comes across as a larger version of the children, both in her playfulness and her engagement in the game. As mentioned above, this illustrates the continuity that is characteristic, an aspect that is widely shared among rural and tribal communities in other regions. The lives of children and adults are not rigidly separated. Children are expected to pick up things through incidental learning and catch up with older children and ultimately with adults. Childhood is not scrutinized too much with an adult gaze and benign neglect as well as sporadic punishment are also evident. When there is direct engagement with children, it is more likely to be an interactive rather than didactic. At least this seems true of this session. This is a dimension of family life that Dr. T. S. Saraswathi has also written about. Most tasks are accomplished under the loose guidance of adults and older children, framing the lives of the young within a relatively safe environment. The way in which this supervision is structured, permits early and relatively precocious development in children’s skill at being with others, as well as being by themselves, both of which appear as if they slow down when there is constant mediation. Most tasks are learned by observing others than by direct instructions, as we saw in the case of the face-washing episode.

Synchrony and complementarity

Protect or play? Moral lessons in games with children

From a specific moral perspective, the involvement of real money is a problem and it is often advised to postpone the notion of monetary gains and losses until children are older. It is quite likely that this emerges from viewing money as a corrupting influence. But this is not true for everyone, there are families where it is customary for children to be engaged in family occupations as well as market activities. And if handling cash is common for children, this may be an important initiation into the monetized world so that they become familiar with value, calculations, losses and gains using cash.

In the game under discussion, we can see two layers of moral activity. First, there is the social evaluation of gambling (by Sangeeta, by the travellers, for instance) as potentially damaging. Although with a comment that in this particular case, it didn’t appear to be immoral, but it could be so if extended. There is also the morality of the game itself, the playfulness among the players, negotiations, exchanges, and the final messing up of the game by the young girl. All these are illustrations of rule-making and rule-breaking that the children are engaged with during this activity.

The losing smile!

Summing up

On the basis of this observation, it could be concluded that this session of card-playing is packed with cultural, social and interpersonal content. On the day the observation was done, there was no occupancy at the tea-house and Diwali festivities permitted a bit of indulgence at card-playing. The episode emerges as a microcosm, a faithful and playful reproduction of the adult world, making it potentially instructive as well as entertaining for all the players as well as for us. We also see a dynamic play between rule-making and rule-breaking both within the game as well as in the larger social group. This potentially leads to another important lesson for us, ordinary games among children, as Piaget demonstrated, display significant details about how children’s minds are oriented towards their developing sense of morality. Furthermore, lessons in mathematics, especially chance and probability, value and arithmetic, are all contained in this game, if only we can spare the time to look carefully!


As I was writing about math, I remembered a book from our childhood home where I first tasted the excitement of reading about paradoxes. I also recall when we were growing up, books were not pushed at us, they lay quietly in the small collection, waiting to be noticed and pulled out as and when one of us was ready. Riddles in mathematics (See below) came to my attention on one summer vacation and I spent many hours reading through the delightful puzzles and paradoxes Northrop has assembled. That one experience did more for my math education than all the classroom teaching put together. Actually, some of the teaching was subtractive (to use an appropriate metaphor), preventing an advancement in some fields. Please see notes section for the details. Despite the fact that it is a 1944 publication, it is still available in print if you wish.

How we learn cannot be predicted beyond a point. Perhaps it is a question of timing, availability and readiness that we can only make weak attempts at structuring. I emerge from this essay with a renewed perspective on games of chance and a greater respect for the potential lessons contained in card-games!


Riddles in mathematics

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