Crazy Eights

Family card games
When I was a kid, games were a big part of family life. As a family and with our friends, we played board games, worked jigsaw puzzles, and we played a lot of card games. My parents played bridge, and they always enjoyed their bridge nights with friends: drinks, dinner, conversation, and serious bidding. It was loud, as I recall.

One of the games that we played as a family—and it’s played by kids all over the United States—is Crazy Eights. It’s a pretty basic game, meaning the rules are few and simple for kids to grasp.

The goal of the game is to be the first player to get rid of all of his cards. Play moves around the table, one person at a time; each player discards a card from his hand based on the last card played, either the same suit or the same value. Basically, there are two rules. One is that eights are wild; when someone plays an eight, a new suit is called. The other rule is that when a player is down to one card, he has to say “Card” out loud; if he doesn’t and he gets caught, he has to draw two more cards.

It’s a great game to play with kids because there isn’t a lot to remember. Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

A little background
David Parlett, a scholar of games, says that the game originated in the 1930s as “Eights.” During World War II, the name morphed into “Crazy Eights” by following the U.S. military designation for the discharge of a mentally unstable soldier, which is called a “Section 8.”

The French make it complicated
Fast forward to a day last year, when my friends Maryse and Claude decided we should play a card game. The game they chose that afternoon? Huit Américain (American Eight, or what we call Crazy Eights). Those two rules I mentioned above in the American game? They’re still in the game…

Along with a lot more rules and layers of complexity. My head was spinning: if a ten is played, the next player loses his turn and the direction of play reverses (e.g., from clockwise to counter-clockwise). If an ace is played, the next player must either play an ace, or draw three cards. If a seven is played, that player gets to play all the sevens in his hand, followed by a card of the last suit played.

I’m thinking this ain’t no game for kids, but mostly this is about how much fun I have playing card games with my friends, even with a spinning head. We’ve spent several afternoons with a deck of cards, always with food, always with drink, and most importantly, always with friendship and laughter.

But why am I telling you all this?

These same friends have been trying for a couple of years to take a vacation to the western United States, and in particular, the region around Lake Tahoe. I grew up near Tahoe, and I shared some ideas with them for their trip.

It looks like this is the year when they’ll finally get to go. They’ll see Lake Tahoe and Virginia City, as well as Yosemite National Park. To help them get in the mood for their travels, I found a couple of gifts. One was a copy of Mark Twain’s Roughing It, in French (À la Dure), a delightful memoir of the time that Twain worked for the Territorial Enterprise, a Virginia City newspaper. In the book, his many adventures include travels to Utah, Hawaii and California; he tries prospecting for gold and silver; and he writes a sublime description of Lake Tahoe upon his first sighting of that exquisite lake.

The other gift needed the help of a friend (thank you, Karen!). Given our experiences of playing card games together, I wanted to give Claude a deck of real Nevada casino cards. In a casino, the cards aren’t used for very long before they’re taken out of circulation to avoid any possible marks that could be used for cheating. The cards are checked to be sure there’s a complete deck, then the pack is sealed and hand-dated with a sticker from the casino, and then it’s sold as a souvenir. When I was growing up, our house was full of decks of casino cards.

The only question now was, which casino? And the answer was easy: John Ascuaga’s Nugget. What follows is what I wrote (and then translated) to give to Claude along with his deck of cards from the Nugget.

Left: John Ascuaga in his casino in 2005, photographed by the talented Marilyn Newton. Right: Ascuaga at his ranch, Jack’s Valley Ranch, in 2017.

My own story about the Nugget
When I was young, my grandfather and my father owned a dry cleaning business in the Reno-Sparks area. Victor Cleaners and Thrifty E Cleaners had several shops around town where people could drop off and pick up their items for cleaning, and the main office and the cleaning plant were located in Sparks.

My family lived in Reno, but my grandparents loved going to John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks. The Oyster Bar was where the adults went for a nice dinner out, and the whole family often dined in the “regular” restaurant.

There was a cozy sense of the Nugget being a home-town business, a place where locals could go and not feel lost among all the tourists. The Nugget was where I first played roulette—many years before I was legally old enough to gamble—which must have been tolerated because my family were all there, and probably familiar to the staff.

In 1960, John Ascuaga bought the Nugget from Dick Graves, and over the years he turned it into a huge enterprise.The Nugget was known to be one of the class acts among the casinos in Northern Nevada, and Ascuaga was well-respected and well-loved as both an astute businessman and a vibrant part of the community.

Dick Graves’ Nugget in 1959, the year before John Ascuaga bought it. Look at those cars!
People went to the Nugget’s Circus Room (later the Celebrity Showroom) to see stars like Liberace and Petula Clark, but none was more popular than Bertha the elephant. I remember meeting her once, along with her elephant sidekick, Tina.

John Ascuaga’s story
(from the website

Media from across the U.S. is reporting the death at age 96 of John Ascuaga, an “icon of gaming in northern Nevada,” who bought the small Sparks Nugget coffee shop in 1960, with 60 seats and “a few slot machines,” and turned it into a large hotel-casino he personally ran for over half a century.

His management turned that café into one of the largest hotels in northern Nevada, with more than 1,600 rooms, 75,000 square feet of casino, and more than 110,000 square feet of convention space. It was called John Ascuaga’s Nugget until it was sold to Global Gaming and Hospitality in 2013.

Media and even the governor of Nevada himself have released statements highlighting not only his business acumen and philanthropy, but also his Basque origins.

His father, José Ascuaga, came to Nevada to become a sheepherder in 1914; his wife, Marina Equiluz, joined him two years later. John was born on January 7, 1925. Both he and his siblings (his twin sister Rosa “Rosie” Mary Ascuaga passed away in 2018) all received university educations. He attended the University of Idaho and Washington State University, majoring in accounting and restaurant management. While studying, he worked as a bellman.

For over half a century, Ascuaga was also the owner of Jack’s Valley Ranch, a 1,200-acre property that has been in operation since before Nevada became the 36th state in 1864. The State and Federal Governments have purchased a conservation easement to guarantee that the property will continue to be “managed in an ecologically and economically sustainable way in perpetuity.”

The Nugget in the 1970s.
Two postcards of the Nugget, from the 1990s (L) and today (R).

January 7, 1925 – June 28, 2021
After a long and well-lived life in which he touched many thousands of people, John Ascuaga died last year at the age of 96. Thank you, Mr. Ascuaga, for all that you did for the people of Northern Nevada.

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