Hearts in the Right Place

October 17, 2023
October 17, 2023 Betsy Voreacos

Hearts in the Right Place


“Let me get this straight,” said a friend who clearly did not know the great lengths I’ve gone to do the right thing. “You went all the way to France to play cards?”

I’ve driven through the night, surviving not one, but two, blown out tires (and a ride with a trucker to get a new spare) on the dark and windy Skyline Drive, all to see John Prine and Bonnie Raitt somewhere way down deep in Virginia. I’ve attended three parties in one night in far-flung locations so I didn’t have to choose between friends and lovers. I transferred colleges not for the curriculum but for the proximity to the school and friends I was leaving behind. I chose to go on a cruise as the world was shutting down with Covid. I went on a round-trip late night date to DC with my future spouse, who was merely a fling at the time, so he could drop a resume off at The Washington Post. Then later that year, when the fling was flung, drove to Florida for the same purpose. I walked out of the hospital after a hysterectomy and went directly to the Little League field. I promised I would, and did, dance at a wedding three weeks after a double knee replacement. We took two cars to the daughter’s college graduation, then I drove 511 miles home in the middle of the night with the youngest so he could play in the next day’s baseball game. Perhaps craziest of all, I traveled to Myrtle Beach for a cheerleading competition – on an overnight chartered bus filled to the brim with sleepless, screeching teenagers.

I spend a lot of time and energy debating whose feelings and I should or shouldn’t hurt, weighing the perceived importance of doing or not doing and over-analyzing the very real financial impact of the decisions I may or may not make. But I didn’t have to think twice about flying to France for the annual Hearts Tournament. After all, this is what we signed up for.

Forty-odd years ago I landed my first “real” job. Though TV Guide magazine looked good on a resume, none of us were there to build our careers. We were in it for the perks – the four-day work week and the age-appropriate co-workers who became core friends. There were just a handful of us who actually worked there but our group quickly grew to include significant others, downstairs neighbors, law school classmates, Bacchanal buddies and their scientists and a random artist met after a Mummer’s Parade mugging.

Before we knew it, we were all hanging out in Fishtown (we were cool long before Fishtown was), drinking beer (lots and lots of beer), watching Phillies games, feasting in deliciously inexpensive South Philadelphia restaurants and renting a beach bungalow for six weeks each summer.

The card playing part of our friendship began innocently enough – just a bunch of drunks sitting around a sticky oil-clothed table in Brigantine, filling the hours between steaks on the grill and sunrise with a friendly hand of Hearts. But competitive forces brewed beneath the surface and before long, Jim was recording not just wins and losses but hours played. And believe me, there were many.

After a few years, the Brigantine community caught on that despite the fact that we were hard-working, full-fledged adults, we were light years away from quieting down at a reasonable hour. Our landlord was asked to no longer rent to the loud group of communals and the Brigantine Beach House became just one more memory.

That’s when we decided to make the Hearts Tournament a real thing. Nancy and Eddie found the perfect trophy on a trip to Mexico – a shadowbox full of skeletons playing cards – and Jeff, our favorite artist, later created a stained-glass base. We vowed to play once a year. For the rest of our lives.

And so we have. There’s about a dozen of us who play, some with more fervor and stamina than others. Some are die-hard competitors, some come for the food alone, some would rather socialize than play, and some still can’t win for losing. Whoever claims the trophy gets to display it in their own home for the year, but then has to host the next tournament. Which means providing snacks, dinner and of course, breakfast for those who spend the night. And many someones always spend the night. There’s also a loser’s trophy which has taken up semi-permanent residence in Teaneck.

In August of 2022, Donald won the tournament. In September he and his wife, Theresa, sold their worldly possessions and moved to Rennes, France. With the trophy.

A few weeks ago, as required, 13 of us gathered on a rooftop in Rennes for the annual Hearts Tournament. Theresa and Don were hands down the best hosts ever, though Bob and Nicole have done a pretty good job in their Pocono palace. But hey, this was our first transatlantic tournament so they get killer kudos.

We spent four days in Rennes, then another three in Paris and saw tons of noteworthy sites and ate pounds of noteworthy baguettes and croissants. But nothing could hold a candle to The Official Hearts Tournament Almanac of Fact and Ephemera, a bound booklet gifted by our esteemed host that documents our highs and lows over the years. Suffice it to say that Donald’s witticisms make my words sound like garble and we laughed our way through his truisms, exaggerations and as the Big Guy would say, blatant lies. But there wasn’t a non-constricted throat in the house as we read his tribute to Young Ed whom we lost in 2019 to a cancer as rare as he was.

 Spewed during the course of a good game of Hearts are recurring words, questions and sentiments that include:

“Whose got the bitch?” referring to the Queen of Spades which is a card you mostly want to avoid.

“He’s shooting!” referring to shooting the moon, which means taking all the hearts plus the aforementioned bitch, and if done successfully is a good thing.

“Remind me how to play,” referring to me.

“What round are we in?”

“What time’s dinner?”  

But the most loaded question of all, “Have hearts been broken?”

A week to the day after returning from our fun-filled France adventure, one of us – the zen-est of us all, the one who walked just as many kilometers as the rest of us, the one who voluntarily took the recycling around the corner and filled the water bottles at the grocery store, the one who is neither the youngest nor the oldest, the one who doesn’t drink, the one who is loved just as much as the rest of us (or more) — suffered what they call the WidowMaker heart attack. The one where there’s a total blockage of the main artery.

Spoiler alert: Thanks to the would-be widow’s quick thinking and expert driving skills, he made it to the hospital in time and we were all spared the ultimate heartbreak. But it kinda gets you thinking.

In over four decades of friendship, we’ve all had our share of pain, sorrow and suffering. We’ve seen each other through divorces, deaths, layoffs, joint replacements, cancers, relocations, tournament losses and ironically, a fair amount of heart surgeries.

Have hearts been broken?

Sooner or later, the answer is always yes.

Which is perhaps why this tradition has become so important. Both the biggest losers (arrow emoji over my head) and the strongest winners (star next to my ever-loving spouse’s name, knowing that comment will make Donald’s blood boil) understand that in the end, Hearts is not about the cards in your hand, but the people at your table.