Play has commenced

“There are three things I can tell you about this game.

“First, it’s called MOW. That’s spelled M-O-W and stands for ‘My Own Way.’

“Second, it’s played more or less like Uno or Crazy Eights – you try to get rid of all the cards in your hand by discarding cards of the same suit or same number as the one on the pile.

“Third, there are roughly 17 other rules that you’ll need to figure out on your own.”

With those words or similar ones about five years ago I was first inducted into the Great Conspiracy that we like to call the Big M. Just a little while before I heard those words I had walked in on a few of my friends gathered around a table with a teacher, intent on a game of cards. When I asked them what they were playing, a few secretive looks were passed. “The Big M,” they said. “Except that’s not actually what it’s called. We’re not allowed to say the name.”

I love the Big M. Five years later, I’ve inducted a great, great many players myself. The rules to my version of the game feel like second nature, so much so that I occasionally accidentally insert them into other card games. While I admit to rather enjoying the sadistic aspect of a game in which you can’t teach new players the rules, I’ve discovered that the most interesting thing for me is the wonderful sense that I’m now participating in an oral tradition reaching back over some unknown amount of time. The Big M, is, after all, a Great Conspiracy, and all of us who play it are “insiders” to the Big Plan.

You’re probably wondering, at this point, why I insist on referring to the game as the Big M, even if that’s not its real name. Over the last year or so, idle research around the internet has revealed to me that Big M players agree upon very little, not even the spelling of the Great Name. For some, it’s Mao, like the Chairman; for other’s, it’s Mau, after the German card game or the (apocryphal) West African tribe. My group appears to be the only one to call it MOW. And the version I know is just one out of a multitude with very, very disparate rule sets – some even allow you to tell the rules to new players!

At first, when I began to discover how different my version was from the others up there, I felt a little protective and self-righteous. My version, after all, calls itself the Traditional one – surely it’s “better” and more “accurate” than the others! After a while, though, I just became fascinated by the diversity, and also by the fact that no group of players can even half-way agree on the history of the game outside of their own local context. That’s the trouble with an oral tradition, especially one which is deliberately secretive and which consists only of a game: it mutates quickly.

Hence, Project Big-M: to know where the Great Conspiracy actually began, what the original rules are. Just a few hours of research has turned up 10 versions available around the net, and a little analysis already shows some very interesting patterns. Did the “Ultimate Mao” recently spotted at Penn State grow out of the remarkably similar “Santa Cruz Mau” in the mid-1990’s? What’s the underlying connection between “Illinois Mao” and “Unofficial Non-standard Cambridge 5-card Mao”? Let’s find out! Who’s with me?