Let’s play Uno: Revisiting the childhood staple card game
Glynn Pogue, a Soho House member, writer and co-host of the Black Girls Texting podcast, explores her newfound passion for Uno and her thoughts on the rules, the language and family in this tongue-in-cheek piece
Words by Glynn Pogue
The right environment is perhaps the most important rule and it’s one I never break. To follow it correctly, pull up a chair at someone’s card table. Usually, it will be set up at a backyard barbecue under a string of bistro lights, or near burning citronella candles. It’s most fun when the table is flanked by family; aunts and uncles, and even little cousins – six years old or not, anybody can get the smoke.
Playing Uno is one of the sweetest pastimes. The thought of it evokes suspended time to spend together as the sun slips away; long nights with hours to kill. When ‘just one more round’ turns into 10.
When Uno games unfold with my family, the music will be bumping – usually DC Go-go – someone will throw something else on the grill, my uncle will make another round of Moscow Mules, and my aunt will ultimately pass me the deck and say, ‘It’s your turn to shuffle, Baby G.’ I’ve never been good at shuffling.
One of the most important things about Uno is that unlike other card games, where the goal is to collect decks, this is isn’t about abundance. Instead, the MO is to be the first to get rid of all of the cards in your hand. There’s something I love about that, the shedding. When you’re almost at the precipice and have just one card left, you shout out ‘Uno!’ And when you’re ready to drop that last card you yell ‘Uno, out!’ This should be performed in an extra ass display of fanfare. Failure to do either of these results in a penalty of having to draw two cards, and then you’re back in the game.
'It’s as if the Uno cards are a language. We know what they say, but we put our own little twist on their foundation and use them in our own way'
The Uno deck is composed of cards numbered from 0 to 9 in an array of colours: red, yellow, blue, and green. The game gets into a good rhythm by simply matching colours. A blue ‘9’ is met with a blue ‘7’, then a blue ‘3’, and so on. But just when you’re in a flow, and looking down at a handsome hand of blue cards, someone can switch it up and throw out a red ‘3’, and suddenly you’re in a whole new arena. That’s the thing about Uno, you can go from riding high to f***ed in an instant.
And that’s where the tricky action cards come in. Those will really get you. There’s the ‘draw two’, ‘draw four’, ‘reverse’, ‘skip’, and ‘wild card’. Their names are just as they imply. When you throw one out, the person next up in the rotation has to do whatever the card says. But see, me and my family like to get spicy with it.
You want to hit me with a ‘draw four?’
I’m going to hit you with a ‘reverse’. And now that draw four falls on to you.
Or, better yet, I’ll see your ‘draw four’ with a ‘draw two’, and now the next person in line will have to draw six.
Now, this is the stuff that has led to many a Black Twitter debate. The people over at Uno say none of this is allowed. But we say, ‘Says who?’
It’s as if the Uno cards are a language. We know what they say, but we put our own little twist on their foundation and use them in our own way, bending the rules, while employing their logic. It’s like slang. The cards don’t necessarily operate in the way they were intended to, but they still communicate an action nonetheless, and that action is: draw six, sis!
In many ways, the way we play Uno is evidence of the many cultural staples Black folks have created and remixed over time. And also of our unspoken languages, those that traverse and transcend music, food, and fellowship. When we get together, so often it just makes sense. There isn’t much to be understood. Nothing needs translating.