Playing Hockey Cards – Leaners and Life

In my last post, I wrote about the art of playing with hockey cards as a kid.  I covered only one game – closest-to-the-wall.   In this post, I cover leaners.

Leaners was a slight derivation from closest-to-the-wall.  Two or more guys would fire cards at a wall from 5-10 feet away and try and land their card leaning up against the wall, hence the name.  Until one of the shooters accomplished this, all the cards shot up to that point accumulated and would be awarded to the first to land a leaner.   It was remarkable how good some guys got with this.  It usually didn’t last more than a few cards and in that sense was just a small step up the risk scale from closest-to-the-wall.  However, like all games, leaners had a few wrinkles that affected the excitement level and looking back, it makes me chuckle about the creativity human beings have, even at a really young age.

First, to increase the fun by increasing the difficulty / raising the stakes, guys would move much further back from the wall.  20 feet perhaps instead of 5-10.  This predictably increased the number of shots required to get a leaner which mean a much bigger pile of loot to the eventual winner.  And it also increased the fan appeal.  Kids would gather to watch.  I can remember the U-shaped pockets of kids lined up to watch the shooters in a big game, the top of the “U” being the wall, bottom being where the shooters were shooting from.

Second, there was a honour-thing instituted whereby if one guy got a leaner, the other shooter(s) were granted one last shot.  If they happened to land a leaner on that shot, it was game-on.  But wait!  Another twist developed on this.  If you could somehow get rid of the initial leaner, it was game-on as well.  And so, faced with one last chance, you could either shoot for a leaner of your own, or shoot to knock the other guy’s leaner down.  And if by chance you only half knocked down his leaner, or zut alors!, if in your opinion you knocked it down and in your opponent’s opinion you did not, it was war.  And there was no UN, just the teacher patrolling the yard and no one wanted that form of arbitration because fairness was in the eye of the beholder and in this game, teachers were the unschooled and so could be pretty unpredictable.

What a beautiful thing a game of leaners was, when played by the gifted ones.  Some guys would intentionally not try to get one early in order to get the pot to a decent size.  Some were so confident in the skills they’d let the other guy get one first, knowing they had a pretty good chance on their “last card” to keep the game going.  Of course, some specialized in knock-downs.  They were the sharp shooters of the school yard infantry.  From any distance, when the pressure was on, with their trusted card (which they kept until late the game when they needed it most), they could shoot down any leaner with nerves of steel.

And then there was the weather.  Oh how the wind could wreak havoc on a game of leaners.  If you think it took skill to nail a leaner from 20 feet when your opponent had just landed one, try doing it in a March wind.  (In fact, if you waited, the wind would sometimes blow the other guy’s leaner down, which was another of those triggers-of-war).  And if it was raining you ask?  Well, rain meant doing what any smart athlete would do – change your equipment.  On outdoor ice, your skates don’t need to be as sharp as they do on indoor ice.  For shinny, you sometimes use your beater-stick, not your game-stick.  For hockey cards in the rain, you needed a stiffer card.  The wet, waffly kind would flutter too much and risk not getting there.  Like a golfer putting up-hill on 18 from long distance and needing to sink it, you never wanted to come up short.

Lastly, I would be remiss in this age of the global debt crisis, if I didn’t cover off the quite frequent scenario where, during a high stakes game of leaners, one of the players ran out of money…er cards.   It really wasn’t all that different than the world today.  Karl was Germany, Jimmy was Ireland and Paulo was Italy.  If Jimmy ran out during the game, how could the game continue without a bailout of some sort?

In these situations, it was most common for Jimmy to simply go to the markets for more cards (ie. the kids watching in the U around the game).  However, when times were tough, the markets could be tough.  Maybe Jimmy was simply in over his head and the odds were long that even with a loan of more cards he would ever beat both Karl and Paulo.  Not to mention that while Paulo was good, he only 3 cards left himself and then would be in the boat with Jimmy.  And so, as a last resort, to keep the game going, it was over to Karl.  Would he lend his buddies / serfs a few to keep this game going?  Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, sometimes it resulted in a dust-up, sometimes an orderly withdrawal.

And so, it wasn’t just hockey cards we were playing, it was actually our first economics / political science / geography / finance / organization behaviour / sales course.

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