I guess it was sometime in ‘03, maybe the spring of ‘04. Somewhere in the ‘03-‘04 school year. Yamaguchi-sensei announced that PCC was having a cultural festival, and all the native-Japanese-speaking conversation partners were gonna staff the Japanese table at this festival, but that we were welcome to stop by, hang out for a bit, and talk with folks, and help out if things were understaffed.
Having nothing to do during a three-hour span between classes cause I scheduled myself like that so I’d spend less time at home with my terrible mother, after I got all caught up with my homework in the cafeteria, I headed over to the table to see how everyone was doing.
Kaoru was sitting at the table, doing something with what looked like a handful of little chits with flowers on them. I had spent the last several months speaking to her in progressively-less-broken Japanese. She dealt those chits out as if they were cards, giving some to the player across from her, some face up in the middle, and she kept some to herself.
I had enough Japanese skills in me to barely articulate, “what’s all this for? Some kind of game?” Kaoru invited me to sit, and I pulled up a chair, barely recognizing the verb for “to sit,” the verb for “watch/look” being clearly understood. She called the game, “Koi-Koi.”
Kaoru would take a plant card from her hand, and snap it down on a similar card on the table with a slight but satisfying click, and pick them up and put them into her little area in front of her. She drew the top card from the deck, decided it didn’t match anything, and set it down face up with the rest of them.
It was a very confusing sight to watch: there were no numbers and seemingly no rhyme or reason to the matches, but she explained to me, eventually giving up and switching to English partway through, that the plants on the cards, the flowers, really, had to match, they’d go into the scoring area for each player, trying to make any winning hand before the opponent. “Kind of like poker,” I added, in English.
“Yeah, but with go-fish or matching too.” She clicks another card as her opponent fumbles his hand and the cards spill out on the table. The cards looked slick, and dropping them looked easy. Kaoru gave him a forgiving look.
I got the gist of the game pretty quick, wondering why the storm card matched with the other willow cards, but they did. After three hands, which Kaoru described as the word for “months,” the opponent got up, thanked her for the game, and headed off somewhere, probably to the vibrantly loud Russian table across the courtyard with a huge dance party in progress. Made sense, I saw they had snacks earlier.
She shuffled the cards with a very slick packet shuffle, tack-tack-tack-tack. She dealt effortlessly, click-click-click-click. She stacked her own hand and snatched up the moon from the table, playing a blank grass card with it, click. I consulted my sheet of winning hands. If she got the sake cup that was living in my hand, she’d win. But I held the cup, so it was unlikely.
Kaoru and I kept playing; a few times, classmates would walk up to the table, trying to talk to me in broken Japanese, and Kaoru would correct us whenever we eventually made a grammar error, all too often. They’d eventually saunter off. The Russian dance party dwindled, but I kept playing, month after month, winning a couple hands but losing most of them. I was enamored though.
Eventually the other tables closed, and me and Kaoru kept talking, mostly in English and rarely in Japanese, despite my protests to want to practice. “Focus on the game,” she said. We talked about class, about her boyfriend, about how I was gonna head home at ten at night so it’d be midnight when I got home and my mom would be long asleep.
We probably played sixty months that night. Long after the festival was done, I noticed she was relaxed the more she talked to me. She told me that often times, heavy discussions, real conversation came out with this game, cause the rules are simple enough, and there’s only the two players.
Over the following eighteen years, I ended up eventually losing touch with Kaoru, but I’ve also played tens of thousands of months of Koi-Koi. I’ve taught countless people how to play, using the idiosyncratic scoring rules she taught me that I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else. I’ve had heavy discussions with human opponents, I’ve fumbled my slick cards many times, I’ve still never figured out how to shuffle as smoothly as Kaoru did. I’ve stared into my phone screen as the AI took the damn sake cup time after time.
Koi-Koi remains to this day my most favorite card game ever. There’s better games mechanically, but there’s always something that just draws me to this game. I’ve been playing for nearly two decades, and there’s loads of time left for me yet.
I don’t even know if Kaoru knows just how hard this game hit me.