NAPLES, Italy — Odds are that if you work on a ship, you can find a card game.

Playing cards, according to Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony Jackson of the Fleet Air Mediterranean staff, is as popular in the Navy as it is back in the United States.

“On a ship, especially out at sea, there’s a limit at what you can do [with free time],” he said. “Gambling on a ship is not allowed, but it does happen.”

Cards are played “anywhere you can set up a table,” Jackson said. “[Sailors] know who to talk to on the ‘boat.’”

“When they don’t like what’s on [the shipboard TV station], they go and play cards or dominoes,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Lynden, NSA Naples’ first lieutenant. “In the evening you’d just get off of work and play cards to pass the time.”

Most of the games on the ships are either poker or spades, said Lynden, who has spent 10 of his 18 Navy years on ships.

“Cards were fairly important to morale,” he said.

Jackson said there are a few reasons why card games are important aboard ship. Space, he said, is limited and a deck of cards fits anywhere. Then, there are free cards.

“The casinos used to send us cards on a regular basis,” he said.

Jackson said he preferred to play the card game “Tonk” while on his two ships, the destroyer USS Cunningham and submarine tender USS Simon Lake.

“You need to know who you’re playing with,” he said. “When I used to do it a lot we used to take the new guys and set them up in the beginning.

“It was a steady income,” he said. “You could make two or three grand in two or three hours.”

Sailors also spend a lot of time playing spades.

“I had a spades buddy back in the North Island (Calif.)," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda VanTassel, a corpsman at the base’s branch medical clinic. “I miss him.”

VanTassel has lived in the Naples barracks for about a year and says that finding a card game in the barracks isn’t necessarily that easy.

Many sailors would rather go out for a night on the town, or travel, rather than stay holed up in a barracks room or apartment for a card game.

“People spend more time going out,” VanTassel said. “Especially in the summer, people want to get away from the base. They might play, but it’ll be out of boredom more than anything.”

But if sailors want to play cards on base they should be familiar with military and command regulations as well as local law, said Cmdr. Ken O’Rourke, the Naples Trial Service Office executive officer.

“The problem with poker is that it is generally accompanied by gambling,” he said, “and Federal regulations, as well as the Uniform Code of Military Justice, have a number of provisions addressing gambling.”

There are limited exceptions, he said, such as for slots — and video poker — in overseas Morale, Welfare and Recreation-run clubs, and one that “authorizes friendly wagers between friends if done in assigned family quarters and permitted under local law.”

Playing with co-workers is OK, but don’t invite the boss or junior personnel to play.

“People always need to be cognizant of fraternization issues and certain absolute prohibitions against gambling with subordinates,” O’Rourke added.

Military may have had role in rise of poker

The history of poker is widely disputed, but one prevailing theory holds that the U.S. military played an important role in the growth of its popularity in America.

Decks of cards with “face cards” are believed to have been developed in France and brought to America when the French settled in what would become New Orleans. There, it’s believed, the four suits in existence today were introduced.

A game of bluffing and betting called “poque” (pronounced “poke”) became popular.

“In the Southern vernacular,” said World Poker Tour chairman Stephen Lipscomb, “the game became known as ‘poke-ah.’”

Modern poker was carried up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers by steamboat, and into the interior by wagon and train, then headed west with the California gold rush.

But it was Civil War soldiers who caused a dramatic explosion in the popularity of poker, when tens of thousands of soldiers played the game in barracks across the North and South.

The Civil War also brought about games such as stud poker, the “draw” variant, and hands such as the straight.

When the war was over, the game went home with them, most notably traveling northward with Union soldiers returning from the Battle of Vicksburg, Lipscomb said.

— Patrick Dickson

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