The Unbeatables: The Sueca Players of Lisbon

Elias learned to play sueca by watching the games at Jardim da Estrela until he had a feel for it — no one had taught him, he says. The trick to becoming an efficient player lies in observation and bluffing.

In the afternoon, Jardim da Estrela moves slowly. The librarian leans outside his kiosk and smokes a cigarette with a patron. A half-dozen teenagers squeeze onto a single bench to watch a video on an iPhone. A couple, hiding blanketed behind some bushes, picnic with some Super Bocks and a joint. Near the park’s southwest exit, coworkers and families have coffee at the park café and, in the pond by the café patio, ducks bob around in random clusters.

Jardim da Estrela is a lush pentagonal park and garden inaugurated in 1852, after 10 years of construction and arrangement by landscapers Jean Bonnard and João Francisco. Like most parks in Lisbon, Jardim da Estrela is a place to relax and socialize, an easy, slow alternative to the city’s noise and traffic.

But outside the calm of the park’s center, in one of the Jardim’s most secluded corners, a large group of elderly men sit under a pavilion and play cards. Unlike the rest of the park, this corner is loud. The men chat, cackle, and ooh as games begin and end.

A few minutes pass and the men crowd around one table. About 30 men are watching this game closely, some silent, others cheering. The players are focused, determined. A few moves later one player puts down a final hand and this corner of Jardim da Estrela erupts into laughter and jeers. One player bangs the table. Two men — the next team in line — console him and encourage him to laugh it off and hand the cards over.

Elias de Fonte, a Lisbon native and Jardim regular, is sitting with a friend, away from the crowd. He watches the men bicker and shakes his head, chuckling.

Photo by Paul Soto

“You know what you call that over there? Soft.”

Elias laughs and leans in closer. He is wearing a dark newsboy cap and a black leather jacket over a sweater. His friend is wrapped up in a sand-colored overcoat and is clutching an umbrella, carefully watching the graying sky.

Elias says the game played here is called sueca (“Swedish girl”), a quick four-player two-team game invented in Portugal.

“I play here in Jardim da Estrela because I’m from here. I play to have fun, I play out of habit,” he says. “I don’t know how long I’ve been playing for. It’s been a long time.”

His friend suggests 50 years.

“Fifty? No. Forty. I’m already 70 years old.” Elias smiles and winks. Does he play for a reward? “No. I play for distraction,”

He leans forward a bit, excited.

“You know what I used to be? A police officer. A chief of police.”

Elias used to belong to the policia de intervenção, a wing of the Portuguese police that specializes in combating violent and organized crime.

“That life was very stressful, very exhausting, very intense. You understand? That’s what it was. And when we would get out of work we’d meet up at Estrela and relax. It was a distraction. It was a relief. A relief for the head.”

Elias learned to play sueca by watching the games at Jardim da Estrela until he had a feel for it — no one had taught him, he says. The trick to becoming an efficient player lies in observation and bluffing. You must be aware of what others are going to do and what they think you think they are going to do, he says.

“The objective of sueca is to deceive. What makes a good player is having experience, being an expert, and being very patient.”

When asked if he could remember a particularly intense game, he smiles.

There were three prizes for three winning teams: a lamb, a calf, and three hams.

“It was in some district sueca tournament and there were three prizes for three winning teams, understand? A lamb, a calf, and three hams. There was a great rivalry between the teams over who would win the grand prize — and so the best players, men with a certain capacity for the game . . .” He pauses. “When it came to os mais burros (the stupidest ones),” Elias punches his left palm. “They lost.”

Twenty of the best teams in the district were there, all vying for the first prize: the lamb. According to Elias, although sometimes players didn’t like each other personally, conflicts never extended beyond the game. He says that this sustained the great rivalries. And maybe some legends. When asked who the best player he’d ever seen was, he shrugs.

“The greatest ones are the ones who have a great capacity to learn, who can deceive.”

What are cards going to say about life? Nothing.

“Look, I’m gonna tell you this—I’m not one of those men who sees the lives of others reflected in these cards. I don’t have that gift. Cards are cards, not lives. You can’t just put down a hand in life and expect situations to play out like a game. No. That’s not how it is. These cards don’t indicate anything to anyone. What are cards going to say about life? Nothing.”

“But look, you learn that your own knowledge and your own judgment is based on the knowledge and judgment of another [player]. Your thought, your wisdom is always tied to someone else’s wisdom.”

Elias allowed that to hang for a second, over the bustle and murmur of the games nearby, and then he cackled. His friend, who had been sitting silent for minutes, smiled and nodded.

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