Forty-Fives: Merrimack Valley in the Cards

So much about the card game forty-fives doesn’t add up.

If in the right suit, the 5 is the best card, a jack beats a king, and a 2 can be better than a 10 … but only when it wears black. For the uninitiated, it just gets more confusing from there.

Even the name of the game is ambiguous. Some say the name forty-fives refers to the four 5s in the deck, others say it has to do with a Canadian version of the game, in which the goal is to reach 45 points (the Canadians call our version “120”). Then there’s the theory that forty-fives is derived from “forte” — meaning strong — the 5 being the “mightiest” card. And is it written “45s,” or “forty-fives”?

Through all the confusion, however, it all makes sense to legions of forty-fives players around the Merrimack Valley. A game rooted in 19th century Ireland, forty-fives is as popular as ever across the Valley, whether it’s played for fun, in a league, at a fundraiser or even on a computer.

“Anybody who tries [forty-fives] and gets to know it latches onto it,” says Shawn Harty of Lowell, who has played since childhood and has helped to sell thousands of copies of “45s by BFD,” a computerized version of the game.

Players say the allure of forty-fives is the combination of skill and luck that it requires, but that may be all it has in common with other popular card games.

A standard, 52-card deck is used, but in forty-fives, you can throw the standard order of the cards out the window. For instance, the ace of hearts is always a great card to have, but the ace of diamonds can be the fourth-best or the worst card in the deck, depending on the hand.

Players form two teams of two, with teammates sitting across from each other. Winning a “trick” is a good thing, getting “set” is a bad thing, and being “bagged for 20” is usually a 50-50 proposition.

Confused yet? Players say teaching the game is like giving lessons in a new language, which may be the biggest reason forty-fives hasn’t spread too far beyond the Merrimack Valley.

“It’s a hard game to pick up. I learned from watching it,” says Jim Noone, president of the Merrimack Valley 45’s League. “I learned from my grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles. My mother would cook, and they would all play forty-fives for hours.”

Many families have passed down forty-fives through the generations, as the game’s history in America is tied directly to the Merrimack Valley’s immigrant past.

Forty-fives is believed to have originated in Ireland, Harty says. During the Irish potato famine midway through the 19th century, large numbers of Irish traveled the Atlantic to Eastern Canada, and they introduced the game to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where it is still played today.

Many of those same Irish boarded timber ships bound for industrialized Merrimack Valley ports such as Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill, and they brought their game with them.

Today, the rules are much the same, though little nuances can act like local dialects across town borders. A standard set of rules is set forth in “Forty Fives: Game Rules and Guidelines” by Robert C. Reichert of Lawrence, whose 2010 obituary mentioned his love of 45s in the fourth line.

Thousands of copies of the computer game “45s by BFD,” created by software developer Bill DiSanto, have been sold to enthusiasts attracted by the high skill level of the computerized characters playing the game. Virtual forty-fives players include DiSanto’s dog, says Harty, who has helped DiSanto market and sell the game.

“We weren’t trying to make money,” Harty says. “We were just trying to keep forty-fives alive.”

The computer game makes for great practice, but many players say the popularity of forty-fives is due to its social appeal.

Because people tend to talk and socialize around the game, a group of Amesbury Youth Hockey League parents hold forty-fives fundraisers.

“We felt that a casino night or a Texas hold’em tournament were a lot less personable and interactive,” says Troy McGrath, one of the organizers. “The social aspect is important to a fundraiser.”

The Merrimack Valley 45’s League, now 11-years-old, was the brainchild of George Garon, owner of the Lawrence British Club, who was looking for a way to get people into the club on Wednesday nights.

Today the league has 24 teams representing bars and social clubs from Haverhill to Lowell.

“It’s a night out for people,” says Tim Noone, Jim’s brother and league treasurer.

There is no money involved until the season-ending tournament, Tim Noone says, but then it can get competitive. The huge trophy resembles hockey’s Stanley Cup, with champions’ names etched in.

Last year, the Glen Forest II team, captained by David Sangiorgio of Salem, N.H., took home the trophy. Sangiorgio says he learned to play on the school bus, and has played on the Glen Forest II team with the same set of teammates for seven years.

“Wednesday nights are my Friday night now,” Sangiorgio says. “After the game is over, we stop at a couple of other [league] spots and say hello to people.”

Recently married, Sangiorgio often brings his wife, Jessica, a Connecticut native, but he hasn’t taught her how to play.

“I think teaching someone you are married to could end up in divorce,” he says with a laugh.

When it comes to forty-fives, people from outside the Valley just don’t understand.

“I’m not sure why,” Jim Noone says. “They’re missing out on a great game.”

A free version Forty-Fives is available in the App Store.

Top photo by Adrien Bisson.

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