There’s a card game played all over Alaska that’s chaotic, competitive and lightning fast. It goes by many names — but on the North Slope it’s known as “snerts.”
And in Utqiaġvik — where a snerts tournament is even part of Piuraagiaqta, the local spring festival, and groups of die-hard enthusiasts play on a regular basis — it’s one of the most popular games in town.
On a sunny evening in Utqiaġvik, six women gather at Karen Hopson’s house to play. Most of them are related to each other, and most of them grew up playing snerts. Lilly Kanayurak — Hopson’s mother — remembers playing with her grandparents and their friends when she was a little kid.
“There would be tea and homemade bread and candy, hard candy on the sides,” she said. “And just a lot of fun and competition.”
This group started getting together to play on a regular basis a few years ago, but the frequency of their games varies. In the winter they might play three games a week; other times they might go a few months without playing; one time they played 14 days straight.
The first step to playing the game is spreading a blanket over the big kitchen table. This one happens to be emblazoned with Al Pacino’s gun-toting silhouette from the movie “Scarface.” The intention is to keep the cards from sliding all over the place. “We’re going to be throwing the cards very fast,” said Corrine Danner by way of explanation.
The group settles themselves around the table as kids play happily in the background, and each lays out a deck of cards in front of her.
Snerts is a technical game that’s impossible for a casual observer to make sense of. But the easiest way to describe it would be a kind of competitive solitaire, where everyone is playing their hand simultaneously, either with a partner or by themselves.
There are different ways to play it, and a long list of different names it’s known by, including “nertz,” “peanuts,” “squeal,” “scrooge” and “racing demon.”
It didn’t originate in Utqiaġvik, but it’s very much of this place. David Parlett, a card game expert, says it’s a widespread game that’s been played for well over a century — adding that the variety of names is living proof of its popularity. And in Alaska it’s played all over the place — an informal Twitter survey looking for players of the game drew responses from areas in the Northwest Arctic, the Interior and Bristol Bay.
The game is played at high velocity — with people slinging cards across the table and trying to discard ahead of their competitors. And of course, there’s the possibility of some turbulence along with that: “I have to take my wedding ring off because it can scratch somebody really bad,” said Danner.
Different versions dictate different ways to win the round — but you always say the same thing when you do: “Snerts!”
In Utqiaġvik, it’s mostly women who play. And this group convenes more in the wintertime, during the long stretches of cold and dark. But they get together whenever their schedules allow.
“At times our husbands, or their husbands and their uncles and brothers will be hunting,” said Danner. “We get bored and we try to either sew or play cards.”
Some men do play, said Hopson, “and some of them are really fast.”
“But … they don’t like people to know that they’re playing,” joked Lilly Kanayurak.
“Don’t post it on Facebook!” added Danner.
It’s easy to see why these women love the game: It’s quick and competitive, with lots of opportunities for teasing and laughter.
But it’s also just about seeing each other, getting a chance to catch up and check in.
Sometimes they share happy news or funny stories. But it also helps them get through hard times — like when they lost a close family member.
“I think we found a lot of strength in getting together, and joy,” said Lilly Kanayurak. “Finding that happiness again.”
Again and again they come back to this table, where they sit in a circle facing one another — laughing, sharing stories and talking through what’s going on in their lives, one snerts game at a time.