Minnesota Whist and the art of interaction at River City Revue

Table Talk trial run 
Table Talk trial run 
Photo by Molly Balcom Raleigh

Minnesota Whist is the greatest card game of all time. It's a partner game that is simple enough for a beginner to learn, but takes quite a bit of strategy to win, including communication with your teammate, with whom you are not allowed to speak to.

Artist Molly Balcom Raleigh finds rich material for her investigation of human interaction through the game, which is the subject of a project she's been working on all summer. Titled Table Talk, the study will culminate at an Irrigate event on September 12 called the Big Deal. This Friday, Raleigh will be leading the game as part of the River City Revue, a two hour paddle boat ride through downtown St. Paul along the Mississippi River.

Minnesota Whist and the art of interaction at River City Revue
Photo by Molly Balcom Raleigh

The game of Whist originated in 17th-century England, and grew in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. References to the game can be found in such literary works as Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich. Minnesota Whist (sometimes referred to as Norwegian Whist) differs from the original game in that there's no trump suit, and players decide at the beginning of the game whether to play "high" (or "grand") or low (or "nullo").

Like other variations of Whist, Minnesota Whist requires working with your partner across the table in order to win. You can't see each other's cards or tell the person what you have (if you do, that's called "table talk"), so you engage in a series of sanctioned communications such as "inviting" the suit you want your partner to play back to you. In Minnesota Whist, you either invite to your longest and strongest suit if you're playing grand, or your shortest and weakest suit, if you're playing nullo.

Whist Players at Peace Games at Washburn Fair Oaks Park on August 11th
Whist Players at Peace Games at Washburn Fair Oaks Park on August 11th
Photo by Molly Balcom Raleigh

Raleigh has been working on Table Talk for the last three months. It originally came about because she and two of her collaborators, Emily Stover and Janaki Ranpura, wanted to do an Irrigate project about games as a metaphor for the rules of getting along and interacting. While Stover and Ranpura are developing their own games, Raleigh wanted to focus on Whist. 

"I've been playing Whist for a long time, and have these deep relationship connections to it," she says.

She wanted to use the power of the game to bring strangers together. "It creates this place of immediate trust," she says, "this kind of ready-made intimacy. That can be really powerful, especially in bringing groups of strangers together in a neighborhood or community context."

Her ongoing question is how interaction can be art. "It's my intention to make it a space to think about interaction," she says. "It changes a social event to an art intervention."


Raleigh is especially attracted to Minnesota Whist because of the opportunity it presents to really examine your partner. "You're looking for information from each other across the table. You rapidly get to know them, and you have permission to gaze at someone that you don't know." 

Through the game, you get to think about the other person and to understand them. "There aren't really spaces to just interact with someone you don't know in a pleasant way,"  she says.

Minnesota Whist also works for her project because the equipment is really simple, as you just need a deck of cards. The rules are easy as well, while still leaving room from strategy. At the same time, there's also space to get to know each other a little bit. You can tell jokes and stories while playing. 

During test runs at events earlier this month, Raleigh found that neighbors would stop by and at first would say that they didn't have time, but would get drawn in and play the game for a couple of hours. At the Mississippin River Revue event this Friday, Raleigh will include some historical context about Minnesota Whist that she learned from trips to the Hennepin History Museum, whose newspaper collections go back to the 1800s, and then open it up to play. The only requirement is that you have to play with a stranger as your partner.

After this weekend, there will be two other pop-up events on University Avenue in September before the final tournament on September 12.

Friday's River City Revue also includes live bluegrass music performed by the Eelpout Stringers, and an opportunity to play R.I.V.E.R., a bingo game designed especially for River City Revue. Park Ranger David Wiggins will be telling stories about the river. 


River City Revue: PLAY

The boat leaves at 7 p.m. from the Padelford dock.

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Padelford Packet Boat Co, Inc.

205 Doctor Justus Ohage Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55107



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