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A table-side view of one of Utqiaġvik’s most animated card games

Jun 24, 2019

Christina Kanayurak,left, discards a card during a game of snerts with her mother, Lilly Kanayurak, and sister, Karen Hopson on April 17, 2019, in Utqiaġvik. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

A card game played all over Alaska is  chaotic, competitive -- and lightning fast. While it goes by many names — on the North Slope it’s called “snerts.”

A snerts tournament even is part of the local spring festival, Piuraagiaqta, in Utqiaġvik.

It’s one of the most popular games in town. Groups of die-hard enthusiasts play on a regular basis.

Six women gather at Karen Hopson’s house in Utqiaġvik to play on a sunny evening.

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.

Spreading a blanket over the big kitchen table is the first step to playing the game.

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 --  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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Different versions dictate different ways to win the round — but you always say the same thing when you do: “Snerts!”

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.

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.