An Ode to the Game of Sheepshead

The family bonds forged at a sheepshead table can last a lifetime – only slightly longer than the infamy of being exposed as a mauer.

In Germany, mauer is not an insult. It just means “wall.”

But in my family – and many others in Wisconsin – it’s an epithet that carries connotations of deceit, dishonor and avarice.

My family, like many others here, is a sheepshead family. For us, the game is more than a pastime; it’s the bedrock of many memories of people, times and places. It’s often said that sheepshead is a game invented in Germany and played in Wisconsin, which is mostly true. On its most basic level, it’s a trick-based, team-oriented card game featuring blinds and a trump suit .

In some ways it’s similar to euchre, if you think chess is similar to checkers. Euchre has a similar but wider geographic footprint in the Upper Midwest, says John Vernon Kellogg, a German language and culture lecturer at UW-Milwaukee. American sheepshead – some here still call it the German schafskopf, or just sheeps – is also distinct from the game still played in Germany. That puts sheepshead in the category of things we hold onto as distinctly Wisconsin, like fish fries, cheese curds and bubbler.

The game is rich with textures, nuances and drama, revealing character and personality like few others. At my family table, my nonconfrontational mom rarely cracks – a defiant tactic in which the defending team doubles the stakes on the picker of the blinds – and would never crack her children. Dad delights in cracking, and is quick to denounce a mauer: a player with a hand strong enough to pick who passes because beating a picker might be more lucrative.

I rarely feel as close to my family and friends as I do around a sheepshead table. Lifetime memories are forged here. My mild-mannered friend Jack hurling his wallet against a wall after an impossible run of bad luck. The Doubler Toenail, a long story I’ll save for another time. My preteen sister cracking after she had passed on the blind, innocently breaching both rule and decorum.

I asked Mom about her early sheepshead memories, and she described a scene that could have been our family game, two generations removed: sitting around her dining room table after dinner as her parents, aunts and uncles kibitzed and tossed cards into a middle encircled with snacks, beer cans and stacks of pennies.

Then she paused. “I still remember the last time Mom came to the cabin,” she said. “We sat out on that deck and played sheepshead. I’ll never forget that, playing sheepshead with my mom.”

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue. 

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)