Dec 14th 2009, 00:00

There is not much of a warm welcome outside the Retreat Hotel on a windy Tuesday evening at 8 pm. The streets are deserted, and the Congolese security guard eyes any visitor with suspicion.
Inside, I expect to find klawerjas players flinging back whiskey and throwing down cards amid ribald commentary, like Hollywood poker players. But the hall, where 30 people are playing, is a sanctuary of silence. There are no cigars and no swearing. Klawerjas is played with Quaker-like reverence and absorption. The only refreshment is water, served in polystyrene cups. For the 90 minute duration of a round, not a word is spoken. Cards are held like secrets; kept close to the chest or turned face down to be glanced at surreptitiously. The game of klawerjas is held in respect in the coloured community. It’s not just about the game. It’s about family bonding, cultural identity and maintaining dignity in the face of hardship.

There is a pride among klawerjas players – not the swaggering, superficial street pride, but a
quiet, stately decorum. To match the rigid conduct, there’s a strict dress code. Each team has its own easily identifiable colours, and tables of red, white and blue jerseys are distributed throughout the hall. Klawerjas is a badge of belonging, worn with selfesteem by members of this community. It’s difficult for an outsider to appreciate the appeal of klawerjas. Watching the game is, frankly, as interesting as watching paint dry. The players call it a sport, but no physical prowess is required. Playing klawerjas is an introverted activity and everything goes on inside the players’ heads. There are no displays of emotion – throwing up of hands or flinging cards on
table. It’s played with dignified restraint and discipline.

There’s a proselytising zeal among Western Province’s klawerjas players. Farid Moosa is a keen exponent of the game, and wants to introduce it to the corporate world and prisons. He believes,
“There’s a lot of potential. It’s important to broaden interest in the game.” Given the opportunity to speak to a journalist, Farid complains about the lack of financial support the game receives. “We must buy everything. Cards are expensive,” he laments. The props of the game are few – really just the cards. But it’s the Bicycle cards that are coveted, not the cheap Chinese kind that after two
rounds begin to bend like bamboo in the wind. However, the biggest drain on the Western Province Klawerjas Association’s meager funds are trips to compete with clubs in other provinces.

Farid claims that it costs R80 000 to take the 33 team players to the Eastern Cape. The team
must be fed, accommodated and kitted out in the team colours. They can only afford to go every second year. Discipline is the key to klawerjas. “There’s a lot of rules,” warns David Bruinders, a prison officer at Pollsmoor. His initial reserve melts as he warms to explaining the rules of the game. I find my mind wandering as he leads me into the labyrinthine world of the klawerjas
code of conduct. David is a major player. For 35 years he has played at least four nights a week. His world revolves around klawerjas. It offers him an alternative reality: a predictable, civilised world where mistakes are immediately accounted for. “There’s no sorry here. They punish you,” David says, with relish. I suspect that in contrast to the criminal world of Pollsmoor prison, the world of klawerjas is soothing to David’s soul in profound and mysterious ways.

In klawerjas, there are no rogue elements, and everyone plays by the rules. The klawerjas world
is clean cut and above board. No abusive language. No smoking. No drinking. Even trips to the bathroom are discouraged. Suddenly the klawerjas players appear Ghandi-like, offering passive resistance to the aggression on the streets of Retreat. Of course, that’s just my fantasy, born from a need to understand something I don’t grasp. Players claim that the mental gymnastics of the game hook them. Farid says, “It’s very educating. You must be able to count good and fast.” And I’ve no doubt that if I sat down at a table with Farid, he’d outcount me in an instant. Klawerjas matches are marathons of focus. During each 90 minute round, players sit in Buddha-like stillness, only their hands moving, fluttering like Balinese dancers.

A slight disturbance signals that the first round of the 90 minute long game is over. Players stretch their legs and exchange jokes with one another. But the atmosphere remains subdued. Silence has seeped into the players’ bones. Competitive klawerjas is largely a male sport. There are only a few women in the hall tonight. Women play mainly at home. The issue of whether husbands and wives make a good team is a subject of debate; some insist that married couples can only play kombuis klawerjas (i.e. no rules klawerjas, played at home in a relaxed way) and not competitive klawerjas, as they argue too much. Others disagree, maintaining that families, with their astral tentacles finely tuned to each other, make the best teams.

Children are initiated into the game at an early age. With pride, Farid tells me about his klawerjas-playing four-year-old and points to his 21-year-old son, seated at the table. Parents recognise that it’s a great way of keeping the kids off the streets, out of trouble and away from the television. Klawerjas is being introduced in schools, thanks to the efforts of Mrs Hendricks, a teacher at Steenberg High. It teaches what technology threatens to outdate – the ability to focus and make
fast mental calculations. Gregg Peterson is new to the game. He’s only been playing for three months, which gives him about another thirty years until he reaches the level of experience of most people in this hall. A few more hours spent crouched over the klawerjas table might add some gravitas to his jovial bearing.

“This is what these people live for. You can get addicted,” he tells me. Finally, Percy Allat helps me decipher the game. He explains that its popularity was established among students 10 to 20
years ago. “That was what students used to do then. If you couldn’t play klawerjas, people wouldn’t believe that you’d been to university. Klawerjas touches your brain. You have to outthink your opponent. You must enjoy the game to play the game.”

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