The Journey to the 56 International Championship

In the realm of card games, where countless classics like Poker, Bridge, and Blackjack have captured the hearts of players worldwide, a hidden gem stands out among the rest. Meet “56,” a captivating and strategic card game combining luck, skill, and deception. While less widely known than its famous counterparts, 56 has garnered a devoted following due to its engaging gameplay, tactical depth, and historical roots in the Malayali community.

Madhu Kutty and I are roommates from NSS College of Engineering in Palakkad. We met our teammate Rajeev George in November 2019 when our mutual friend Frank from New Haven organized 56 games at his residence. We made a team for the Kerala Boat Club game in December 2019. You can guess what happened. We lost most of the round-robin games. In January 2020, we played a local tournament in Boston;  there, too, we lost most of the round-robin games. Then came the regional New Jersey tournament, and the same losing saga continued. The worst part was not the loss. It was the part that we did not understand why we lost.

Then came COVID and shutdowns in March 2020. Now, we started to play a lot online. I knew Tommy personally and since we knew they were two-time champions at 56 International, we decided to learn from them. They graciously taught us techniques and the ability to read the unsaid “calls”.

56 International is the world championship of 56 held among the Malayali community for 25 years. It started as a small tournament 24 years ago organized by Appachen and Mathew Cheruvil in Detroit. We mainly played against Tommy and his teammates online for some time. Regular online play at helped us study and analyze the game of 56. There is nothing to replace practice. Only practice can get you closer to perfection. You realize standard hands and patterns that can then be played from muscle memory rather than trying to analyze at that point.

And then came the 56 International in Chicago in 2021. We qualified for the round-robin stage and lost in the round of 16. 56International Chicago was a great experience: the food, the drinks, the singing and all the fun.

We were annoyed we made a crucial mistake and lost the game. I am sure there were more, but we did not even realize those due to inexperience.

The best part of International is that we made new friends with like-minded people across America.Then, we kept learning more and looking forward to the Tampa tournament.

Meanwhile, we started playing live at Simon’s office with Tommy and Shaji once a week.

The hurricane spoiled our plans to test all our learning as the rain date was when Madhu already booked his tickets for India. Our stopgap team could not win more than three matches required to make it to the knockout round. One more disappointing year as we could not implement everything we practiced for a year.

Individually, there are only certain things you can achieve in life or there are limits. A team can achieve much greater things, whether in your career or personal life or when you are planning to change the world. But you need to build trust among members, know how each other thinks, and you need to coordinate. You need to analyze past games and reassess strategies. Teams can create beautiful things that individuals cannot. Take the Beatles as an example; I think they never made a great song individually but made many as a team.

Every week, we practically had Malayali food at fancy restaurant steak prices (Every loss was $ 20 each, and we were losing 4-5 games a night). In Rajeev’s words, we were paying steak prices for Malayali beef “uLarthirachi”.

Long story short, we won the 24th 56 International tournament in New Jersey in October 2023. The triumphant smiles on our faces are a testament to the hard-fought battles we endured at the recent tournament. Our journey from the grueling hours of practice to the exhilarating moments on the field has been filled with relentless efforts. This essay aims to celebrate our victory, reflect on the excitement of the games, express our gratitude to the organizers, and highlight the incredible camaraderie among players that made our triumph possible.

Winning a tournament is no small feat; it culminates countless hours of dedication, determination, and sacrifice. Our journey was marked by late-night strategy sessions. These very struggles strengthened our resolve and made the victory all the sweeter. We each understood the value of hand analysis, patience during tough matches and perseverance.

The tournament was a rollercoaster of emotions as we battled formidable opponents. The excitement of each game was palpable, with the stakes growing higher as we advanced through the rounds. The tension in the air, and the thrill of competition pushed us to perform at our best. Every call, every cut, and every well-executed play sent waves of jubilation through our team. The games were a testament to our skill, teamwork, and determination and will be etched in our memories forever.

Our Pre-Quarter was a tough one with Sreekumar, Thankachan and Santhosh. They had beaten us during round-robin. But this game went into a tie. Then the two tie-breakers games also tied and we barely and luckily survived the sudden death.

Our semi-finals with Alex, Sajan and Kochumon was a fantastic game. We were down considerably but we waited for that one mistake and we caught on it and that also went to a tie. The first game in tie we called a 40 and won. They called a 48 for the next one and in that one “Pidi” we had we could eke out 9 points.

The finals with Benny George and team from Chicago was a hard-fought one. They were outstanding players. They never made a mistake and we lost the first game. Then we won the second game towards the last two shuffles. Then the third game went to a tie again. During the tiebreaker hands, the second hand we got the almost perfect hand to win but involved risks when we called 56 Diamonds because if the trump was concentrated in one hand we would have lost. But fortune favors the brave sometimes.

Behind every successful tournament are dedicated organizers who work tirelessly to ensure its smooth execution. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the organizers for their unwavering commitment to the sport and their meticulous planning.

While the thrill of victory is undoubtedly sweet and loss disappointing, the camaraderie among players truly enriches the sporting experience. Throughout the tournament, we witnessed not only the fierce competition but also the mutual respect and friendship that transcended the boundaries of teams. Shared moments of celebration and commiseration with opponents underscored the sportsmanship that defines our community. We are grateful for the friendships forged on and off the field, as they remind us that sport is not just about winning but also about the bonds we create.

Our triumph is a testament to the power of resilience, teamwork, and dedication.As we bask in the glory of our triumph, we are reminded that the journey is as important as the destination, and the memories we have created will stay with us forever.

We look forward to future tournaments, knowing that they will be filled with challenges, excitement, and the enduring bonds of friendship. We among ourselves formed a family friendship, including our spouses.

The beauty of a card game is you can play it all your life. It will help you maintain a sharp mind. Unlike cricket or basketball, where the body’s physical limits apply, the mind has infinite possibilities. I believe passionately that after a certain age, like maybe thirty five, you should only play cards 🙂 You cannot physically hurt yourself playing cards.

Plus, playing cards is the main thing you learn in a college hostel in Kerala among Malayalees or in a field or regular long train journeys. This game recreates our nostalgic moments, whether in our homes with our relatives or our paddy fields with our local populace. Many of us would have night outs to play 28 or 56 but never to study for an exam; thats how card crazy we are as a community.

We credit our spouses for their support who let us go through all this, which does not bring them any joy, money, or fame but they agreed just for our passion for the game.

As we drove back to Connecticut, we played one of rock’s greatest anthems, written and sung by Freddie Mercury

I’ve paid my dues

Time after time

I’ve done my sentence

But committed no crime

And bad mistakes

I’ve made a few

I’ve had my share of sand

Kicked in my face

But I’ve come through

And we mean to go on and on and on and on

We are the champions, my friends

And we’ll keep on fighting till the end

We are the champions

We are the champions

No time for losers

‘Cause we are the champions of the World!

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