Rob Wilkinson was working at
Lightning in a Bottle, a music festival in California, when he came up with a game that would change his life.
He didn’t realize that most players would have the time of their life playing Frick Frack Blackjack
Five years ago, Wilkinson
was with an art-installation group, Grand Artique, that “set up a large immersive zone for one of the stages, which makes the whole area into a Western town with performance actors working in different areas,” he recalls. “During the event, I ended up injuring my foot and found myself sitting in a small room that was set up like an old saloon card room. I came up with something I thought was really fun, and later that summer, I kind of perfected it doing it at Burning Man.”
It was a no-cash, no-limits, barter-style blackjack game in which all the dealers perform as comedic, paisley-clad carny characters who pull you into an epic, imaginative world where everything — except money — goes.
“The name Frick Frack Blackjack originated right when I came up with the game,” Wilkinson says. “The Grand Artique were always calling random pieces of clutter or bullshit ‘frick,’ as in, ‘Hey, go grab that piece of frick over there,’ or ‘Get that frick out of here.’ I paired that with a rhyming word and went with it. So Frick Frack is a word for junk and a word for nonsense.”
But this game has proved itself to be anything but junk. It’s winning fans around the country, and currently hitting new heights of popularity in the Mile High City.
“Frick Frack has been a thing in Denver for years,” says Scott Ratner, a glassblower who leads the local chapter and plays freewheeling dealer Scratch; he got in the game when he and Wilkinson lived together a few years ago. “We would do special events, but I’ve really been trying to bring it into bars and into the public setting for the past year.”
Scott Ratner is 'Scratch' at the blackjack table
Public settings like Your Mom’s House
, where Frick Frack settles in every Tuesday. “Picture yourself walking by a bar or venue, and you hear these people cheering — they’re going crazy. ‘Hey, what’s going on there?’ You approach this table with all this commotion and you see they’re playing blackjack, but there’s no money on the table,” Ratner explains.
“There’s a hand-painted portrait of somebody’s butt in mustard, and they’re trading it for three Hot Wheels cars and a LEGO watch. And you’re like, ‘What is this?’ And the dealer says, ‘Step right up!’ They call you in like an old carnival barker or snake-oil salesman. But you say you don’t know how to play. And the dealer says, ‘Well, reach in your pocket — whatever you’ve got in there, you can bet with. As long as it’s not cash or trash, whatever’s in your pocket works here at this table.’ And that hooks them. They put something on the table and the shtick begins.”
While you can bet anything when you join the game, Frick Frack dealers begin to barter with an item of equal or sometimes higher value — but always keeping with the theme of the original item. For example, if someone were to bet a case of earplugs, Frick Frack might offer a screwdriver or a busted megaphone — something that stops noise with a screw, or makes noise (when it works). You can always turn the barter offer down for another option, and often the whole table gets embroiled in a facetious argument.
“So then we start the funny banter, the comedy side of the show,” Ratner notes. “And that’s really what the show is about, its heartbeat. It’s an interactive performance-arts installation — blackjack is secondary. By the time the cards are dealt, you’re already in love with the installation.”
If you lose, Frick Frack takes your item; if you win, you keep it and Frick Frack’s barter, giving you more to bet with as the game keeps rolling. And you won’t want it to stop.
On Bicycle Day — the annual, unofficial observance
The Frick Frack Blackjack crew at Backwoods Music Festival 2021.From left to right: Kaydee Donovan, Zake Winchester, Whitney Holbourn (back row), Amber Long (sitting front row), Will Havertape, Mark Hendrickson, Phoenix Wright, Robert Wilkinson, Tyler Toothman, Erin Ames (front row), Jake Baldwin, Jake Dolan, Amanda Fortner
of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD on April 19, 1938 — Your Mom’s House is packed with wide-eyed revelers carrying bags of frick and frack. One brings in an entire door. Some are “high rollers,” as Ratner calls them, dressed to the nines.
One man is wearing a top hat decorated with antlers, pins and feathers. Does he consider himself a high roller? “Well,” he answers, “I added it to my Instagram bio today, so, yeah.”
Ratner is standing at the table, decked out in a three-piece suit, paisley on paisley, topped off with a feathered homburg hat. “Scratch is a combination of a juicy guitar lick and a shot of whiskey,” he explains. “He’s drinkin’, he’s laughin’, he’s thinkin’, he’s matchin’ bets, he’s talkin’ trash, and you’re lovin’ it. He’s your friend and your enemy at the exact same time. Truth is, deep down, I’ve been Scratch all along. How can I put this? Scott’s an eagle, but Scratch is the sky.”
Behind the table, Ratner is flanked by two women: Keepit (Kaydee Donovan) and Mojo (Mae Lurie), both wearing cherry-red lipstick and black-and-white-striped outfits. They look as though they’ve walked straight out of one of David Lynch’s good dreams.
Every bettor places their items on the table, and Ratner riffles through his collection to find suitable barter. Frick Frack’s goods are definitely good. There’s an original Battleship game; an ancient, heavy lock and chain; vintage dolls and Furbies; a 1950s working movie projector; a real deer skull that’s been carved by hand.
Keepit (Kaydee Donovan), Scratch (Scott Ratner) and Mojo (Mae Lurie).
The barters range from silly to raunchy to bizarre, and that’s all part of the fun. A scratched DVD of Notorious
is matched by a blues-singer vinyl and Flintstones DVD collection (only one disc is a Flintstones DVD); a tiny spoon (read: coke spoon) brings out a butter knife; a plastic, American flag-emblazoned cowboy hat is balanced by human toe bones. One person betting an enormous butt plug with a bright-blue “unicorn” tail is offered a leopard-print “cock sock”; she turns it down for a sign that reads, “Safety First, Cum Second.” An unread, quasi-Buddhist self-help book brings out a vintage copy of Famous American Statesmen and Orators
, its pages carved out and glued for the perfect stowaway. One player shows off a past win: a toothbrush with real human teeth instead of bristles.
The bartering is enhanced by Ratner’s performative, comedic banter that gets the table exploding with laughter. When one newcomer shows up empty-handed, Ratner offers her the “Mysterious Ventriloquist” deal: If she wins, she can keep a leather mask; if he wins, he can text any person on her phone and then immediately delete it.
Some of Ratner’s favorite wins were an authentic Bavarian cuckoo clock and a circa 1929 wind-up record player that he restored himself. Wilkinson bet against an ’N Sync marionette doll with an action figure of Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Jurassic Park
, “because every kid wants to play with the guy who works on a computer all day long until he’s killed,” he says.
None of the oddities in Frick Frack’s collection are for sale; the outfit makes its money off of bookings and tips. At one festival, the Frick Frackers won a famous DJ’s RV that was clad floor to ceiling in fur; it’s now sitting unused in a lot in New York. (The DJ hadn’t mentioned it was broken down.) Sure, the crew could make some good money off the RV, but it would go against Frick Frack values, which are framed by a philosophy of negated material worth and gilded by silliness and frivolity. “When we say you can bet absolutely anything that’s not cash or trash, that includes intangible things,” Wilkinson notes.
That means you can sign over your dignity. Or your honor, your birthday, the rights to name your firstborn, your soul. Frick Frack has a “Deed of Sale” on hand at all games, created in a Willy Wonka-esque style with the print becoming finer and finer until it’s almost illegible. “To be penned with seller’s fresh Blood if available,” it reads.
Sign over whatever you dare.
“It brings up [questions] like, what’s your birthday worth? You’re having an interesting argument about value — taking silliness very serious,” Wilkinson says. “There was this girl who was celebrating her 21st birthday, and we won it, and somebody randomly had birthday hats. So we were wearing birthday hats, celebrating her birthday, but it was now our
Ratner has collected 32 souls, one birthday and one dignity through Frick Frack. “One of my friends, his friend lost a soul on a bet and then my friend won it, so he now has his best friend’s soul framed in his house,” Ratner says.
The game is perfect for those of a psychedelic mindset, and team members have met their fair share of wooks (some fit the label themselves). Ratner recalls one festival where he was dealing and an older gentleman with moon-sized pupils sat at the table and introduced himself: “I am God.” God didn’t have anything to bet, so he decided to bet his soul. When given the Willy Wonka-style deed and pen, God immediately stabbed himself in the hand and signed in his blood, as the contract stipulates. Then, as completely spun people are wont to do, God shimmered off. Ratner can’t forget the encounter. It’s not the worst (or best) he’s seen, but it might be the most memorable.
The entire scene is reminiscent of the Merry Pranksters, the group of psychedelic loons led by author Ken Kesey, whose trips in the Day Glo-painted bus Furthur were documented by Tom Wolfe. But while the Pranksters and Kesey delved into metaphor-laden pseudo-philosophy, the more mentally stable Wilkinson hits philosophical points that actually ring true through his game.
Scott Ratner gets the whole table laughing.
“Frick Frack takes blackjack and completely flips it on its head and turns it into something that’s wholly unique and different,” he says. “Gambling is dark: People lose their mortgages, everything in their life over gambling for money. And this takes something that is very dark in nature and turns it into a beautiful thing.
“It’s things of no consequence that you’re gambling. I always say, ‘Never gamble with something you love. But everything else is just stuff.’ So if you have something that no longer has significance to you and you bring it to our table, you not only get to play with that thing again, but through us as a conduit, it can then become somebody else’s favorite thing,” he continues. “The amount of people who send me pictures of their mantel and there’s some weird toy on it or, like, a VHS copy of Snow Dogs
, and they’re like, ‘This is my favorite thing.’ Because it has now been tied to this experience and has significance — and they won it from something that doesn’t serve them anymore. So it’s beautiful trading and interactive performance art; it’s a weird hodgepodge that has struck a chord with almost everyone who’s played it.”
“It’s everybody,” Ratner interjects. “It’s 100 percent everybody.”
Frick Frack Blackjack has come a long way
Players surround the Frick Frack Blackjack table at Your Mom's House on Tuesdays.
since 2018, when Wilkinson, who goes by Marvelous Marv when he’s dealing, pitched the game to several music festivals; he built a caravan wagon to transport it as a moving installation. “I toured it around with my friend Mark, who goes by Cash in the game — he’s the only cash allowed at the table,” Wilkinson says with a laugh. “We toured around 2018 to a number of different festivals, and we did it for the first time in Colorado at Sonic Bloom.”
The game was a hit, both here and in other spots. “Since that point, we’ve expanded considerably,” Wilkinson says. He now has three caravan wagons and three tent setups, including one that Frick Frack actually won at a festival. “Cash had set up a bet to shave half of his very pronounced beard and mustache for the tent,” Wilkinson recalls. “The person betting was a production friend of ours who wanted to help the project, but also have some fun at Cash’s expense. The initial bet Cash lost, and he had his beard and mustache shaved at the table. We ended up winning the tent later in the night betting a pile of our best items and our spare tire.”
Frick Frack’s latest venture — creating compact setups so that the game can be held in local bars and at private events, which launched in Denver and, “somewhat simultaneously,” L.A., Brooklyn, Miami, Detroit and Austin — has been a big success. The smaller version brings the game “to a wider audience than just the people who go to music festivals,” Wilkinson notes. “It’s a game that anyone can have fun playing, so it’s not just a traveling show, but growing more into a franchise, so to speak.”
Wilkinson, who has lived in Denver off and on since 2017, is now on the road almost constantly with Frick Frack. In various cities, representatives push the game as Ratner does here.
“Denverites get us because they’re our people,” Ratner says. “Out of all the regional chapters, ours is the most active, and that’s saying something. People in Denver can’t get enough of us, and we’re building quite the following. We’re just stoked to be in a city where our amorphous project is welcomed so passionately, and we are more than excited to see it growing so fast.”
And Frick Frack people aren’t just psychedelic hippies, he notes. “People who don’t go to festivals, just normal bar-goers or people who like to go out or even families — every aspect of every walk of life has enjoyed the game in Denver,” Ratner says. “The feedback has been so good.”
Scott Ratner gets the whole table laughing.
Ratner met Wilkinson not long after Wilkinson came up with the idea. After years of going to festivals — his first was Bonnaroo in 2007 — Ratner was looking for a way to be more involved in the circuit. “I figured out there was a free-form outlet there in that traveling community,” he remembers. “Jump forward fifteen years, Marv came to my house after Lightning in a Bottle and told me about this new idea he cooked up while he was there. I remember bouncing Frick Frack ideas around with him and seeing him being so stoked, so I wanted to be involved immediately. It took me a while, but after a year or so, I started doing shows with Rob. My first time dealing was Sonic Bloom in 2019, where I also met Tyler Toothman, now my partner in running the Denver chapter.”
The Frick Frack crew is full of creatives who have side projects, such as Ratner’s glassblowing career. “They’re both my passions, so it’s not hard to do two things at once if you love ’em both,” Ratner says. “A lot of the people in the project have other jobs/passions. For example, Tyler, aka Jimmy 3legs, just finished his novel, Three Sixes and a Forked Tongue, and it’s being published this summer. I guess we’re just overachievers.”
Frick Frack, too, continues to overachieve. “We’re a small business that doesn’t really have a rubric, but we’re a national performance act,” Wilkinson says. “I just recently set up the operating procedures so each region can be its own entity. But it’s a lot, and I’m trying to bring in people who share my vision of how this can move forward and also a love of it.
“I haven’t found anything else that I’ve done in my life that strikes such a chord within me and anyone else I show it to,” he adds.
“It’s what you didn’t know you needed,” Ratner concludes. “It does a service everywhere. … It’s so special and does something so cool. Being a part of that energy and being a creator that brings that energy to people is awesome. I would pay to do it, because it’s so fulfilling.”
So make your way over to Your Mom’s House some Tuesday with your weirdest possessions — you’ll have more fun than you could ever imagine. We’d bet our soul on it.
Frick Frack Blackjack happens on Tuesdays at Your Mom's House, 608 East 13th Avenue. First hand dealt at 8:30 p.m. For bookings and more information about Frick Frack Blackjack, visit frickfrackblackjack.com and follow its Instagram and Facebook to stay up-to-date on its locations.