Sunday, March 05, 2006

It’s In the Cards

Well, I’ve been a pretty good blogger up until now, but the posts won’t be quite so frequent for some time to come. Lots to do, little time to do it in. As a matter of fact, here it is, Sunday morning, and I’m at work making PDFs out of huge Quark files to send to the client. I’m not complaining — better to be employed and working my way toward a bonus than the alternative. But I do enjoy blogging and I already miss not being able to write or comment as much as I’d like. Oh well…

********

Okay, I want you to pretend you’re one of my kids. It’s not hard to do: simply stand there, wait exactly 10 words into what I’m about to say, start rolling your eyes and take a few of tentative steps toward the door. That’s easy, right? Good — let’s begin.

(clears throat)

There was a day when there were no video games. There was no television, nor were there movies for that matter. There were no iPods, no cell phones, no Internet, and no instant messaging. There was even a time when there was no radio. Just consider that for a moment: none of those things existed. What did people do in that bleak, cheerless world of yesteryear? How could they have possibly kept from being bored senseless in such a featureless, tones-of-grey existence? How could they have lived for God’s sake?

Well, one of the things they used to do was get together and play games. There were, for example, parlor games of all kinds, games for children, games for the young ladies and the young men, and games for the older adults. Quite a few of those games involved a deck of playing cards, a mere stack of 52 die cut pieces of pasteboard (54 if you count the jokers). Four suits of 13 cards each, so simple, so elementary, yet each stack provided the foundation for innumerable games of all levels of difficulty and skill, from Go Fish! to Bridge. If you ever care to consider it, an ordinary deck of cards is your best entertainment value. It’s true. For two or three bucks you hold in your hand an infinite number of diverting possibilities, from solitaire games to heady contests of skill involving intricate partnership play. And the amazing thing is you can obtain a pack of playing cards anywhere.

But here was the best part: people would sit down together at a table and exercise both their minds and their social skills. They actually talked with one another. They criticized each other’s play, they discussed local and world events, they told jokes, they used their intellect. They strategized and employed all their cunning and skill. Actual emotion came into play, such as the elation you felt when you made your bid with a neat finesse, or the agony of losing the pot when your full house, all aces and kings, fell to a seven-high diamond straight flush. The next day, as the players went about their daily business, whether it was threshing the fields, carrying shopping baskets to the local five-and-dime, or steering backfiring, smoke-belching horseless carriages into town, they thought back on the previous evening’s games. If only I had led with the queen! one might think. I should have called clubs as trump that time! remembered another. Oh, the look on Harrelson’s face when I slapped the ace on his king! gleefully recalled a third. For many, playing cards was a great source of entertainment and social interaction. It gave them happiness.

People still play cards today of course, but you don’t hear of couples getting together for Bridge parties like they did back in the old days. Who even knows how to play Bridge? Do you? Or any of the many forms of Whist for that matter? How about the great rummy game of Canasta? Anybody know how that’s played? With so many other entertainment options around today, I think people who would otherwise have found immense pleasure in playing cards have been denied it because card playing seems so stale compared to all the other ready-made choices out there to beguile one’s time. It’s a shame really.

I never gave a hang about card games of any kind until one memorable time in my late twenties when I was marooned on an island with three other people. Well, okay, not exactly, but it felt that way. I was certainly on an island — Martha’s Vineyard — and it was during the wintertime when the popular tourist destination was virtually shut down for the season. We were there working an out-of-town job as housepainters. Earlier that year I had (finally) graduated from college but still hadn’t taken step one toward starting a career, so I found myself part of a crew of four painters working in a rich guy’s house in the middle of winter on a sleepy, picturesque island. The rich guy wasn’t around naturally — he was someplace warm no doubt. But we had the run of his house. I slept in one of the rich guy’s sons’ bedrooms. We woke up in the mornings, strapped on our overalls, ate a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, and then stepped into the next room to begin work. In the evenings there was little to do. After six or seven o’clock “they rolled up the sidewalks” as we like to say. There was one nightspot to go to in Vineyard Haven which I quickly tired of, never being much of a nightclub guy. In the neighboring towns, there were perhaps three or four restaurants that remained open. Most of the streets were unlit at night and your headlights seemed a poor defense against the pervasive darkness as you drove from nowhere to nowhere. During the daytime the island was stunningly beautiful, and you felt like one of the select, the initiated, who had been given an insider’s glimpse of a peaceful island the mainland populace were ignorant of. On a sunny day in winter the seashore can be a very nice place to be; it’s restful in a not-unpleasant solitary way and seems to encourage a welcome introspection.

The rich guy had satellite TV and one of the Richards (there were two of us named Richard), after an hour’s hard work, located the Playboy Channel and that kept us amused for a couple of nights. Regular TV, however, held little attraction for me, so I started spending less and less time in the den; it turned out the rich guy had a fairly interesting library and during my stay I read Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino, Deadeye Dick, by Kurt Vonnegut, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. And that’s the way it went: we worked, we ate, they watched TV, I read, then we slept.

The Richard who found the Playboy Channel knew a lot of card games and suggested one day that he teach us all Pitch. Pitch is a simple trick-taking game that involves bidding, the calling of trump, luck, and a lot card-sense. It can be played either cut-throat or with partners. Each player is dealt six cards and the hands are quickly played; everyone has a turn as dealer as the deck gets passed around clockwise. I suppose we consented to learn out of sheer boredom, but the game quickly took hold of us and we wound up staying up past midnight playing it. The next day that was all we talked about and plans were made for a solid night of card playing after dinner. Then we played more Pitch and Richard later on taught us Hearts.

Well, that’s all we did for the rest of the evenings during our stay there. It was all we needed. Mix a few drinks up, rip open a couple of bags of junk food, shuffle the deck and deal ’em out. Naturally there was a lot of playful banter going on; at my best I was merely a competent card player and endured my share of badinage each time I fumbled away a winning hand. But I sure did have a lot of fun and it relieved a certain measure of the tedium and, quite frankly, the loneliness.

My love for cards then went into incubation for the next 15 years. Perhaps two or three times a year I might have gotten together with a couple of friends and play a friendly game of something or other, but, for the most part, I played Chess or Scrabble if I played anything at all. Then, about eight or nine years ago, a divorced friend of mine who had his two young sons over for the weekend called to ask me if I wanted to learn Bridge with them. Sure, I thought. What the hell? I had nothing better to do.

I should take a moment to explain my friend and his two boys. Sri, the father, is a seriously intelligent person. His IQ can bench about 230 pounds. I think his professional designation might be something as vague and inadequate as “software consultant,” but that doesn’t quite do the trick. Indian-born, he came to the United States as a young man and excelled in every academic endeavor he chose. He has two PhDs, which I think makes him a doctor times two. Sri’s boys inherited their old man’s smarts. Just consider that the youngest of his two sons, a second grader at the time, was learning Bridge, the chess of cards for God’s sake. I think when I was in the second grade I maybe could have played Crazy Eights with supervision. And the older son, who I believe was in the fifth grade, was an equally bright lad.

Sri actually designed a Bridge program for the PC and he and his boys practiced on that. The first night I sat down with them to play, he went over the basic rules and we just kind of faked it (you can actually have fun playing Bridge without knowing all the bidding conventions, styles of play, etc.). But that was enough to arouse my interest. The next day I ordered a Bridge program compatible for a Mac and straightaway applied myself to learning a truly fascinating game.

For the next couple of years I was a frequent visitor at Sri’s on the Saturday nights he had the kids. We often played until one or two in the morning. We all got better and better — hell, I was actually beating my Bridge program at Duplicate Bridge. Finally feeling my skills were ready for the prime time, I looked up a local Bridge club through the Internet and decided to show the world what a genius I was.

When you think of a game of cards, don’t you picture people relaxing around a table, bowls of pretzels and peanuts nearby, a small bar set up in the corner, with lots laughing, talking and joking going on? A game of cards seems to imply a casual atmosphere, does it not? Not so at the “Cavendish Club.” These people were serious; they had their game faces on. It wouldn’t have surprised me if some wore eye-black. The president, a thin, middle-aged, academic-type named Carl, started off the session by writing on a chalkboard a hypothetical Bridge hand and lead a 10 minute discussion on how to play it. Heady stuff. Then a partner was chosen for me and we proceeded to move from table to table during the course of the evening. I think the way it worked was North and South traveled in one direction around the room while East and West went the other way. Each numbered table had four hands locked in a metal contraption, so by the end of the evening every team played the same deck found on, say, Table 4 or Table 13. The bidding was done by using of a set of bidding cards; that way, no one could pass information about their hand to their partner through inflection of voice. Also, the “history” of the bidding could be glimpsed at. At the conclusion of the night, the scores were tabulated by computer and the winners were those who, according to the numbers, outplayed everyone else. That’s Duplicate Bridge, a very effective system for isolating and identifying the accomplished along with the incompetent.

If those weren’t the most painful two hours of my life, I’d like to know what were. As my father would say, I played like a rummy. Of course, I didn’t much care for how things started off. At the first table, I shook hands and introduced myself to one of my opponents and mentioned that this was my first time playing any kind of formal Bridge. He told me he could tell as much. The mere fact that I showed friendliness toward him indicated my level of experience. In other words, I was supposed to shut up and play cards. So the night wore on. My partner, a kindly old lady resigned to carrying me around with her, demonstrated great patience as I blew one hand after another. I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t even bother wait to see our score.

Yep, no more of that stuff for me. Not much fun.

Nowadays Sri lives in Florida and his eldest son is off earning perfect grades at Worcester Polytechnical Institute. But I have my “game nights” to live for. Every month my father, brother and one of my sisters and I get together to play Pitch, Rook and Wizard. At work we’ve started up Wednesday game nights. At five, we knock off, order a pizza and sit down to to play Wizard, an utterly addicting game. You should try it.

Whoops! This sure got long! Is everyone still here? Thanks for stopping by. I hope to come visit your blogs real soon.

28 Comments:

Blogger Wordnerd said...

Wow -- now I'm reminiscing. Many an evening was spent round our dining table playing Rummy. Now that both parents are gone, I still play with my brother and sister and our children. Many a game has been interrupted when someone remembered a particularly funny rummy episode from the past and retold the story. Thanks for the jolt!

2:33 PM  
Blogger LL said...

"There was a day when there were no video games."
:rolleyes: *takes a few tentative steps toward the door*

How'd I do?

"when your full house, all aces and kings, fell to a seven-high diamond flush."

*pssst* seven-high diamond straight flush. (Full house beats a flush.)

I grew up with card games. Lot's of 'em. Pinochle, Solo, Poker of all kinds. Then as I got older, Pitch (our version, I wonder if it's the same?), Cribbage, Hearts, more Poker, Gin. Most recently, gin, gin, and more gin (my various Aunts and Uncles love to play it so we do every time we're together). Actually, I prefer to play Solo, but there aren't many left who even know how to. So I settle for Cribbage, Hearts, or Gin.

I'm glad to see there are others out there who still like to shuffle the deck up. Great post!

3:20 PM  
Blogger Paul (rock star wanna be) said...

Great post. I have a 15 yr ols son who's eyes are constantly rolling when I speak to him.

It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to smack the living....ummmm, great post.
Peace

4:20 PM  
Blogger boo said...

*rolls eyes*

*steps towards the door*

'oh dad!'

heh. i don't know how to play any card games. when we meet please teach me how to play bridge, thanks. although my IQ is a mere 189, i shall try not to be too much of a blockhead & drive u nutters :)

6:12 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

My wife has been trying (unsuccessfully) for many years to get us into some sort of 'card club.' She reminisces about the days when she was a wee lad and her parents rotated house to house every week to play cards with friends. She said it always seemed like so much fun, plus she got to stay up late.
We just cant find anyone that has time to do it--everyones so busy with school and work and baseball practice, and ipods and computers, etc.

*Sigh*

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Dreadmouse said...

I love all games except for the ones cruel people play with each other's heads. My curling team was made up of four cutthroat card players. We used to curl our game and then head up to the bar for three or four hours of beer and cards, usually hearts. Good times.

As an aside, did you know that the Europeans (especially the Germans) have redefined board games in the last couple of decades? There are absolutely brilliant board games out there now that are fun to play for everybody. Check out "Settlers of Cataan" if you can find it. It's a wonderful game/gateway drug.

8:54 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Since I was the youngest grandchild by eight years, I was always stuck by myself in a room of adults. So when I was 5, my grandpa taught me to play pitch, rummy, and straight pitch. Then I watched the adults until I learned cribbage.

We usually play pitch every few months when friends come to visit, but my grandfather has forgotten how to play straight pitch. And my nephew can only play rummy, so I haven't gotten to play cribbage in several years. My board just sits there, gathering dust. *sigh*

9:01 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'm still here, but I had to come back after starting on Sunday night. I've always been curious about Bridge. My mother and father used to have a Bridge-night, but I've never picked it up. Funny what you say about the inflection of the voice, which is a pet peeve of mine when playing Euchre. The latter is a wonderful game for couples, as there isn't too much mind-bending thinking going on, and conversations can be had. Lots of table talk through inflection though.

As for Wizard, I need to work on coming out for a game. It sounds like a lot of fun, and I totally agree that once upon a time people had to be proactive in their choice of entertainment.

10:31 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Now that both parents are gone, I still play with my brother and sister and our children. Many a game has been interrupted when someone remembered a particularly funny rummy episode from the past and retold the story. Thanks for the jolt!"

That really does my heart good to hear this. Good for you and your family!


"*pssst* seven-high diamond straight flush. (Full house beats a flush.)"

Oops! Thanks for that, LL. And the version of Pitch I play involved going after high, low, jack and game. Does that sound familiar?

"It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to smack the living....ummmm, great post.
Peace"

Lovely little urchins, ain't they?

Kids!


"when we meet please teach me how to play bridge, thanks. although my IQ is a mere 189, i shall try not to be too much of a blockhead & drive u nutters :)"

189! Holy Moley! (salaam! salaam!)


"She said it always seemed like so much fun, plus she got to stay up late."

Henry, she's right. And you still get to stay up late!


"As an aside, did you know that the Europeans (especially the Germans) have redefined board games in the last couple of decades? There are absolutely brilliant board games out there now that are fun to play for everybody."

There's a game store in Cambridge called Games People Play that carry German board games. They look interesting. I'd like to give one a try, but I don't know anyone willing to play something like that with me.


"And my nephew can only play rummy, so I haven't gotten to play cribbage in several years. My board just sits there, gathering dust. *sigh*"

Ah, Trina. Another reason to move to Boston. We'll play cribbage with you!


"The latter [Euchre] is a wonderful game for couples, as there isn't too much mind-bending thinking going on, and conversations can be had. Lots of table talk through inflection though."

I've heard about Euchre. Maybe I'll look into it. Pinochle too. And yes, work on coming out here for a game.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

I am horrible at any game that requires strategy, skill, wits or intelligence. My mother and I used to play endless games of War when I was a kid. I tried to learn how to play "Hearts" and "Spades" (similar games?) when I was in the Air Force, but those who were willing to teach were only willing if I picked it up quickly...which I did not. I was asked not to play before long. I didn't enjoy it, anyway.

The only cards I play now are credit, debit and race.

6:55 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Try it again now, Farrago. You're older and wiser. Read the rules of the game first before someone teaches it to you and insist on playing some practice hands. I swear you're denying yourself a great pleasure.

5:10 AM  
Blogger LL said...

"And the version of Pitch I play involved going after high, low, jack and game. Does that sound familiar?"

Very familiar. The five points we try to pick up are high, low, joker, jack, and game.

Damn... now I'm getting a hankerin' to play me some cards!

6:45 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Joker, eh? Interesting. I might introduce that twist next time.

6:58 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

That's what we called straight pitch! But we went for high, low, jick(off-jack), jack, and game.

The regular pitch we play has a lot more involved than that.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Erica said...

I was an only child, so sadly took turns playing Monopoly, etc. BY MYSELF. And was also good at a number of Solitaire card games.

Now I have two kids, and though one isn't even old enough to play Candy Land, I'm hoping to get them more interested in board/card games than video games. There are so many fun games out there now that DON'T have an accompanying DVD or battery-operated 'card-dealing device' - and they're so much fun.

GREAT post about 'the good old days' - I think about stuff like that all the time, about how people used to actually think and interrelate and spend their leisure time in a LEISURELY non-plugged in fashion. (sigh)

Will keep checking for your return to blogging :-)

10:38 AM  
Blogger Yoda said...

And what did people do even before cards were invented? Sketch in caves? I suppose some even got so bored that they invented religions! All of their favorite people were voted to be Gods, the rest were damned to spend an eternity being the Devil.

12:40 PM  
Blogger :phil: said...

I like to tell my kids stories of the olden days (when I looked like this ----> )
when there was only B&W TV and you had to get up off your butt to change to channel to one of 8 choices (unless you spoke spanish and got UHF reception). They are convinced I am making it up. We try to do a little more with some board games or zig-saw puzzles. I remember going through card game phases too, I never heard of pitch, maybe it was regional?

12:49 PM  
Blogger LL said...

"I never heard of pitch, maybe it was regional?"

I first learned it post-high school when some of the folks I knew went on the southern rodeo circut and brought it back from there. They taught me how to do it. Where it originated from, I have no idea, but that's how I became infected... :P

1:16 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"The regular pitch we play is a lot more involved than that."

Well, Trina, when we have the big blogger barbeque bash in Boston, you'll have to teach us that. I'll rent out a big exhibit hall at the Hynes Convention Center and use half the space for card tables. The other half will be a huge disco floor.


"Now I have two kids, and though one isn't even old enough to play Candy Land, I'm hoping to get them more interested in board/card games than video games."

When they get a little older, play Uno. When they get old than that, play Skip Bo. Awesome card games for all ages.


"And what did people do even before cards were invented? Sketch in caves? "

I think they took turns hitting each other in the arm. Then, when they learned how to make a fire, they watched that. Nothing like a good fire.


"I like to tell my kids stories of the olden days when there was only B&W TV and you had to get up off your butt to change to channel to one of 8 choices"

Oh yeah. I've told my kids about the old TV set we had whose channel knob was broken and we had to use a pair of pliers to change channels. THAT was roughing it. Pssh! "Remote control."


"I first learned it post-high school when some of the folks I knew went on the southern rodeo circut and brought it back from there"

From what I hear, Gin Rummy was popular with show business folk back in the day.

7:12 PM  
Blogger LL said...

"Oh yeah. I've told my kids about the old TV set we had whose channel knob was broken and we had to use a pair of pliers to change channels."

HAH!!! Been there...

8:47 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Me too. We used to have a B&W 13" TV and the knob was forever disappearing. I think my mother was trying to regulate our use of the one channel we got.

A pitch-playing Blogger bash? AND a disco? Could things GET any better?

7:53 AM  
Blogger magnetbabe said...

The boys in my lab are very into cards. They play blackjack and count cards and win big in Vegas too. I find the whole thing fascinating. They analyze different statistics and come up with ways to slightly increase their chances for winning. I know how to count but I'm too scared to actually try it in a real setting. But as a scientist I find card games very interesting from a strategic and statistical point of view. Before my friend Randy died, he wrote some very complicated computer programs to play millions of hands of different games to analyze the edge you get by card counting. I guess that's what card playing is to the younger generation.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Bridge? Damn, but you're impressive, Mr. Schprock. My parents used to play and my Grandma plays with the "girls" still (or did until she got re-married at the age of 84). I never care enough to learn, although my siblings and I learned and played pinochle very early in life (10?).

Cards are great fun, although I try not to play any game with my mother as she is her father's daughter and a sucky loser (and a not much better winner).

10:09 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Euchre Tournament at my house this weekend. Who's in?

10:10 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

I know how to play 52 pick up. Does that count?
And Freecell on my computer...

That's all I got.

Now, "Dad", can I borrow twenty bucks?

11:05 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

I wish I had more time to read this whole thing, but I just don't right now. I love Everclear's "AM Radio" ... sounds a lot like your post.

4:09 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"A pitch-playing Blogger bash? AND a disco? Could things GET any better?"

I'll field that question. No. Things cannot get any better.

"I guess that's what card playing is to the younger generation."

Natalie, that's what card playing is to the mentally-gifted generation. Mama mia!


"Euchre Tournament at my house this weekend. Who's in?"

I'll bring the nacho chips and Diet Dr. Pepper!


"Now, 'Dad', can I borrow twenty bucks?"

Young lady, I'll do even better than that: I've invested it for you in a savings account. You let that sit there and 20 years from now, that $20 will grow to $24.13!


"I love Everclear's "AM Radio" ... sounds a lot like your post."

I'll have to check it out.

7:15 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Young lady, I'll do even better than that: I've invested it for you in a savings account. You let that sit there and 20 years from now, that $20 will grow to $24.13!

*rolls eyes* But Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!

5:49 PM  

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