Playing Pinochle with Pete


This post is going to get a little more personal than I usually get, so if you’re just here for the movie talk or whatever check back again later.

In the spring of 2007 my maternal grandmother died and left her husband a widower. They had 11 children and nearly 40 grandchildren and a whole mess of great-grandchildren. That’s a lot of people. Still, it was kind of easy to forget at that time that my grandfather, Pete, was a person. I was finishing up my freshman year of college and had by then figured out that engineering was not my major of destiny and I was pretty focused on my own issues. Grandpa Pete had always helped me whenever I needed to build something for a school project but our interactions beyond those fun building times were limited. He was more of an idea of a grandfather than a flesh and blood person. He had already had a multiple bypass heart surgery and cancer and was in the process of coming out the other side of that whole ordeal. His sadness at the loss of his wife was palpable but it was clear that he would last at least a few more years without her. The family rallied around him and continued a kind of meals-on-wheels service where the eleven children (or in-laws or respective grandchildren) would bring over a dinner or lunch every day on an 11-day rotation. I would often go along with my mom during that summer between freshman and sophomore year and it was nice to visit but it never something I really looked forward to. That is, until we started playing pinochle.

Pinochle was, aparently, a game he and his wife had often played with their friends. It’s a team game where four players pair off and are dealt a full deck of cards (two copies of the four suits but only from the nine through the face cards and the ace for 48 cards total). After the hands are dealt there is a bidding process which starts at 25 points and increases in five point increments until the highest bidder is decided. At that point the winner announces which of the four suits will be “trump” and is given four cards (hopefully in the “trump” suit!) from his partner’s hand. He then puts down his meld, which includes any run (all cards in the trump suit except the 9), any marriage (king and queen of any suit), any four of a kind in the face cards or aces, the nines of trump, and the pairing which gives the game its name, the jack of diamonds and the queen of spades. These are all worth varying amounts of points but the most points would come if you happened to get both of the pinochle duos available, both jacks of diamonds and queens of spades. That double pinochle combination is worth 40 points on its own and in a game which is played to 100 points it’s kind of the nuclear bomb of points. But that’s only half the game. The pair that didn’t get the bid also has the chance to get points from the cards in their hands in the meld phase and the winner of the bid must return four cards of his choosing to his partner so everybody ends up with the same number of cards as the tricks phase starts. In that phase the bid winner starts by laying down the highest card (9’s low, aces high) of trump they have and the person to their left (one of the other team’s players) puts down one of their cards, then it goes around the table until each player has put down one card. The highest card in the suit that started the trick (always trump in the first round, but it can be any suit later on) takes the four cards and lays down whatever card they want. The play continues with the winner of each trick starting the next one with the caveat that a card from the trump suit, uh, trumps any other suit and is an automatic winner. At the end of the tricks when all of the cards have been played the two piles are counted for points, but only aces, tens, and kings count as a point. The winner of the last hand also gets an extra bonus point for an nice 25 points available in every trick round. Since the minimum bid is 25 points it is possible to not have a single point in the meld and somehow run the table in the tricks round and win your bid. If you get the amount you bid or more, you get to keep the points you won. If you don’t reach your bid you’ll end up losing the amount you bid which can often send you into the negative point range. The first team to 100 points wins. Not too complicated, right?

Pete on a scooter

Well, it was to us. When Grandpa Pete first taught my mother and me how to play it we were absolutely horrible. Over- or under-confident on our initial hands, we’d also have to check our cheat sheets to see which combinations were worth what in the meld. And let’s not even begin to discuss our terrible choices for our partners when they won their bid and we had to send them four of our cards. It was a long and painful process, but we learned the ropes slowly and surely. Soon we were at least passable as players. Of course, pinochle is usually a four player game, so there was usually an extra aunt or two that would come in to make the numbers work. We quickly became a core group of me, my mother, my aunts Karen and Susan, and my grandfather. The three women would switch out among themselves on a game by game basis but I was always Grandpa’s partner. Always. His premier pinochle skills were intimidating at first and I was always afraid I was doing it wrong. He’d never say anything about it, though, other than in a sweetly funny aside if I later played a card in the tricks section that he could have used earlier in the meld. It was at this card table – nearly every Saturday for the last seven years, first in his house, then his old-folks home, and finally in the last year or so in the nursing home – that I learned how life really worked.

It’s now the time when I make the strained connections between a card game and life lessons. It’s sappy and cliched but I don’t really care. I believe it and it works. Let’s start with the basic setup. Unlike poker or most other card games, pinochle isn’t strictly adversarial. The team aspect is key and a bad partner will sink you just as fast as a good partner will keep you afloat. We quickly learned to just hold on to the nines of trump unless you had absolutely nothing else to give your partner when they won the bid. Those nines weren’t going to do much good and it was better to send an ace of another suit or the jack of diamonds/queen of spades in hopes that they’d have the others and maybe achieve that pinnacle of point prowess. Other people matter, pinochle says, and they’re not all out to get you or get theirs. We’re working towards a common goal and we can use a friend to help get there. The help continues in the meld as your partner should try to feed you as many points as they can while you keep your own trash cards for the other team. It’s something special to see a pinochle team work together for fifty or sixty points in a single hand.

Pinochle also tells us that perfection is something to strive for. If your team takes all of the tricks in that phase of the game you not only get all 25 points but you also get to steal the other team’s meld points for yourself. It doesn’t happen often and it takes a special hand with a special partner to help you along the way to get there, but it feels so good when you do. I think I was the first to achieve that perfection in our little group and actually had an adrenaline rush as I realized it was going to happen. The other team can’t even get angry about it because it’s so rare and impressive that they just have to laugh at the whole thing. In work, at play, on this blog, I strive to get that kind of feeling from whatever I do. Doing something really really well is one of life’s best pleasures, one which is often only possible through a dependence on family and friends for support.

Grandpa pete

Life isn’t always so accommodating, though, and we’re rarely dealt hands that might work out to be perfect. Probably the best lesson I learned from playing pinochle was to play the cards you’re given. Life is weird and things out of our control are the norm. Sometimes your score says you should bid but your cards don’t have any potential to be a winning hand. When that happens you can only hope your partner is one card away from a run (worth fifteen points, good for 3/5ths of the minimum bid) and that the queen of clubs that does nothing in your hand will be that card to complete his run. It’s ok to let others take the lead, and it’s ok to play out a hand that doesn’t have much real value to you because there’s always another hand to be dealt next time around. The cards don’t change but their arrangement does. With a pinochle deck there are 12,413,915,592,536,072,670,862,289,047,373,375,038,521,486,354,677,760,000,000,000 (62 decimal places!) possible orderings of the 48 cards. I’m pretty sure that we didn’t get to all of those in our 7 years of playing, but we probably put a sizable dent in it. Life is almost infinitely unpredictable, so you better be ready to play whatever hand you have.

If that’s the best lesson I learned the most important lesson is that my grandfather wasn’t just some abstract concept. He was a real person, a man of hidden cleverness with a 90+ year bank of stories to tell. He grew up in my home town so we took a drive by his old house one day. It’s fascinating to see how places have changed and it’s important to remember that the world didn’t start when we were born. I heard about his time in World War II as he was part of the force which went into concentration camps (Buchenwald, if memory serves). His experiences humanize the larger-than-life death tolls and stories from WWII in a way that even movies don’t often do. Grandpa Pete died last night, at around 7 ‘o’ clock. It was clear that he was going down hill in the last few months, but even with his flagging health we continued to play pinochle. We last played three weeks ago and although we didn’t win either game I will hold that memory for the rest of my life. Grandpa Pete was a special man because he was so human, so normal, so nice, so funny, so smart, so real. I am eternally grateful that pinochle introduced me not to my grandfather but to the man who lead my giant family and myself. It’s no coincidence that his progeny includes just around 100 people, that winning number in pinochle. Over the course of our card sessions I graduated college, floundered around without a job, and began to discover what I really want to do. Hopefully by this time next year I will be hearing from graduate schools where I’ll learn even more about how literature and life works. I’ve had a lot of good teachers over the years whose methods and ideas I will pull into my own teaching career, but none will be as important as Grandpa Pete because he didn’t just teach me how to play pinochle, he taught me how to live.

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