Before the falls: Love and pinochle

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February 13, 2012
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
After 10 years together, marriage is in the cards

Something outside stinks. This unusually warm winter has turned our yard into a fetid, muddy swamp. And our dog has been ever vigilant in her efforts to transport as much of that swamp into our house as her fur will absorb. And my backyard compost, so obediently frozen during a normal February, has already begun to thaw and rot. And yet, despite all of these olfactory assaults, there is also something pleasant in the air in our little household. It is (hold your noses): Love.

Not because of this week’s silly holiday, although we’re planning a chili cook-off for the occasion that will no doubt momentarily improve the aromas in our home. (Afterward: I make no promises.) It’s because my girlfriend of 10 years and I have decided make our union official under the rights accorded us by the great state of Minnesota, and come this spring will celebrate the occasion by making our friends and family spectacularly drunk. Wedding fever has hit our little corner of Northeast.

Lurking just beneath the bouquet of near-nuptial bliss, however, hovers the unmistakable musk of anxiety. As happens to most brides (I hear), mine has begun losing sleep over the slightest details — the color of the napkins, the candy in the piñata. (To be fair, I’m equally prone to wedding-planning paralysis, and will waste entire afternoons daydreaming about invitation typefaces). Just last night she woke in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. after dreaming that we’d forgotten to buy rings.

To calm her nerves and pass the time, my girlfriend — sorry, fiancée — uses her iPhone to play cards. There she sits, holding the future itself in her hands, the very height of technical design humanity has ever produced, and she uses it to simulate a technology invented 1,500 years ago. It may as well be a paperweight. I find this completely charming. It shows she knows what she wants and doesn’t care about the other options available to her, which is probably why she’s marrying me.

Cards have always played an important role in our house. Our courtship started over a cribbage board. Cards are a great way not only to pass the time but also to get to know someone — how much they value risk versus reward, whether they would rather play by the house rules or make their own, their preference toward offense or defense. Then, once you really know your partner, a card game becomes a proxy for real conflict, the way play-dates are for dogs. Having it out during a game makes the actual fighting redundant. And, in our house at least, it prepares us for the partnership we are about to forge.

The big game in our house is pinochle, and it is a game made for partnership. It is played most often by two teams of two, with a special deck containing two of every card. Partners must silently determine who has the better hand — longtime partners can do this as if by voodoo — and then work together to create the best possible hand between them. They wager against the other team on who has the best hand. Defaulting on that wager puts you in the hole, the worst possible outcome. Making good on your wager puts you ahead. To succeed, partners must know each other’s style intimately, and must also be honest about their shortcomings. Superstition plays its part too: My parents always try to orient themselves parallel to the bathtub in whatever house they’re playing. And there you have it: Communication, modesty, work and luck. Marriage in a card game. You even get points for suited Kings and Queens, known, appropriately, as a “marriage.” Points are called “meld.”

The dirty trick pinochle pulls on a household is that the game creates friction not between the opposing teams but within them. Rather than light-hearted insults lobbed toward your foes across the table, pinochle encourages stern looks and to-the-quick personal attacks against the very person who is ostensibly on your side. My own family history is pocked with stories of temper tantrums thrown over a pinochle game. You do not want to be my dad’s partner if he’s looking for a single useful card and you’ve got a hand full of useless ones. And if grandma doesn’t make her bid: Batten down the hatches. This dynamic makes pinochle an adults-only game in my family. It is a rite of passage to be invited into a game. I learned to play when I was 10 but wasn’t formally accepted at the table until after high school. As my friend’s grandpa says when he picks up his cards: “Send no boys.”

Today pinochle is a mostly forgotten game. It was brought overseas by German immigrants, thrived in German settlements in the Midwest and the Deep South for most of the last century and, like nearly every card game besides poker, has gotten out of the way of progress, making room for smart phones and Carcassonne (another game worth trying, by the way). But we continue to evangelize it, and are always looking for people to join a game. If you think you’re up for it, let us know.

Just don’t expect to win right away. It takes time. And we play pretty well together.

Chuck Terhark writes about life in Northeast for The Journal.