By Mitch Flynn
The funny thing about pinochle is that you’re never really playing with a full deck. It’s four cards short of the standard 52.
That doesn’t mean it’s bridge for idiots – “bridge lite” might be more accurate. In any case, it calls for attention and memory but it’s leavened with enough luck to keep it interesting. It’s a fun game to play with friends.
Until recently, four of us played weekly for the better part of 40 years. That’s a whole lotta pinochle. My rough calculation is five hands per game times three games per night x 50 weeks a year x 38 years, or about 30,000 shuffles, cuts and deals. That’s also a whole lotta meatballs, because we’d meet for dinner before playing.
Our ritual began with drawing cards for partners – the first two aces, “Us,” the ace-less others, “Them.” Hostilities underway, we celebrated our random pairings with a pregame chorus of vocal effects that caused our wives to roll their eyes and disappear into the far reaches of our homes. And because every in-group eventually begets its own lingo, the word “partner” got shortened to “ner” with the opposing players becoming the “non-ners.” (As an adjective, “non-ner-like” was applied to the occasional moment of ungentlemanly behavior, not that any of us would ever do anything like that.)
Pinochle 101. (Feel free to skim this paragraph.) Points are scored by melding certain combinations of cards and then by taking tricks. A double pinochle (the two jacks of diamonds and two queens of spades) counts 30. A run scores 15, 16 if you have the “9” in that suit. An ace in each of four suits adds 10. The first team to get to 100 wins the game.
Pinochle 102. (This will be on the exam.) Bonus points are scored by making fun of the non-ners when they make dumb plays or lose track of trump – then doing a seated end-zone dance when you win, victory iced by an ad hoc combination of fist bumps and high fives with one’s ner du jour, all of which goes to prove that tolerance is at least nine-tenths of getting together for 38 years without killing each other.
Woven into our repartee and gamesmanship were the other threads of our lives: our work teaching, marketing and fundraising, making videos, and engineering; children and grandchildren; a move to Florida and a move back home; doing business in China; retirement and a late-in-life marriage; car shows and country property; bird watching in the Amazon; and bike trips to Death Valley, Quebec and Vermont.
And then cancer crashed the party.
I’ve been a volunteer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute for almost as long as I’ve been playing cards, so I know the statistics all too well – one in two men and one in three women will get cancer in their lifetime. But when that one in two is your lifelong friend, you learn to focus on the journey and not the destination.
We played through talk about doctors and appointments and diagnoses and prognoses. We played through surgery, radiation, immunotherapy and metastasis. We played through his pain – he kept that card close to the chest.
We dined out less. Then met at only his house. Then played only one game. Our last night together, only one hand. Afterward, we hugged our now gaunt friend goodbye as he matter-of-factly acknowledged that his melanoma had trumped him.
You can play pinochle three-handed, but it’s an entirely different kind of game – every man for himself, two against one, and nobody to shake hands with when you win.
Rest in peace, partner. We should all play our hand so well.