“A Prison Pastime: Pinochle”

Except for, maybe, the smudged or faded black ink characteristic of prison tattoos, a person knowing how to play pinochle is the most obvious clue that he’s an ex-con.

Elsewhere, I’ve only ever heard of old men generations ago knowing how to play pinochle. It’s a complicated game requiring an agile memory and card-counting ability. The average length of time for a single game of pinochle runs the gamut from 10 minutes to an hour.

Pinochle is basically spades on steroids, with some added dimensions and its own vernacular. While bridge/contract is popularly thought the thinking man’s card game, it’s too boring in action…playing the hand comes as an afterthought once bidding is over. Pinochle manages to incorporate aspects of its sophisticated bidding system while the actual playing of a hand combines the excitement of spades with the finesse of hearts.

For the last few months up until a couple weeks ago, I’ve regularly showed up to the pinochle table at the same time, with the same group of 3 people, save for a couple who occasionally fill in for someone.

Making a regular pinochle table a reality was not a simple task. Bean and I agreed to the idea at the start of summer, and started to search for players soon thereafter.

So desperate for players at first, we prioritized a knowledge of the game over all else, like personality conflicts, which predictably caused trouble. One of our first recruits was an old-timer called Funk who talked a big pinochle game.

While fluent in the language of the game, his game wasn’t anything spectacular. Worse, he displayed zero self-awareness on how much luck, like every card game, was the decisive factor. No matter how good you are, you can’t beat the cards as the saying goes.

Of course, it sucks to be on the receiving end of a one-sided onslaught, but he fueled our resentment by explaining his lucky streak in a smug, arrogant tone, with little asides on why he played his hand that way, as if it required finesse. Me and Bean kinda exchanged looks, like: “what a fucking douche!”

While we didn’t kick him out, we made a show of never inviting him to play again. He got so butthurt that he’d press the issue and try to find out who wanted him out of our pinochle group. No one had the heart to tell him we all did.

The final two guys to join our pinochle table were the perfect additions: they balanced each other out skill wise while adding to the camaraderie at the table, since we were all cool from before. 

And that made for some of the easiest jailing, whole hours and then days gone by, busily distracted as I forgot the relentless boredom of prison.

I’m posting the rules to the game in another post, along with instructions and a cheat sheet for meld and bidding. Below is a far-from-exhaustive glossary of pinochle lingo, with an explanation, its definition, or translation into plain English. Ill update it as I recall what i left out. These concepts won’t really make sense until you learn how to play the game. 

meld – before playing the hand, winner of the bid (and opposing team) lay down card combinations worth a set amount of points

simple save – only need to make 20 pts to make the bid

‘play your aces’ – elementary concept that says once you take the lead, play all your aces (with exceptions)

punt – playing a non-pointer like Q or J after playing all aces

push a point – instead of punting with a Q, play a King

jack comeback – playing a jack on partner’s ace to signal how to reach, partner should punt in that suit

ace comeback – playing an ace on partner’s ace, telling him to punt to that suit

non saver – when a team makes 31 points in play, so opponents do not save meld nor in-play pts.

double nuts – two pinochles, worth 30meld

60 bitches – double queens around, 60 meld

19/23 pounder – a run with an extra marriage or two in trump (19 or 23 meld)

4 banger – winning a book that’s all point cards

“party at your house” – your lead

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