Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Yesterday marked eleven years since my dad passed away, so to celebrate and remember, my Monday game review will explain one of his favorites, Pinochle.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of my earliest gaming memories (outside being mercilessly creamed in Risk, Monopoly and Dutch Blitz), and one my favorites, is when my dad taught me how to play Pinochle. What I really wanted in life was to be like my dad, so instead of fellowship with my sisters, I would often watch him as he played games even if there was little chance of my understanding what was happening. I watched him as he played Rook and Pinochle, and while I didn't know this at the time, I was apparently observing one of the best. (At least, his friends and family thought so. My mom still tells me when we play games about Dad making outrageous bids and meeting them.)

I also mentioned earlier that my grandma was the only person I ever knew who had an electronic Pinochle game. This isn't quite true. She bought one for my dad, so there were at least two units sold in handheld Pinochle games, both sold in Berne, Indiana. Pinochle isn't too popular today, especially among the pre-geriatric crowd, but I've had trouble understanding this, especially after playing the alternatives. Euchre? Give me a break! Everyone was playing this game at school, but it was so lame. Of course, part of what made it so was all the calls of "Reneg! Reneg!" and the house rules that crept in here and there. In any case, I submit to you that Pinochle is a much better game.

Why is that? Well, first of all, Pinochle is a bit of a hybrid game, half poker, half trick-taking game. Second, Pinochle is cool enough to get its own deck of cards (which I'll explain in a moment). And finally, Pinochle takes quite a bit of finesse to play well, and it feels much more exciting than Euchre. (Ask anyone in my family, and they will tell you Pinochle and Rook are superior games to Euchre. We may be biased, but I'm just sayin'.)

Pinochle is a three- to four-player game played in partnerships. (In the three-player game, the player who names trump plays against the other two players, who are on a team against him, but players win individually.) A Pinochle deck is only 48 cards compared to a regular playing deck's 52. It is a double deck, but not like Canasta is a double deck: a Pinochle deck contains two of each card 9-Ace in each of the four suits. A game is typically 100 points, and there are 25 points available in each round of play (you can score more points, though, during the meld phase). A round begins with the player next to the dealer bidding for the privilege to name the trump suit for the round. For those who are completely unfamiliar with trick-taking card games, the trump suit is the most powerful suit. Whereas typically cards follow a normal progression--Jack beats 9, Queen beats Jack, etc.--even the lowest trump card beats every non-trump card. So naming the trump suit is a powerful move, especially if you've got a good hand.

Of course, everyone wants to name trump if possible, so it's auctioned off to the highest bidder. I mentioned that there are only 25 points available in each round (each Ace, King, and 10 is worth one point, and taking the last trick is also worth one point), but bidding can surpass 25. That's because each player, after bidding and before the round starts, can meld the points in their hand. That is, there are certain combinations of cards that are worth points (almost like poker hands), and these points help you reach your bid. For example, a king and queen of the same suit (a marriage, in jargon) is worth two points, four points if the marriage is in the trump suit. A pinochle (the queen of spades and jack of diamonds) is worth four points. I won't get into the specifics, but there are many different melds to score in a given round, and they're worth more if you have double. So, for example, a marriage is worth two points; a double marriage (two kings and two queens of the same suit) is worth fifteen points; and a double marriage in trump is worth thirty points. A double pinochle is worth thirty points. Some of these high-scoring melds only work in the trump suit, so it behooves players to take the bid if they are able. Melding cards scores you points, but it also gives your opponents a preview of what's in your hand. This half-open aspect of Pinochle makes it exciting as it helps you guess early how to play your cards in the round.

The round of trick-taking follows a typical pattern: the winning bidder leads, and the highest card takes the trick. Here I should mention one deviation from normal card order: in Pinochle, the order of cards is A-10-K-Q-J-9. The 10 is the second highest card in each suit, instead of the second lowest. Another deviation is that if a player is out of the suit led, he must play trump, if possible. In Rook, for example, players are given the option of throwing an off suit if the trick isn't worth taking, saving their trump for the opportune moment. But Pinochle allows players to force the trump out of their opponents' hands. A player must also play a higher card than the highest card currently played, if possible (a 10 or Ace on a King, for example). At the end of the round, each team scores their counters. If the bidding team scored at least the amount they bid, they get to keep whatever points they scored in meld and the round. If they did not reach their bid, they get set back the number of points they bid and the opposing team keeps whatever points they scored.

I like the structured play of Pinochle. Pinochle is a rigid card game with strict rules. The finesse involved comes from exploiting those rules to your advantage. Flushing your opponents out of their trump cards takes skill and judgment. I also like that there are two of each card. I may have the ace of trump (the highest card), but if I only have one, I know that there's another highest card out there, so I had better protect the other cards in my hand. I like that the game encourages you to save something for the last trick. It's not enough to play all of your good cards at the beginning of the round; you have to save some for the end as well.

What new players won't like about Pinochle is the steep learning curve. And it is steep. There are lots of meld patterns to remember (I try to combat this by making a cheat sheet for new players). The rigid rules give you a small window of possible cards to play on a turn, and if you forget one and play what you shouldn't have, you can throw off the whole round, to the consternation of the more experienced players. And as Pinochle is a partnership game, you sometimes have to give up your desire for displaying the glory of your hand and work for the good of the team. You may have a powerful point card, but it may be better to play it as a counter on your partner's certain trick than to wait for a time to play it on your own.

This last point is one of the reasons my grandma would get in arguments with her handheld Pinochle game. She would get so frustrated with her partner who never passed her the points like she should have or who would bid against her to name trump and have a worse hand to work with. She accused her computer partner of being in league with the opposing computers, and if all the robot movies I've seen are correct, she was in the right to do so.

After my dad died, I didn't play Pinochle often, really only when I went to visit my grandma. Now that my grandma is gone, I don't play it at all. Pinochle, it seems, is a dying game, and finding people to play it is difficult (because of the steep learning curve, mentioned above). But for me, it will always remain one of my favorite card games. It is certainly the most special, and one I plan on sharing with any future Schindlers.


  1. Pinochle is the game that my grandparents play with each other (that is, my dad's parents with my mom's parents). I've played with them, but it is hard to remember all those melds. It's also intimidating going up against experienced players.

    If you can convince Abby to play, I'll try to convince Bonnie . . .

  2. It is tough to go against experienced players, or to be on a team with one: my dad was a taskmaster when he was my partner.

    I'm guessing Abby has no interest in Pinochle, especially not after this review. But maybe she'll jump in with a comment? I'm certainly open to playing. :-)

  3. Contact the Petrys! Stephen's entire clan is an avid Pinochle family, and Janine has learned how to play. When I return we'll have a foursome!

  4. Sorry, Matt. Pinochle is a little too high-stress for me. I'd be happy to get together for Canasta any time.

  5. @Duane--I forgot about that! Now I remember that Steve did tell me he played Pinochle. That's a great idea.

    @Abby--It's okay if you don't play Pinochle. You indulge enough of my other gaming whims that it'd be difficult to hold this against you. :-)