Wiesenberg (s001 pan): Sophie plays every hand


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Pan Player+. This is the first entry in the “Aunt Sophie” series. It begins by focusing on pan (or panguingue), which is a multi-player form of rummy, often played for money. It later deals with poker and more.

Michael Wiesenberg index.


Black and white photo of Michael Wiesenberg

Michael Wiesenberg


Aunt Sophie plays every hand

“Why do I put out so many big hands,” Aunt Sophie wanted to know, “and still end up loser for the session?”

“Because,” I said around a mouthful of kneidlach, “the secret of winning at pan is not playing every hand.”

As I finished the matzoh ball soup, Aunt Sophie set down a plate filled to overflowing with brisket, kreplach, and Hungarian sweet and sour red cabbage.

Aunt Sophie is a sweetheart, but she doesn’t invite me over for Shabbas dinner out of family feeling, not when she could be at the club playing pan. I expected more questions on her favorite game.

“But I play in those 24-hand tournaments. If you don’t play every hand, you got no chance.”

“Tell me, Aunt Sophie,” I queried, “is there one player who consistently wins, both in regular play, and those tournaments?”

She thought about it. “You know, there’s only one player I know who seems to be ahead of the game. Marty Goldblum. He’s a real steifspieler.”

I nodded. “Uh, huh. And does he play every hand?”

More fun if you won

Sophie shrugged. “No, he doesn’t. Some of the other players give him a bad time about it, accuse him of having no gamble, spoiling the fun.”

I helped myself to more brisket. Sophie refilled my glass with Manischewitz Concord Grape. “Aunt Sophie,” I remonstrated, “I know you play pan for fun, but wouldn’t you have more fun if you won sometimes?”

Sophie looked shocked. “You mean I could sometimes?”

“Of course,” I asserted, “just don’t play any old thing that comes along. You don’t have to dump as many hands as Marty does, but just play the ones that have a decent chance. And I’ll bet that the more people who declare ahead of him, the better hand he has.”

“Yeah,” Sophie agreed, “with four ahead of him he’s either nine-card flat, pat for two, or both.”

“Likely both,” I returned. “You may not pay attention to the hands he dumps, but if you do, I’ll bet you’d see some pretty good patsies in some of them. He won’t play any hand with more than two discards with that many people in, even with a bong. He has to throw his cards away face up, just like the rest of you. Look at them sometime. You can learn a lot about someone’s play by the hands he doesn’t play.”

Nu, what hands should I play then?” Sophie inquired.

Not three hits

“If there are several players ahead of you who have declared in,” I declaimed, “or several to act behind you, you need a hand that is either nine- card flat, or can get there in one hit. You can modify that to two hits if the hand has something else going for it, like pat for two or more, or the whole hand working together, preferably made pairs with cutoffs that can readily convert to ropes without breaking you off the pairs. You can loosen those requirements somewhat if no one, or only one, has declared ahead of you, or if you’re first with only one or two left to act. But in no case play a hand that needs three or four hits if the hand includes a lone comoquing pair that doesn’t work with the rest of the hand.”

“Wonderful,” Aunt Sophie exclaimed sarcastically. “In the middle of a tournament, I’ll throw away a hand just because it has a smoking pair of threes, two sevens of spades, three kings, and three bum sixes. Three hits and I’m flat. Down for six, maybe seven. One more hit and I’m out for at least nine. Maybe 13 or more. And there’s a jackpot for the best hand put out, you know.”

“Three perfect hits,” I pointed out, “actually four to go out. And what if you get unlucky, and never hit the board? To answer your original question, the reason you put out so many big hands is you keep going for those longshots. Sure, some of them have to come in. But in the meantime, you have to keep paying the times you don’t put out the hand. And I’ll bet a lot of those pays are to Marty.”

“Well,” Aunt Sophie began sheepishly, “I think you’re right. But in a tournament, I gotta play more hands, right? Or else how will I ever win one, if I don’t play any hands.”

“Whether you’re in a tournament,” I answered, “or a regular game, you must play well all the time. If the cards aren’t coming, don’t get in there. If you blow every hand, you won’t last long enough to find out if the cards are going to turn in your favor. You’re not playing just this one tournament and never again. You play in those tournaments twice a week…”

“Three times,” Sophie mumbled.

Long continuous session

“Well then,” I continued, “that’s almost like one long continuous session. In the long run, good play wins out, and bad play loses money. Just as, in the long run, the Marty Goldblums win the money, in the long run the good players win more tournaments. Sure, you’ll put out more big hands if you play every hand; you’ll also lose more money along the way when the cards don’t run all over you, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is most of the time.”

“So,” Sophie smiled, “be selective about the hands I play, and I can still have fun because I’ll have winning sessions more often.”

“Yes, and what hands should you play when you do get in?” I urged.

“Hands with just a few hits,” Aunt Sophie replied, “and with cards that all work together. And I can lower my requirements a bit when it looks it will be just me and one other player, possibly two.”

“Right,” I concurred, “but watch out about lowering those requirements. Most inveterate every-hand players find it awfully easy to come up with excuses for playing a hand.”

“Oh of course. And will I surprise the others when I play next time and win a bundle for a change,” Aunt Sophie gloated. “Especially that Marty Goldblum.”

Next: 002 Aunt Sophie plays position (Part 1)

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