Wiesenberg (s033 pan): Sophie doesn’t even appear

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Pan Player+. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers pan (or panguingue), which is a multi-player form of rummy, often played for money.

Michael Wiesenberg index.

Black and white photo of Michael Wiesenberg

Michael Wiesenberg

Aunt Sophie doesn’t even appear

“So that’s pan?” asked my Aunt Sophie’s second cousin Minnie’s niece, Sara.

We occupied a booth in the Anaheim Club by the wall of one-way glass that looked out over the capacious casino floor. On the other side, the players would see themselves and the club reflected. Below us stretched the pan section, with hundreds of happy pluckers. Directly beneath was a dollar condition game.

The waitress arrived, bearing two coffees and one blueberry cheesecake.

“Well,” offered Sara, “Aunt Minnie was right about your liking food.”

“Please,” I remonstrated, “I run every morning.”

“You don’t have to apologize for a healthy appetite,” she said. “I can see that you’re in good shape.”

A hand

“Thank you,” I responded politely. “Yes, that’s pan. The game some call an exercise in frustration. I started to tell you a little about it at the seder. Basically, as I said, it’s a kind of rummy played with anywhere from two to usually no more than ten players. Six to eight is common in cardrooms. Each player makes a commitment, in turn, on whether or not to play the hand. The first player in each hand to so decide is the player who won the last hand. A `hand’ is what some people who don’t play in cardrooms much might call `a game.’ That is, it is the period of time starting with when the players get dealt their cards until one person wins by matching all of his. The players throw their cards in, and a new hand is dealt. This is somewhat confusing because a `hand’ is also the ten cards each player gets. When you’re in the game, though, it’s not so confusing, because you can always tell by context what a player means when he refers to a `hand.’”

Sara sipped at the coffee that had a reputation as the best in Southern California cardrooms. In itself, that wouldn’t be so impressive, because cardroom coffee is, generally, pretty bad, but this coffee deserved its reputation. The coffee was not the main reason I played at the Anaheim Club, but it certainly added to the pleasure of playing there.

“You talk,” Sara commented, “about `he,’ `him,’ `his.’ And yet I notice a lot of women in those games.”


“Ah yes,” I sighed. “That’s a problem I wrestle with all the time in my writing. In Southern California cardrooms, many of the players are women. In the poker games, I would estimate it at a quarter to a third; in the pan games, I would say closer to a half. Why then don’t I use the words `she,’ `her,’ `hers’? That’s a very good question. I try not to be sexist in my writing, despite what may seem to come out sometimes in my conversations. It’s just a fault with the language. There’s no convenient term in English to refer to both men and women. In German, which has three genders, male, female, and neuter, one uses man, which means `one.’ Of course, one can use `one’ just as easily in English, but that breaks down when one must form a possessive. I can’t very well define a hand as `the period of time starting with when the players get dealt their cards until one person wins by matching all of one’s.’ That’s not proper English. It works in German, but not in English. You see, in German, the possessive pronouns modify the word they apply to, not the word whose place they’re taking. For example, if you speak of `his book,’ you use sein Buch, and the `his’ is neuter because Buch is neuter. In English, however, when you have a phrase like `one matches his cards,’ the `his’ goes with `one,’ not cards. It works in French, too, which has the word on; that works the same way. Anyway, it’s clumsy in English to say `he or she’ all the time. The term some writers use, `s/he,’ to mean `he or she,’ is ridiculous, and you can’t speak it. People have by convention for years used `he’ and so on to mean both sexes, just as they use `man’ to mean `man’ and `woman.’ I’m thinking of terms like `chairman,’ `two-man volleyball,’ `mankind,’ and so on. `Chairperson’ is contrived. `Two-person volleyball’ isn’t bad. `Personkind,’ though, is dumb. It’s a real dilemma, and one I have never been comfortable with as a writer, or as a talker.”

[Author’s note: Don’t confuse the German word `man’ with the English word `man.’ The German is pronounced `MAHN,’ and means `one.’ The German word for `man’ is `Mann.’ Unfortunately, that word is also pronounced `MAHN.’]

“My goodness,” she opined, “that was quite a declamation. I’m glad to see that at least you recognize it as a problem, and that you’re not really an MCP.”


“Oh no,” I added, “despite what Aunt Sophie may sometimes say, I’m no male chauvinist. Where was I? Oh yes, each player declares in turn whether she is `in’ the hand. This she does usually by some sort of verbal declaration, like, `I play,’ `I’m in,’ `Come on,’ `Let’s go,’ `Shoot, Luke, you’re faded,’ and so on. When a player decides to play, she’s in till the bitter end. It’s not like poker, where you can get out of a hand you don’t like at any point. Nor, though, is it like gin rummy, where you must play every hand. There are other differences from gin, too. They play with eight decks of cards, not one. And the decks are strange. There are no eights, nines, and tens, so a sequence jumps from seven to jack. Cardrooms generally remove more than just the eights, nines, and tens from the decks. They usually take out all the spades from one of the decks, and often one more each of the three, five, and seven of spades. This removal, by the way, is something many pan players, particularly beginners, are not aware of. Beyond missing the eights, nines, and tens, however, this constitution of the deck is not important to an understanding of the game.”

“Why do they do it?” she queried.

“Oh,” I replied, “that’s a bit complicated. But,” I hastened to add, when she looked like she thought I might be condescending, “I’ll try to explain. During the course of play, players try to match up certain cards into what are called, just like gin rummy, melds. Some of these melds have no value; others do. When players lay down melds with a value, all the other active players, that is, those playing the hand as opposed to those sitting out and watching, must pay the holders of the melds a certain amount of chips. Spades have value. Threes, fives, and sevens also have value; in fact, pan players call them valle cards, which means `value cards’ in some heathen tongue. Threes, fives, and sevens of spades are particularly valuable. Cardrooms want pan players to sit for a long time. Ideally, for a club, little money would change hands. All the players would stay approximately even, losing only the house’s share of each pot. If there are too many spades in the deck, particularly too many valle spades, they feel that payoffs between the players will get too high, and players will go broke too frequently. Players who go broke quickly have been statistically shown to remain at the tables for shorter periods of time than those who gradually lose their money. Better for the house to slow down the action.”

“I see,” she remarked.

“Well,” I put in, “I’ve been digressing a lot, and I’ve hardly begun to tell you about the game.”

“Maybe,” she stated, “but it’s interesting. You tell it well.”


“Thank you,” I returned. “This is a complicated game to explain. It doesn’t get any less so. Some people call pan `the backward game.’ Everything seems to be done opposite to the practice in other card games. Play goes counterclockwise around the table, instead of clockwise. All cards are played face up. When a player draws a card, he never puts it in his hand. To do so would be to foul his hand. If he can use a card, he sets it down in front of him, and removes as many cards from his hand as go with it and sets them down on the table in front of him together with the drawn card. Players discard their cards face up. Players make little effort to conceal their cards from other players, although that’s due more to sloppy playing than to the conventions of pan. The higher the stakes, the more careful are players about their cards. Players often don’t wait for each other to complete their actions before making their own plays. It’s possible for a player to be contemplating how to play the card she has drawn, and meantime all the other players have acted behind her, and it is her turn again. In a way it might look to an observer like this player was acting right after herself. There’s even a form of play that would be considered cheating in any other game that’s part of pan. The attitude seems to be, `if you can get away with it, go for it.’ I don’t approve of this, by the way, but most of the other pan players do.”

“Do tell me about it,” she urged.

“I will,” I maintained, “but not now. It’s getting late, and I better get you home. If you’d like, we can come back and observe another time.”

Next: 034 Aunt Sophie comes back


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