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.
Aunt Sophie looks to the side
“What’s the strongest play in pan?” asked my Aunt Sophie, joining me in the coffee shop of our favorite cardroom, the Anaheim Club.
“Cheating,” I replied flatly, signalling the waitress for a refill to my coffee cup and a fresh one for Sophie.
“No, Dollink,” she interrupted, “I mean seriously.”
“And I mean seriously,” I answered. “Cheating is the strongest play in almost any game, particularly pan. Hold out a spread of valle spades, and bring it in every few hands. Just don’t get caught. Better yet, work with a crooked dealer slugging the deck and dealing you those dukes. Nothing stronger. Guaranteed to get all the chips, and fast.”
“You’re just in a cynical mood,” she sighed, taking a tentative sip from the steaming coffee that the waitress set at her place. “Please tell me the strongest play I can legally use. You’ve been telling me all along the ethical way to play, including you don’t approve even of what you call that `bending of the rules’ a few pan players employ regularly, such as double discarding or dropping cards on the floor when they discover in the middle of a hand they have too many cards.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, draining my fourth cup of the evening. “I don’t think that sort of stuff ought to be part of the game at all. I don’t think that kind of legalized cheating is any better than the illegal kind, nor that it requires any skills that a good player ought to have. Furthermore, all it does is discourage beginners from continuing to play. And if you don’t have the beginners to beat, who’s left? All those rounders figuring out angles to escape from hands they shouldn’t have played? Or how to cheat their way out of when they should have just counted their cards at the start of the hand?”
“That’s my Tsatskeleh,” Aunt Sophie smiled. “For a moment I was afraid you’d drowned in your own morosity.”
“My dear,” I gently interjected, “that’s either `porosity,’ which I don’t think you mean, or `moroseness.’”
“Never mind the English lessons,” she chided, “I was just trying to get a riser out of you. You know, you’re so predictable sometimes. Just tell me the strongest play in pan.”
“Hmph,” I harrumphed, “I presume you mean the strongest strategy you can add to your play, as opposed to the strongest single move you can make. You don’t mean something like a grand switch, or even busting out with a special. You mean something like keeping your hand together, which we’ve talked about a lot, or not playing the pissers, right?”
“Right,” she assented.
Show their cards
“Well,” I continued, “surprisingly, although those are powerful elements to a winning pan game, they’re not the strongest part of a winning strategy. The strongest thing you can do might be considered to border on the unethical, except that you’re just taking advantage of information available to anyone else in the game. You’re probably aware that most pan players are not particularly careful of how they hold their cards. Far from it. In fact, in many hands they show their cards to the players on either side of them. Usually they do this to get sympathy for some card that went over their heads or for some other bad luck occurrence that inveigled its way into their lives. These players don’t just show you their cards in the middle of the play, though. You can see what they have from start to finish. Most players don’t even notice, being too intent on what to do with their own cards, trying to make up their minds whether to play the hand or not. Learn to make your decisions quickly, and you can take advantage of this extra information. Don’t wait to pick up your cards until they’re all face down in front of you. Pick them up one at a time as they arrive, or at least look at them. Now, most hands are cut and dried. Either they’re completely unplayable, and can quickly be dumped, or are very good and must be played. Although, you have to be careful about those latter. A hand is good in relation to the others. What may be a terrific hand against one or two declarers after several others have passed is not playable against four or five with still more left to decide.”
“Of course, Dollink,” she concurred. “I know about how to make those playing decisions.”
“Yes,” I went on, “we have discussed that a lot. But a lot of hands are marginal. You can decide to play them based on what the players on your left and right hold. Now, please understand, I’m not talking about craning your neck and practically falling off your chair to see what the others have. I mean those players who practically hold their hands spread out before your eyes, as an awful lot do. You’d have to go out of your way not to see their cards. All you have to do is glance to right or left to know every card in their hands. Curiously enough, even though most pan players wouldn’t frown on your seeing their cards under these circumstances — in fact they wouldn’t even think you were gaining any advantage from doing so — they themselves never bother doing so, mostly because, as I said, at the time they could get something from it, they’re too busy arranging their own cards and making their slow-witted decisions.”
“Tsk, tsk,” she clucked; “such a cynic.”
“Maybe,” I conceded, “but, anyway, what can you do with the information? If you have a marginal hand, what you see can make the difference between whether to play or not. If the hand to your left or right is considerably better than yours, obviously you don’t play, because the other player has a much better chance than you. But if the player’s hand is considerably or even a bit worse than yours, whether you play or not can depend on what the player to your left is stopping, and what you can stop on the player to your right. For example, if you have three unmade spreads, all of which consist of three bum cards, and the player to your left is stopping all of those numbers, you don’t play. If the player on the right has three sets of valle spades, even if they’re bare-ass comoquers, and you can’t stop those spades, get out, because he or she will have two plucks on each of them, and that’s likely to cost you a bundle before you go out — or I should say if you go out. And I don’t even mean you can stop a card by running it through your hand and tearing up your hand in the process. I mean, if the player on your right has two fives of spades, and nothing much else, and you have three bum fives, and the five of spades is one of the cards that will give you a spread, sure play. But if you have one five of spades and two fives of clubs, watch out. Even worse, if you have no fives, strongly consider not playing. Or if you have two sixes of spades, one six of hearts, two fours of spades, one four of hearts, plus three threes of clubs, that’s not a bad hand if the player on your left isn’t stopping any of your cards. And, by the way, don’t fall in love with that hand; it’s not nearly as good as most pan players would have you believe. Anyway, if the player on your right has two fives of spades, get out. The only way for you to stop a five of spades — which you’d have to do if he ever got eight-card flat and had those fives held back, or, worse, ten-card flat with the fives made on the board — would be to completely destroy your hand.”
“Ah ha,” she nodded, “I see.”
“Nothing wrong,” I added, “with seeing another player’s cards in pan if you don’t have to go out of your way to do it. You’re just taking advantage of information available to all the others. And most of the others don’t think that information is of any use, anyway. That’s because they don’t know when to take advantage of it. While making your decision to play is when it’s worth something. While you’re already playing is too late. About all you can do then is sometimes maybe change a discard when you get hit based on what cards the one on your left is stopping, or what you might be able to stop on the player on your right. Since that information is of the most use earlier, that’s when to use it. And that, my dear, apart from cheating, is your strongest pan play.”
“Anything else?” she prodded.
“Sure,” I concluded. “A bonus. The second-strongest play in pan. Hold your cards in such a way that no one but you can see them. It’s not as strong as the other one, since not too many players will even bother looking at your hand, but don’t give away anything you don’t have to, because if someone as smart as you sits on either side of you, you’ll only hurt yourself by exposing your hand.”