Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card 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 and the habitual losers
“Dollink,” said my Aunt Sophie, “why do losers play cards?”
I dropped a crust of raisin bread toast over the side of the balcony that runs the length of my first-floor apartment. Several of the fat mallards that live in the duck pond around which are arrayed the buildings of the complex waded through the ivy for their late-afternoon treat. They seemed particularly pleased with the peanut butter remnants on the crust.
“Be happy they do,” I offered, “or you would never be able to beat those games.”
Want to lose
She set two cups of espresso on a patio table, and leaned over to watch the foraging honkers. “That’s no answer Tsatskeleh,” she complained. “I’m serious. Why they lose and where they get the money is what I wonder. It seems like some of them want to lose. And it seems like some of the ones who try the hardest to lose can afford it the least.” Aunt Sophie disappeared inside, and reappeared momentarily, carrying a plate of her homemade chocolate drop cookies. She sat down next to the table, and eyed me expectantly.
I took the chair opposite, and squeezed the slice of lemon rind reflectively over the cup. “Hmm,” I began. “You’re correct in assuming that some players want to lose. But there’s no one answer to your question of why. The reasons are sometimes complicated, and there may be as many reasons as there are players. Some players want to win, too, you know, but, surprisingly, they are a decided minority.”
“A group,” Aunt Sophie interjected, “among which I do count myself in.”
“Of course,” I laughed. “Although I suspect that wasn’t always true. Right after Uncle Max died…”
“Zachor l’chayim,” she muttered.
“Right after that,” I continued, “is when you first took up pan in a big way. Oh, I know, you used to be a recreational player, couple times a week. You’d win a little, maybe, lose a little, usually, but not too much. You kept it under control.”
“I didn’t lose much,” she protested.
“Agreed,” I agreed. “I said you kept it under control. But then when Uncle Max passed on, you buried yourself in the pan game. Some people drown their sorrows in booze, or drugs, or relationships that are doomed from the start to failure. You took to the cardroom, and you got carried away, and lost pretty heavily.”
“Because so good I didn’t know how to play,” she maintained stoutly, “and so I came to you, because I knew you were a good player.”
“And that, my dear,” I said, “was commendable, and I think a start of a type of therapy for you. But, nonetheless, I contend that you were losing heavily because that’s what you wanted. That’s one of the reasons for losing at cards. You can’t say that your losses went from maybe twenty or thirty to several hundred a week just from not knowing proper play. You may not have been such a great player when Uncle Max was alive, but you didn’t suddenly become worse. No, it was despair. Understandable, of course. And guilt. You blamed yourself for his heart attack. You felt that if you could somehow have convinced him to stop smoking, it would never have happened. Or, if you could have gotten him to the hospital quick enough, instead of calling 911, they could have saved him.
“And, of course,” I went on, “that’s not a rational guilt for you to have been carrying. They got to your apartment within ten minutes, and the paramedics did all they could for him. Nothing else could have been done. I don’t mean to bring up painful memories, but you’re still carrying around some of that guilt, I know, and it’s totally unwarranted.
“So, for one reason why people lose at cards, you demonstrated that yourself. They’re punishing themselves. They feel guilty about something, whether rationally or not makes no difference, nor whether they could even express the guilt consciously. Recent widows have a well-deserved reputation in cardrooms as big losers. And not just cardrooms. They’re the favorite targets of certain types of conmen. And they don’t do any better at car lots than they do in the cardrooms.”
“Yah,” she blushed, “I guess I did get carried away there for a while.”
“Sure you did,” I assented, “but no one’s blaming you. Uncle Max’s death was just as hard on me. Only instead of the cardrooms, I buried myself in a bad marriage. I’m glad you got over it before you lost all his money. Some don’t, you know. Some just keep going till there’s nothing left of all they inherit.
“And others have other reasons for punishing themselves. You know that Cheerful Charlie. The one that tried to offer you that ridiculous deal for the Eldorado. He used to make over a million a year in commissions before he opened his own lot. Now he probably makes three times that. He’s sharp, all right. And he has just the same killer instincts on the lot as the best poker players do at the tables. And yet, when he sits down to play, he’s one of the biggest live ones in the high-stakes poker games. Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve often wondered if deep inside he doesn’t feel sorry for the suckers he takes advantage of at his car lot, and that to assuage some of the guilt, he has to be a sucker at the card tables. Whatever the reason, he regularly loses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
“But,” she sputtered, “he tried to cheat me both on buying Max’s Eldorado and selling me a Yugo.”
“Mm hmm,” I nodded, “and if you’re willing to play two hundred-four hundred lowball, or hundred-two hundred hold’em, you can get back all that he wanted to get you for, and then some. Of course, there are some other sharp cookies at the table you’d have to get past.
“And that’s not the only reason for losing. Some lose, like Charlie, because they feel guilty about earning too much money too easy. You know that TV actor that comes in a lot. He’s a good example. So’s that lawyer that makes a career out of representing on a contingency basis ex husbands, wives, and lovers who sue their former mates for excessive support.”
“Oh my,” she clucked, “we do sound bitter, don’t we?”
“Not at all,” I replied, “not as long as he’s willing to give back a healthy portion of it at the tables. And there are drug dealers and bookies among this group. They make an otherwise unconscionable profit, but feel duty-bound to return some of the filthy lucre to circulation. And there’s the stress psychologist who’s Mister Nice Guy in the lab on campus, and in all his worldwide lecture tours. He plays high-stakes pan so that he can vent some of his anger. He can’t abuse the mucker and the players unless he’s losing, so he deliberately loses, and then he can take it out legitimately. He hates to win. And there are guys cheating on their wives who also punish themselves by throwing money away at the tables. And women cheating on their men.
“So just be happy there are people like that, so you can make money in these games. If you played only with people who wanted to win, I guarantee you all the games would be a helluva lot tougher. Just recognize the tendencies in yourself, and curb them.”
“But what about,” she queried, “the ones who are dead broke most of the time, and yet, whenever they scrape together a few bucks, immediately blow it off in the games?”
“Ah yes,” I smiled, “the railbirds. Let’s talk about them another time. I think our chronicler has run out of room here.”