Contract rummy

So we didn’t go to the movies. I couldn’t get excited about anything playing, except maybe Milk, but that was showing at the Enzian, which is a good place to feel smug about seeing art-house movies but a terrible place to actually watch said movies (awkward, uncomfortable seating at tables, and then waiters running around at the climax of the film—terrible). So we didn’t go to the movies. We played contract rummy.

Well, not all of us. I like to say that contract rummy is my extended family’s Official Family Card Game, but in truth, for each one of us who loves it, there’s another who refuses even to set foot in the house during a game. The latter say contract rummy is loud and stressful and generally obnoxious, and I say, well, yeah. Isn’t it fun?

But perhaps we all are casting unfair aspersions on the game itself. Perhaps we are the loud, stressful, obnoxious ones. My family does tend to get rather competitive. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the story of how my mother once crushed me, then eight or nine years old, in a game of Parcheesi. She blithely captured my only pawn out of the nest when she already had two at home, and I started to cry: Why did she take my pawn? She could have moved somewhere else! And she told me, in a statement that has gone down in family lore: “Mary Beth, when you play a game, you should always play to win.”*

So yeah, when we play contract rummy, everyone gets a little overexcited, what with all the fanatical playing to win. Each of the seven rounds requires every player to meet a predetermined contract—two sets, a set and a run, a run of seven, et cetera—so if you’re dealt a run when you need a set, you have to scramble. And that means asking for discards, and that means a lot of shouting. As soon as one player’s discard hits the pile, half of the rest of us are begging for it. Technically, by our rules, it should go to the player who asks first, but when three people screech simultaneously, who is first? Who knows?

Like a few of my relatives, I tend to follow the risky, somewhat reckless strategy of requesting numerous discards (with their accompanying penalty cards) to raise my odds of making the contract quickly, but then I’ve got a handful of extra cards to dispose of, which can be difficult. Sometimes I do very well, more often I crash and burn, but even when my score is abysmal, I love the damn game: the tidiness of the contracts, the anarchy of the discards, the uneasy balance between skill and luck. Contract rummy might not be the Official Family Card Game, but we play it every Christmas, and personally, I wouldn’t want to play anything else.

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*Occasionally I run into someone who finds this anecdote appalling, so I wish to state, for the record, that I think the episode reflects well on Mom. Even when my brother and I were little kids, Mom never condescended to us. Throwing a game is a lie, and she refused to do that. Sure, maybe there’s something a bit odd about routinely trouncing your kids at Candy Land, and later Parcheesi, and later Trivial Pursuit, but pitting ourselves against her made us better players. And furthermore, knowing that our rare victories were legitimate made them all the sweeter. So there.