You Greeks are always children!
Jean Gabin in La Grande Illusion
A portion of our family decided to rent a run-down, breezy fishing shack on Nantucket for a Thanksgiving 2012 get-away. It was cheap and its cheapness allowed us to focus our funds on things that mattered: food and drink. It also allowed us to escape the more “interesting” members of our family for the Thanksgiving sit-down. Apparently, not everyone in the family likes the howling of the late-autumn Atlantic wind banging the windows all night long. Oh well. We threw another log on the fire. And a few of the best Setback players in the family rested at the dinner table.
To my right sits my wife, M. She is a setback sorceress. Famous in the family for taking big calculated chances. She has set back several Setback-Dons of the family. Everyone avoids going in spades against her. She attracts trick-taking, setting spades in an otherworldly way. And more than once she has gone out with a four-bid where jack is also high. If you do not bid against her, she will crush you.
Across from me sits “El Capitan,” world traveler, entrepreneur, CEO, gambler, chef. M’s cousin and her childhood nemesis in Setback, El Capitan served as one of M’s Setback instructors in her formative years. His chance-taking tempered the measured professionalism handed down from M’s father. They both know each other’s weaknesses and strengths in the game.
To my left is S, the corporate accountant. She is a card-counting, number slayer. If someone does not follow, she’ll know it. Her agility in the game is subdued by her attention to form and rules—-she is not the risk-taker her partner, M, is.
There is enough whisky leftover from the day’s recipes, enough for two shots. I lift my glass to El Capitan. Our opponents refill their wineglasses.
(Note: how Setback differs from Pitch, at least in our family: players are dealt six cards; teams try to bid and accomplish four points—High, Low, Jack, and Game—in one suit; dealer must take the bid for 2 if all pass; dealer can also take the bid by matching the current bid; and you need to bid to go out. We typically play to eleven points.)
M goes three in hearts; M and S make the bid; men take Game for one scrap point.
El Capitan goes three in diamonds; we make the bid; women take Game for one scrap point; so far all quiet on the Setback front.
A few bids later, the score is 9 to 10. This is where it gets dicey--you need to control the bid more than ever. And this is where good players take phenomenal risks in the game.
I deal out the cards and S immediately passes. I take a gulp of Guinness.
El Capitan quietly says “three.” M plainly states “four,” like she is mentioning the time. She looks over at S, shrugs her shoulders and says, “What the hell--we can’t give it away.” S laughs and says, “Here it goes!” The wine and Guinness have been flowing nicely, and the smack talk has been rising swiftly. I sense that this will be an interesting end to the game.
I go to look at my cards and El Capitan nearly whispers, “wait.” I look over at him. He wears a dead serious Setback mask.
“Don’t look at your cards. Take the bid,” he says as though it is a commonplace in the game.
S pipes, “What is this? What?”
My hand hovers over my six unseen cards. M laughs a laugh that says, “Oh always expect the crazy from El Capitan!”
“You want me to take it, take the bid, without looking at my cards?”
“Sure. Use the force, man.” I'm thinking I'll use Guinness more than the force.
S is clearly now a stranger in a strange land. My smile tells both women that I am considering taking the bid for four without looking at my cards. She is bewildered. “You can’t do that! What the heck is this?!?” M shrugs and smiles—she can probably imagine doing the same thing. El Capitan and M grew up in a family where Psyops was a big part of card playing. Freak out your opponent. Freak them right out.
“Four,” I say and then immediately laugh the laugh of the damned. There is no way this can work.
“This is crazy. This is absolutely crazy!” S cannot comprehend such a break from strategy or sanity. I look at my cards.
Ace, Queen, and the Three, all in Spades. A Ten of Hearts. And two low level clubs. Still alive I say to myself.
M hears it, makes eyes at me--always throws me off my game when she does that. And then in her sweetest voice, “All but the Jack, right?”
The Ace spins on the table. Wind rattles the windows of the fishing shack. S groans. She throws her Two of Spades.
“See?” El Capitan is now the schoolmaster. He throws his Jack of Spades to the table.
The table explodes with laughter and disgust. M plays it cool, however. “Let’s keep them from game.”
El Capitan was loaded with face cards and Tens, however. We take game and our four points.
We leave the table as is and return to the fireside. My brother, a Setback refugee, sleeps on the sofa. We throw another log on the fire and discuss chance and faith and risk. The conversation eventually turns to our hike in the morning.
Leaps of faith are not just for archeologists and paratroopers. Gamers have the luxury of enjoying such leaps often. If it works, it is quite the experience and worthy of recounting. If it doesn’t, just don’t mention it in the session report.
Remember to turn off your targeting computer every once and a while.