There’s a card game we play in good ‘ol Hamiltucky called Pitch. If you know the game of Euchre, it’s very similar. An easy game to learn, and one played with a partner or without, it’s a game of bidding on how many points can be captured in the hand and the establishment of which suit will be the trump suit that hand. As I’m writing the opening to this story, I’m on a week’s golfing vacation in Phoenix at our vacation home, (someday to be the retirement home). The vacation is being spent with my sister-in-law Traci and her husband Rick. Like my wife and I, they married very early and have survived together for these past 35+ years. Up until 1989 when we transferred to Louisiana, we four used to play Pitch on quite a lot of our weekends together in good old Hamilton, Ohio.
So many fond memories of playing Pitch. Where do I begin?
I wrote about our many pickup ball games in our preteen years in this story
. As we got older though, sometime around our mid teens I think, we got too big for our ballpark. Playing Pitch became one of our favorite pastimes. If we were spending the night at Joe’s, we’d play late into the night. On many normal, (or especially rainy), days we’d have a 4, 5 or 6 man game going. If it was 6, we could only deal out 2 additional cards to each player if there was a dealer ‘run’. Sometimes we’d play a standard 4-point game, (i.e. High, Low, Jack and Game). Other times we’d play ‘off-jack’, making a possible 5 points each hand.
Most of those games happened on our front porch. It wasn’t necessarily the game itself that was so fun; it was all the chatter that happened during the game. We talked card trash, we’d tell stories or maybe we’d talk about the latest Reds game. We got closer and we entertained ourselves. Sometimes the entertainment was accidental – like the time I was too close to the edge of the porch and leaned too far back in my chair, slipped off of the edge and landed on my back in our bushes. Everybody had a good laugh over watching my face as I was slipping backwards in slow motion. I thought for sure I would crack my head on the bricks, but once again fate stepped in and dictated otherwise. The porch games are some of my fondest early teen memories.
My tenth grade year was a bit of an experimental period for high school administration. What I remember was that a new policy went into place, essentially allowing each student to miss one class from each period, each quarter without needing an excuse and without getting demerits. What?! I don’t recall exactly how the policy was written, but what it boiled down to was just that – we kids could skip an entire day each quarter or we could split it up by skipping just a class. And we did! Groups of kids planned out what class they were skipping and on what day. Played out right, I could miss a class each week of each quarter without reproach. It was like having a mini vacation each week!
The other “test” that was conducted was to essentially to allow us to do anything we wanted in study hall. Ok, so we couldn’t drink or smoke or shoot off guns, but basically everything flew as long as no one was getting hurt. I think it was 2nd period, 2nd period study hall, and it was infamous! It was so popular that kids would skip their regular classes or get hall passes just so they could come down to our study hall where there must have been a dozen different tables playing pitch.
We would have lost the pieces
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my future wife was also in this same study hall. We still didn’t know each other yet…but we soon would. She has the same fond memories as I do about this period. Study hall was always held in the cafeterias for both junior high and high school. Our study hall ‘teachers’ for this were two of the more easy going male teachers at school. Study hall was a zoo, not the petting kind – the kind where all the animals were left to roam free inside the compound. I would love to go back today, just to sit on the sidelines and witness the chaos again, now as an adult.
I always had a deck of cards in my pocket that year, it was critical. Showing up for that study hall and not having a deck, or not finding someone with an extra deck, was like sitting down for your favorite meal after having your mouth wired shut by your orthopedic surgeon. You would have to sit there, feeling like geeks, listening to all the other tables enjoy their hour of playtime. Not having a deck of cards happened maybe only once; we had our priorities straight.
Our cafeteria had many rectangular tables and then had a few tables that had circular tops. Our pitch table was one of the circular ones and was one of the first tables located directly inside the doorways. Every table had its regulars. Our table had maybe 4 or 5 players who actually belonged in that study hall, me being one of them. On top of our regulars, we typically had 1 or two floaters, guys that didn’t belong in our study hall, but skipped out of their class for either the entire class or for only one game. On rare occasion we might let in an 8th player. Six cards were dealt in a hand so if we played 8, there would be no run by the dealer. We always played as singles, no teams in these study hall games (unlike all other pitch games where we typically played as partners).
I don’t recall who our players were from those days. I do, however, remember The Leech. Nicknaming was one of our favorite pastimes in my day. I myself must have had ten of them or more. Let’s see what I can remember – Duck, Whitey, Tweety, Tweety Bird, Bird, Scoreboard. Ok, maybe I only had 6. Whenever an opportunity to call out a funny nickname presented itself, we were all quick to latch onto them. The Leech’s real name was Steve Haven (I had to look him up in a yearbook). He was the same grade as I was and I didn’t really know him other than as Leech.
Pitch is a game of bidding and then trying to acquire points. Being the winning bidder affords you the opportunity to set trump, thereby usually making it easier to earn the points. Another way to score points though was to try to have the point cards in the suit that gets called trump. If you have these cards, your normal mode would be to try to secure the bid so that your suit cards would be point cards. Or you could become a leech; someone who never bids and tries to feed off of the other bidders. Steve Haven, (better known as Leech), never bid. Even if he had Ace and Deuce in the same suit, (a certain 2 point bid), he rarely called the bid. One of us, (likely yours truly), quickly picked up on his habit and Leech had earned a spot in high school study hall pitch hall of fame.
Usually I was the score keeper so at the beginning of the game I’d write down each person’s name or nickname and then after each hand, I’d read off the scores. Once you had a funny nickname, you never got called by your real name – Steve Haven became forever known as The Leech, or just plain old Leech. I’d read them off in a clockwise fashion beginning with whoever was seated to my left – Jimmy 3, Joe 7, Steve 0, Mark 5, Leech has leeched 4 so far and Me with 5. When each new hand was dealt, we then went around the table to see who would win the bid. Inevitably as the call approached Leech, one or several of us would make little sucking noises with our teeth and lips. That always cracked ourselves up. I’m positive that The Leech never won one of those Pitch games. As in life, if you’re going to be a leech, you’re going to have to accept the generosity of others – typically, you’ll end up in Congress.
Do I even need to point out which one Pete is?
And then there were the many ‘championship’ pitch bouts played out between me and my friend Joe with my Dad and his buddy Pete. Pete was a heavier version of my dad – they both grew up a little less fortunate than most, both served in the military because “only pussies didn’t join the military”, both used the N-word and both were funny teasers. Pete had a big old beer belly and stood maybe 5’9″ tall. He loved my dad – Dad could make Pete laugh at a burning bus load of trapped nuns. When they got together against Me and Joe, they loved to talk trash and tease us as much as they could.
Joe and I were no slouches though where it came to Pitch. We each knew each other’s playing styles and had been playing together for several years. He knew, and I knew, when the other had a solid bid or when we were bluffing to get the other team to run the deal. “High” and “low” points in trump are the easy ones to get. “Jack” and “Game” had to be caught, so when playing partners, it was important to watch the play and to instinctively know when your partner needed you to throw out a trump card in order to catch the Jack or most Game. Joe and I were good partners. On one occasion, Pete and Dad were both running their mouths and for whatever reason, Pete was beginning to get on Joe’s nerves.
On the championship battle day in question, Dad and Pete were squared off against Me and Joe and we were having a close race to 21. They would win a hand and we’d win the next. Back and forth, back and forth until the score was tied up around 17 of 18. The whole entire game, we had been suffering the quips aimed at our expense and on this day it was getting to Joe. We had the bid and unbeknownst to them, Joe had been dealt a killer hand. Pete was the dealer and I was to his left. As the first bidder, I bid a standard 2. My Dad – “oh I guess I’ll pass this time” (translation – I have a pretty good hand Pete so run them).
In a rare move, Joe outbid me saying “3”. This was very rare and you only did it if you knew for certain you had an easy three. Instead of letting us have the bid, a normal play, Pete ran them for 4. A run for 4 is very rare and only done either in desperation as a Hail Mary or when you had a very decent 3 point hand. In this case, the reason for Pete’s run didn’t matter because when the bid got around to my partner Joe, Joe bid 4! What we all didn’t know was that Joe had been dealt a very rare hand of 6 or 7 trump cards including the Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Deuce – an extremely strong hand. He would be assured High, Low and Jack. My job would be to ensure I play my point cards smartly so we captured Game, the 4th point.
In a standard move, Joe laid out his strength, the Ace. I was quick to point out, “there’s one, we got High, oh and here’s a 10 for Game, Joe”.
Pete – you need 3 more or you’re going to be losing the championship boys.
Pete was in rare form that night. He just KNEW that Joe didn’t have the Jack and was trying to catch it from Dad and Pete. Joe continued to lay out strength and Pete kept up with the verbal digs, “Jack hunting, eh?”
I think Joe was savoring the moment. He knew he had the Jack in his hand and he knew it was Boss; so he held onto it, saving it for the very last play. Pete, thinking for sure now that we didn’t have the Jack and that we were going to go ‘set’, (going set is a negative point play for the bid Mount when you do not achieve your bid), was really having fun at Joe’s expense.
On the very last play, Joe got to be the last to throw down his final card. And he did:
BAM! “Jack hunting, eh, take that!”
Joe had the Jack all along. Dad and Pete were defeated and silence ruled the night!
On this golf vacation trip to AZ with Traci and Rick, we played Pitch every night, the boys against girls. Girls ended up winning two games on the final evening, putting them into the winners circle. Every night there was trash talking and just general pitch-playing fun. I think what I like most about playing cards is the social interaction – you get to look into the eyes and at the faces of your partners and your opponents. Our eyes aren’t glued to the screen of a smartphone or a television screen, but to each other.
There’s a great final line in the movie Stand by Me which was based off of the Stephen King book, The Body. In the book, these words appear towards the middle, but they were lifted and placed at the very end of the movie – a perfect way to end:
The feeling the writer is sharing is what I feel when I’m playing cards with friends and I wish I had more of them here in California to play with…..maybe I’ll have to teach some people here how we rolled on Prytania in good ole Hamiltucky!