Shanghai Rum

I find it interesting how families can be different in little ways. Growing up, my family — on both sides — loved to play cards; Kish’s family didn’t. Some families avidly follow sports teams; some are active in politics; some go to church, well, religiously.

Because everyone in my family played cards, I learned to love them. It was unavoidable. As kids, we played War. When Jim and I became old enough to spend the night at Gramma and Grampa Neal’s house, we would spend the evenings playing Gin Rummy. On vacations we played sprawling games of Hearts and Spades. When I was in high school kids on their free period played Euchre. My favorite card game was, and is, Cribbage, and probably the most mentally challenging game I ever played was Contract Bridge. Cards were great because they were an inherently social activity. Unless it was Solitaire, every card game was played with someone, and an important part of the game was the discussion that occurred as the cards were played, picked up, shuffled, and dealt. It might be a critique of how the hand was played, or the latest joke, or malicious gossip, or a cutting remark — but the social discourse was as much a part of the game as the cards themselves.

Nowhere was this more true than with my Gramma Webner and her sisters — Mildred, Marie and Margaret (the latter two always being referred to together, like “Laurel and Hardy” or “Abbott and Costello”). Their game of choice was called Shanghai Rum. No card game took longer to complete, had rules that were more complex and subject to argument, or provided more of an opportunity for gabbing. The rules of the game were written on dog-eared papers that were hauled out and placed on the table whenever a game began, so as to be available when the inevitable argument about the next step in the progression occurred. When Jim and I sat down for a game of Shanghai Rum with Gramma and her sisters, we knew that we were making a commitment to hours and hours of cards and conversation. I have no idea what we talked about during those games; I just remember that it was a lot of fun and a good way to pass the time.

I had forgotten exactly how the game was played — although I did remember that it involved multiple decks of cards, a progression of increasingly difficult combinations of sets and runs that needed to be achieved, “melds,” and “buys.” I happened to Google it today and was delighted to see that the indispensable Wikipedia has published the directions, which I’ve now printed out. In years to come, I’ll have my own dog-eared set of instructions, and some day, perhaps, Jim and I will be able to introduce a new generation of Webner relations to the slow-developing pleasures of Shanghai Rum.

A Roll Of The Dice

I park in a crumbling parking garage in downtown Columbus. From my spot on the 3rd floor, I have a commanding view of a surface parking lot immediately behind the garage and a neighboring brick building. Several years ago, they began displaying large outdoor advertisements on the side of the brick building overlooking the surface lot, which are then visible to the steady flow of traffic entering downtown on 3rd Street.

Last week they put up a new billboard, for a casino in Wheeling, West Virginia. It features a head-on photo of gamblers around a crap table and an enormous pair of red dice that give the ad an even more eye-catching, 3D quality. All of the people around the table are young, physically attractive, happy, and excited (and mostly female, too). The tag line reads: “Hey, Columbus! Come out and play!”

The ad is a bit inconsistent with what I’ve seen of casinos. I’ve never been to the Wheeling Casino that is the subject of the ad, but I have been to casinos in Las Vegas, Reno, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Nice. On the inside, they all look the same — dark, and dark — and the people you see around the tables generally seems to be old, desperate, somewhat pathetic and, candidly, not particularly attractive.

My Reno experience was especially memorable. I was a young associate who had to go to Reno for a deposition of a man who had moved there after his business failed. Our client wanted to spend as little as possible and asked that I stay in the cheapest available lodgings, which happened to be the Circus Circus casino. (I think it cost about $35 a night.) Like many casino-hotels, you had to walk through the casino to get to the elevator to get to your room, and as I walked through the casino I was struck by how many of the people seemed to be lonely, elderly, and using walkers, canes, or wheelchairs — feeding quarters into slot machines with a vacant expression, or grimly shuffling their remaining chips at the blackjack table or roulette wheel.

I know that people can have a good time in a casino town, because my friends and my brother Jim have sworn that they’ve enjoyed their visits. On one occasion, Richard and I had a riot out in Las Vegas — but on that trip, we didn’t really gamble. Instead, we walked the Strip, went to a great comedy club performance, visited the shark aquarium, had some good dinners, and sat out by the awesome pool at Caesar’s Palace drinking beer.

So, my experience teaches that people should be skeptical when they see a casino ad that features a bunch of happy, excited, attractive people. Maybe the casino in Wheeling, West Virginia is different — but somehow I doubt it.