Friday, February 03, 2006

Gaming with Co-workers



One key to happiness – GAMES




When I graduated from college and joined the throng of the employed, my first job was in a large civilian government office on a huge military base in Oklahoma. Entirely by accident and good fortune, my immediate supervisor (who was the office manager) loved to play games. The game selection was thin – a variation of Pitch with a deck of cards or a Pitch-like game played with dominoes.

Like most of the people in the office, I brought my lunch each day. At noon on my first day of work, I was surprised to see a group of seven or eight people sitting around two large gray metal government desks that were pushed together. Six of the people, including my boss, had various lunch items in front of them or on their laps, while one or two people sat in chairs behind them, also eating lunch. When I saw cards being dealt, I pulled up a chair behind the group and took out my lunch.

I quickly realized the six main players were playing Pitch, but it was a variation I had never seen. There were two teams of three players each, seated in alternate chairs in the circle. The deck of cards included two Jokers, marked High and Low. That, of course, is common in many variations of Pitch; what was unusual was the way the cards were dealt. The dealer gave each player six cards face-down and then three cards face-up. Each player had a nine-card hand, with three of them exposed, and all the deck was dealt. It was a 10-point variation, with one point for each of these cards in the trump suit: High (always the Ace), Low (almost always the Deuce), Jack, Off-Jack (same color, different suit), High Joker, Low Joker, and the Ten; the Three was worth 3 points and was caught by any other trump except the Deuce. When the bidding began, each player could see the six cards in his hand and three in front of each player, for a total of 24 cards, almost half the deck.

Bidding was almost as structured as Bridge, but on a much simpler level. If a player could see in his hand and his partners’ face-up cards, the Ace, King, and Deuce of one suit, his bid was 8. An Ace, King, Queen was worth 9, and an Ace, King, Queen, Deuce was a 10 bid. If someone bid 7, they had some cards worth points, but couldn’t see cards worth an 8 bid.

Everyone knew the bidding scheme, but sometimes it took a good look (and maybe a little luck) to figure out which suit they were planning to bid. A game was 21 points, which normally took a minimum of three hands to complete. However, anyone could bid “Shoot the Moon” (or “Shoot It”). This bid was the same as a 10 bid, but was worth an entire game, win or lose. Each player was allowed only one bid, which had to be higher than previous bids, with the dealer bidding last. A subsequent “Shoot the Moon” bid would overbid a previous “Shoot the Moon” bid. When bidding was finished, and the high bidder named the trump suit, each player put his face-up cards in his hand and reduced his hand to six cards for the game, with the high bidder playing the first card.

I’ve never seen a trick-taking card game played so quickly. If a player hesitated for more than 2 or 3 seconds to decide what to play, someone would say, “Come on, we’re waiting.” All of this was done between mouthfuls of sandwiches, chips, pickles, cookies, soup, crackers, and swigs of coffee, tea, water, and soda. It was like a high school cafeteria environment. Probably 55 minutes of the lunch hour involved dealing and playing cards and eating. The other 5 minutes covered setting up everything and putting it away.

As the lunch hour drew to a close, more and more “Shoot the Moon” bids were heard, sometimes in desperation, trying to catch up in the “games won” column for the day. If “Shoot the Moon” was the final bid, and a player on the opposite team had either the trump Ace or Deuce (which was an automatic point for the team that played it), that person would casually toss it face-up into the middle of the table (ala Mel Gibson in the final poker game in the movie Maverick) before the high bidder could even lead to the first trick, thus defeating the bid and winning the game. This might occur several times, so the count of games completed could easily reach 20 or more each lunch hour.

Now, I had played different variations of Pitch for about a dozen years, but I had never seen anything like this game. Generally, the two teams had the same teammates every day. The seventh person I had seen observing the game was the “first alternate.” If any of the regular players was absent, the alternate sat in for that person. My boss noticed me watching the game on my first day and asked whether I played Pitch. When I answered affirmatively, I was designated the “second alternate.” Within about a month, after I had substituted in several lunch sessions, I was moved up to first alternate because I played faster than the other alternate, and speed was highly prized.

Before my first year was finished, our office was pulled from the base and moved downtown to form the core of a new government agency. A couple of the Pitch group members remained on the base, so the other alternate and I became “primary” members in the new office.

Soon after the office move, our same boss began introducing a Shoot the Moon game played with dominoes. The play was similar to Pitch, with the dominoes’ numbers being the suits. We played either Pitch with cards or Shoot the Moon with dominoes during most lunch hours for the next year and a half. As employees left and new ones were hired, we acquired new game group members. It was still going strong when I changed jobs and moved out of state.

I had no co-worker gaming experiences for the next four-and-a-half years. After I was selected as manager of an office in still another state, I soon discovered that one of my top employees enjoyed playing chess. We often played “speed chess” during the lunch hour, and when we happened to take a business trip together, I took along my travel chess set. I was very happy to have it in my carry-on during the trip that found us stranded in the Chicago O’Hare Airport, due to a blizzard in our home town of Omaha. We played a lot of chess during that day and night!

By the late 1970’s, I had discovered and purchased several Avalon Hill wargames, but with the exception of one play-by-mail game of Afrika Korps, I had only played them solitaire. When I moved to a new job in Colorado, I was pleasantly surprised to find four other guys in the same office who took an immediate interest in Diplomacy and Wooden Ships & Iron Men. For about a year, four or five of us would get together one night a week for a game of WS&IM, with an occasional game of Diplomacy. Once, when we had a couple of other guys visiting our office for a few days, we managed to have a full seven-player game of Diplomacy at my house one evening. Eventually, four of us began playing Diplomacy during lunch each day, continuing a game on successive days, until completed. Then, I moved to a new job in another agency.

Gamers somehow seem to gravitate to each other. I soon met a fellow who worked in the same building, who loved to play Cribbage. I had never played it before, but we were soon playing Cribbage almost every day during lunch in the cafeteria. He and I also bought our first home computers at this time – Commodore 64 – and began visiting at each other’s homes regularly to play text adventure games, such as the Zork series, and the famous Atari dexterity games. When our interest in those games eventually faded, that was the end of my gaming with co-workers.

It was an interesting experience, playing games with people whom I also worked with or for, or whom I supervised. I think there is a fine line to be carefully observed in that endeavor. If the individual personalities are not highly compatible, or if there is a perceived and undesirable “pressure” to participate (between supervisor and subordinate), the situation can cause friction in the workplace. It is also quite possible for co-workers who do not participate to believe that the gaming relationship gives inappropriate advantages to the employees who play games with the boss. Supervisors and subordinates who play games together should be aware of the potential workplace problems that could arise. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, I never experienced any of those problems.

--- Gerald … near Denver, Colorado; February 2006
aka gamesgrandpa -- A grandpa who is a mile high on gaming

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