WHEN CANASTA WAS THE CRAZE
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
Historians estimate twenty millions once played the rummy game that came from Argentina in a basket. Don’t you remember?—We played it with two decks, much squabbling and more equipment than a deep-sea fisherman
YOUR correspondent was recently leafing through the crumbling pages of an old newspaper file, marveling at the passing fads and follies of ourselves when younger, and a strange headline turned up that brought a chuckle of reminiscence: CANASTA, ARGENTINE RUMMY
GAME, SWEEPS COUNTRY. It brought back the atmosphere of those vanished years pyramid clubs, sixty - cent butter, existentialism, Henry Wallace and Shirley May France, the girl who almost swam the English Channel twice.
Remember canasta? It seems like only yesterday. It was the year of Woody Woodpecker, Nature Boy and Slow Boat to China. Barbara Ann Scott skated into the headlines, Fanny Blankers-Koen ran and Gromyko walked. Mackenzie King went out and Newfoundland came in. We read, or at least talked about, The Naked and the Dead and Ramtree County, and saw The Snake Pit, and wondered what be-bop was and what happened to the New Look. Gandhi and Babe Ruth were alive. The new names were: Kinsey, the Shmoo, the Berlin Airlift, Marcel Cerdan, Benelux and Prince Charles. Amateur prospectors bought Geiger counters and mushed north after uranium; one André Marie was premier of France; Roger Lemelin published Les Plouffe; and Truman called for a forty-dollar-per-capita tax cut. But of all the fleeting marvels of that year, 1948, canasta was easily the nuttiest.
Millions forsook bridge while the game raged. Students of crowd manias and extraordinary popular delusions had seen nothing like it since mahjongg and monopoly. It seemed worth while to this student to retrace the history of canasta, lest, the phenomena be lost to sociology. Months have been spent interviewing old-timers with total recall and poring over contemporary accounts to reconstruct the game.
Canasta is the Spanish word for basket. The game came from rummy, an ancient game of cards, which sired knock rummy, continental, the French game, piquet, and the Spanish conquián or cooncan. The word rummy is old English for “queer” and the joker, the key card in canasta, means “fool.” Canasta originated among Uruguayan peasants, possibly a hundred years ago. Sometime in the Nineteen Forties Argentine society people, wintering in Uruguay, found canasta in its endemic stage at the Montevideo Jockey Club and took it back to Buenos Aires. North American tourists learned it in Argentina and carried the epidemic to New York, circa 1947. Some of those infected got into the Regency Club, a fashionable card pit in New York’s East Sixties, and drowned the tense murmur of high-stake bridge with feverish and, to most, unintelligible canasta cries.
The assistant manager of the Regency, a Junoesque white-haired lady named Ottilie H. Reilly, noted that the canasta players spent most of their t ime brawling over the rules, which none of them quite knew. To restore order in the joint Mrs. Reilly set out to discover the rules.
She happened to meet a cultivated Argentine named Alejandro Rosa, who was a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations. Señor Rosa imparted the basic laws of canasta and six days later, in August 1948, Mrs. Reilly published a four-page rulebook, the first treatise on the game. Rosa continued his work at the UN and paid no further attention. He never played canasta.
Given some fine points to fight over, canasta spread like the pestilence. The time was right. Gin rummy, the previous card fad, was declining everywhere but in Hollywood, where it survives to this day in actors’ kraals and the rumpus rooms of drive-in mortuaries. Canasta came to town like the circus. It was the looniest of all rummy games. You needed two decks to play it. Two, three, four, five or six contestants could give combat. It had as many wild cards as poker in the girls’ dorm, as many emotional climaxes as soap opera, and you made scores as high as on a pinball machine.
Mrs. Reilly settled down to a heavy production of canasta books to meet the thirst for laws. Oswald Jacoby and Ely Culbertson brought out books on canasta. Your correspondent found several of these rare volumes in a disused laundromat and has reconstructed how the game was played.
Canasta afforded fine opportunity to indulge in weakness of character, including gluttony, ingratitude, treachery and barratry.
The four-player version began with eleven cards dealt to each player and the remaining sixty-four cards were deposited in a stack in a two-compartment tray in the centre of the table. Players then looked through their hands like kids going through popcorn boxes to see what prizes they got.
The object of the game was to meld all the cards in your hand by making canastas. A canasta was seven cards of the same denomination, helped by no more than three wild cards per canasta. There were twelve wild cards in circulation: the deuces
and four jokers.
There was a cute thing called “the freeze.” A wild card chucked into the discard prevented anybody from picking up the pile until he could show a pair that matched the top card. A sly player with a big wild hand could salt the discard pile with stoppers and wild cards, forcing others to deposit their own wild cards, until the pile resembled a Dagwood sandwich. Then Mrs. Slyboots would flash
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THIS MELD OF EVENTS MARKED CANASTA’S CAREER ► ►
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a concealed pair in her hand and sweep up the stack.
M'S. Reilly traveled up and down the land like an old-time circuit judge, enforcing canasta laws. The game arrived most places before the lawgiver got there. She found bizarre local regulations in force and when she tried to standardize play the players said, “Oh we like it better our way.” Mrs. Reilly sold out four more books on canasta, one of which reached two hundred and twenty thousand copies.
In the winter of 1948 she was a guest of liie railway Croesus. Robert R. Young, at the opening of his nobby Grembriar water hole in West Virginia, where she found the blue-blooded free loaders hard at canasta. The editor of Vogue, another guest, asked her to elucidate the rules for the magazine. The article earned the game socifl acceptance.
Aí the Regency Club Mrs. Reilly taught canasta to Herbert Hoover, Elsa Maxwell and Perle Mesta. Mrs. Mes>a, then the leading hostess in Washington, soon had the basket game goini in political and diplomatic quarters and, when she went off to Luxemboiug as ambassador, was soon able to cable Mrs. Reilly that canasta was her first diplomatic triumph in the Grand Duchy.
At the ineffably elite Jockey Club in Paris they were soon playing canasta, but, to Mrs. Reilly’s dismay, they made up their own rules. “The Parisians won’t play a game right,” she says astringently.
Canasta got an orthodox introduction to Britain through the English edition of a Reilly lawbook and she ensured that Sweden adopted the Reilly convention by sending the Royal Family autographed rulebooks. In Portugal and Brazil the game was termed canastro, Portuguese for “fish basket.” The pack was called the “catch” and the discard pile was called “the garbage.” So much for Portugal.
IJp to here our study has been rather romantic, but canasta, like babies, did not come out of a cabbage. The attending obstetrician was a potent guild known as the Association of America Playing Card Manufacturers. But the doctor came unwillingly.
Playing-card manufacturers are, oddly enough, an extremely conservative group. They give way slowly to any change, and the gold that showered them from canasta had to be forced on them by retailers. The canasta epidemic spread rapidly, without an organized commercial campaign to push it.
You needed two decks, each with two jokers, to play canasta. People smitten by the game went to the store to buy decks with two jokers in them and the retailers simply made up canasta decks out of two ordinary decks, and charged double for the freak deck. The dealers howled to the manufacturers to make special canasta decks but it was almost a year before the major playing - card companies answered the call. When their rusty gears at last began to turn the card mills gave canasta a mighty push. During the heyday of the game the association distributed eight million free leaflets of the rules and inspired innumerable magazine articles and publicity stunts. In the peak year of the game one hundred million packs of cards were sold, representing a twentyfive-percent increase in playing-card sales.
The card experts leaped into the
basket like cats. Oswald Jacoby, the bridge builder, wrote a one-dollar book called How to Win at Canasta, which was the fifth best-selling book of 1949. Jacoby and other wizards stumped the continent giving lecture demonstrations in department stores. Jacoby made one thousand dollars a week in the bonanza period. When he appeared in a Toronto emporium hundreds of ravening canasta players were turned away.
Canasta required a two-hole tray for the cards and dozens of plastic manufacturers started stamping them out
i'iastic back-scratchers disappeared from the shops as industry hummed on three shifts supplying canasta t rays. Marvels of industrial design they were. Trays were crenelated to allow the fingers to delve to the bottom of the piles of cards Some trays were windproof for outdoor play. Some trays revolved on ball bearings and cost twelve-fifty. Few examples remain because, after canasta was got under control, no earthly use could be found for the trays. People who tried them as ashtrays found they were inflammable.
After players had bought a rulebook, two fresh decks and the tray, they discovered they had a hobby that required further auxiliary equipment. It was something like taking up skiing or photography there was no end of additional equipment you needed. For instance, a canasta player who had looted the whole discard pile had to try to hold it fanwise in a human hand t hat contained only five fingers. Maybe Blackstone the Magician could do it, but most people couldn’t take off from work to practice holding canasta hands. The manufacturers responded with a
I card holder that made the human hand obsolete. This device was put on the table in front of the player and had a capacity of fifty cards. It freed one’s hands for grubbing into the tray and allowed the player to pluck cards like a swain operating on a daisy. The card holder had a shortcoming, however. Your flanking opponents could see your mitt almost as well as you could. The inventors designed a modified horse-blinder to strap on canasta players but, before they could market it, canasta evaporated.
Another problem of the game was how to find room on the table for all your laydowns. A victorious player would strew melds far and wide and when it came to counting up an opponent could usurp your melds that overlapped his. This brought forth the canasta card-table cover, which provided forty-four numbered pockets in which each player could store his booty against piracy. By this time you had spent forty dollars. The end was not yet.
All this stuff did not leave room on the table for your glass of sarsaparilla and ashtray. Great machines rose and fell evolving things such as glass and cigarette holders that clamped on the legs of card tables. The best of them would not cut your leg to the bone, but they could run your expenditure on the game up to more than fifty-six dollars.
One enterpriser for whom canasta opened new vistas was a New York advertising man named Paul Pautinen, who realized early that the game was a runaway. He resigned a good job and invented what he called the Mascot E-Z Score Canasta Pencil, a hollow cylinder containing lead and a revolving scroll upon which was printed the lore of the game and a mathematical ready reckoner. You could peer through a window of the barrel and find the verse and chapter that you needed. Thousands of E-Z Score pencils found their way into the home. Pautinen enlarged himself to become the Apex Products Co., producing many other boons to playing the game, i At the climax of the fad Macy’s department store in New York carried sixty-three different canasta gadgets.
Canasta was doomed from the beginning because it overtaxed human architecture. It was a fitting game for octopuses, perhaps, but canasta players didn’t have enough suction cups on their arms, let alone eight arms. This was strikingly apparent in the matter of shuffling. Physiologists claim that the maximum number of cards two average human hands can mix efficiently falls several decimal points under the fifty-two markers in a bridge deck. We had been strained to the tension point for years before canasta came along with its one hundred and eight cards.
In the first burst of enthusiasm many novices mixed canasta decks without thinking of the consequences. Then doctors noticed an alarming rate of Charley horse of the thumb, splayed index tendons, irritability and the king’s evil among canasta players. But man’s ingenuity has met every challenge down the ages and stubborn engineers locked themselves in their laboratories to solve the canasta-shufiling problem. If the Russians could invent the electric lamp, they said to themselves, free enterprise know-how could iron out the bugs and break the bottlenecks on canasta.
Technology was racing against time, however, and before the mock-up of the machanical canasta shuffler was ready for the production line its need had disappeared. Three traceable varieties of shuffling machines nevertheless appeared on the market.
(“Speed up your game! Let the kids play too . . . for even a three-year-old can work this shuffler”—$3.95.) It
was a rank admission of defeat. They had tried to produce a vital homemaking boon to rank with the Dial-aDrink cocktail shaker and had come up with a toy for the playpen.
Apprehensive playing-card manufacturers were retooling at the same time for the Mickey Mouse Jr. canasta set (“Easy direction book for small-fry canasta players. Cards sized to fit the palms of small hands.”)
When infant cardsharps started feeding jam-smeared Mickey Mouse decks into shuffling machines Ely Culbertson pulled out. The great bridge author, it turned out, had been an uneasy captive of the basket game all along. Mrs. Reilly and Jacoby had beaten him to the lawbooks and outsold his own tardy volume. When the solons formed the National Canasta Laws Commission they respected primogeniture and failed to elect Ely captain. Culbertson immolated his extra jokers in a midnight ceremony and pronounced the last rites on canasta in the New York Times. It was a curious self-abnegatory act, because the shuffling machine bearing his name came out that very week.
In his canasta obituary Culbertson blamed his apostasy on canasta itself, an easy-on-the-brain type of game: “Canasta is to bridge what checkers is to chess, or what a popular tune is to a Bach fugue.” He declared that, “The outer fringe of players who abandoned bridge for canasta because it was ‘too complicated’ are now flocking back to bridge because canasta is too simple and therefore boring.” The burden of Culbertson’s apologia was that he was only going along with the • parade.
The card experts were frantically shifting with the trend and were trying to inject a hypo in the expiring game by ballyhooing Samba, a canasta game that required three decks. Mrs. Reilly got out a lawbook on Samba, and newspaper card writers were plugging El Diablo and Rumba, two more
triple-headed freaks. Things went so far in Boston that psychiatrists found some advanced cases trying to play with four decks.
Mrs. Reilly conducted a brave experiment in duplicate canasta, along the lines of duplicate bridge, in which two or more tables are given the same prepared hands to see which players do best with the distribution. She found it easy to set up the dealt hands, but when it came to stacking the sixty-four cards left in the pack in the same order on five tables, duplicate canasta was abandoned.
Canasta was not much of a gambling game. Law officers in righteous provinces usually permit only bridge to be played for money, on the theory that it is a game of skill. Canasta was not classified as a game of skill, as anyone who played canasta will agree. No card player with a grasp of third-grade arithmetic would entrust his pelf to the wild probabilities of the basket game. The card experts tried to tout canasta to money players in 1949 by arranging a ten-thousand-dollar match between two experts for a magazine story. The convenient feature of the giant match was that the loser did not pay, and was not expected to. He wasn’t that crazy.
Canasta was popular in the home because of this very fact that it was fun without betting. The game was simple and the kids sat in with the adults, until the adults got up yawning and gave it permanently to the children. Canasta was a good arithmetic lesson. Everything you did involved four figures and busy hours adding up the score. The winner, with 6,730 points, was found to be only ten points ahead of the village idiot. The failure of the shuffling machines at the time the game disappeared discouraged production plans for canasta-scoring machines.
In general, scholars conclude that canasta passed because:
A. It defied the human physique;
B. It foundered under the weight of equipment.
C. It made limited demands on the intellect;
D. It took too damn much time. (Time - study experts found that 37.8% of the game was occupied in playing cards, 9.1% in shuffling and dealing and 43.1 % in scoring and squabbling.)
To sociologists the canasta contagion demonstrated an interesting social progression. It originated with peasants, was taken up by provincial society, then the international haut monde, and at the end spread back to Pa and Ma Kettle. (The same day that Ely Culbertson swore off, the plebeian N. Y. Daily News hopefully proclaimed canasta as the new game for the multitude.)
Perhaps twenty million players were subjected to canasta at its peak. Where are they now? Unfortunately no comprehensive study was made and the opportunity has been permanently lost. However, it is safe to say that they were people much like you and me, who woke up the morning after the collapse and threw away all the jokers they found around the house. ★