The Ace of Hygge: Shanghai Rummy

Shanghai setup

Growing up, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on the West Coast. We have family members all across California, and at least once a year we’d all take a trip to San Diego as a family to see my Aunt Jen and Uncle Carlo. They weren’t technically our Aunt and Uncle, more like my paternal Grandpa’s cousins… but being that we saw them so frequently and were all so close, “Aunt & Uncle” was much simpler :)

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For years, Aunt Jen and Uncle Carlo owned a bar in Michigan called “Calvelli’s”, and their time spent in the restaurant industry showed. They were always social, and the life of every party. After retiring full time to San Diego, they basked in the amazing laid back weather and made great friends in their neighborhood community.

Uncle Carlo started just about every day with a crossword puzzle before moving onto a solo card game. Man, did they love cards. When we’d visit, I would spend many afternoons next to him at the kitchen counter watching him play cards. Sometimes it was regular solitaire, and other times it was some other much more complicated version of solitaire that still has me scratching my head. I remember how content I always felt saddled up next to Uncle Carlo, learning and watching him play for hours. I can still smell the cognac wafting from his glass as he’d slowly sip all afternoon.

Aunt Jen, being the former chef of “Calvelli’s”, could often be found whipping up something creative in the kitchen. And just like Carlo, you could also find her thinking hard over a complicated game of solitaire or down at the neighborhood clubhouse playing cards with some of the other folks in their community.

Our trips to California included endless adventures: Day trips to Tijuana, dinners out at the Soup Plantation or Pinnacle Pete’s, walks around Coronado Island, and so much more. While so many of those memories have stuck with me in bits and pieces, the nights in San Diego that remain my all time favorites were the nights we spent inside their humble home playing Shanghai Rummy.

For any card players out there, Shanghai is like Gin Rummy on steroids. It consists of: Three decks, seven rounds, a few hours, and a whole lot of mental energy. You’re dealt 11 cards, and each round consists of a different goal with the amount of cards needed each time increasing. Round 1 asks for two sets of three, Round 2 - one set of three and one run of four, Round 3 - two runs of four, and so on and so forth all the way up to the final round of three runs of four. (Dizzy yet? ;) )

I think back on it now, and I’m amazed that as kids we actually appreciated this game and weren’t restless halfway through. The nights we played Shanghai would start with an easy dinner, and then all the kids would clear the table for game play while the adults readied their cocktails. With seven of us around the table and three decks in play, we needed all the space we could get.

My all time favorite day in San Diego was spent with Aunt Jen and her crew in their community clubhouse. At this point I was 10 or 11, and I had probably been playing Shanghai since I was 7. In our early days, Aunt Jen and Uncle Carlo spent countless rounds of Shanghai playing open-face with me and my brothers. They taught us how to keep our cards organized, how to make our plays, and strategies to “lay down” and “go out” with a curated hand and any “play” cards that we had left over. After a few years and countless hours of playing Shanghai, even as a little kid - I got pretty good! I understood the game, and I was able to strategize and even win on occasion.

And on my favorite fateful day, Aunt Jen decided she was going to take me down to the clubhouse to play with - for a lack of any better words - her old people friends. Lol. I don’t mean any insult, but as a 10 year old, these people had 60 to 70+ years on me. (A few years in a row we even caught little Miss Peavey’s 99th and 100th birthday(!) down at that clubhouse on our trips to San Diego.)

When Aunt Jen told me she was going to bring me to play that day, she warned me that the other folks may be a little hesitant about my joining in. (This was a seniors-only community, and there were very few kids visiting, let alone dropping into their weekly Shanghai game.) I was a bit nervous hearing that, but she assured me that I was plenty good enough to play with them and all they really cared about was that I could keep up and understand the game.

Walking in, I remember the look on some of their faces, silently asking, “Really, Jen?”. One older man made a comment about me keeping up, and Aunt Jen was quick to shoot back that he better watch out. She even bet him that I’d take at least one round in the game. A few of their eyebrows raised at this claim, and they nodded a polite “Sureee...”, and then the dealing began.

I can’t remember what round it actually was, but I’ll be damned if Aunt Jen wasn’t right that the 10 year old at the table happened to “lay down” and “go out” in the same turn leaving many people with a hand full of cards and a wholeee lot of points. It probably sounds like a bunch of non-sense if you’ve never played Shanghai, so I’ll try and translate:

In Shanghai you want to be the player with the least amount of points. In order to do this you need to lay down whatever collection of cards is required for that round, and then play any remaining cards left in your hand before everyone else. And I had a round where I did it all so quickly that most of the folks at the table hadn’t even laid down or played a single card yet.

My Aunt Jen was beaming with pride and nudging me with her elbow - “Atta girl, kid! What’d I tell ya!?” I still remember looking around the table, so many of their eyes wide and chins jutting out in disbelief. I was blushing and smiling ear to ear, but I knew it’d seem much more mature if I remained calm and collected, as if this clean up was just like any other day at Aunt Jen’s. And to be honest, thanks to her, it pretty much was. ;)

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The countless hours I spent around Aunt Jen and Uncle Carlo’s table with my parents and my brothers are some of my most cherished memories. Not only for the funnier more memorable moments (we’re still quoting Uncle Carlo’s game play commentary), but for the feeling I get when I recall that place. I remember feeling so excited to be in their house and so happy to be surrounded by my favorite people. Years before smartphones, time spent around that table playing Shanghai was completely un-interrupted. Well, aside from the occasional cocktail refresh. Ha! A bliss and contentment I can’t describe without hygge.

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Their house wasn’t fancy, the tablescape wasn’t carefully crafted, and the cocktails didn’t have umbrellas. But the house smelled of wood and cognac, the people were warm, and no one was worried about us spilling anything on any fancy tablecloth. To me, that house was the definition of hygge. Always the most welcoming atmosphere to come just as you were.

One of my quirkier “before I’m 60” goals is to have started, or be a part of, a Shanghai Rummy league. I’m not sure where I’ll be or who will be nearby, but that game is still my favorite and I can’t help but feel the hygge every time I play it. It has been years since I’ve played, but I’m determined to bring that nostalgic gem full circle in my life.

In honor of these cherished memories, I’m sharing a resource to learn my favorite card game. (I checked out multiple websites - but alas, Wiki was on point!) And a PSA: If you’re local to NYC and this game looks awesome to you - I’m more than happy to check that Shanghai league goal off my list sooner than later. ;)