Spitzer, the card game endemic to Northeast Michigan

News Photo by Courtney Boyd An example of one of many hands you can be dealt while playing Spitzer. Four players compete for points using just 32 cards in quick, strategic rounds, never knowing who may have the upper hand.

ALPENA — Voices and laughter rise and fall in the large room, like a swarm of bees looking for flowers. A bell rings sharply from across the room as the clock strikes 12:30 p.m., and the bees seem to have found the perfect blooms to drink from: a deck of cards.

This is how the Alpena Senior Citizens Center looks on a Tuesday afternoon at the start of Spitzer. Competitive spirit fills the air and playful jabs are exchanged as cards fly onto the tables.

Flashes of red, black, and white occur at lightning speed, and as the round ends the groups play a modified 32-card pick-up to figure out their scores. Then the cards are neatly condensed back into a pile, shuffled, and cut by the next person.

“Everything happens in that room,” BJ Sander, the program manager for the center, said.

Sander has been working for the center for nine years, continuing the routines of weekly card games and exercise classes while also adding new programs such as book clubs and medical support groups.

She said card players make up a big part of their days, and the players are all very close with one another.

“It’s interesting to watch them work on any activity and start talking,” Sander said. “Ninety-nine-and-three-quarters percent of the time, it’s a wonderful, safe place for them to come to and socialize.”

Sometimes called the “most complicated card game,” Spitzer is a trick-taking card game with vague roots in Germany. Brought over by immigrants, it has been played in Northeast Michigan for generations, with many saying at least the early 1900s. The card game is predominantly played in Alpena and Presque Isle counties.

Groups play for eight rounds, and the person who reaches or is the closest to 42 points at the end of the game wins. Points are calculated depending on various factors such as tricks taken, partnership points, or whether someone plays solo.

Many current players said they learned the game when they were young. Don McLennan is a resident of Rogers City who has been playing the game since he was six years old.

“By the time that I was 10 or 12 years old, my parents and my younger brother and I would play Spitzer every evening after the evening meal to see who did the dishes,” he said. “The loser would wash, the second to the loser would dry. The second-place overall finisher would clear the table, and the winner of course would have no responsibility.

“I did notice that when my father wouldn’t win, my mother tended to kind of pick up the slack for him,” McLennan continued. “I wasn’t sure how fair that was, but it provided a strong incentive to learn tactics and to play the game.”

As McLennan got older, he discovered competitive leagues for the games and played in those. He said there is also an annual Spitzer tournament at the Rogers City Nautical Festival which he has participated in.

“I’ve had a lot of fun playing, but I’ve never topped the scoreboard,” he said.

In Alpena, seniors at the center said they also picked up the game when they were young. Some learned as teenagers on the school bus, and others learned from their family members. Many of them have been playing at the senior citizen center for years.

Some players have learned other’s playstyles by heart, such as Dale and Marietta Zampich who have lived in Alpena for 38 years. Other players at their table joked that “Mrs. Dale” carries her husband along in the games.

“Him and I have been playing together for 45 years,” Marietta Zampich said.

She said her and husband had been playing at the center together since he retired, which was about 10 years ago.

Dale Zampich said the game is hard to explain, but fun to play due to its variety. Other players in the region shared the same sentiment.

“I’ve been playing for 60-some years and yet you will never see the same hand,” McLennan said. “There are just so many different potential outcomes to each hand… It’s an exciting game to play.”

These potential outcomes only grow when your opponents are constantly changing. Marietta Zampich said she knows exactly how her husband plays the game, but it can get tricky with other players.

“People play differently,” she said. “You’ve gotta really pay attention when you move a table or get different players… It’s fun that way too. Frustrating at times, but fun.”

While the card game and its competitive spirit are some of the largest draws to the center every Tuesday, residents also say they like the community aspect of it. A lot of them grew up with one another, and the center gives them a place to socialize and connect with those they might not regularly.

“We always say that this is a safe place for the seniors to come,” Sander said. “But it’s a safe place for me too. I feel good when I’m here, and it’s a great place to be.”

This story was produced by the Michigan News Group Internship Program, a collaboration between WCMU Public Media and local newspapers in central and northern Michigan. The program’s mission is to train the next generation of journalists and combat the rise of rural news deserts.


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