Tygerpen: Buy a vowel, then deal me in

Mark Pincus, whose Bay Area company Zynga is the world’s leading provider of social games, has seen his company’s stock plunge by 75 percent since going public last December. You don’t have to know much about social media to understand why Mark’s company has been, in high-tech terms, “going downhill.”

Mark made four major mistakes: 1) He named the company after his bulldog Zynga; 2) He selected a vowel-depleted company name, which is why, for example, the San Francisco literary magazine Zyzzyva never achieved the fame of Penthouse (four vowels) or Hot Bike Magazine (seven vowels); 3) Mark appointed only one woman to senior management; 4) he named her executive vice president, chief people officer (i.e., manager of personnel), without testing her knowledge of playing-card strategies and gambling.

As a Jewish guy, Mark clearly ignored the maxim that Jewish women make outstanding executives because of their early exposure to gambling. My Russian-born grandmother, for example, was a known cardspieler, mostly poker, but she also dabbled in mah jongg and Pan the way Michelangelo dabbled in painting. When she wasn’t skillfully supervising my grandfather’s tavern, she was playing high-stakes poker at a surreptitious place in Portland known as “The Studio” that surprisingly was never raided.

 Between my grandmother’s instruction and my mother’s model parenting, I learned by age 6 how to do a perfect riffle shuffle, cut and deal. I still played games like Old Maid and War with friends, but forced myself to intentionally lose so my identity as a card shark could stay concealed. It was difficult for my ego, however, to be identified as the kid who kept losing at Go Fish.

I did particularly enjoy playing Slapjack with my older sister, who wasn’t as interested in card game theory as I was. Under the rules of Slapjack, when we both turned up identical cards, the first person to slap a hand on top of both cards could collect the cards. Because I could legitimately slam my hand down on top of my sister’s, this gave the game tremendous value. Slapjack became my game of choice. I improved my odds for a hefty open-palm assault when I learned to “prepare” my sister’s half of the deck after diverting her with a “found” piece of candy in another room.

Eventually, I learned Crazy 8s, gin rummy, blackjack, poker and a fun little game called I Doubt It, the object of which is to lay cards face down on the table and declare (or lie about) what they are. During this time, I also mastered the fake shuffle and a set of card tricks. However, in religious school I became uncomfortably aware that Jewish ethics frown on gambling. Gambling isn’t mentioned in the Torah or scripture, but Maimonides intricately expressed himself on the topic: “If you win, you’re a thief, and if you lose, you’re wasting your time.”

So what is the Jewish position on gambling? It depends: If you’re playing cards and sitting next to someone who’s carelessly tilting her hand toward you — you may have to bend toward her. If you’re reaching for more cheese and crackers, you may want to position yourself close enough to gaze at the nearest hand.

I never played mah jongg or Pan like my grandmother or mother, but I did pass down to both of my sons the important life lessons from gambling that I learned from her. When I played with my younger son Andy, for example, and beat him at I Doubt It — newer generations call it “B.S.” — I then revealed to Andy how I’d smuggled cards: lining up several cards behind a single card as a way to more quickly empty my hand. The lesson was, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Andy was furious.

As I planned, by the next game, he’d mastered the technique.

It’s too bad Mark Pincus wasn’t around to learn gambling strategies from my mother or grandmother. I understand he plans to introduce online, real-money gaming outside the United States in 2013.

This may sound promising to diehard gamblers, but there are still plenty of domestic gambling opportunities. In Portland, according to a site I found called FaveCentral, there are three listed gambling businesses to place a bet: Cascade Casino Party Company, Rialto Off Track Betting, and a surprising one called Aleph Bet Jewish Dayschool.

Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at tygerpen@gmail.com or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.