By Curt Yeomans
Billy Russell learned how to play pinochle when he was a child growing up on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, but he did not take a serious interest in the game until he joined the Army 40 years ago.
Russell, 72, fell in love with the game because it involved a lot of chance, luck and challenges.
It also helped the retired first sergeant get out of his Army duties on more than one occasion.
"I was in the Signal Corps, so there wasn't much to do," Russell said. "If you knew how to play pinochle, then all of the sergeants would get you out of detail so you could play with them."
Russell was one of 55 people who came to the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale on Friday from across Metro Atlanta, the southeast, and from as far away as Maryland, to participate in a pinochle tournament. The event was sponsored by the National Pinochle Association.
Homer Rickerson, of Montgomery, Ala., won the tournament, and Dorothy Sellers, of Atlanta, was the runner-up. Rickerson received gift cards as his prize for finishing on top of the competition.
Pinochle utilizes a 48-card deck, featuring two pairs of aces, kings, queens, jacks 10s, and nines from each suit. The suits are spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. The players are each given a hand of 20 cards, and the object is to see who can earn the most points.
The points are earned based on the cards a player has. For example, four different aces in one hand, called "aces around," is worth 10 points. If the player has two sets of "aces around," that earns 100 points.
"It's popular with a lot of people because of the camaraderie you develop with the other players," said Hank Richards, a pinochle instructor at the Frank Bailey Senior Center. "It's also very addictive."
The competitors, who participated in the tournament, had different reasons for loving the game. Michael Vasquez, an Air Force major from Lusby, Md., said he enjoys the family aspect of the pinochle tournaments. "A lot of us go to the same tournaments, so when I come to these events, it's like a family reunion," Vasquez said.
Pinochle holds a special place in the hearts of Frank and LaQeata Turpin for a different reason. The couple met at a 2002 pinochle tournament, quickly fell in love and got married. "I'm the better player," LaQeata Turpin is quick to add.
"She's the better player when it comes to playing in teams, but I'm the better player when it comes to playing individually," said Frank Turpin, as he clarified his wife's comment. During the tournament on Friday, however, LaQeata Turpin chose to sit on the sidelines and root for her husband.
LaQeata Turpin shared one thing in common with Vasquez, Russell and several other people in the tournament -- they all served in the military. Like Vazquez, LaQeata Turpin served in the Air Force, although she now lives a civilian life.
In addition to the Army and Air Force being represented in the tournament, there also were a few retired members of the Navy as well.
"Wherever pinochle is played, that's where all of the branches of the military will gather, because they all play pinochle," Russell said. "For a card game, it's relaxing, and you make so many friends."