The German Stammtisch

by Moritz Eggert

Transcript of our podcast from 24 Jun 2006

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This time I return to the topic of German Gaming culture oddities - things that only exist in Germany, or - in this case - only in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I'm talking about the custom of the "Stammtisch".

"Stammtisch" means the regular table in a bar, although "bar" is not really a good translation of the German word "Gasthaus". "Gasthaus" literally translates to "guesthouse", but a "Gasthaus" doesn't necessarily have guest rooms.

The "Gasthaus" closest relative is the English pub, so this is a place which the regulars see as a kind of second home. Regular tables might be common in pubs, but Germans take this tradition further than other countries.

If you go to a Bavarian Gasthaus for example, the regular table will usually have some kind of adornment, a sign that literally says "Stammtisch". Sometimes it will be a little gong with a beater, and whoever beats the gong has to pay a round. Sometimes there will be a huge wooden sign hanging above the table, something like "dahoggadiedieimmerdahogga", which in Bavarian dialect translates to "There sit the ones who always sit there".

And beware the person that sits at this table when the regulars arrive! Germans can get very possessive of a spot that they claim their own - just look at our history - and this is not one of the nice traits we have. People who ever visited the seaside in Germany are astonished to find that Germans obsessively build little sand castles with exact borders, the "Stammtisch" works in a similar way. The regular table is sacred and forbidden to anybody who is not part of the crowd. It will always be kept empty by the bar owners, no matter how full the bar is. But rest assured, at some point in the evening the regulars arrive.

A Stammtisch might have around 20 or even more members, and it might be organized around some kind of theme, like breeding poodles. There are also artist's Stammtische, which became especially popular in the 20's.

The activity at a Stammtisch can be quite frightening to outsiders, usually there will be lots of drunken men talking in loud gruff voices to each other, and you might not want to go near the table. At other times the Stammtisch might be a harmless affair. But all negativity aside, the Stammtisch usually fulfils a certain objective, and that is getting together on a regular basis to discuss whatever topic is in fashion, politics, sports, usually men's talk, as there are practically no women Stammtische- but in most of all cases one activity will be dominant, and that is card gaming. Yes, the regulars don't get together to only drink, or to play darts or pool like in English pubs, they meet to play cards. And as always Germans can get very serious about that.

The most popular German Stammtisch card game is "Skat", which is spelled very unfortunately for English speakers, but it's actually a very sophisticated and complicated card game, a kind of "Bridge" for three players only, which is very rare in card games. "Skat" comes close to a science and is absolutely unintelligible to non-players. Actually the rules are quite complicated for a popular card game; one could call it the "Advanced Squad Leader" of card games, as the lingo is extremely specialized and obscure.

Other popular serious card games are "Doppelkopf", or its Bavarian variant, "Schafkopf". In gamer circles the game "Tichu" has gained immense popularity as a 4-player team game, and might have replaced the older card games at some Stammtischs.

In a German "Gasthaus" card gaming is not frowned at like in some other countries, and there is also no anti-gaming policy. Hey, in some beer gardens it is even allowed to bring your own food to eat with the beer, why should they disallow card games then? Card gaming is actively encouraged by the bar owner's, as the playing folks usually drink a lot while they game on until late in the night.

I know - people play cards in bars in other countries too - but the "Stammtisch" culture in Germany is very evolved, as is the case in Austria or Switzerland, which are culturally close.

"Skat"-players sometimes keep track of the games they played for decades, and there are also organized leagues.

When I met my wife, an avid Doppelkopf player, every time we walked through her home city she kept meeting people that shared the same Doppelkopf league with her, and who reminded her of the gaming debts she had.

So is it a gambling vice? No - although it's popular to bet small amounts of money in games like Skat, the sums are so tiny that they would be considered totally harmless in poker-land USA. I've never heard of Skat addicts who lose all their money like poker players. It's not about winning money, it's about playing the game. And that's what makes it so different.

But what all this have to do with board gaming? I think the pure fact that there is a long running German tradition probably going back to the Middle Ages that people get together to play games on a regular basis at their local bar is something which formed the basis for the German gaming culture. When dad can't go to the local bar because the wife doesn't allow it, he teaches his son or daughter to play the game with him, so they get hooked to gaming per se. And of course it works the other way round as well.

This is what formed the basis for gaming as a perfectly acceptable social activity, I'm absolutely sure of that, although I'm no Stammtisch goer at all. But I recognize the part that the Stammtisch played in the development of Euro-games, even if it's a small part.

Richard Strauss, the famous composer, used to work too much and get upset by it, so his wife forced him to go out of the house every day... to play cards with his friends! I think he took this punishment quite easily, don't you think?

I'm taking a break next episode, because Tom's hasty schedule before leaving to the US didn't allow me to produce tw o segments. But I will be back soon for more on one German card game that nobody else knows about and that has it's own little cult following.

May the dice fall however they may,

Moritz Eggert

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