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GIN RUMMY

Origins and history of

  © 2005-14 by David Parlett  
 
This article was commissioned by gameaccount.com

Introduction

The principal fad game, in the years 1941-46, of the United States, Gin Rummy (then called simply Gin) was devised in 1909 by Elwood T. Baker of Brooklyn, N. Y., a whist teacher; the name, suggested by Mr. Baker's son, played on the alcoholic affinity of rum and gin; the game was resurgent 1927-30, then dormant until 1940, then adopted by the motion-picture colony and the radio world, who gave it the publicity essential to a fad game. Gin Rummy is a two-hand game and is hardly worth playing, except by addicts, in any other form. (Culbertson's Card Games Complete.)

There are many excellent card games for two and a lot of them go back a long way: Pinochle (Bézique) is over 150 years old, Cribbage almost 400 years old, and Piquet more like 500. But Gin Rummy, a relative newcomer in the timescale of history, has gained millions more converts throughout the world since its first appearance, largely owing to the fact that it combines extreme simplicity of form with deceptive complexity of play, and recently because it adapts very easily to computer software and on-line play. It's one of those great games that you can learn the rules of in a couple of minutes yet spend a lifetime learning how to play it better. It also has an ingenious scoring system that makes it attractive to gamblers, though, like Poker, it's one of those gambling games where you really have to know what you're doing if you want to come out a winner, in complete contrast to idiot fodder like Faro and Baccarat. The way it encourages you to think you're doing brilliantly one minute then lets you down with a bump the next is what makes the game so maddeningly addictive.

First there was Rummy...

The history of Gin Rummy is closely tied up, naturally enough, with the history of Rummy in general, so we'd better start by disentangling one from the other. Rummy itself not so much a specific game as a large family of games based on a particular way of playing with cards. It's a method generally known as "draw and discard", because at each turn you draw one or more cards from a stockpile and throw out an unwanted card in exchange. Your aim in doing this is to form your hand into sets of matching cards, or melds. A meld is either -

  • three or four cards of the same rank, such as Aces, Kings, Sixes, etc, or
  • three or more cards in suit and sequence, such as diamondA-2-3-(etc.) or spadeA-K-Q-J-(etc).

Any game based on draw-and-discard and making melds is some sort of Rummy game by definition. (Unless it also involves trumps and tricks, in which case it's a form of Pinochle or Bezique.)

Given this same underlying procedure, Rummies fall into several groups according to their respective aims and rewards. In the original and oldest version, which Gin closely resembles, the aim is to be the first to get rid of all your cards by laying them face up on the table in matched sets called spreads, or, later, melds. You then get a score based on the penalty value of all the cards left unmatched in your opponents hands - otherwise known as their deadwood.

In later branches of the family, such as Michigan, you don't just score for other players deadwood but also get a score based on the value of all the cards you have melded yourself.

More elaborate varieties of Rummy were developed in the 1930s under the influence of Contract Bridge. In Contract Rummy, you're dealt an increasing number of cards in successive deals, and in each deal you can only go out by making a particular combination of melds. For example, from a 10-card hand you may be required to make a run of four and two sets of three. Contract Rummy remains one of the most popular domestic games of the whole family and is very much a folk game - that is, groups of players tend to have their own house rules and, as often as not, their own name for the game.

One of the most developed varieties of Rummy is Canasta. This has the Bridge-inspired distinction of being a four-player partnership game with a very formal code of rules and scores. Canasta dates from the 1940s and gave rise to highly elaborate versions such as Samba and Bolivia.

Yet another branch of the Rummy family has the peculiarity that your melds are not private affairs. Instead, all melds are laid face up on the table and on your turn to play you can add cards to them and re-form them into different melds, provided they all obey the rules of correct formation. This procedure is well known in the proprietary form of the game known as Rummikub, which dates from the 1970s and is played with tiles instead of cards. However, its basic principle goes back to earlier card games such as Carousel, Vatikan, and Czech Rummy.

Oriental origin?

The earliest true Rummy, a kind of proto-Gin, was first described briefly under the name Coon Can in The Standard Hoyle (New York, 1887), and in more detail under the name Conquian by R. F. Foster in Foster's Complete Hoyle of 1897. A scholarly researcher of some repute, Foster was nevertheless mystified by its name and origin, remarking only that

little is known except that it is a great favourite in Mexico, and in all the American states bordering upon it, especially Texas.

This is quite likely, given that it is played with the typically Spanish 40-card pack and is certainly more likely to have originated in the New World rather than Spain itself, as the earliest forms of Rummy appearing in Spanish card-game literature (under the name "Ramy") are obvious twentieth-century transatlantic imports. In 1896 Stewart Culin records it as being played by Apaches and spells it con quién, the Spanish for "with whom"; but it's hard to see what bearing this phrase has on any aspect of the play, and Foster is probably right not to bother mentioning it.

A likelier origin may be sought in the Orient. The Rummy principle of drawing and discarding with a view to melding appears in Chinese card games certainly in the early 19th century and perhaps as early as the 18th century, and is, in fact, the essence of Mah-jong In 1891 one W. H. Wilkinson, enthusing over a Chinese card-game relative of Mah Jong called kun p'ai, persuaded Messrs Goodall (UK) to publish an adaptation of it for western cards under the name Khanhoo. (You can find the rules for this in Sid Sackson's Card Games Around the World, Toronto 1981, reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1994.) Its 62-card pack, reflecting the Chinese original, comprises two packs of 31, each consisting of numerals Ace to Nine in three suits, plus Jack, Queen, King, and Joker of no suit. Each receives fifteen cards, the aim is to go out by melding them into sequences and triplets, and the mechanism is precisely that of Rummy, even to turning the waste-pile to form a new stock.

A similar Chinese card game has also been reported under the name Kon Khin, which sounds sufficiently like Conquian or Coon-Can to give much food for thought. One possibility is that such a game first reached the south-western states in the hands of Chinese immigrants. Another is that something of this sort, under something like this name, was transmitted first to the Portuguese (via Macao?) and from them to Mexico perhaps via the Philippines. In this connection we can't ignore the popular Spanish game of Chinchón, which is virtually Gin played with the Spanish pack of 40 or 48 cards. Whether this relates to the Spanish town of that name, or is the original name of the game, or is another form of Kon Khin or Coon-Can, or even influenced the choice of "Gin" as a name, are questions remaining still in search of an answer.

Conquian is worth describing here, as it sets a very definite pattern for the game of Gin.

Conquian

Two players receive ten cards each from a 40-Card pack running A-2-3-4-5-6-7-J-Q-K in each suit. The other twenty are stacked face down.

The aim of the game is to be the first to get rid of all your cards by laying them off in melds. In order to go out you must meld a total of 11 cards, including the last one drawn.

A meld is either (a) three or four cards of the same rank, or (b) three or more cards in suit and sequence. For this purpose note that -

  • Ace is always low, so A-2-3-(etc) is a valid meld but A-K-Q-(etc) is not, and
  • The fact that there are no cards of rank 8, 9 or 10 means that Sevens and Jacks are consecutive, so melds including 6-7-J or 7-J-Q are always valid.

As non-dealer, you start by facing the top card of stock. You may not take it into hand, but must either meld it immediately (with two or more hand cards) or else pass. If you meld, you must reduce your hand by making one discard face up to the table to start a discard pile. If you pass, your opponent (the dealer) must either -

  • meld it himself, leaving a discard face up in its place and ending his turn, or
  • also pass by turning it face down, in which case he must then draw the top card of stock and either meld or discard it face up, thereby ending his turn.

Play continues in the same way. Whoever turns from stock has first choice of the card turned, and must either meld it, extend one of his existing melds with it, or pass. If both pass, the second turns it down and draws next.

Whenever you make a meld, you also make a discard face up and this becomes available to your opponent, who may either meld it himself or turn it down and make the next draw. When melding, you are allowed to "borrow" cards from other melds to help create new ones, provided that those thereby depleted are not reduced to less than valid melds.

Note: You may borrow only from your own melds, not from any of your opponent's.

The game ends when one player melds both the faced card and all the remaining cards of his hand, whether by adding to existing melds, making new ones, or both. Note that you can only do this by melding 11 cards. It is not enough to meld just 10 cards from your hand. If you do this, you must still keep playing till you draw a card that can be added to one of your existing melds.

If your opponent makes a discard that you can legally add to one of your existing melds, he may demand that you meld it even if you don't want to. This is known as forcing. It is an important part of the game, as it is sometimes possible to force a player into a situation from which they can never go out, making a point of considerable interest to the strategy of play. For example, suppose you have melded four Threes and a sequence of four spades 6-7-J-Q, and are left with A-A in hand. You now only need an Ace to win. Seeing this, your opponent might discard the spade King and force you to meld it. You are then obliged to discard an Ace, and can now only win by drawing spades 5-4 to complete your sequence. If either of these has already gone, you can't possibly do it.

If neither is out when the last available card has been declined, the game is drawn and the stake carried forward.

Bakers doesn't

Almost every reference to Gin Rummy on the internet says it was invented in 1909 by Elwood T. Baker, a Brooklyn Whist teacher. The nearest I can find to a source for this information is a comment by Albert H Morehead and Geoffrey Mott-Smith in their introduction to the game in Culbertson's Card Games Complete, which they compiled under that author's more marketable name in 1952. Its title, they say, was "suggested by Mr. Baker's son, [and] played on the alcoholic affinity of rum and gin". Morehead and Mott-Smith were reputable writers, but it would be nice if they had said where they got their own information from - the bit about Baker's son makes it sound like a folksy newspaper article or interview. ("What made you think of calling it Gin, Mr Baker?")

Dale Armstrong, in Win at Gin and Poker, endorses the Baker story and adds "The scene of this bright idea was the then prestigious Knickerbocker Whist Club in New York, where shortly thereafter Whist would give way to Contract Bridge". More usefully, he suggests that Baker's contribution to the evolution of Rummy lay specifically in prohibiting either player from laying out any melds until he was able to go out with the total value of any unmelded cards (deadwood) being 10 or less.

This does sound plausible, as it is in this significant respect that Gin differs from other draw-and-discard games of its time. What somebody certainly produced - and it might as well have been Baker as anyone else - was a neat and tidied-up version of a cross between Conquian and what was then called Rum (now called Knock Rummy), of which the earliest description I know of dates from 1905. An item in the New York Sun dated 10 September 1910 remarks "The leader this season seems to be a new round game that is called rum. Some persons have it rhum, rhummy and even rhumston".

Whether or not Baker actually called it Gin Rummy is another question. All the Hoyle-type books of the time - such as R F Foster's Official Rules of Card Games issued by the United States Playing Card Co in 1913 - call it either Gin Poker or Poker Gin. Why it should suggest any reference to Poker is unclear, except perhaps in so far as there was a vaguely similar game called Whiskey Poker, in which the aim was to form your hand into a Poker combination by a method of play deriving from the game of Commerce. (John Scarne's theory deriving Rummy from Poker through the medium of Whiskey Poker has not gained general acceptance, and what Wykes has to say on the subject in his book Gambling is totally misleading.)

No doubt there was an intended play on the "alcoholic affinity" of Gin and Whiskey. This at least provides the most plausible explanation for the name of the game, though "gin" has plenty of other and entirely teetotal meanings. A glance through the Oxford English Dictionary will show that it can also mean:

  • any sort of mechanical contraption (short for "engine")
  • a spring, especially a spring-trap for catching game
  • a crane with three legs (that's a thing for hoisting weights, not the bird)
  • a machine for driving piles (which sounds excruciatingly painful)
  • a machine for separating cotton from its seeds (no home complete without one)
  • a female ferret (ditto)
  • a pre-European Australian woman (no doubt politically incorrect)
  • a female kangaroo (ditto)
  • and, in "Gin of all trades", the female equivalent of a "Jack of all trades".
Hollywood Gin

One of the reasons why the history of Gin Rummy remains tantalisingly obscure is that it didn't really come into its own until the 1930s, for as late as the 1926 edition of Official Rules of Card Games it was still being recorded under its older title Poker Gin or Gin Poker. One circumstance that helped it was the Depression, when more and more people had less and less to spend on going out and enjoying themselves and had to rediscover the art of amusing themselves at home. Gin was much simpler to learn than Contract Bridge, and more congenial in the family circle than Poker.

But perhaps what really helped it on its way was its popularity with actors, stars and the celebrity-seeking riff-raff of Broadway and Hollywood, and the consequent publicity the game attracted to itself. Hardly a film of that period fails to mention it somewhere, or at least get it on screen. Even Flora Robson as Elizabeth I and Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex appear to be playing it - though, unfortunately, not mentioning it - in The Sea Hawk (1940). Dale Armstrong reports:

On one occasion, in a desperate effort at rescue, the [Burbank Lakeside Country] club's House Committee was forced to persuade rotund comedian Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) to stay out of the card room, where the Gin sharks had been eating him alive for months, to the tune of four figures a week.

Two features of the game made it attractive to those hanging about in the wings waiting for their cue, or in the studio waiting for the greens man to revive the pot plants. One was that it was very fast to play but could, if necessary be left off at a moment's notice and easily picked up again as soon as the players were free. The other was the introduction of an ingenious scoring device - the so-called Hollywood Gin variety - whereby you could (in effect) play three games simultaneously, or even an endless series of them.

To say that Gin became a craze of that period would be to put it almost literally. Here's an account of it from the pen of Damon Runyon, who wrote an enormous number of humorous short stories set in and around Broadway and involving just about the craziest characters ever created. It's from "The Lace-work Kid", first published in Collier's Magazine, Feb 12 1944:

I will not attempt to describe Gin-Rummy in detail as you can call up any insane asylum and get any patient on the 'phone and learn all about it in no time, as all lunatics are bound to be Gin players, and in fact the chances are it is Gin-Rummy that makes them lunatics.

The cards in Gin-Rummy run hot and cold the same as the dice in a crap game. It is by no means necessary to go to Harvard to learn to play Gin and in fact a moron is apt to play it better than Einstein. If you get the tickets in Gin you are a genius, and if you do not get them you are a bum. When they do not come you can only sit and suffer and the aggravation of waiting on cards that never arrive will give you stomach ulcers in no time.

Nearly everybody in the United States of America plays Gin-Rummy. The little children in the street play it. Old broads play it. I understand there is a trained ape in the Bronx Zoo that plays it very nicely and I am not surprised, because I can teach any dumb animal to play Gin-Rummy if I can get it to hold ten cards.
Computer Gin

Gin Rummy is obviously here to stay. It has become a classic game, and, as such, has been embraced by the computer age. Any search engine will find you all the software and on-line gaming opportunities you're likely to want. Enjoy!

 
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