Gin Rummy is a classic offshoot of card games like rummy and knock-rummy, and Gin, as it is otherwise known, has been played since 1909.
A two-player contest, Gin Rummy requires nothing more than a standard 52-card deck of playing cards, and a pencil and pad to jot down the score. The game involves quick decision making, strategic elements, and is a decidedly skill-based affair.
Proving this, many of the best poker players got their start hustling Gin Rummy games. Legends like three-time WSOP Main Event winner Stu Ungar and eight-time WSOP bracelet winner Erik Seidel emerged from New York City’s famed Gin Rummy games during the 1980s.
While the game is often played with serious cash on the line, Gin Rummy can be played for any stakes, or none at all. Due to the brisk pace of play, back and forth scoring, and the element of gamesmanship, people don’t always need the added incentive of a wager to find themselves engrossed in matches lasting long into the night.
A game of Gin Rummy is never dull, and the variable known as luck means anybody can mount a big comeback or notch a stunning upset in any given game. However, as in poker, the cream tends to rise to the top in Gin Rummy.
Players who develop an instinctual feel for the optimal strategies, as well as a read on their opponent’s play, will win more often over the long run. This aspect makes the game a favorite for thinking players, the mathematically inclined, and gaming enthusiasts who prefer to grind out steady profits rather than gamble.
Gin Rummy Basics
Gin Rummy is played with a standard 52-card deck and the basic card ranks are in use, so cards 2-9 are worth their rank, 10s and face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) are worth 10, and aces are worth 1.
Aces are used only as low cards in Gin Rummy, so the hierarchy runs from king down to ace.
Play almost always involves two players, but some variants exist which involve three or more players. For the sake of this discussion, the traditional two-player version of Gin Rummy will be considered.
Before the game begins both players agree on a set point total, usually 100, which becomes the target score. The objective of Gin Rummy is to set your hand in various ways in an attempt to score the most points on each deal, and the first player to reach or top 100 points wins the match. This can happen within a few deals on occasion, so typically players agree to play a series of matches, usually best-of-five or best-of-seven.
Dealing in Gin Rummy
Players determine who will deal the first hand, or round, and from that point forward the deal alternates on each round.
To begin play, the dealer distributes 10 cards to each player, one at a time beginning with their opponent. Once each player holds 10 cards, the next card in the deck is turned face up and placed on the table next to the rest of the deck.
This single face up card begins the discard pile, while the rest of the deck (still face down) is known as the stock pile.
The player who didn’t deal begins the action; they can either draw the top card from the stock pile, or take the top face-up card from the discard pile. After adding one card to their hand, the player must discard one card face-up onto the top of the discard pile.
The action moves to the dealer, and they repeat the drawing mechanics, first choosing a card from either the discard or stock piles, before discarding one card from their hand.
Gameplay in Gin Rummy
The decision to take the unknown card from the top of the discard pile, or the visible card from the top of the stock pile is based on the current state of each player’s 10-card hand. Hand strength is based on the following scoring and gameplay system.
The objective of Gin Rummy is to continually set your hand according to two primary patterns, which are known as melds. The two types of melds are called sets and runs.
A set consists of any three or four of a kind; so 8-8-8 or K-K-K-K would constitute sets.
A run consists of any three-card string of connected, suited cards; so 4-5-6 all hearts or 10-J-Q-K all spades would constitute runs. When making runs, the aces are always considered to be low cards, so while A-2-3 of diamonds would make a good run, Q-K-A of clubs would not.
You can only use a card to make one meld or another. For example, if your hand contains three aces along with several low cards, you can use them to form a three-card set of aces, or an A-2-3 run, but not both.
At any point in a Gin Rummy game, your 10-card hand is set into these melds (sets or runs), and any card not used in a meld is known as deadwood. The sum of each deadwood card’s rank gives you the current deadwood count for your hand.
To illustrate, imagine your 10-card hand contains the following cards: Ac, Ad, As, 3h, 4h, 5h, 6h, 7h, 2d, 5s. The three aces would form a three-card set, the 3-7 of hearts would form a five-card run, and you’d have the 2 of diamonds and 5 of spades left over as deadwood. Adding these cards together would give you a deadwood count of seven.
When your hand contains all melds and no deadwood cards, this is known as Gin, and players can go gin to end the hand when this occurs.
The objective of Gin Rummy is to alternate draws in an effort to make melds while discarding high ranked deadwood cards from your hand.
Knocking, Going Gin, and Scoring
The game revolves around players alternating draws and discards, as both attempt to improve their hand.
Whenever a player’s deadwood count stands at 10 or under, they have the option of knocking. In order to knock, a player must also have one or more melds in their hand, but for the most part the more cards arranged in melds when you knock, the better.
After knocking, the player turns their hand face up, with the melds clearly arranged and the deadwood cards set aside. The opponent (known as the defending player) now turns their hand face up in the same fashion, with melds kept aside from deadwood.
One benefit afforded to the defending player is that before laying their hand down, they can examine the knocking player’s cards and lay off one, some, or all of their own deadwood cards. In order to lay off a deadwood card, the defending player must be able to match it to one of the knocking player’s melds.
For example, imagine the knocking player tables a hand with 2d, 2h, 2c, 4s, 5s, 6s, 7s, 8d, 9c, Ad. The defending player’s hand contains two melds, along with the 2s, 8s, and Ac. The defending player’s deadwood count at the moment stands at 11 (2+8+1), but they can lay off the 2s by fitting it into the knocking player’s three-card set of deuces, making it a four card set. The defending player can also lay off the 8s by adding it to the end of the knocking player’s four card run of spades.
By laying off these two deadwood cards, the defending player reduces their deadwood count from 11 to 1.
This is important because the deadwood count is the most crucial aspect of a player’s hand. After one player knocks, and the defending player lays off any cards they can, both players compare their deadwood counts.
When the knocking player’s deadwood count is less than their opponent, the difference between the two totals is added to their score. So a knocking player with a deadwood count of 3 against a defending player with a deadwood count of 9 would earn 6 points.
When the defending player’s deadwood count is less than the knocking player, this is known as an undercut. After an undercut, the defending player receives the difference in totals as their score, along with an additional undercut bonus of 20 or 25 points.
Another bonus can be earned by going gin, or knocking when your hand contains all melds and no deadwood. When you go gin, the defending player loses the option to lay off deadwood cards, and you earn a score amounting to their deadwood total plus the preset bonus amount (usually 25 points).
Hands are dealt out and played through several times until one player reaches or eclipses the 100 point plateau. After that, the game is over and a new game begins until the match is settled.