Rummy games are on any good list of classic American card games. Thanks to their entrenchment in family traditions and private games among coworkers, rummy-style card games are played by more people than perennial-favorite poker.
Because the rules are easily digestible, rummy is more approachable than bridge even if it takes some time to master them. Learning how to play rummy (and win real money) is a matter of learning the basics of the game, a few tips on strategy, and some facts about betting halls that host real-money games.
Rummy is the most democratic of card game styles. It can change its shape to suit different numbers of players and playing styles. This game has an international history but is now mostly an obsession in the US. It was created from the husks of traditional games played in Portugal, Macau, the Philippines, Mexico, China, and Korea.
It’s not quite a rough-and-tumble contest like Texas Hold’em. And it’s certainly not the stiff-shouldered game of whist. Rummy is unique in that it is at home in a private parlor game and the smoky interiors of a gambling hall.
This post focuses on the family of card games collectively referred to as “rummy games.” Rummy is not a card game per se. It’s better described as a family of games sharing a few common features. Rummy is a category, with variants created by players according to need and earning their own monikers along the way.
Let’s begin our look at rummy-style card gaming with a crash course in how to play rummy.
How to Play Rummy
Note: This section on how to play rummy focuses on a basic set of rules for a game known as basic or straight rummy. Most rummy games follow this pattern with a few variations that make the variant unique.
The object of basic rummy is the same as the object of all games in the rummy family—to get rid of all your cards before the opponent. By the rules of basic rummy, you can get rid of cards in three ways: forming melds, “laying off” cards, and discarding.
Forming melds means combining cards from your hand in specific ways and placing them face-up in front of you on the playing surface. Melding is the main feature of rummy-style games, a focus of all game variants.
Basic rummy players can form two different types of melds:
- Sequence or Run: made up of three or more suited cards in consecutive order. (Example: The four to six of clubs.)
- A Group or Book: made up of three or four cards of matching rank. (Example: The sevens of diamonds, hearts, and spades.)
Laying off cards means adding a card (or two) from your hand to a meld already on the playing surface. You can “lay off” on your own melds or the melds of your opponents. Your added card must form a valid meld, and you can’t remove cards from melds in order to lay off.
Discarding means laying a card from your hand face-up on top of the discard pile. Each player does this once at the end of each turn.
The Rummy Setup
This variant is best played with two to four players, though games of as many as six players are common. The game ends at a point agreed on by all players before play starts.
Players usually agree on a fixed number of deals ahead of time. Basic rummy uses a standard deck of 52 cards, in which ace is low and king is high. In other words, the cards are ranked: A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K.
The Rummy Deal
Players traditionally cut cards to determine who deals first. The turn to deal rotates clockwise (in cases of more than two players), or alternates if just two people are playing.
- In a two-player game, each player is dealt a hand of 10 cards.
- In a three- or four-player game, each player is dealt a hand of seven cards.
- In a five- or six-player game, each player is dealt a hand of six cards.
After each player is dealt the requisite number of cards, one at a time, the next card from the deck is placed face-up on the table to begin the face-up discard pile. The remainder of the deck is placed face-down beside the discard pile. This is the “stock.”
After players look at and sort their cards, each player’s turn begins. The player to the dealer’s left begins each hand.
Each turn in Basic Rummy consists of a few specific parts, features you’ll recognize in just about every future rummy-family game you encounter:
Your first move is to take one card from EITHER the top of the face-down stock pile or the top of the face-up discard pile. This card is added to your hand.
Why would a player choose to pick an unknown card from the stock pile rather than a card they already know? A few reasons.
Maybe the face-up card prevents you from making a meld. Another reason is pure strategy. If you choose to draw from the face-down stock pile, the other players won’t know what it was.
This step is optional.
At this point, if you can form a meld with the cards in your hand, you can lay a meld on the table in front of you.
This is the second of two optional steps.
After laying a meld, if possible, you can choose to add a card or cards to sequences already melded on the playing surface.
At the end of each player’s turn, they must discard one card form their hand, placing it face-up on top of the discard pile.
Take note, if you start your turn by picking up a face-up card from the discard pile, you are not allowed to end your turn by discarding that same card.
Players have developed house rules regarding how to handle the end of the stock pile, but according to the rules of the game, you’re supposed to flip over the discard pile to form a new stock.
Each individual hand has a winner—the player who melds, lays off, or discards all their cards. This is called “going out.” Each hand is over when one player “goes out.”
When any player goes out, each of his opponents adds up the value of all the cards left in their hands. For scoring purposes, the card values are:
- 10 points for any king, queen, or jack.
- 1 point for any ace.
- Points equal to a card’s face value for all remaining number cards.
The winner of the hands earns points equal to the value of all cards in their opponents’ hands.
How to Play Rummy for Real Money
Though rummy isn’t on fire in the United State like it was in 60 or 70 years ago, the game is still available to play in tournament and cash game formats in poker rooms and casinos all over the US. People who have played this variety of game their entire life often find they want to play for real money.
Modern players have more options for real money games than they had in the past. The Internet has made rummy more available. Online cardrooms, casinos, and other gambling halls (even some sportsbooks) offer rummy-style card gaming both for pretend money and real cash.
Online, the games are on offer in several flavors. A quick Google search revealed a dozen variations available, from traditional basic to gin rummy, canasta, and some more obscure rule sets as well.
Tournaments are readily available online, as are traditional cash games. Some online US casinos even have variants with progressive side bets and flashy graphics and such—if that’s what you’re into.
Our Thoughts on Playing Rummy
Covering every game in this family, with every rule variation created over the years by players, would be impossible outside of publishing something the length of a reference book. This post is designed to give a big-picture perspective on how to play rummy and win real money.
Hopefully, you’ve learned something about how to play, how to win cash, and I’ve piqued your interest in this once dominant and still beloved game family.
The rummy game family does have a legacy after all. It’s been an important influence on today’s cardrooms and the people playing in them. Though the game has faded in popularity over the past few decades, that has as much to do with changing tastes and the faster pace of modern gambling than general interest in the “draw-and-discard” family in general.
For many of us, this style of play was a big part of our first amateur card gambling. A spot in gaming history is reserved for rummy, if for no other reason than that it is certainly the first card game of any complexity that a player learns.