I’ve never been much of a card-player – this in spite of growing up in a small town in Sweden, where many nights as a young teenager were spent drinking tea in cafés, and later nights, doing the same at friends’ houses; the perfect setting for card games. There would be exceptions to the lack of card game-play though, and I remember we went through a phase in school of obsessively playing ‘Tecken’ (literally translating from Swedish meaning ‘Sign’) during rainy school breaks, when we were allowed to stay inside in the bunker-like ‘bad weather room’.
Another exception to my normal disinterest in cards was during school holidays, which sometimes involved visiting my cousins up north, or them coming down to stay with us. It was during one summer holiday, when my cousin, five years older and a seasoned card player, came down to stay that I first got introduced to Gin Rummy. She had been taught the game by her auntie, who lived in the next house in the village where my cousin and her family (including my aunt) lived, not far from where our mothers had grown up. After the initial introduction to Gin Rummy I also remember popping over to this auntie with my cousin and my mum, playing a game or two in her cottage during the cold and snowy Christmas holidays we often spent up there. Those memories are of us on wooden chairs gathered around a kitchen table in a cosy cottage with the white, yet dark midwinter afternoon outside the window. I imagine that along with the cards on the table, there were also cups of black tea or coffee.
This dim scene is in stark contrast to my recollection of those first few games with my cousin and my mum; seated in white swivel chairs in a 2nd floor living room with an almost panoramic bright, open view over the bay of Laholm during the height of summer in southern Sweden, often just returned from the beach.
For a pre-teen like myself, the rules of Gin Rummy were pretty complex, and my successes were considerably moderate. Add to this an as yet undeveloped ability to handle the frustrations of consistent losses, and I seem to remember some tears being shed, and cards getting thrown during the course of the summer. Nevertheless, feelings of disappointment must definitely have been outweighed by the enjoyment of the game, as I remember playing it with fondness.
With this prior, if elapsed, experience of dabbling in Gin Rummy, I thought it was a nice coincidence when I was asked to contribute to the Best Days of Our Lives blog, writing about what happens to be on of the few card games I actually know. I thought I should be pretty well placed to write something up on ‘Gin’ – that’s before I started researching it.
It turns out the thing that I thought of as Gin Rummy all these years is far from the real thing. In fact what my family had been playing all along, is a version of Contract Rummy. And that wasn’t just us, but most of Sweden it seems! Interestingly, on delving deeper, the majority of rules that an Internet search in Swedish for Gin Rummy throws up, outlines a contract version, normally played with 3-8 players, whereas the English language version is always for two players. Although the general object of the game is the same for Gin and Contract Rummy; to collect sets and runs in so-called melds (or matched sets), the Swedish version requires 15 deals, with the objective being to be the first to acquire a predetermined meld (e.g. 1 x pair + 1 x sequence) and thereby gain the least amount of penalty points at the end of the 15 rounds to win the overall game. This is in contrast to the ‘English’ rules, where the player who first acquires 100 points is the winner.
On the realisation of this discrepancy between my own and the official rules, I felt faced with a slight quandary. Is my job to write about the ‘true’ Gin Rummy, which is thought by many to have been invented in 1909 by Elwood T. Baker, a whist teacher in Brooklyn, and his son C. Graham Baker, as a faster version of the standard rummy? Or is my brief to talk about my personal experiences of the game, even though this may not be the genuine article? Should I explain how Gin Rummy, as per the original American version, is a game for two players using one pack of cards, or as per my personal (Swedish) experience, a game played by at least three people, using two packs of cards?
My dilemma highlights something which is a reoccurring observation when it comes to games generally, that rules and versions differ locally, culturally, and over generations.
Apparently even games with supposedly set rules such as Gin Rummy, are not fixed entities. Gin Rummy is thought to have derived from Knock Rummy, and is today one of, if not the most popular card game for two players in the English speaking world.
Rummy games themselves are believed to have come from Romania, Spain or China.
It would be interesting to find out just how Contract Rummy (in Sweden sometimes referred to as ‘Rommy’) made its way into Swedish consciousness under the ‘gin’ guise, but that would require a bit more time and space than I have at my disposal here. Instead I’ll limit this post to briefly reflect on how games, as a social practice, seem to have a special knack for lodging certain times, spaces, and people in our brains as memories. The process of writing up this piece has brought back moments of which I previously had no recollection, along with the emotions attached to them. I’ve enjoyed revisiting past times, brought back to my awareness much in the same way as looking at old snaps do, which can act as a trigger for a whole bank of memories to flood back.
I’ve read several blog entries crediting a grandmother with being the one to pass on the gin rummy tradition, also prompting me to think about how playing this game engaged me and my extended family in a social activity, across generational boundaries. Card-games, as a non-physical activity, seem especially apt at bringing people together across age divides, which is one reason why I now feel ready to bring Gin Rummy into my social life – whether it’s the genuine article or not.
Gin Rummy’s claim to fame:
– In the 30s ‘the Gin Game’ became popularised by Broadway and Hollywood actors, and appeared on screen itself.
– In ‘Goldfinger’, the eponymous Gert Fröbe character has his gin rummy cheating foiled by Bond.
– The more recent film ‘High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story’ tells the rise and fall of modern times most prolific Gin Rummy player, Stu Ungar, whose lifestyle was as decadent as your next 80s rock ‘n roller.
Gin Rummy rules can be studied here:
Gin Rummy Swedish rules can be found here:
Posted by JL