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The Gin Mill

America's Clubhouse Card Game Can Sometimes Get Very Serious
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

Gin rummy is the card game your grandmother taught you, the game your golf partners play at the 19th hole. A simple social game. To most of us, gin rummy is a modest challenge, involving rudimentary strategy that even a child can master. Most of us play for pennies a point.

But most of us are not like Bill Ingram. A few years ago, Ingram, a 62-year-old real estate broker from Texas, sat down at a card table in Las Vegas and vanquished 85 of the world's best players in the International Gin Rummy Tournament of Champions.

His victory was worth $100,000.

Whether gathered in basement rec rooms or country club dining rooms, millions of us--nearly 27 million, according to a 1996 survey by the U.S. Playing Card Co. of Cincinnati--derive a disproportionate amount of pleasure from making "melds," "knocking" and "going out" in this uncomplicated game usually contested by two players. (Some variations allow three or four players.) Like backgammon and checkers, gin rummy is a simple game to learn--my great-grandmother taught me the game when I was six--but difficult to master. So although most amateurs know the basics (get rid of unmatched high cards, don't give your opponent two cards of the same rank or suit, etc.), few of us would be willing to stake our reputation, or much of our money, on our gin rummy expertise.

But some would. They are contractors, car dealers and liquor store owners. They are regular fellows from all walks of life and every part of America. They play the game of gin rummy with a sophistication, flair and comprehension that could send a stubborn opponent into Chapter 11.

Top players, like John Hainline --a greeting-card distributor from San Francisco who has won more than 30 gin rummy tournaments and is widely considered one of the two or three best players on the planet-- say that success at the game depends less on luck than poker does. "Sometimes a sucker can end up with all the money in a poker game," Hainline says. "In gin, the good players tend to separate themselves from the field pretty quickly."

Hainline, who played on the PGA Tour in 1961, learned the card game in the early '60s, after a practice round at the Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas. "I lost about a hundred dollars to a couple of elderly gentlemen," Hainline recalls. "That was a lot of money to me back then, and I figured I better learn enough to get it back."

The floundering golf pro spent his nights on the tour dealing gin hands to himself, memorizing the percentages and recognizing the recurring patterns in something like 66,000 different kinds of hands. He made himself into a master.

Hainline won't reveal his secrets, but he hints that he plays "differently" than his opponents, whom, he says, can be easily categorized into "passive" and "aggressive" types. "I try to work all my hands in combinations," Hainline says, "low, medium and high." He smiles slightly. "If I say any more I'd be giving away too much."

Up until the late '80s, gin rummy tournaments around America flourished, drawing as many as 400 competitors. But as poker tournaments became more popular, gin rummy no longer attracted eager new players who, as in all gambling ventures, must replace those that consistently lose and, therefore, eventually fade away. Even nongamblers may have heard of the World Series of Poker, the annual tournament in Las Vegas that crowns the game's world champion. But few outside the gin rummy community know that annual gin tournaments currently award hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

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