The Gin Mill
America's Clubhouse Card Game Can Sometimes Get Very Serious
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
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Five years ago at the Maxim Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where the game is contested for stakes seldom dreamedof around a kitchen table, scores of the world's best players competed in the largest, most lucrative gin rummy tournament ever, the International Gin Rummy Tournament of Champions, which offered more than $250,000 in prize money. Enough lawyers, doctors, builders, bankers, investors, retirees and professional gamblers entered the one-time tournament to instantly make it the world's richest gin game. It was here that Bill Ingram, after three days of drawing, discarding and laying down, would become $100,000 richer.
Similar, albeit smaller, gin rummy tournaments pop up around Las Vegas several times a year. These congregations tend to attract a core group of competitors, the same hundred or so sharpies who play the game a wee bit better than everyone else in the world. If this recurring group of players is any indication, the typical gin rummy maven is male, between middle and retirement age, balding, bespectacled, pudgy to corpulent, and possessed of an impassive tabula rasa of a face, worthy of, well, a world-class poker player. And like the poker champ, these mnemonically gifted, expert gin players know the percentages for every combination of hands; they can recall exactly which cards have been discarded and plucked; they have an eerie ability to predict when their opponent is about to knock or when he is going for gin; and they even extrapolate information based on how an opponent arranges his cards. As one pro told me at a recent gin tournament, "When I'm playing gin rummy, it's like my opponent is drawing me a picture of his hand."
Not surprisingly, the man long considered the greatest gin rummy player in the world, Stu Ungar, also won the World Series of Poker, three times. [See the March/April 1998 issue of Cigar Aficionado, page 200.] Blessed with what many claim was an authentic photographic memory, Ungar's standard gin rummy proposition was this: play him for any amount of money; when you were done you got 10 percent of your losses back. He had very few takers.
Alas, Ungar was found dead last November in a cheap Vegas motel, the victim, many players and associates believe, of drug abuse. Now the title of Greatest Gin Rummy Player in the World, which once was rarely contested, can be fairly applied to any of a handful of consistent gin rummy winners, such as Hainline and Nevada's Norman Le Pore. It's a mythical title, since there really isn't an organized world championship of gin rummy. But capturing a large event, such as the Tournament of Champions, or, for that matter, any of the smaller gin rummy tournaments, bolsters a player's claim to the problematic honorific.
The man behind most of America's big-money gin tournaments is Glenn Abney, a longtime legend who is widely known as Mr. Gin. "I've been involved in the biggest, most prestigious gin rummy events for the past four decades," he says, smiling contentedly. That's, including The International, a 1,000-player extravaganza that was popular in the '60s. At one time, before Stu Ungar, he was recognized as the game's most fearsome and visible player. (His belt buckle and license plate say mr. gin; his wife's, mrs. gin.) Abney learned gin rummy from his mother, who, he claims, left a poker game to give birth to him. "I was literally born with card sense," Abney says.
An enormous man with enormous appetites, Abney went on a controversial diet some time ago that relied on, among other things, an unapproved supplement. Big Glenn didn't lose weight; he lost a gin rummy player's most vital tool: a good memory. "My long-term memory is pretty much shot," he says. "But I can still remember the cards."
Despite his travails, Abney can recall gin rummy games from "the good old days," when a player of his caliber could find a game in any town at any time. "When I was a caddie at the Bel-Air Country Club in the '40s, maybe you'd hustle guys for $10 a game," Abney says.
For Bill Ingram, at the International Tournament of Champions, the stakes were much higher even than the $100,000 payoff. Throughout a tumultuous 24-year period, the voluble Texan had what he says was "a terrible compulsive gambling problem, which cost me three wives, a business and most of my friends." It was during this tortured phase of his life that Ingram learned to play gin rummy. "I wasn't much of a player to start. I just liked the action. But after I got my life under control, my game started to improve. For years I didn't gamble a nickel. Now I try to do it in moderation."
If Ingram's triumph at the Tournament of Champions were made into a movie, the critics might dismiss his story as too fantastically improbable. The round-robin tournament, like most organized gin rummy competitions, was set up so the cream would eventually rise to the top. The preliminary qualifying rounds saw the card sharps playing 16 one-on-one games to 200 points (a gin or an under-knock was worth 25), with all 11-game winners advancing to the quarterfinals and earning a slice of the prize money. After two days and approximately 10,000 hands of gin rummy, nine players representing nearly every region of the United States had qualified for the money round. Eleven others had 10 wins and had to undergo a one-game playoff.
Ingram had won only seven of his first 13 games. Then, defying the odds, he won his last three matches to squeak into the playoff. Among the 10-game winners, one player, picked at random, got a bye directly into the quarterfinals. That was Ingram.
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