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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In the quarters he plowed through two tough matches, earning a spot in the final four. There he narrowly defeated the prohibitive favorite, John Hainline. "I got real lucky against John," Ingram concedes. "Mathematically, he should have beat me. He's the best."
Hainline agrees. "When we sat down to play, he said what most opponents say: 'Oh, no!' That should be my nickname: 'Oh, no!' Most guys tend to play too defensively against me, they get intimidated. But," Hainline says, shrugging, "you can't win 'em all."
Ingram's unlikely victory propelled him into the $100,000 championship match, a one-game, 500-point marathon against Jeff Mervis, a professional card player from Sherman Oaks, California. Mervis was named Best-All-Around Player at the 1993 L.A. Poker Classic, and regularly places in the money at major events around the country. But he hadn't played in a gin rummy tournament for a decade.
The drama that had characterized Ingram's previous victories was conspicuously absent in the final matchup. To begin that contest, Ingram was dealt a series of what seasoned players call "no-brainers," decisionless beauties that quickly lead to gin. He won the first nine hands, vaulting to a 351-point lead before Mervis could score even a single point. In gin rummy parlance, Ingram had his man "barbecued."
"My strategy was to play wide-open offense for the first four or five cards, giving myself a chance to make gin," Ingram says. "Then I moved to the defensive, mousing down [reducing the hand's point total] and knocking. It may have looked like I was getting real lucky, but I like to think luck is just the product of preparation." Whether because of or in spite of his methods, Ingram dispatched Mervis, 500-127.
Prior to the tournament, only the 10th he had played in 11 years, Ingram had told his wife that he was "going into training" and that he fully expected to win the championship. "I work 100 hours a week on my business, and I play once or twice a month at the Walnut Creek Country Club in Dallas. The world-class guys at the tournament play every day. The first time I faced competition this tough I made a gazillion mistakes. So I got out all my old books, like Jacobi's How to Win at Gin Rummy, and I memorized entire passages. Let's just say I came here very focused. Very ready to win."
Thanks to the kind of gin rummy skill we amateurs can barely comprehend, he departed Las Vegas $100,000 wealthier.
Bill Ingram has subsequently disappeared from the gin rummy scene. "Everyone seems to be vanishing," Abney remarks wistfully. "Most of the really great players are dead--and if they're not, they need to write down the cards."
Still, you don't have to look too hard to find a gin game. Most country clubs in America, particularly those in the two Palms--Springs and Beach--have a game going every day of the week. You'll find gentlemen like Abney and Hainline there most every afternoon. They'll be sitting beside other aging men, whose graying hair and expanding waistlines conceal computer-like minds that are constantly working through the probabilities. Some of these fellows may be the undisputed champion of their golf club, or Moose lodge, or senior citizens center. If they fancy themselves good and brave enough, you might one day find them in Las Vegas, playing gin rummy for $100,000.
Michael Konik, the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado, is the author of The Man With the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories (Huntington Press, Las Vegas).
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