Published March/April 1999The Gin Mill America's Clubhouse Card Game Can Sometimes Get Very Serious
By Michael Konik
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.
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.
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).