History Of Rummy

History Of Rummy

Card games are so ingrained in our society that it might be difficult to imagine them as historical traditions spanning centuries. Your casual game of Cribbage, for instance, has been around since the 1600s. The game Piquet goes back even further to the 1500s. Card games in fact have rich complicated histories that travel across borders, transcend languages, and intertwine with the histories of other games. Take the game Rummy for example.

Rummy is such a monumental cornerstone of card gaming that it can’t really be thought of as a single game. It is more of a family of games that has evolved into popular variations like Gin, Canasta, and Hand and Foot. While each variation has its own peculiarities. A Rummy type game can be defined as any game that involves a draw and discharge on a player’s turn and involves the melding of cards by rank or sequence. While some variations like Canasta have very clear origins stories (Canasta was created by Segundo Santos and Alberto Serrato in 1939) the parent game Rummy has a more ambiguous beginning.

There are two theories for the creation of Rummy. The first is that it originated in Mexico around the 1890s. In 1897, game historian R. F. Foster described a game called Conquian in his book Foster’s Complete Hoyle. The game, played with a Spanish deck of 40 cards, possessed similar melding mechanics to modern day Rummy and was apparently very popular in Mexico and the southern United States. Foster, however, noted that he was mystified as to how this game actually got started. This brings us to the second origin theory.

The second theory is that it originated in Asia. This largely comes from the fact that one of the qualifications of Rummy, the draw and discharge rule, can be observed in 19th century Chinese card games, particularly Mah-jong. In 1891, W. H. Wilkinson became enamored by a variation of Mah-jong named Kun p’ai and created a western equivalent game called Khanhoo. Other than a deck of 62 cards, Khanhoo is practically the same as modern day Rummy. 

Game historian David Parlett further complicates these two theories by merging them and proposing that the Mexican game Conquian is actually the Chinese game Kon Khin, due to the phonetic similarity, and that it came to Mexico via Chinese immigrants. Whether Rummy came from Asia or Mexico, both theories maintain that it originated around the 19th century. 

By the 20th century, Rummy had already morphed into various forms like Gin. A popular origin story for Gin is that it was invented in 1909 by Elwood T. Baker and his son in Brooklyn, New York. The book Culbertson’s Card Games Complete describes Gin’s history as follows: “The principal fad game, in the years 1941-46, of the United States, Gin Rummy (then called simply Gin) was devised in 1909 by Elwood T. Baker of Brooklyn, N. Y., a whist teacher; the name, suggested by Mr. Baker’s son, played on the alcoholic affinity of rum and gin; the game was resurgent 1927-30, then dormant until 1940, then adopted by the motion-picture colony and the radio world, who gave it the publicity essential to a fad game.” While there is scrutiny over the complete accuracy of this origin story, game historians like David Parlett and Dale Armstrong have ruled it as a possibility. Regardless on how it was created, after it gained popularity from a few celebrities in 1930’s Hollywood, it was here to stay.

One of the few games that we can confidently say how it started is the Rummy game Canasta. In 1939, Canasta was created by Segundo Santos and Alberto Serrato in Montevideo, Uruguay. Santos was an attorney and avid Bridge player at his local Jockey Club. After becoming dissatisfied over the large amount of time he spent playing Bridge, Santos enlisted his Bridge partner Serrato to help him design a time efficient game as engaging as Bridge. The solution was Canasta, a Rummy type game with less of a luck factor. The game was an instant hit at the Jockey Club and quickly spread northward throughout Latin America until it finally reached the United States in the 1950s, causing a Canasta craze. Unfortunately, Santos and Serrato never patented the game rules for their causal Jockey Club pastime and did not receive any royalties from the card game boom. Reportedly, a bewildered Santos had this to say about the game’s popularity “I was just trying to get my mind off of Bridge.” While the craze has died out since the 60’s, Canasta remains one of Rummy’s most popular variations.

While these are mere snippets of Rummy’s complicated history, they paint a picture of the broad evolution of such a beloved game. For more information about the history of Rummy, check out David Parlett’s article here.