This page was written by John McLeod and is based on various sources, including articles posted in rec.games.playing-cards, and information on variations from many correspondents.
- Players, Cards and Stakes
- The Deal
- The Play
- End of the play - payments
- Other Tonk WWW pages and software
Tonk, also known as Tunk is a kind of knock rummy played in the USA. It was a favourite with jazz players in the 1930's and 1940's, as attested by at least two members of Duke Ellington's orchestra (see references), and may have given its name to one of Billy Strayhorn's piano compositions, written in 1940. The Duke recorded Tonk, with Strayhorn, in 1946.
Tonk has since become more widespread, and there are numerous variations. Nevertheless, many players seem certain that their own way of playing is the only correct one. Before starting a game with unfamiliar players, it is wise first to agree what house rules are in force. I have tried to give a typical version of the game first, followed by a selection of the alternative rules that may be encountered.
In theory any number can play, but it is widely agreed that Tonk is best for two or three players, maybe four. A standard 52 card deck is used, without jokers. The cards have values as follows: picture cards count 10 points, aces count 1 point and other cards count face value.
Tonk is usually played for money. Before beginning, the players should agree on the basic stake (the amount which the winner of each hand will normally be paid by each of the other players). In certain cases the winner can win a double stake - this is generally known as a tonk.
The cards are cut to decide who should deal first. The highest card deals; if there are more than two players the player who cut the next highest card sits to the dealer's left, and so on around. If a new player joins a game that is underway, the new player sits to the dealer's right.
Five cards are dealt to each player, clockwise, one at a time. The next card is placed face up on the table to start the discard pile, and the remaining undealt cards are placed face down in a stack beside the discard pile to form the stock.
Any player whose initial hand contains 49 or 50 points must declare this immediately and show their cards. In this case the hand is not played and the player with 49 or 50 is paid twice the basic stake by each of the other players. If more than one player has 49 or 50, the hand is a draw - there are no payments, the cards are thrown in and the next player deals.
If no one tonks the play begins. The aim is, by drawing and discarding, to form your cards into spreads, which can be books of 3 or 4 equal ranked cards or runs of 3 or more cards in suit, or to dispose of your cards by adding them to existing spreads. You win if you manage to get rid of all of your cards, or if you have the lowest value of unmatched cards when someone stops the play. Note that once the play has begun, it is no longer any use to collect 49 or more points; this only wins in your original hand, before the play starts.
The person to the left of the dealer plays first and the turn to play passes clockwise. At your turn, you have two options.
- If you wish, you can end the play at the start of your turn by placing all your cards face up on the table. This is called dropping (or sometimes knocking). By doing this you are claiming to have a lower point count total in your hand than any other player.
- If you choose not to drop, you must either draw ("pluck") the top card from the face down stock, or take the top card of the discard pile into your hand. You may then be able to reduce your hand by putting a spread face up on the table, or by adding to a spread already on the table. You end your turn by discarding a card face up on top of the discard pile.
If after drawing from the stock or discard pile you have a spread of three or more cards, you may place them face up on the table. These cards then no longer count towards the total in your hand. There are two types of spread:
A book consists of three or four cards of the same rank, such as Q-Q-Q or 4-4-4-4.
A run consists of three or more consecutive cards of the same suit, such as A-2-3 or 8-9-10-J. The ace counts as low, next to the two not the king.
Another possibility to reduce the cards in your hand is to extend a spread previously put down by yourself or another player. Putting down a card to extend a spread is sometimes called hitting. For example if there is 5-6-7 on the table and you have 4 or 8 in your hand you can put it on the table, adding it to the run. Cards can only be put down like this in your own turn, after drawing and before discarding.
If by putting down cards, you get rid of all the cards in your hand (by making a second spread or using all your cards to hit existing spreads), the play ends and you win the hand (see below). Otherwise, you complete your turn by discarding one card face up on top of the discard pile. If this leaves you with no cards you win; otherwise the turn passes to the next player to your left and play continues.
Assuming that no one claims 49 or 50 points immediately after the deal, the play can end in four ways.
- Someone gets rid of all their cards without a final discard
- This may happen as a result of a player putting down a second spread or hitting existing spreads on three occasions. This is usually called a tonk, and the winner is paid a double stake by each other player.
- Someone runs out of cards by discarding their last card
- The player with no cards wins and each of the other players pays the agreed basic stake to the winner.
- Someone drops or goes down or knocks at the start of their turn.
- In this case everyone exposes the cards that remain in their hands and adds up the values of the cards they held.
- If the player who dropped has the lowest point count, that player wins and is paid the basic stake by each of the other players.
- If the player who dropped does not have the lowest count, the player who dropped must pay twice the basic stake to everyone who has an equal or lower count. In addition, the player (other than the one who dropped) who actually had the lowest count receives the basic stake from everyone else. In the case of a tie for lowest between two players other than the one who dropped, both are paid. This is sometimes known as a catch.
- The stock runs out.
- The player with the lowest count receives the basic stake from each other player.
Some play that after the deal, no card is turned up to begin the discard pile. The first player must draw from the stock and the discard pile begins with the first player's discard.
Many people play that it is illegal to hold a spread in your hand. As soon as you have a three-card spread you must put it down. This is a strange rule, as in many cases it would impossible for an opponent to detect that the rule had been broken. Some play this rule with the exception that a spread of three aces can be held.
Some play that if you get rid of all your cards you only win a single stake, even if you do it without a final discard (for example by putting down a second spread).
Here are five alternative ways of paying if the lowest scoring player is not the player who dropped:
- The low scorer collects the basic stake from every other player and double from the player who dropped (so the player who dropped only has to pay one person even if several people beat the dropper's score).
- If the player who drops is not the low scorer, the dropper pays everyone's stake to the low scorer.
- The dropper pays the basic stake to everyone who has the same or a lower score, and in addition the player with the lowest score collects a basic stake from each other player. This is equivalent to saying that the dropper pays a double stake to the winner, plus a single stake to the winner for everyone who had an equal or better score, and the winner collects a single stake from everyone who had a worse score than the knocker.
- The player who dropped simply pays a double stake to each other player.
- The player who dropped pays 5 times the stake to the player with the lowest count and there are no other payments. The player who dropped loses ties as usual; if two other players tie for lowest count, the one nearest to the left of the dealer is paid.
Some play that if the stock runs out, the hand is dead and there are no payments.
Many people play with waiting. This works as follows:
- If you put down a new spread, you cannot drop on any of your next three turns; you must wait until the start of your fourth turn after putting down your book or run before you are allowed to drop. This is to make it less easy for the first person who puts down, reducing their hand to two cards, to win simply by dropping at their next turn when the other player(s) still have five cards.
- If you "hit" someone by adding a card to their spread, they cannot drop in their next turn; they must wait until the start of their second turn after you hit them before they are allowed to drop. This provides a way of delaying someone you think is about to drop until you can improve your own hand. Also, if you hit your own spread, then you yourself cannot drop at your next turn, but must wait another turn.
- Waiting is cumulative; if you put down a spread and are then hit, or if you are hit twice, you add together the number of rounds you have to wait.
- Waiting does not stop you from winning by getting rid of all your cards - any time that you have no cards in your hand, you automatically win without needing to drop.
There are variations on the number of rounds you have to wait. For example, some play that if you are hit you must wait three extra rounds, not one.
Some play that if you are dealt 50 points at the start you are paid a double stake, but if you have 49 points you are only paid a single stake.
Some play that if you are dealt a hand containing 15 points or fewer, you must immediately declare it (as with 49 or 50) and you are immediately paid a double stake by each other player (unless someone else also has an automatic win (with 49, 50 or 15 or fewer) in which case the hand is thrown in without payment. Others play that if you are dealt a hand containing 9 points or fewer, you are automatically paid a triple stake by each of the other players.
Scott Sauri, who plays in Washington DC, reports that an initial tonk is possible with 49 or 50 points or with 11 or fewer. If more than one player tonks with different totals, the best tonk is paid: 50 beats 49, 11 beats 50, and apart from that the lowest number is best.
Sean from Newark, New Jersey plays that an initial hand of 50, 49 or 13 or fewer points wins double. 50 beats 49, which beats 13 or below. If more than one player is under 13 the lowest count wins. In case of a tie, the nearest to the left of the dealer wins. In this game there is also a special payment for going out with two spreads of your own on your first turn: this earns a quadruple payment. This special payment does not apply to a player who goes out with just one spread and gets rid of his remaining cards by hitting another player's spread and discarding.
Phil, from Baton Rouge, Lousiana, tells me that there, Tonk is played with a 40 card pack, lacking 8's, 9's and 10's. In runs the seven is next to the jack, so 6-7-J or 7-J-Q would be valid. At the start of the game, you can tonk with 47 or 50, but not with any other number. (48 and 49 are impossible in any case). This 40 card version of the game also used to be played in the US Army.
Hank T Hebhoe describes the version of Tonk played in Rushville, Indiana. There are the following differences:
- The terms "drop" and "knock" are not used. To stop the game claiming to have the lowest point count in hand is to "tonk".
- On the deal (and only on the deal), a hand with five face cards is an automatic rummy (this is not called a "tonk" in this version). Tens cannot be used in this situation, and counts of 49 or 15 or fewer do not give an automatic win.
- To set someone on a tonk - i.e. to have an equal or lower score - is called to "bump his head".
- The payoff is a nickel from every player for a successful tonk, a dime for a rum (rummy), where a player gets rid of all their cards. The stakes can be set higher: two bits / four bits, even a dollar / two dollars.
- If you get your head bumped, you pay double rum (e.g., 20 cents in a nickle/dime game) only to the player or players who bump your head, and no other payoffs are made. A player with a higher count than yours does not pay you or anyone else, and you do not pay him or anyone else; he's simply out of the money.
- When the deck is down to the same or fewer number of cards as players in the game, it is said to be "boobed." When the deck is "boobed," no player can rummy; you can only tonk. So, for example, if you should happen to rum out when the deck is boobed, your count is down to zero, of course; but after rumming out, you must wait your turn again to tonk your zero hand, by which time another player also may have rummed out. If no one rums out or tonks before the deck is exhausted, the hand with the lowest count wins a tonk when the deck is exhausted.
- In case of ties when the deck is exhausted, there is no payoff at all; it's simply a dead hand.
Some people count Jack as 11, Queen as 12, King as 13. In this case the automatic win with 49 or 50 would become too frequent and is not allowed.
Eric Dee reports that in Seattle, USA, Tonk is a popular union card game, played by the longshoremen and laborers. The main difference is that seven cards are dealt to each player, not five. Several books also give a version of Tonk in which seven cards are dealt, but the version with five cards seems to be far more widespread.
Some books also say that twos are wild. Tonk is not often played this way, but Mike Foulks describes a version played by cab drivers in Chicago in which not only the twos are wild, but two jokers are added to the pack, giving six wild cards in all.
Here are some other variations found in books, which seem to be rare in real life:
- Some say that you cannot add the fourth card to a three card book on the table, though you can extend a run.
- Some say that you can only play one card in a turn to extend an existing spread.
- Some say that if you put down a card to hit an existing spread, you do not discard a card to the discard pile.
- Some say that if you take the top card of the discard pile, you must not put it in your hand, but must immediately use it as part of a book or run.
Some people play that if you touch the stock when it is your turn, you must draw the top card from the stock. You are no longer permitted to take the face-up discard having touched the stock.
A Tonk computer program is available from Blackgames.net
- In Penniless Blues (New York, Putnam, 1955) Mel Heimer wrote: "Will used to be the best tonk player - that's a card game that's real popular with the Negro musicians - in Duke Ellington's band".
- Trumpet player Rex Stewart (1907-1967), who joined Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1934, remembered in his Jazz Masters of the Thirties (Da Capo Press, 1972): "Ellington's group was no exception, and we played lots of tonk (a fast form of gin rummy)."