This page was written by John McLeod and is based on various sources, including articles posted in, and information on variations from many correspondents.


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. Some say that it originated in the Philippines, which is plausible since the related 12-card game Tong-Its is currently played there.

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.

Players, Cards and Stakes

In theory any number can play, but it is widely agreed that Tonk is best for two or three players, maybe four. Since there is some scope for hustling collusion when more than two people play, some prefer to play with two players only.

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.

The Deal

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: this is sometimes known as a "tonk". 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.

The Play

If no one claims an immediate win based on the points in their hand 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.

  1. 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 going out low, or sometimes knocking). By doing this you are claiming to have a lower point count total in your hand than any other player.
  2. 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.

During the game only the top card of the discard pile should be visible. Players are not allowed to look through the pile to find out what cards were discarded earlier.

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 spadeQ-heartQ-diamondQ or heart4-club4-diamond4-spade4.
  • A run consists of three or more consecutive cards of the same suit, such as spadeA-spade2-spade3 or heart8-heart9-heart10-heartJ. 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 club5-club6-club7 on the table and you have club4 or club8 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.

If no one ends the play by dropping (going out low) or playing all their cards, eventually the stock runs out. After a player draws the last card of the stock, play can continue so long as each player is prepared to take the previous player's discard. However, as soon as a player wishes to draw a card from the stock when it is empty, the play ends.

End of the play - payments

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, or the player is said to "tonk out". 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. The player who actually had the lowest count, as well as receiving the double stake from the dropper, also 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 a double stake by the dropper and a single stake by everyone else. 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 a player wins a double stake for making a second spread, thus getting rid of all cards without a final discard, but only a single stake for running out of cards by hitting spreads, even if there is no final discard. Others play that you only ever win a single stake for getting rid of all your cards, even if you do it by putting down a second spread.

Here are five alternative ways of paying if the lowest scoring player is not the player who dropped:

  1. 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).
  2. If the player who drops is not the low scorer, the dropper pays everyone's stake to the low scorer.
  3. 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 dropper.
  4. The player who dropped simply pays a double stake to each other player.
  5. 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.

Some play that if you are hit more than once in the same round of play, you only have to wait one turn.

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 being hit not only stops you going out low, but also prevents you from winning by getting rid of all your cards on your next turn.

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. If one player has 50 and another 49, only the player with 50 points is paid.

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. One correspondent reports a version in which a double stake is played for 9 or fewer points in one's initial hand, but not for more than 9, nor for 49 or 50. Another writes that an initial hand with 13 or fewer points is an automatic win.

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, Louisiana, 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:

  1. The terms "drop" and "knock" are not used. To stop the game claiming to have the lowest point count in hand is to "tonk".
  2. 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.
  3. To set someone on a tonk - i.e. to have an equal or lower score - is called to "bump his head".
  4. 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.
  5. If you get your head bumped, you pay double rum (e.g., 20 cents in a nickel/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.
  6. 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.
  7. In case of ties when the deck is exhausted, there is no payoff at all; it's simply a dead hand.

Mike Foulds describes a version of Tonk played by cab drivers in Chicago:

  1. There are six wildcards: the four Deuces and the two Jokers.
  2. "Big 50" - 50 points dealt to a player - is an automatic win for a double stake. If more than one player has "Big 50" there is usually no payment and the hand is dead (though some play that in this case the player in earliest position from the dealer wins a double-stake and any others win nothing). 
  3. If any player has 13 or fewer points in their initial hand, the player with the lowest count in hand wins a double-stake and any others with 13 or fewer win nothing. In case of a tie there is no payment.
  4. If you are dealt 49 points you can claim a single win, but not until immediately before your first turn, and only if no player has spread. Some award a double rather than a single payment for "49 in turn".
  5. Play begins without an upcard.  If you "break your hand up", that is, discard onto a spread, you can't subsequently "Tonk out", that is, win the double stake: you can only collect a single stake. 
  6. If you "get caught", that is, try to "go down (for low)" and one of your opponents has an equal or lower count, you pay that player a double stake.
  7. If you "Tonk out off (or 'on') the deal", that is, pick up an upcard or draw off the deck on your first turn which allows you to make two spreads, this earns a double stake.  On subsequent turns, you may still win with a "double spread", but you can only collect a single-stake.
  8. Holding spreads in your hand rather than laying them down is perfectly acceptable.

Lenie Lepape describes a version of Tonk played in Washington State USA by 2 to 6 players, with 4 the recommended number.

  1. Rather than settling in cash after each hand the scores are recorded on paper, plus for winners and minus for losers. So for example the winner in a 4-player games scores +3 while the others all score -1. Scores should always add up to zero and the players settle up at the end, paying or receiving according to their final score.
  2. A player who is dealt 50, 49 or 14 or fewer points can claim an immediate win known here as a 'double tonk', winning 2 points from each opponent (e.g. +6/-2/-2/-2 in a 4-player game). If two or more players have a double tonk all are paid.
  3. A player who is hit by another player has to wait one turn before going out low, but you do not have to wait after putting down a spread.
  4. If a player goes out low and is "caught" by another player with an equal or lower score, the player who is caught loses 2 points for each player in the game and the other player gains an equal amount, while the other players neither win nor lose. If a player is caught by two players tieing for lowest score, the caught player pays both of them.

Tony Jacobs describes another version played for points known as "push-ups". All of the normal rules apply for winning, but the losers' scores are pushed up by the value of cards remaining in their hands. In case of a double win, either by making two spreads or having 49 or 50 in one's initial hand, the other players are "pushed up" by twice the value of cards in their hands. The objective in this game is to score as few points as possible.

Some people add two or more jokers to the deck. These are worth 0 points and cannot be used in spreads.

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 labourers. The main difference is that seven cards are dealt to each player, not five. One correspondent reports playing Tonk with seven card hands with sailors while serving in Vietnam, in this case using a 40-card deck without 8's, 9's or 10's. Several American books give a version of 52-card Tonk in which seven cards are dealt, but the version with five cards seems to be far more widespread.

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.

Some people play that when a player discards a card that can be played on a book or run currently on the table, the first player to "slap" the deck, can play that card on the appropriate book or run, and then immediately discard an extra card from their hand. If the person slapping the deck is the player who discarded the card, the discard is placed on the appropriate book or run, but the player does not have the option of discarding an extra card. Afterwards, play continues as normal. For example, if Bill, Joe, and Tom are playing in that order, and Bill discards a playable card:

  • If Bill slaps his own card: He may play it on the book or run, but does not get to discard an additional card. Regular play continues with Joe's turn.
  • If Joe slaps the card: He plays the card on the book or run, discards a card, then continues with his regular turn.
  • If Tom slaps the card: He plays the card on the book or run, discards a card, and regular play continues with Joe's turn.
  • If nobody slaps the deck before Joe begins his turn (i.e. draws a card from the pile, or picks up the discard and places it in his hand) the card is considered "dead" and cannot be slapped at this point. If Joe picked up the card without first slapping it, he may play the card on the book or run as normal, but does not get an additional discard for the turn.

Some play a variation of this in which the player whose turn it is to play next has priority and always wins the race if able to spread the top discard, but does not get an extra turn after doing so.

Some play the last few deals of a session for double stakes. The dealer announces this by calling "The Big One".

Some play with side bets. For example the dealer calls a suit before the deal and players can bet on who will be dealt the highest card of this suit. Those who wish to bet pay a fixed stake to a pot, and put aside the highest card of this suit (if any) that is dealt to them. This card remains part of their hand: it is kept face down until used and can be played or discarded in the usual way. The owner of the highest card of the called suit takes the pot. Another possible bet is "naturals", on the first to spread three of a kind. Participating players must add a stake at each deal until the pot is won.

Other Tonk WWW pages and software

A Tonk computer program is available from

The Game Cabinet has a Tonk page, with a brief account of the rules.


  • 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)."