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, or tunk, is a matching card game, which combines features of knock rummy and conquian. Tonk is a relatively fast-paced game that can be played by 2-4 players. Tonk or Tunk is a fast-moving card game that’s pretty easy to learn. First, you need the right number of players and cards. From there, you need to agree to.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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.
Assuming that no one claims 49 or 50 points immediately after the deal, the play can end in four ways.
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:
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:
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:
Mike Foulds describes a version of Tonk played by cab drivers in Chicago:
Lenie Lepape describes a version of Tonk played in Washington State USA by 2 to 6 players, with 4 the recommended number.
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 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:
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.
We had a second variation of the game also. Instead of playing for money, we played for push-ups. All of the normal rules apply for winning, but the loser has to 'Push' their score. In cases of a 'Tunk Out Double', this can be very painful, up to 100 push-ups. The 49 or 50 rules still apply, and everyone else will have to push double in that case also. We enforced the forced spreading rule (except Aces) as well as can be expected, and usually played with 25 cents as the initial bet.
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.
A Tonk computer program is available from Blackgames.net
The Game Cabinet has a Tonk page, with a brief account of the rules.