The Game of Tonk
Tonk is an enjoyable game that is widely played in the USA. It can also be known as Tunk, and it's a Rummy style game that involves creating runs (cards in sequential rank) and books (cards of equal rank). It's a fast pace game, usually played by 2-4 players, and it's typically played for money.
The game is believed to have been very popular with musicians in jazz clubs during the 1930s and 1940s, but its origins aren't clear. Since that time, Tonk has grown in popularity throughout the States and other parts of the world. It's one of those games that everyone seems to have slightly different rules for, so if you are playing with people for the first time it's a good idea to clarify exactly what the rules are.
Below we have explained a common set of rules for Tonk. As we've said, you'll find different variations of the game, but the fundamental rules are always pretty much the same.
A standard 52 card deck is used in Tonk, and it can be played by up to six players, or even more depending on the variation being played. It's most commonly played by 2-4 players though. Every card in the deck is assigned a value, with all picture cards worth 10 points and aces worth 1 point. All other cards count for their face value (so a 6 is worth 6 points and so on).
As Tonk is usually played for money, a basic stake should be agreed on before a game starts. It should be noted that it's possible for the stakes to be doubled during a game, so this needs to be taken into consideration when deciding the stakes.
At the start of a new game, all participating players cut the cards to determine the first dealer. The player that cuts the highest card is the dealer for the first hand, and the deal passes clockwise for each subsequent hands.
Dealing and Tonks
Cards are then dealt to each player, one at a time and face down. Each player receives five cards, and once they are dealt they must look at them and add up the total value in their hand. If any player has a hand worth 49 or 50 points (i.e. 4 cards worth 10 points and 1 card worth 9 points or 5 cards worth 10 points) then they must announce it immediately.
This is known as a Tonk, and means the player has automatically won. When there's a Tonk the winning player receives double the agreed stake from each of the other players. If there's more than one Tonk in a single deal, then it's a draw and no payments are made. Play progresses to the next hand.
If no Tonks are announced, then the dealer places the remaining cards face down to create the stock pile. The top card is turned face up and placed separately to create the discard pile.
Objective & Game Play
The goal in the game is to form "spreads", which can be either runs or books, by drawing and discarding. Runs are three or more cards in sequential rank order, and must be of the same suit. For example, 3-4-5 of Hearts is a three card run. 5-6-7-8 of clubs is a four card run. Books are three or four cards of the same rank. Three jacks is a book, for example, and so is four tens.
When a player has a spread of three or more cards in their hand, they may place that spread face up on the table. Players may also add cards to existing spreads that they have put down themselves, or that have been put down by other players. For example, if one player has put down three jacks, then another player may add the fourth jack to that spread on their turn.
Play starts with the player to the dealer's left. The player must draw a card, either from the discard pile or the stock pile, and then discard one. Play moves round the table in a clockwise direction, with each player drawing one card and discarding one card on their turn. At any point during their turn they may lay down a spread, or add a card to an existing spread.
The first player to place all of their cards face up in spreads is the winner. They are paid the agreed stake by each of the other players, and the hand is over. The deal moves one space to the left and a new hand is dealt. Note that having a hand value of 49 or 50 is only of use if dealt initially. A player cannot win by having a hand value of 49 or 50 later in the game.
There's one other way to win a game of Tonk, and that's by dropping (can also be known as knocking). A player can drop at the start of their turn, and this means placing all their cards face up on the table. They would do this if they believed they had the lowest total point value in their hand. Once a player has dropped, all other players show their hand and the values are compared.
If the player who dropped does indeed have the lowest point value, then they win the hand and each of the players must pay them the agreed stake. If the player who dropped doesn't have the lowest point value, then they are said to have been caught and must pay the agreed stake to each of the other players. They must also pay the stake again to the player who does have the lowest point value, as must all the other players.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: March 2015
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