On Wednesday, we posted the rules of Gin Rummy. As simple as the game is, its strategy is complex. While we can’t cover every one of the ins and outs of Gin Rummy strategy, this post will hopefully give you a few things to think about during your next Gin game. There has been a great deal more written about Gin Rummy strategy over the years, including in the classic Scarne on Cards by John Scarne (1965), which contains an excellent analysis of Gin Rummy (as well as many other games such as Hearts, Red Dog, and Pinochle).
Watch the discards
The chief skill that will help with Gin Rummy is a good memory. It is very important to remember what has been discarded, and by whom. First of all, it keeps you from chasing after unlikely melds. If you are going after a meld of fours, and a four is in the discard pile, your chances of getting your meld are diminished by 75%. Likewise, if you have the 5♣ and 6♣, your chances of making a meld of them are halved if the 7♣ is in the discard pile.
It is also vital to keep track of what your opponent is discarding, what they are not discarding, what they are taking from the discards, and what they are passing up. Keeping track of draws and discards helps you form a picture of what your opponent is shooting for. For instance, it is dangerous to discard a six if you have not seen any sixes in the discards—it’s possible that your opponent is hoarding sixes. If you see them pick up the 8♠, there are two possibilities—either they are trying for three or four eights, or for a run of spades. If you know that they discarded the 9♠ earlier in the hand, you know it’s likely that they are going for 8s.
Watch the score
When the scores are approaching 100, it is important to keep an eye on exactly how far away your opponent is from ending the game. If possible, keep your unmatched card count low enough that if your opponent knocks, the game goes on.
Keeping a reserve
It’s generally a good idea to keep a few low cards in your hand, preferably three or four with a total value under ten. These cards will become your deadwood when you are ready to knock. Otherwise, you may be ready to knock, but get stuck with a succession of high unmatched cards to deal with before you can get your deadwood down to where you can knock.
High or low?
There are advantages and disadvantages to going after melds with high cards like 9s, 10s, and face cards. Because of their high point totals, they are more dangerous to keep around; you might get stuck with them should your opponent knock before you can form them into a meld. On the other hand, because of this danger, your opponent will likely be discarding them more frequently, making it easier to form melds out of them.
In general, don’t have a strict policy one way or another about playing high cards. It’s in your best interest to not play too predictably, since a savvy opponent will take advantage of that fact.
Of course, the best card to discard is one that helps neither you nor your opponent. Watching the discards helps you determine which cards those are.
Kings and queens in particular are often good discards. Since they are the highest cards in the game, their usefulness is comparable to other cards only in melds of kings and queens. When it comes to runs, each king can only be used in one three-card run, that being J-Q-K. Queens fare a little better, since they can be part of 10-J-Q and J-Q-K. But all other cards can form three different three-card runs: a jack can be part of J-Q-K, 10-J-Q, and 9-10-J. Queens and kings are also worth ten points each, making them undesirable to keep around. Aces and twos have the same disadvantages as kings and queens respectively, but represent a far lesser liability against your hand due to their low point values.
As far as melding is concerned, the most valuable cards are 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s. These cards can be used in six possible three-card melds and five possible four- and five-card melds. The 7 in particular is valuable, because it is present in all seven of the possible seven-card melds (not that you will have seven-card melds that frequently).
It’s usually safe to discard a card of the same rank as an opponent’s prior discard. But be careful—a good player may discard a card of the same rank that they need in some other suit to complete a run, in an attempt to trick you into throwing it their way.
Sometimes you will have a card which will go well with two different completed melds, such as 6-7-8-9♦ and 9♠-9♣-9♥-9♦. Which should you put the 9♦ with when you lay down your hand? The answer is always with the 9s—your opponent cannot lay off cards to a four-of-a-kind meld, and the absence of the 9♦ stops them from laying off the 10♦ onto the run.
Likewise, you can choose your last discard prior to knocking carefully to prevent your opponent from laying off a card on your meld. For example, suppose you have 4-5-6-7♠. You haven’t seen the 8♠, so you suspect your opponent might be hanging onto it, knowing of your meld and hoping he can lay off on it. You might consider discarding the 7♠ as your final discard before knocking, so your opponent is left hanging onto the 8♠ and the eight extra points in deadwood.