Tonk (card game)

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Table game of cards birds eye view.JPG
OriginUnited States
Alternative namesTexas Tonk, Tunk or Knot
Skills requiredStrategy
Cards52 (plus two jokers)
Playing time5-15 min per game.
Random chanceMedium
Related games

Tonk, or tunk,[1] is a matching card game, which combines features of knock rummy and conquian.[2] Tonk is a relatively fast-paced game that can be played by 2-4 players. It was first known to be played by blues and jazz musicians in southern Louisiana while they would take their breaks in the back rooms of bars and saloons. In many other places it has become a popular pastime for workers while on their lunch breaks. It can be played for just points or for money wagered.


Tonk is usually played for money wagered (with a stake agreed on before each game starts). Each player pays the stake to the winner of the hand. Games typically involve two to four players. Stakes may be any amount. A game consists of several hands. The players take turns dealing.

A standard fifty-two card deck (plus two jokers) is used. The jokers are wild and can be played as any card needed by the player who's lucky enough to get one of the jokers.


Players are dealt five, seven, or nine cards, depending on the number of players, in turn. The dealer turns up the first of the un-dealt cards as the start of the discard pile. (Some people play that the dealer does not turn up the first card. The discard pile is started after the first player draws.) The remaining un-dealt cards are set face down in a stack next to the discard pile. These form the stock.

The goal of play is to get rid of one's cards by forming them into spreads. A spread is three or four identical cards (such as three 5's or four Queens), or three or more in a row of the same suit. A player may add cards to his own or another's spread. The winner is the first to get rid of all his cards, or the player with the fewest points when play is stopped.

Play stops when a player gets rid of all his cards, or when a player drops, by laying his cards face up on the table. A player may drop at any point in the game (some play you can only drop before drawing), including right after the cards are dealt. When a player drops, all the players likewise lay their cards face up. The player with the fewest points in his hand is the winner. If the player who dropped does not have the fewest points, he must pay the stake to each player with fewer points. This is called being caught. In addition, each player pays the stake to the winner. If there is a tie, both players are paid. If the tie is between the player who dropped and another player, the one who dropped is considered caught and must pay double, with the other player being the sole winner.

If the player does not drop, he must take a card from the top or one under from the discard pile or from the stock. The player may then lay face up any spreads, or add to any spreads on the table. If after this the player has no more cards, he says, "tonk" and wins. Each player pays him a double stake. Some play that a player must spread with six cards to tonk, otherwise the player goes out with zero effectively ending the game but only winning a single stake.

If the player has one or more cards remaining, he must discard one card to the discard pile. If this is his last card, play ends. He is the winner, and each player pays him the stake. If the player has one or more cards left in his hand after discarding, his turn ends.

If the stock runs out, play stops. The player with the fewest points in his hand wins, and is paid the stake by each player. If two or more players tie the hand is a draw, and another hand is dealt.

Many variations in play are possible.


Players can meld sets (three of the same rank card) or runs (three consecutive cards in the same suit, e.g.: 9♦ 10♦ J♦), but may not "bridge the gap" by melding K♥ A♥ 2♥. Yet, aces may be played as high or low card.


Hitting is a variation of the common laying off of another player's meld (i.e.: you hit an opponent's set of three 10s with the other 10). The card is put with the melds of the player who is receiving the hit. However, when a player "hits" another player, the player receiving the hit cannot lay down for one turn. Multiple hits result in additional loss of lay downs for turns thereafter. After a player has hit another player, the hitting player is allowed to discard a card from his hand. Once a player's set has been hit and the four cards of that rank are melded, they can be thrown into the discard pile. You cannot spread out.

Tonking out (Doubles)[edit]

- Tonking out is the preferred method of winning the game. It is achieved by melding or hitting until no cards remain in the player's hand. However, what differs tonking out from running out is that when you Tonk out, you use all the cards (6) in either a spread or by hitting multiple times. When you "run out", you use (5) cards and discard one. When a game is played for money, tonking out usually results in a double payment.

- Tonk out Double. In some variations (usually 2 player), a player who "Tonks Out" with a run that subsequently allows the other player to Tonk Out on those cards results in a "Double-Double". (E.g., a player holding 5 of hearts and 6 of hearts draws the 7 of hearts and Tonks out, while the remaining player is holding 8 of hearts and 9 of hearts and Tonks out as a result of the other players hand resulting in a "Double-Double" meaning the wager would be increased by 4 times. So a wager of $1 for running out would be $2 for Tonking out(doubles), and $4 for a double double.

High count or Low count[edit]

Some house rules include a provision that a player wins the game automatically if he is dealt a hand count of 49 or 50. Another variation states that 50 is automatic but 49 must be played in turn. This means that if a player goes down before it's the players turn who has 49, he no longer wins.

Some house rules include a provision that a player wins the game automatically if he is dealt a hand count of 13 or under and is paid double. Some house rules state that a hand of 9 or under is an automatic win and is paid triple.

Only run is a spread[edit]

Another house rule states players may add a card from their hand only to tabled runs, not on three of a kind. This rule is attributed to John P. Speno,[3] inspired by writer Glen Cook's "The Black Company".

Texas Tonk[edit]

The winner is awarded double if:

- The winner tonks

- A different player comes in (shows their hand claiming to have the lowest) and is beaten by someone with a lower hand. The person with the lowest hand would be paid double by the person who "came in."

- The winner is dealt 50 on their initial deal

The winner is awarded the standard amount if:

- The player comes in with the lowest hand

- The player is dealt 49 on the initial deal

The preeminent Tonk Championship is held every August at Whiskey River Saloon in Malone, Texas. The tournament is held every August in honor of famed Tonk player Joel Davis who died August 2014.

The last recorded winner of the Joel Davis Memorial Tournament was his son Jake Davis in 2017.

Culver City, CA[edit]

Perhaps the second great mecca for Tonk, behind Malone, Texas, is Culver City, California (Also known as “The Heart of Screenland”). The game was introduced to the community by Jeffrey Graham circa 1993 during Thanksgiving. The Culver City Crew loved action, and Tonk was quickly embraced. Under the impression that Tonk originated from prison, the crew took the game seriously and surmised that prisoners would have wagered anything ranging from cigarettes to sticks of gum and of course money. It was not until 1995 that Culver City realized they could play Tonk during the shuffle of other card games for additional action.

Spades - Players can bet on who has the highest spade dealt in their opening hand. Players who wish to participate will put their stake in an additional side pot (optional). Each player choosing to participate will reveal their highest spade in the order the cards were dealt. If a player participating in spades does not have a spade, they obviously will not show one, but it is a code of honor to reveal your spade even if another player has already revealed theirs. If a player chooses not to partake, they do not need to reveal their spade. This creates an extra wrinkle of strategy as some players will more than likely be required to reveal a portion of their hand. .

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic Critical race theory: the cutting edge pg. 407 Temple University Press ISBN 1-56639-714-6
  2. ^ John Scarne Scarne on Card Games: How to Play and Win at Poker, Pinochle, Blackjack, Gin and Other Popular Card Games pg. 108 Dover Publications (2004) ISBN 0-486-43603-9
  3. ^

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