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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Deal Me In: Luck or skill?

29 August 2014

Dear Mark: Enjoy your column a lot, even though I don't regularly gamble. I am writing with a related question. My lady friend and I have been playing gin rummy for nearly a year. Games are to 200 points, and the statistics so far after 93 games are:

Wins 47-46

Points 16,391-16,379

This strikes me as extremely close (e.g. 12 points difference after 93 games). Is this close score a mere function of luck, such as the odds in coin tossing? Or, does strategy play a greater role in gin rummy success? John R.


Thanks, John, for the question and statistics, although your gambling timeline, that is, exposure to the game is still relatively short. That is not to say that you and your lady friend are not like-minded. Possibly, the “next step” might be to validate your relationship’s synchronicity. Get back to me on that.

As card games go, gin rummy is a game of luck at the beginning of the game when the cards dealt at the opening are randomly shuffled.

From that moment forward, gin rummy becomes skill based, because the game now requires you to make decisions. Unlike some other card games which are centered purely on luck, which cannot be controlled, in gin rummy you can tilt the game in your favor by exercising your skills.

Take Casino War, for example. Here you and the dealer each receive one card and the high card wins. There is no advantage here for you or the casino. If there is a tie, you must double your initial bet, and two more cards are dealt. Once again, the high card wins. Still, no edge. But the casino isn’t in the business to play even-steven against anyone. So, when you win, they only give you back your original wager. This is how the casino “taps” into your wallet. The house advantage from this one rule change jumps to 7.14 percent. Add a proposition bet like the Tie wager, and the house has you for another 18.65 percent. No skills needed for this whipping.

In order to win at gin rummy, I believe it is necessary to have three specific skills: A great memory, concentration and some form of strategy. Although I only play gin rummy socially, I still find memory to be the most important skill to possess. An essential skill in any card game is memorizing which cards have appeared and which cards are held by your opponents or remain in the deck.

This ability to remember which cards have been picked up and discarded will help you decipher exactly what your opponent is trying to formulate in his or her hand, so that you can make good drawing and discard choices to form melds.

Finally, John, there is some legal precedence as to gin rummy being a game of skill.

In 1964, there was a gin rummy tournament in Las Vegas that was marketed by mailing fliers to interested players. The USPS objected to the mailing because it was illegal to promote any “game of chance” through the postal service. Yep, it ended up in court.

Appropriately, based on testimony from experts, statisticians and numerous notable players, the U.S. District Court of Las Vegas ruled that gin rummy was, in fact, a game of skill.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Luck cannot be shared, and to try to do so means risking its vanishing altogether.” – Jack Richardson, Memoir of a Gambler (1979)
Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.