Not many card games can evoke the coolness of the 1930's and 1940's jazz era quite like the game Tonk. Members of Duke Ellington's band recall playing Tonk frequently. Musician Billy Strayhorn supposedly composed a song about the game. While Tonk may not be as well known as other card games, it is still widely played today. The game is considered a nickel card game and plays much like the way knock rummy card games are played. While many people have added their own variations to the game, the basic rules are still the same.
Decide how many people are playing. Any number of people can play; however, two to four people help the game go smoother than a larger group.
Determine the amount of money to be bet. Typically the money bet in this game is a nickel; however, some people play for more.
Take the jokers out of a standard 52-card deck. Each picture card is worth 10 points. Aces are worth one point and all other cards are worth face value.
Cut the cards to find who will deal first. The player that draws the highest card deals. The player with the next highest card must sit to the left of the dealer. Every player sits to the left of the person with the higher card. Every player is dealt five cards. Cards are dealt to players one at a time, going clockwise around the table. Once five cards are dealt to every player, one card from the undealt cards is placed face up to start a discard pile. Place leftover cards face down to form the stockpile.
Each player must determine the value of the dealt cards. If a player's hand contains 49 or 50 points, commonly called a “tonk,” the player must declare this and show her cards. The hand is not played and the player with the points is paid two times the basic stake by other players. If more than one player has a tonk, the hand is a draw and no payment is made to either player. The cards are placed on the discard pile and the next player deals.
Official play begins once the cards are dealt and nobody tonks. Turns are taken by players going clockwise. Each player draws from the stock pile and discards cards onto the discard pile. Players form spreads of three or four cards that are equally ranked. A run of card can also be formed consisting of three or more cards in a suit. Players dispose of their cards by adding them to existing spreads on the table. Players can add to their own spreads or another player’s. A player’s turn ends when she discards a card onto the discard pile.
The player that manages to get rid of his hand first or have the lowest value of unmatched cards is the winner. Players that get rid of their hand without placing a final card on the discard pile will get a tonk. The player receives two times the stake. Players that win by discarding their final cards onto the discard pile will win the normal stake. Players can stop the game at the beginning of their turn by laying their cards face up on the table. The player that stops the game claims that he has the lowest point value in cards than the other players. If the player that has stopped the game does not have the lowest point value in cards, he must pay two times the stake to everyone with an equal or lower point value.