by James Wallace Harris, 2/11/23
We recently decided to play Shanghai when my sister came to visit. It’s a card game I first learned back in the 1960s. However, we couldn’t remember the exact rules so I looked them up on the internet. There were several sites that gave slightly different rules, and they called the game Shanghai Rummy. As we played the game trying out different rules I decided to consolidate on one set of rules. I made a crib sheet to help remember the requirements of each hand (see below). My goal was to blend how we used to play with the rules published on the internet to maximize the fun and challenge of the game.
Each hand or round requires a different combination of cards to make a meld, and I noticed that the complexity of each combination was related to the number of cards required to complete the meld. The game gets harder with each new hand. I settled on the sequence of 10 hands (rounds) based on the rules at Wikipedia and Bar Games 101.
But our family had one last hand that I’m adding as a bonus round. It requires 17 cards to make the meld. With 11 cards dealt, and 6 cards acquired in three buys. This requires making a perfect hand, meaning you go out on all the other players before they can meld. It’s very hard but lots of fun. Because that hand required 17 cards to meld, I thought there should be a 16-card meld, so I created another bonus round. I just liked the symmetry of 12 hands of increasing complexity going from 6 cards in the meld to 17.
Here are the sites I consulted:
Players: 3-5 with 2 decks, 6-8 with 3 decks.
The Deal: 9-11 cards depending on the round. It can always be 11, but fewer card in the early rounds speeds up the whole game.
The Draw Deck: The undealt cards face down.
The Discard Pile: Start by flipping over the top card of the draw deck.
Melds: Composed of a combination of Sets/Books and Runs. A set/book is cards of the same value. Usually, it’s 3 cards. A run is a sequence of cards of the same suit. Usually, it’s 4 cards. Aces can be low or high. Jokers are wildcards. We called sets books when I was growing up, so our family uses the word book, but the internet has settled on set.
Buys: 0 to 3 depending on the round. A buy is a way to acquire cards out-of-turn. See below. Buying is very strategic to the game. Buying cards helps and hurts because they add two cards to your hand in a game where you are trying to get rid of cards. We always played by allowing 3 buys for every hand but limiting the buys in the early rounds makes the round more challenging and speeds up that hand. Be careful buying cards you don’t need, but sometimes strategy requires making a buy to get extra cards to have a discard.
Gameplay: Turns go clockwise. A player draws one card, either from the deck or the discard pile. They must discard one card. Before the next player takes a card, the other players have an opportunity to buy the discard. They must also take one card from the deck. This adds two cards to their hand, and they don’t discard a card while buying. After the buy, the gameplay returns to normal.
The goal is to gather the required meld and lay down. Then get rid of all the other cards in your hand. Generally, the first person to lay down will have extra cards and the gameplay will continue. As other players make their meld and lay down their cards, they can play their extra cards on any sets and runs currently on the table – but only before they discard. Players who have made their meld can lay down on melds only during their turn. Players who haven’t made their meld can’t play on the melds that have been laid down. Each meld can be from Ace to Ace only. Cards cannot be swapped in melds.
Players can not make more than the required number of sets and runs. However, you can make larger sets and runs. So instead of a 3-card set of 3 queens, you could have 5 queens. Or a run of 2-3-4-5-6-7 of the same suit.
Strategy: It’s easy to order your cards and know what you need for the rounds where you only make sets or runs. Rounds, where you make up both sets and runs, are very challenging. How you organize your hand and which cards you seek requires various strategies. How often you buy and when becomes strategic. Sometimes it’s fun to hold your cards until you can lay them all down going out on the other players.
Going Out: The player that can lay down all their cards and have an unplayable discard wins the hand. This rule varies. Some Shanghai rules say going out is when you have no discard. If this method is chosen, the bonus round won’t be perfect and others can still play. Decide ahead of time on which method of going out you prefer. We like requiring a discard.
All other players must add up the values of the cards in their hand and the total is added to their running score. The player with the lowest score wins the game.
Card Values: 2s through 9s = 5 points. 10s through Kings = 10 points. Aces = 15 points. Jokers = 20 points. Other scoring variations include numbered cards = 5, face cards = 10, aces = 20, and jokers = 50. That’s how we scored growing up, but it makes for some brutally large penalties.
Speeding Up the Game: Playing all the hands listed can take 2-3 hours. You can speed up a game by skipping certain hands, especially the first two and the bonus rounds. However, the most complex hands are the most fun.
I have many fond memories of playing Shanghai growing up. Whenever our family visited my Aunt Let in Mississippi in the 1960s, we’d play Shanghai. After we grew up, my sister and I would play Shanghai with our cousins, Sonny and Eleanor, who often played it nightly with their kids, and visitors.
Shanghai is a great card game because it’s not just the luck of waiting for a specific card. Various strategies can be used. You try to arrange your hand so that drawing several different cards will improve your odds of winning.
In all my years of playing Shangai, I have only run into one other person that said their family played this game. If you’ve played Shanghai leave a comment. And if you have any problems with the rules or understanding the rules leave a comment. I hope they are clear and precise.