Shanghai Rummy – A Closer Look at The Game!

This is our complete guide on Shanghai Rummy. Learn everything about its setup, gameplay, rules and strategy.
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Last updatedLast updated: December 31, 2022
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Shanghai Rummy is an interesting version of a standard rummy game. Players attempt to shed cards from their hand and the player that gets rid of all their cards first is declared the winner. This may seem simple; it is pretty easy to grasp the basics, but there are subtleties to master if you want to master this game. It’s important to watch the cards closely and you may need to take a temporary drawback to secure victory. The Shanghai Rummy scoring system may seem a little complex at first, but there are a number of ways to shed cards and win the game. This is a compelling rummy variation for players that want a real challenge.

What is Shanghai Rummy?

Shanghai Rummy - A Closer Look at The Game!

Shanghai Rummy is one of the best family card games. It’s also known as Californian Rummy, and it’s a casual game that’s a lot of fun to play. This game is similar to other well known rummy games, but there are few distinctions that make playing a very different experience. Shanghai Rummy can be played with mixed age groups, it’s easy to set up a game on vacation and it’s a fun way to relax. This card game is extremely dynamic and interactive and there you can use clever strategies to win the game.

Shanghai Rummy works best with 3-8 players and the ultimate goal is to shed the cards from your hand. If you’re successful, you win that round and a full game can take a couple of hours to complete.
The Shanghai Rummy game requires good strategy, planning skills and the ability to evaluate the opponent’s position based on the cards discarded. An element of guessing is involved, but when you play at a high level you can make very accurate predictions. Simply collect the cards you need, get the right combo and discard them to empty your hand and win. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the instructions for shanghai rummy card games.

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Game Setup and Preparation

A key aspect of learning how to play Shanghai Rummy is the setup and preparation for the game. As we mentioned earlier, this is a game for 3-8 players and you need 2 or 3 regular decks of playing cards depending on the number of players, as follows:

3 to 4 players: 2 decks of cards and a single Joker.

5 to 8 players: 3 decks of cards and a pair of Jokers.

You can play the game with standard decks of cards. You don’t need the best playing cards on the market, but you may want to invest in some later because the game requires a lot of shuffling and fast play.

To determine the first player shuffle the deck and each player draws a card. The player that draws the lowest value card is the first player and they are the dealer for that first round. Every player is then dealt a hand of 11 cards and the remainder are placed face down at the center of the table. This is the draw pile, the top card from the draw pile is then placed face up and this is the discard pile.

The overall goal will be familiar for players of classic rummy set games but it is a little different. The Shanghai Rummy rules require players to form “melds” which are certain combinations of cards. A valid meld in Shanghai Rummy can be a set or a run. A set is a combination of the same suit or cards of different suits. A run is a sequence of cards of the same suit with consecutive numbers, for example: 3, 4, 5 and 6 of clubs.

Each turn begins when a player either draws a card from the draw pile or they take the top card from the discard pile. After the draw, the player then discards a card from their hand. The discarded card is placed on the discard pile where another player can access it during their turn. Every card under the top card of the discard pile is considered to be a “dead” card and it cannot go into any player’s hand. But, there’s a twist, a player can act outside their turn and get the top discard card by “buying” it. When a player “buys” a card they need to draw another card from the top of the discard pile. Each player can only “buy” a certain number of times during each round. As you can see, buying a card adds more cards to your hand and this is a tradeoff if you need a card to make a run or set.

Each player can only meld during their turn and each turn has a meld limit of 1. The player can only meld if they have the cards to fulfil the winning conditions for the game. As an example: If the game requires a sequence of four cards down and the player has five they need to discard that extra card before they can meld. You can choose to meld at any time, it’s optional and you can delay melding even if you have all the cards you need.

This Shanghai card game allows the player to “lay off” as many cards as they like after they have melded. This occurs on the following turn and they can add cards to melds played by any other player. But, you cannot “lay off” a card in the same turn when melded.

A game of Shanghai Rummy is 10 hands and play proceeds in a clockwise direction around the table. The game ends when one of the players has played every card in their hand. Each turn begins with a draw from the draw pile, so in order to win, the player must be able to win with their draw on that turn, because a discard will end their turn.


How to Play

Shanghai Rummy - A Closer Look at The Game!

Let’s summarize the rules of the game that we’ve learned so far, they are:

  1. Every player draws 11 cards.
  2. A single card is placed face up on top of the discard pile.
  3. The dealer always goes first.
  4. Each player’s turn begins with a single card draw from the draw pile or the discard pile.
  5. A player can meld if they can fulfil the winning conditions.
  6. After a melding the player will end their turn by discarding a card in their hand.
  7. Each discarded card can be bought by another player but they have to pay for it with a draw from the draw pile.
  8. Play rotates around the table in a clockwise direction.
  9. If a player has melded they cannot buy cards.
  10. A player that has melded can lay down (add cards) to a meld by another player on their turn.
  11. The game will continue until one player has no cards left in their hand.

Shanghai Rummy: Rules

Shanghai Rummy has specific winning conditions for every round of play. These are in place to prevent lucky draws and easy wins that could finish the game before it gets started.

The Purpose of Jokers

A Joker can be used as a substitute for any missing card from a sequence or run. But, the number of Jokers cannot equal or exceed the number of non-Joker cards played. As an example: Playing a Joker with a 6 of clubs and 6 of spades would be legal. However, playing a Joker with a 6 of clubs alone would be illegal play. A player that’s laid down can substitute a Joker from any meld played with a correct card on their own turn.

Buying Cards

A player is limited to playing cards on their own turn and buying occurs during the turn of other players. The player cannot play cards immediately. If more than one player wants to buy a card the player that’s closest in the order of play gains precedence. It’s important to remember that the turn order always goes in a clockwise direction. The number of card buys allowed during each round of play, are as follows:

Round 1 -7: Only 2 buys per round.

Round 8-10: This rises to 3 buys per round only.

When a player has melded that cannot buy any cards for the rest of that round.

Melding, Sets and Runs

A player can only meld once per turn and this is achieved with a set or run. A set must have cards with the same number from any suit. A run is a consecutive set of numbers in the same suit, but it cannot wrap around. As an example: A run of King, Ace, 1 and 2 of hearts would not be legal. The highest possible card in a run is the Ace. The Ace is always higher than a King so it cannot be used at the start of a run. As an example: A run of A, 2, 3 would not be legal, but 2, 3, 4 would be perfectly legal. A player that’s melded can add cards to a meld of another player. As an example: If another player played the 3, 4, 5 of clubs, they could add a 6 of clubs to that meld (in this specific case run).

Shanghai Rummy: Hands

Shanghai Rummy - A Closer Look at The Game!

Shanghai Rummy hands can change every round and over time the winning conditions become more difficult. Here is a list of winning conditions to bear in mind when playing:

Round 1: Two sets of three cards.

Round 2: One set of three cards and a sequence of four cards.

Round 3: Two sequences of four cards.

Round 4: Three sets of three cards.

Round 5: One set of three cards and one sequence of seven cards.

Round 6: Two sets of three cards and one sequence of five cards.

Round 7: Three sequences of four cards

Round 8: One set of three cards and one sequence of ten cards.

Round 9: Three sets of three cards and one sequence of five cards

Round 10: Three sequences of five cards.

There are Shanghai Rummy 12 hands games which offer even more of a challenge but they are beyond the scope of this article.

Shanghai Rummy: Scoring

Each player begins a game of Shanghai Rummy with 0 points and the scoring adds up after each round of play. Points are added to the score for every card remaining in the player’s hand at the end of the round. The winner of the round has no cards and they would “earn” 0 points.

For every other player the scores are tallied as follows:

2 – 9 Cards: 5 points.

10 – King: 10 points.

Ace: 15 points.

Joker: 20 points.

At the end of the final round of play the overall winner is the player that has the lowest point score.

Shanghai Rummy: Strategy

There are six main strategies that you need to use when you’re playing Shanghai Rummy, they are:

  1. Know your outs, the winning conditions are known in advance and you need to consider which cards can get you that win.
  2. If you want to buy, always buy early, the one card penalty isn’t too much of a drawback if you can get to a meld quickly.
  3. When you meld earlier you can use your card to complete melds of other players and empty your hand faster.
  4. Always meld sets, they are harder for other players to add cards to and this keeps cards in their hands.
  5. When you meld a sequence, do it at the ends, you can’t wrap cards around, but if you can start a sequence with a 2 or end with an Ace you can limit the possible actions of the other players.
  6. Be aware, other players may discard a card that could be useful for laying down and you can call out “Shanghai” and claim it. The other player will then need to draw a card from your hand which is a win-win situation.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, Shanghai Rummy is a challenging game and it may seem intimidating. But, like many card games it’s easy to pick up the fundamentals when you start to move the cards around on the table. There are also Shanghai Rummy apps that you can play on your smartphone to help with the learning process. If you’re tired of the usual rummy variants and you want a little more from your card game Shanghai Rummy may be exactly what you’re looking for. The scoring system may seem complex, but it’s clear for each round of play and the game ramps up in difficulty over time. This means that a player can win a number of earlier rounds and still lose the overall game!

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