Shanghai Rummy is a card game that is among a group of closely-related games called Contract Rummy. There are dozens of variants of these games, so I've documented the rules specific to the variant long played in my own family through the generations. Note there are other variants also called “Shanghai Rummy” with slightly different rules—these are mine.

Like most Rummy-based games, Shanghai Rummy is mostly a game of strategy and skill. There is no betting or bluffing, and though luck of the draw does come into play it is not the essential focus of play. This game is perfect for friendly games among family or friends, and is easy enough for older children but interesting enough for adults. A typical game with four players may last from one to two hours. If you want more serious gameplay look at some of the other variants of Contract Rummy, as this variant has somewhat simplified rules compared to others.

The Quick—What's different in this variant

If you're already familiar with Contract Rummy or other variants:

  • See contracts and scoring
  • The deal always consists of 11 cards per player
  • Aces: may be played as either low or high
  • Jokers: all Jokers are used, and there are no restrictions on playing Jokers. Also Jokers may be taken from others' melds while laying down.
  • Sets are 3-or-more cards, Runs are 4-or-more cards
  • Consecutive runs may be melded; e.g., 5-6-7-8 and 9-10-J-Q
  • Initial melds may be longer than necessary
  • Cannot play on other player's melds until your next turn after laying your own melds
  • No “Shanghai” rule to prevent the buying of cards

Summary of play

The game is divided into a predetermined series of hands. The goal in each hand is for the player to get rid of all their cards (going out), by collecting and laying down melds according to that hand's assigned contract. A meld consists of sets of cards, each of which may either be a group (also called a set) or a run (or sequence). Any cards left unplayed in a player's hand when the first player goes out are scored against them. The player with the lowest total score at the end of all the hands wins.

Sportsmanship: This is an individual game, and it is frowned upon to “team up”. You should not show or announce to other players the unplayed cards in your hand nor the cards you need. Also you should not intentionally help out another player by discarding a card you know they need when it is not also advantageous to yourself. Discarding a Joker, though legal, may also be considered poor play. It is considered courteous to allow each player ample time to arrange the cards in their hands after each deal prior to proceeding with play.

Equipment and Players

Although it is possible to play with only three players the game is more fun with four or more players. You will need a paper and pen for recording scores and the following:

When using multiple decks, you should use decks with identical designs, wear, and color. If you play this game frequently it is best to dedicate two (or more) decks to only be used for this game, or other multi-deck games, so they always wear equally. A rubber band around the deck packages helps keep them from getting mixed up during storage.

Basic Play

The Deal: One player is chosen as the initial dealer and shuffles all the decks together. Each player is dealt 11 cards, face down. The remainder is placed face-down in the center of the table (the draw pile), and the top card placed face-up next to the pile which starts a second pile called the discard pile. If a Joker happens to be the first card turned over, just leave it; do not bury it or reshuffle.

For each subsequent hand the player to the left of the dealer becomes the new dealer for that hand, and the role of dealer continues clockwise. All the cards are re-shuffled together for each new hand.

Play: In each hand, play begins with the player to the left of the dealer and proceeds in a clockwise direction until one player goes out by getting rid of all their cards; which immediately ends that hand.

The player currently in-play always performs the following tasks, in order:

  1. The player must draw a card—either by taking the top (face-down) card in the draw pile, or the top (face-up) card showing in the discard pile. If drawing from the draw pile, the player must first allow other players to buy a card according to the buying cards rules below. Once a player draws a card, they may not change their mind and draw from the other pile.
  2. The player may then optionally lay down melds or play on other players' melds, according to the melding rules below.
  3. The player then must discard one card from their hand, face-up, onto the discard pile.

If the player is left with no unplayed cards, the hand is finished immediately, before the next player's turn begins.

If at any time the draw pile is exhausted (empty), then all the cards in the discard pile, except for the top card, are reshuffled and placed face-down as the new draw pile. Note that the top card in the discard pile is left alone and not included in the reshuffling.

Buying cards: At the beginning of each player's turn, if that player chooses to draw from the face-down draw pile rather than the discard pile, they must first allow other players a chance to buy a card. An out-of-turn player that chooses to buy will then take two cards (and discard nothing): the top face-up card in the discard pile and the top face-down card in the draw pile; after which the in-turn player will proceed with their play by drawing from the draw pile.

If more than one player wishes to buy the same card, the player closest on the left of the current player gets the card. A player may not buy their own discard nor may they buy during their turn—only out-of-turn players may buy cards. Additionally only one buy may occur for any single player's turn.

Each player is limited to a maximum of four buys (8 cards) during each hand; for an upper limit of no more than 19 cards in their hand. A player that has already melded (layed down) may not buy cards.

Contracts and melding

Contracts: The game proceeds as a series of independently played hands, each of which has a different pre-determined goal or contract. These contracts specify what sets are required to be melded by players, and proceed from easy to difficult in the following order:

HandMelds requiredMinimum cards
needed
1*two sets (groups)6
2one set, one run7
3two runs8
4three sets9
5two sets, one run10
6one set, two runs11
7three runs12

* The first hand (two sets) is often skipped for quicker play

In this variant, the melds are collections of sets (groups) and/or runs (sequences) composed of cards as follows:

Jokers may be substituted for any card in either a set or run, and any number of jokers may be used. However every set or run must contain at least one non-Joker card—you may not have a “set of Jokers”.

Melding (laying down): During each hand the players try to meld, or lay down, sets and/or runs according to that hand's contract. A player must meld exactly those sets required by the contract all at once. For example: hand 5 requires two sets and one run—a player must lay down exactly three groups of cards (2 sets and 1 run) in one turn. Once a player melds their cards as required by the contract they may not meld additional sets or runs on any subsequent turn; however they may extend or add to any.

When melding the player lays the cards on the table in front of and facing himself, face-up, and in a manner where all other players can easily see the ranks and suits of all the cards. All Jokers must remain visible; and in runs it must be clear which card(s) the Jokers are substituting—the convention of always ordering the cards with the lowest rank card in the run toward the player's left side is sufficient.

Unlike some variants, a player is not required to meld as soon as they are able; nor do they have to meld all the cards that may play. For example if a player has a sequence 4-5-6-7-8-9 in their hand they need only meld say the 5-6-7-8 as one run, though they are certainly allowed to meld the longer sequence. Also, if a player has a long sequence such as 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 they may choose to split it into two runs when melding as 2-3-4-5 and 6-7-8-9. Likewise if they had four Queens and two Jokers, they could choose to lay those down as two separate sets of Queens.

A player is allowed to meld all of their cards at once, without retaining a card to discard. Doing so is called going out, and immediately ends that hand.

Once a player has melded the sets and runs required by the hand's contract, they may not lay down any additional sets or runs. However they may add to or extend existing melds as described below.

Stealing Jokers: If any Jokers have been layed down in a meld by any player as part of a run, and the current player has in their hand the natural card for which that Joker is substituting, then the player is allowed to swap their card for the Joker during the melding-stage of their turn (after drawing and before discarding). This may be done for as many Jokers as available; though Jokers layed down in sets are considered dead and may not be stolen. All Jokers stolen in this manner must be immediately played on the table in that same turn; either by assisting the player in their initial melding (laying down) or by extending another existing meld on the table (for players already melded)—the stolen Jokers may not be retained in the player's hand nor discarded. Jokers can, and often are, stolen and reused many times during the play of one hand.

Playing on others: Any melds (sets and runs) that are already played on the table may be extended by any player during their turn; however only those players that have already melded may do so. Additionally a player laying down their initial contracted meld must wait until their next turn before they are allowed to play on any other players' melds. Jokers that are played in any sets are killed, but Jokers played in runs remain in play and can be stolen and reused. Except for Joker stealing, cards already played may not be moved; for example you cannot convert a low-Ace into a high-Ace.

The cards being added to sets or extending any runs are placed on the table in the same position and correct placement as the set or run they are extending, and in a manner so that no played card is obscured. This means that often the cards are layed down in front of other players and not necessarily in front of the current player.

Scoring: At the end of each hand, when one of the players gets rid of all their cards, the other players score their remaining unplayed cards. Melds that are already layed down on the table do not count toward any score. The player going out is said to have won that hand and receives zero points. Any player that was unable to lay down their contracted meld for the hand when the hand ends is said to have been stuck, and that is usually the cause for a significant scoring setback.

The point-values for each unplayed card in a player's hand are as follows:

Card(s)Points
Rank cards (2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)5 points
The “10” and face cards (Jack, Queen, King)10 points
Ace15 points
Joker20 points

After the last hand, the players' scores for each hand are tallied and the lowest score is the winning player of the game. Ties are possible, though rare.

Handling irregularities and mistakes

If a mistake in play is made then what to do depends in large part on the seriousness of the game, any pre-determined house rules, or the consensus of the players. Here are some suggestions for common errors:

Relaxed play

If you're playing in a relaxed setting—not for serious games—then you may make adjustments to the rules. Here are some suggestions:

Strategy

Shanghai Rummy is a game that benifits strategic play more-so than just luck. Most of the strategy is needed prior to laying down; though there can be some more limited strategy after that point. What follows are some good beginning strategies, though a well-played game does not necessarily have to follow these and experienced players may intentionally do otherwise.

Have fun!