When Bob and I visited our friends Vince and Nancy for an evening of Rummikub, we got sidetracked from the rules that Nancy was patiently laying out. She told us that there are 106 tiles in the game—104 numbered ones in four different colors, and two jokers. The goal is to meld tiles into groups or runs, using game pieces that are either drawn or that have already been played. It’s a constant play of rearranging and adding tiles to the table. The first player to go out, i.e., use all his or her tiles, is the winner. Simple.
But Beamer had a different take on the game. As a feline, he prefers to to read his surroundings, the facial expressions of others, and things—rather than words. Rummikub is so easy, he told us with a long blink of his magnetic green eyes, that you don’t need to read any rules. It merely requires your full attention.
Like any cat, he enjoys the sly art of strategy. Focus, he purred, is the name of the game. The cat’s pajamas, so to speak.
Strategy also defines the history of Rummikub. Ephraim Hertzano, a Romanian Jew, made his living in the 1940s as a toothbrush and cosmetics salesman. When the Romanian People’s Republic came into existence in 1947, the embryonic Marxist-Leninist state banned card games. This is common in communist-totalitarian states based on the portrayal of royalty; the inherent “threat” of gambling; and to “purify social conduct,” as officials in China’s Jiangxi province justified it when they outlawed mah-jongg parlors in October 2019.
Faced with arrest, imprisonment, or even death, Ephraim, like any good entrepreneur, envisioned a solution to the restrictions on leisure-time activity. He dusted off the game he and his wife Hanna had first conceived in the early 1930s that combined elements of rummy, dominoes, mah-jongg, and chess. Since it could be played with no ties to age, language, or religion, it would bring people together.
Although plastic was expensive and scarce, he discovered a shop that recycled plastic from Perspex (plexiglass) airplane cockpit canopies. Originally used to make toothbrushes, it would make ideal tiles for his game, Ephraim concluded. So he traded plastic toothbrushes for plastic blocks.
He called it Rummikub.
He also moved his family to Israel.
There, in the 1950s, he continued to develop the game in his backyard in Bat Yam. According to Micha Hertzano, Ephraim’s son, his father hand-carved two sets of tiles, and his sister Mariana hand-painted them. Times were tough. People had little money for bread, let alone games. But Ephraim never gave up. Eventually, one store owner agreed to take a single game on consignment.
When no one bought it, however, Ephraim’s ingenuity kicked in. He invited the store owner and his wife to come to his home and play the game with his family. They had so much fun that the store owner began to play it with friends, who immediately purchased the game from him. The game grew in popularity and spread by word of mouth. Ephraim hired a small plastic manufacturer to make the tiles and an assistant to help paint them.
Ephraim evolved into a professional game developer, as did his children. Eventually, the family licensed Rummikub to other countries, leading to its position as Israel’s bestselling export game.
Rummikub arrived in America in 1964 when his son Micha entered business school in the United States. It became the bestselling game in the U.S. shortly after Don Rickles appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1977 and casually mentioned having played the Israeli game.
In creating Lemada Light Industries in 1978, the Hertzanos turned the game into a phenomenon. Not only is Rummikub sold in 48 countries in 24 languages, but it also has become the third most popular game played by families in the world—behind Monopoly and Scrabble.
Micha holds several patents that legally protect the game. The family continues to manufacture all aspects of Rummikub in a factory in Arad, a small desert town in Israel, as well as two other factories in India and Brazil. Working three shifts a day, factories churn out a game every six seconds.
The World Rummikub Championship occurs every three years in a different major location, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris; Hamleys toy store in London; a bullfighting arena in Spain; and the DZ Bank, designed by Frank Gehry, in Berlin.
Done with his history lesson, Beamer then flipped his tail and the conversation to mah-jongg, another tile-based game that was developed in 19th century China. It, too, is a game of skill, strategy, and luck, Beamer meowed. Originally, it was called 麻雀, meaning sparrow, based on the clacking sound of tiles during shuffling.
Beamer likes the sound of sparrows. They evoke his hunter spirit, reminding him that if you cunningly focus on what’s in front of you, slyly plan your next move, and stealthily track your target, then there’s a good chance of winning.
Shuffle those tiles, he chattered to us. We took turns shaking randomness into them and then lined them up like sparrows on their racks. Following his laser-like focus, we let our individual strategies begin.