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Behind the Headlines: from Romania to Israel to the Rhine: Rummikub Makes Waves Among Devoted

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For those mourning the early demise of the baseball season — to say nothing of the less than promising start to the year in hockey — take heart: There’s always Rummikub.

Two weeks ago, aboard a luxury pleasure ship sailing along the Rhine from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, 20 expert Rummikub players gathered for the second world championship of the Romanian-born card game.

The experts played for hours on end, swearing that they could not think of a better way to spend their time.

More than four decades prior to the latest world championship, Rummikub was brought to Israel in 1950 by Ephraim Hertzano, who emigrated from Romania to Israel.

The former perfume vendor was looking for some sort of occupation in Israel, which at the time was suffering a deep economic crisis known as the “Tsena.”

In the kitchen of his modest home in Tel Aviv, Hertzano began developing Rummikub as a family game. He soon began selling the game door to door, with not too much success, along with other games he had developed.

With its similarity to gin rummy, the goal being to match card suits and numbers, Rummikub was obviously not Hertzano’s original invention. But he took the Romanian game, added wooden chips — as well as some of his own rules — and began seeing the first signs of a modest success.

Years later, his son Micha, after completing his studies in the United States, attempted to make a go of the game in America.

DON RICKLES PUBLICIZES THE GAME

He had little luck — until one day in 1977, as Micha Hertzano tells it, when comedian Don Rickles appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Talking about a visit to Israel, Rickles said he was impressed by his wife’s obsession with that “funny game,” Rummikub.

The next day, according to Hertzano, the phones in his office began ringing off the hook. Rummikub had become a known commodity in the United States, and shortly thereafter Europe followed suit.

Hertzano, now 50, and president of the multimillion-dollar family business, Lemada Light Industries, is the first to admit that the game did not originate with his father, who died in 1987.

“There are only 10 original games in the world, and all the rest are variations,” he says.

Whether the game is original or not, Hertzano says that Rummikub is Israel’s leading exported game. In a recent year, some 600,000 copies were sold in 34 countries, he says.

So who won the championship? As the boat cruised along the Rhine, Nihad Zahran, 33, the mother of two from Alexandria, Egypt, became the world champion Rummikub player.

After embracing the golden cup she had just won, Zahran kissed her husband, Mamdouh, with whom she would share the championship’s first prize — a trip around the world.

She then sat down for yet another round.

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