July 1 2018

For the sake of clarification, I have made some revisions to the original post. The concept of winning a hand was confusing to some. The possibility of a tie game is also addressed./ MMcG



In the 1940s and early fifties, knucks was a favorite kids’ summer card game in the South Bronx.

Here’s how it went.

A deck of 52 cards, no jokers.

Four players.

Deal all cards for equal hands of 13 cards each.

The object is to have no red cards at the end of the game. Alternately, to saddle someone with all red cards—preferably someone you have it in for.

Player to the left of the dealer plays any black card.

Each player in turn plays a card of the same suit.

Player of the highest card takes all four cards.

Winning a hand at this point allows a player to determine which suit is next played.

When a player does not hold a card of a played suit, he may play a red card.

Highest black card takes all four cards.

Red cards may now be played.

From this point on, the object is to avoid winning any hand where a red card has been played.

You will now want to rid yourself of as many red cards as possible.

If a diamond is played, answering cards must be diamonds.

The same holds true for hearts.

Again, high-card player takes all four cards.

If a player holds no red cards, he answers with a black card. (And generally a sigh of relief. If not a cry of triumph, something like, “Ha! You son of a bitch!”)

When all cards have been played, each player counts his red cards.

Player with the most red cards loses.

Each red card in the loser’s hand equals one knuck.

(No allowance is made for red cards in any other player’s hand. It is not a game of finesse.)

The holder of the fewest red cards is the winner and the distributor of the knucks.

(In some brutal variations, all three non-losers inflict knucks on the loser, each commensurate with the number of red cards in the loser’s tally.)

Because there are thirteen hearts and thirteen diamonds in a deck, it is possible for an outcome of a two-way tie of losers with thirteen red cards each.

Thirteen knucks are then given to each loser.

Knucks are given as follows.

The entire deck is held in one hand by the winner.

The loser holds out his hand in the form of a fist, palm facing downward.

For a single knuck, the cards are brought down sharply (usually without mercy) across the loser’s knuckles.

The loser may be asked if he wants his knucks in varying multiples. He must agree for this to occur.

For a double knuck, called “twosies,” the cards are curled to form an arch before striking.

For a “fiver,” the deck is held vertically and perpendicular to the fist. The bottom of the deck is brought down upon the knuckles.

For a “tenner,” the deck is again held perpendicular to the fist. The deck is also curled, as for “twosies” but is held vertically. If the loser is not wearing short sleeves, he rolls up his shirt-sleeve. The cards are placed on the upper side of the arm, starting below the elbow. They are then dragged the length of the arm as deeply and as roughly as possible until they are at the knuckles. They are then lifted in the air and brought down sharply on the knuckles. This is done very quickly to inflict the most possible pain.

New decks hurt the most.

The cards are then reshuffled and a new game begins.

My younger brother Pat and his friends played one summer until their knuckles and their arms were so raw and so sore they were practically blisters. They could scarcely lift the cards, let alone hit each other with them.

They wanted to continue playing, and so decided that each time someone lost, they would drink a soda-can of water. That seems tame enough, but the game is played quickly and it is possible that several losses over a few hours could result in the consumption of twelve or more cans (144 ounces) of water.

Pat said the bloated feeling was so awful that getting knucks was easier.

© Michael McGrinder 2016, 2018


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Published on April 5, 2016 at 7:13 pm  Comments (25)  

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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. oops … in the title of my comment, “1075” is a typo for “1975”, the year of my memory


  2. knucks_west-philly_1075

    My brutal friends in West Philadelphia in the mid-1970s taught me this game. If I remember correctly, in our version there could be any number of players, it was usually 4 to 7, and all cards were dealt except the last one, which was turned up in the middle of the table. The play was to place a card next in sequence and of opposite color to the “up” card, and so on. But no one took any turns, you simply scrambled as fast as you could to find the right card to put down, and play continued the same way from there. An ace counted as both highest and lowest card, so that the sequence could continue. The objective was to empty your hands of all cards, and the winner was the first person to play all his cards, and the loser was the person who had the final card or cards remaining. The loser would get a number of knucks based on the value of the cards, and they could be deployed as either a 1-point smack or 2-point chop or combination of both. And as already described, if the winner delivering the punishment dropped any cards (even 1) while doing so, or drew blood on the victim, his punishment was either 52 smacks or 26 chops, determined either by the loser who just got punished, or by majority vote of all the players, and at that point blood no longer mattered. Pacifist that I am and always was, I never liked the brutal part of the game, but to this day I still remember it as the most fast-paced and exciting card game I ever played. It was really fun with less people because you had so many cards in your hands that you really had to hunt quickly for the next card to play, and someone often beat you to it. And the fact that suits didn’t matter, only colors, made it easy and really quick. You really wanted to get rid of your cards as fast as you could!

    To add an important observation to the version of Knucks I described: because the Ace counts as both “14” (i.e., one higher than King) and as “1”, i.e, both a positive and a negative number, the circulation between colors never ends. So the game plays out quickly until all cards are gone.


  3. That is the most delightful offer I have had in many a day, but my doctor would drag me across the coals were I to accept.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Most of the guys I played knucks with might today have to let go of their canes or walkers to give or get knucks.


    • I challenge you to a game


  5. Greetings. In School in Brooklyn this was a must game. Im seeing all the different variations but its the same premise. We did all kinda styles, and to this day I can’t really find anyone who is brave enough to play a few hands.. they say the tough… lol. This was one way you proved Y you could be tough. #Knuckles. 👊🏿


    • You forget to mention the card scrape down the arm with the side of the deck. Also 52 pickup . If you drop even 1 card while giving out punishment to the loser, you would be subjected to a 52 point penalty. Also the loser has the opportunity to cut the deck to see if he gets a red card or black card. Red meant hard knucks, black meant soft.


      • I like that you read with a keen eye, but the scraper is mentioned in the section about a “tenner”.


  6. We played this game in Chicago in the 50’s and it could be brutal. We did wet and dry oil wells, drawing blood was a wet one, thin and thick sandwiches and God help you if you were on someone’s shit list. Fun ways to get thru the summer. Vinny from Chicago


    • An appropriate response to the repressive 50’s. Thanks.


  7. […] ringolevio (if you’re not from New York, it’s a form of tag) and a vicious card game called knucks. The winners got to whack the loser on the knuckles with the deck of […]


  8. hi there! I just talked about “Knucks” on my podcast “Annie’s Story Cave” — it seems no one today, outside of older Bronxites, knows the game. Thank you for remembering the rules. I remembered the corporal punishment to the loser, but not the game rules. Bravo, Annie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Annie. I appreciate the feedback. “Knucks” draws traffic from all over the world, so I may be responsible for new era of corporal punishment.


    • I had posted about Knucks on the Fabulous 50’s page on FB. I just found this page today. We also played Knucks in South Jersey, near Philly.


      • I’m sure it was played in many places, Ron but it seems to have gone by the wayside. When I first posted the piece in 2016 I got a little interest, then it moved into several hundred a year. Now it’s in the thousands a year and climbing. I imagine I have caused a lot of pain, hopefully a lot of fun along with it. I was unaware of the Fabulous 50s page but will take a look. How do I find your post? I’ll be interested to read it.


  9. Often wondered what happened to those sadists who loved delivering the knucks Willis ave. seemed to have its unfair share!


    • There may be a new generation of them judging by how many views this page gets, 31 yesterday. Willis avenue always makes me think of the Casino movie theater.


  10. I remember my brothers playing in the hallway in the Bronx …they also had the 52-er where you ran the side of the deck down the face .. forehead.. nose mouth and then one ferocious chop on the knuckles.. my brother would be bawling but kept playing.. glad I was a girl and didn’t have to prove anything!! Lol .. thanks for writing this 😭👊🏼😭


    • Thanks, Monika. I think I’m glad I didn’t know your brothers, but bawling and continuing to play was the essence of knucks.


  11. Great article. In Co-op City, in the 1970s, a further multiple, worth 20 (somehow), consisted of placing the loser’s hand in a deck of cards sandwich and stepping on it with one’s foot as hard as possible. Good times!


  12. Thank you, as I had been looking for this ‘forever!’ But I don’t remember how a winner is determined. With everyone tossing a card each time, how is anyone left with cards in their hand? I am ashamed forgot, but don’t understand it in your directions.😭 Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi/
      Where I say, “Player of the highest card wins all four cards,” you could substitute takes for wins. That player would then collect those four cards. Once all hands are played, each player counts the red cards in his collection. Player with the fewest red cards in his collection is the winner. Hope this clarifies it. Thanks for the follow.


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