John Scarne -- a Self-Made Man

Written by Howard Fosdick ©

John Scarne played tricks on mobsters, Harry Houdini, and Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower... and lived to tell the tale. He became the best-known card magician of his era, and along the way invented games and wrote best-selling books. This is the only site on the web with the rules for Scarne’s invented card games Skarney and Skarney Gin. We also offer complete rules and background on Scarne's favorite invented boardgame, Teeko.

Here is John Scarne’s amazing story...

John Scarne was born the son of Italian immigrants to the United States in 1903. He was born into a background today we would call underprivileged, yet he never knew it. He changed his name from Orlando Carmelo Scarnnechia to John Scarne and made his own way.

John Scarne
Scarne in his Favourite Pose

As a child, Scarne became fascinated with cards. He would sit for hours behind a coal-bin in the basement, seeing if he could cut an exact number of cards from a deck. Through the gifts of youth and an incredible amount of practice, he learned to do it.

Scarne’s education was limited by the need for money to support his family. So at a young age he went out into the world. He performed card tricks and eventually became a world-class expert.

Scarne met Harry Houdini and became a personal friend. He branched out into magic tricks of various kinds, but his enthusiasm wavered when he saw the danger (and the very real risks) magicians took in the 1920s. He backed off magic tricks after taking a huge splinter into his foot while jumping off a bridge -- tied up and in chains, of course! Fortunately he got to shore and survived, even though he was bleeding badly.

Scarne was approached by gangsters who saw his card abilities as an easy way to riches. He unknowingly took his final exam by performing for Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, the mobster who fixed the 1919 World Series. Once Scarne understood his new “friends” were organized crime, he severed his relationship with them. He knew he could make money -- potentially very big money -- by cheating at cards. He also knew the lifestyle of the underworld and the violence it entailed back in the 1920s. He was an honest man and continued with only legal, legitimate means of making his living.

Scarne was a bit too old to enlist in the Second World War, so he instead took it upon himself to educate the troops about gambling. He showed them how sharks fixed the craps dice and crimped the cards. Scarne did this altruistically, at his own expense and without pay, as his way to support the troops and the war effort.

As it turned out, this volunteer effort led Scarne into his writing career. He wrote a pamphlet called “Scarne on Dice” to help servicemen understand how to unmask dice cheats. This eventually developed into his first published book after the war. Scarne on Dice is still in print today, and 70 years later it is still considered the authoritative work on many dice games.

After the war Scarne started his own games company. This reflected one of his true loves, inventing new games. He mutated checkers into Teeko, a strategy game he felt would compete with checkers and chess. While Teeko was a good game, it never achieved enduring popularity. Ditto with the many card and dice games Scarne invented.

John Scarne's Teeko
   Teeko Board

This web site lists complete rules for the two card games Scarne invented that he considered his best, Skarney and Skarney Gin. Skarney is one of the few really good partnership rummies for four players. It's a sophisticated, high-end rummy for players who like expansive-style rummy games like Canasta. Skarney Gin evolves Gin Rummy into an entirely different game by adding a couple new concepts to the parent game. Both games offer sweeping strategic scope within the context of simple rules. We highly recommend them and are pleased to present them on our site.

Along with all his other activities, Scarne wrote over a dozen books on cards, dice, gambling, magic tricks, and games. He considered this but a sideline and viewed his invented games as his real contribution. Ironically, today his games and games company are all gone, but his books live on. Scarne on Cards, The Encyclopedia of Card Games, and New Complete Guide to Gambling are all classics that sell well even today. The games inventor instead became the authority on rules and play. Scarne liked to brag that the common phrase “according to Hoyle” was being replaced by “according to Scarne.” The continuing popularity of his game books half a century after he wrote them gives credence to this claim.

Before he passed away in 1985, John Scarne wrote not one, but two autobiographies. These books yield more information on his fascinating life – The Amazing World of John Scarne (Crown, 1956), and The Odds Against Me (Simon and Schuster, 1966). You’ll find them now and then at a used bookstore or online.

John Scarne was a complex man. His autobiographies seem egotistical, yet one must admire a man who rose to the top of his self-created profession without benefit of education. One must also consider that Scarne necessarily had to promote himself as a lone entrepreneur. If he didn't promote himself, nobody else would.

John Scarne invented his own profession back when most people looked to large companies for stable employment. He demonstrated a quiet, strong moral sense in rejecting the big money he could have easily made with the gangsters he met. And, though most Americans today have little idea what our society was like during the Second World War, Scarne stood up at his own personal expense and contributed everything he could to the war effort.

Today Scarne lives on through his books as one of the great authorities on games, gambling, and magic. If you have any interest in these topics, you’ll surely know the name of John Scarne.

Scarne Playing Scarney
Scarne Playing His Invention Scarney
Scarne Watches Joe DiMaggio Play Follow The Arrow
Scarne Watches Joe DiMaggio Play Jimmy Braddock in one of His Games
John Scarne Autograph
John Scarne Autograph
Skarney Book Cover      Teeko Book Cover

License: Feel free to print, copy, and distribute these rules, so long as you retain this paragraph. Written by Howard Fosdick © 2023, distributed under Creative Commons License BY-ND. Photo credits: courtesy of John Scarne's two autobiographies.      HOME