September 29, 2003, Updated September 13, 2012

In an era in which Israel is known for high-tech innovation, Rummikub is an on-going low-tech success story – and a labor of love.Everybody has heard of Monopoly and Scrabble. But fewer are familiar with the third best-selling family game in the world – Rummikub.

But those who know it and play it are passionate about the game – like the players who traveled last week from around the world to St. Moritz, Switzerland, for the world Rummikub championships. They came from 28 countries, including the U.S., Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and countries across eastern and western Europe. There was even a player representing Iraq – though he currently lives in Norway.

Not even all of these aficionados know that the popular and addictive game was popularized in Israel, and even today is produced by an Israeli company.

In an era in which Israel is known for high-tech innovation, Rummikub is an on-going low-tech success story – and a labor of love. Rummikub is a family business owned by sister-brother team Mariana and Micha Herzano, which they inherited from their parents.

Each day in the desert city of Arad, workers for their company continuously produce Rummikub games, working three shifts a day, churning out a game every six seconds.

“You can find Rummikub everywhere,” says Micha Hertzano proudly. “We are sold in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand, and very few know that this game is manufactured in our factory in Arad, and in the other two factories that we manage abroad in India and Brazil.”

So far, more than 30 million Rummikub games have been sold to date in 48 countries.

The story of the Rummikub game began in Romania in the 1940s. Under the Communist regime, as in many places in the world, card-playing was considered decadent and outlawed.

This led a Jewish Romanian entrepreneur named Ephraim Hertzano to thinking. Hertzano made his living selling toothbrushes and other plastic accessories as well as cosmetics.

Racking his mind to find a substitute for the card game of rummy that he loved, Hertzano came up with an original idea – to play the game using plastic tiles tiles instead of cards. Developing the game in his mind, he visualized tiles with colorful numbers and elongated, slotted wooden boards to hold the tiles.

Realizing his idea wasn’t easy. Plastics, as he knew from his business, was rare and expensive in Romania at the time.

But he found a solution. On a business trip, he discovered a shop that recycled the plastic from used Perspex airplane cockpit canopies into toothbrushes, Ephraim decided that he would use the recycled Perspex to manufacture the tiles needed for his game.

The next day, the first Rummy Tile game was born. Following that initial incarnation of his dream, he invited his friends for a wonderful evening of a fully legal game of rummy – without cards.

Word of the game spread and demand for it began to grow. Friends of the Hertzanos asked for copies and store owners wanted to sell it. The tiles were quickly turned into colorful, numbered tiles. Ephraim continued to refine and perfect his game and eventually developed a new version of it, which would later be known as “Rummikub”.

After World War II, the Hertzano family left Romania to build a new life in Israel. It was Herzano’s dream to introduce the tile game he loved so much to his new homeland.

Ephraim spent hours in his small workshop, painstakingly assembling each game by hand. He sawed the small plastic pieces, painted each tile by hand, sawed and assembled each wooden game box and started distribution to small retailers.

“Dad would produce a few game sets each week,” recalls his son, Micha. “Each time he would take six sets in his bag and go store to store, trying to convice people to buy. He didn?t ask the store owners for any money at first. He said ‘try the game, when you get addicted, you’ll pay. If you don’t, you can return the game to me.’ Soon the six games manufactured per week became 60, then 600, and onward into a real industry.”

But the progress was very slow. Materials to manufacture the game were scarce in Israel’s early years. Only a few dozen games were sold on that first year to the merchants in Tel-Aviv.

As a marketing tool, the Hertzano family welcomed shop owners and their wives to play the game with them at their home. They came, they played, they enjoyed, and they recommended the game to their customers.

As demand grew, Ephraim expanded his small workshop. That workshop grew until it became what it is today: one of the most advanced game production facilities in the world.

As the years went on, demand for the game continued to grow. Working together with his children, Ephraim was selling thousands of games each year.Rummikub was becoming a national pastime – and many visitors to Israel went back home with one or more games as gifts to their loved ones back home.

When Micha Hertzano moved to the U.S. to study business, his father developed a vision of the future of the family business that featured branching into export. Occupying a cubicle in the commercial delegation section on the Israeli Embassy, Ephraim began to try to sell Rummikub to Americans.

His breakthrough occurred when legendary American late-night television comedian Don Rickles, who had just returned from a visit to Israel, began telling the audience about his experiences. Among his tales was a mention of this new game his wife brought home from Israel named “Rummikub.” He told how the couple’s life had changed: they couldn’t eat, they couldn’t sleep, they just played the game all day long. Their friends rapidly became enchanted with Rummikub, and when they invited the Rickles to social events, they began asking them to bring along “that Israeli game.”

Suddenly, Herzano’s tiny office was deluged. Wholesale networks, as well as prestige stores, and game lovers in general, were purchasing tens of thousands of games. As waiting lists for the game kept getting longer, sales passed the 100,000 mark.

Rummikub was the best-selling game in the United States in 1977. The international reach of the game is reflected in the composition of the international Rummikub tournament which is held once every three years in various resort locations, to which the champions of Rummikub competitions around the world are invited to compete. Rummikub competitions have been held: among other locations on the Eiffel Tower, on numerous cruise ships, in Cannes and even an underground tournament in a Polish mine.

This week’s champion will join a list of winners that spans the globe. Rummikub’s first world champion in 1991 was Japan`s Masato Kuwahara who used a special “end-game” technique to win the world cup. The second world champion, in 1994, was Mrs. Nehad Zahran, a mother of 3 from Alexandria Egypt. The third world champion in 1997 was Mr. Peter Mentzij of Holland, and the fourth world champion was Carla Van Perlo from Holland in 2000.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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