Despite the abundance of books on the Tarot in English, the aspect of the Tarot most commonly known in Europe – the card game – is almost unknown in the English literature and in Tarot circles beyond Europe. To date, in English, the most notable work to deal with the ludic aspect of the Tarot has been A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack in 2 volumes written and compiled by the late Sir Michael Dummett and John McLeod*. Unfortunately, the prohibitive price of these volumes does little to incite the casual reader to gambling, and is perhaps one reason why these games have remained neglected in the English-speaking world so far. Yet, beyond the simple idea that winning at cards is a sign of election, and therefore a good omen, there are other connections between the game system and the divinatory and symbolic aspects of the Tarot, and knowledge of these connections may further enrich and deepen one’s understanding of the structure of the deck and of the function of its constituent elements. The following piece seeks to address this issue.
The aim of this piece, synthesised from a number of different French texts, is to present, in a clear and readable manner, the relations between the Tarot as game and the Tarot as mantic system, a subject which, to the best of our knowledge, has not yet been made available in English. These observations will further one’s understanding of the structure of the pack, the difference between the trumps and numeral cards, and shed some light on the nature of three of the most important cards: those that begin and finish the deck, and which are also known as oudlers. The game is typically played with the Tarot Nouveau, published by Grimaud. although, as we shall see, there has been some attempt to replace this deck with the traditional Tarot of Marseilles.
The following piece reproduces parts of pages 48-52 of a document in French, itself a synthesis, which is available online here, as well as some additions and excerpts, notably the last paragraph, from the lovingly illustrated calligraphic book, Le Jeu du Tarot Par l’Image by Jacques Massacrier.
* See McLeod’s informative website for further information on the rules of the game of Tarot.
The Game of Tarot
If, as popular legend has it, the Tarot hides a millennial wisdom behind simple images destined for playing games, it is rather logical to think that, proceeding from this aspect, we might have a chance to discover something. The first clue, effectively, is that the game of Tarot cards goes back to a historically verified period, and that its relatively complex rules have not undergone any major modifications over the course of the centuries.
The most important variations only concern the design of the cards, properly speaking. The four traditional suits of coins, staffs, cups and swords have been replaced by the “modern” French suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. In the same way, the images of the 22 major arcana have been replaced by reversible scenes of nineteenth-century urban and rural life. The only card to preserve a design close to the traditional design is the Mate, the arcanum without a number, who is called the Excuse or the Fool. In the beginning of the industrial age, the symbols of the major arcana, judged too esoteric, were replaced by banal scenes of daily life, which is why we find a picnic on the 11th card, Force, a photographer and a landscape artist on the 15th, which is none other than that of the Devil, ice-skaters on the 19th, which is the card of the Sun, and, for the 12th card, the card of the Hanged Man, we have the choice between a soirée or a garden party, etc.
As far as the structure goes, it remains unchanged:
Four series of 14 cards (the so-called minor arcana), having preserved the knight or horseman, who has since disappeared from other decks of cards, placed hierarchically between the Valet and the Queen; the point values of each card, in decreasing order, from the king (5 points) to the valet (2 points), the numeral cards being worth nothing.
One group of 22 cards called “tarots” (or trumps or triumphs in other regions), or atout. Contrary to other games, in which the trumps are chosen by a conventional system of declarations and bids, in the Tarot, the trump is a fixed given, outside of the domain of the classic suits.
The points are always counted in pairs, each honour or court card being accompanied by a numeral card which then does not represent any point: a king accompanied by the two of clubs is worth five points. On the other hand, two numeral cards together are worth one point: the six of diamonds and the eight of spades are worth one point.
In order to assess the strength of one’s hand, as with any game, one must have the greatest number of points, taking into consideration the number of “ends” [Fr: bout] in one’s possession. What is an “end”?
This is the chief originality of the game of Tarot with respect to other card games: it consists of three of the tarots: the One, called the “Little One” [Fr: le Petit], the Twenty-One, and the Excuse. Each is worth five points, and the more ends one has in one’s hand, the less the number of points are needed to take the trick.
The characteristics of the ends are the following: the One takes all the other suit cards, and is taken by all the other tarots, except for the Excuse. The Twenty-One takes all cards indistinctly, except for the Excuse. The Excuse takes no card, and is taken by none, except if it is played as the last card in a round; in which case it is taken by any other card. With the exception of the three ends, the tarots are worth only a half point in the final count of the points.
It is effectively in the game of cards that the Tarot is revealed in all its complexity. Contrary to other games such as Bridge which marks out the contracts with an accuracy due to the rigorous formalism of the conventional declarations whose aim to reduce the element of chance, in the Tarot one might start off with an apparently unproblematic hand, only to end up ruined without being able to do anything about it in the slightest. For this, it is enough, to give an example, that your opponents manage to take the One, the Little One, from you, this Little One which is the secret obsession of every Tarot player, and that the lovely hand you had set up corresponds to the hand of your opponent who has the greater number of tarots in hand…
Let us rewind a little. One must deal the cards to the players, who may number 3, 4, or 5, preferably 4. First, the players choose a card, face down, and the one who chooses the lowest card is the Dealer. The deck is then shuffled by the player opposite the Dealer, cut by the player to his left, and the player to his right will begin the game. The cards are dealt in threes, counterclockwise, and between each round a card is placed in the centre of the table, face down. In a round for four players, each thus receives 18 cards, and 6 cards are in the centre. These cards are then called the “dog” [Fr: chien].
Each player assesses his hand and one of the players declares he will “push.” He will then play alone against the three others, and to compensate this disadvantage, he will take the other six cards set aside, turns them over to show his opponents, then incorporates them into his hand, from which he removes six cards of his choosing, which he will then place onto the table and which will remain his, come what may.
Now, you may of course content yourself with playing your hand, your 36, 41, 51, or 56 points, according to whether you have 3, 2, 1, or no end at all (in which case you must either be a total novice or a dangerous madman…) But the essential lies elsewhere. The goal of the game of Tarot is to “hunt the Little One” if one does not have it, or to “bring it to the end” if one does, that is, to place it on the table as the final crowning piece. The 21 is the atomic bomb: nothing can resist it, and how many Little Ones has it saved when it was well played, right behind the hunter? An easy win in this case, but oh how random if it is not in the right place!
And this Excuse, what use is it? Every player will tell you that it is the most difficult card to play, whether you are the “pusher,” or playing against the pusher.
We have decided to restrict ourselves here to the study of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, and we have enough material to follow our path. What have these observations drawn from the popular game – and not unprovable metaphysical considerations – taught us?
- That the major arcana form an entire whole, distinct from the rest of the deck, and to which all possible configurations of the game are subject.
- That one of the arcana, the Mate, the Fool (or Excuse), is not involved in the game as such, all the while being one of the 3 most important cards.
- That arcanum 21, the World, even if it is the most powerful card, does not have absolute power.
- That arcanum I, the Juggler, is the host of the game, the one around which everything revolves.
If we relate these observations to the arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, we will immediately notice, for example, that the animal biting the Mate on the thigh is indeed a dog, since it is the name given to the cards that are out of play. Some authors quite seriously ask themselves what kind of animal it might well be: in my opinion, they must never have “played” the Tarot in the back room of a bar while skipping maths or philosophy class…
But the most important point for the rest of this study is the confirmation of the fact that the Mate “does not play”: this allows us not to count him, to place him win the centre of the circle and to let the 21 other cards turn around him, thereby giving the ternary structure 3 x 7 to the remaining cards. This also defines the profound nature of the Mate, as we shall see.
The World is generally presented as being guaranteed success, the apotheosis, the accomplishment, and it is very logical in appearance, since it bears the highest number. The very existence of the Mate, which does not contest this power, relativises it, and indicates that the Tarot of Marseilles is not limited to an Aristotelian logic of the excluded middle.
The Juggler is also confirmed by what we have observed as being the pivot of the game, the point of departure, and the end of the game, since the supreme reward for the player is to bring the Little One all the way to the end. In other words, and in a more initiatory language, the Juggler is the new initiate, the neophyte, who will have to pass “through” all the other arcana in order to reach his goal.
When we wish to fathom the intangible Universe, to decode the cosmic messages, in order to gain some insight into the circumstances or omens, we can use a deck of Tarot cards. But the same deck of cards can also be used to play the game of Tarot. The game of Tarot is a game without divinatory pretensions. It is a noble exercise in psychology, reflection and intelligence, where the chance factor has but little incidence. To play this game with the traditional images of the Tarot of Marseilles is to reconnect with the essence of the tradition, which gives a symbolic character to the major arcana or trumps once again. In this way, the game regains the magical and mysterious aspect of the divinatory cards, without upsetting the rules of the game or the legibility of the cards.
- The Card Players by Paul Cézanne, 1890–92. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
- Atouts 1, 21 and Excuse from the Grimaud 1910 Jeu de Tarot. World Web Playing Card Museum.