It makes sense that one can use Tarot cards for various games, since the 78-card Tarot deck is the ancestor of the modern 52-card playing deck (54 if you're using both jokers). Modern playing cards are really just the minor arcana under a different guise: knights and pages have been combined to become jacks, swords have become spades, staves have become clubs, cups have become hearts, and pentacles (coins) have become diamonds. The joker is the only major arcana card to survive in the modern deck: it began as The Fool.

Why would you want to play games with Tarot cards? Well, for one the cards are more beautiful and interesting than regular ol' playing cards, and the game play is more complex and challenging. And for some people, the act of playing with something associated with the occult may give them a bit of a thrill.

For all of the card games mentioned below, if you want to play with a real Tarot deck instead of a special European tarocci deck (which won't be readily available in many places in North America anyway), I recommend the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.

The Rider-Waite deck is generally the least expensive Tarot Deck you can buy and is usually available in most bookstores. Its imagery is simpler (making the cards easier to recognize in your hand) and the card size is closer to that of regular playing cards than many decks you can buy. Card size and feel is an important issue, as with some games you could end up trying to manage over a dozen cards in your hands. And playing with a cheap-but-durable deck is important; your spiritualist or Wiccan friends are unlikely to surrender a prized deck to be battered and chafed in a card game.


I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.
-- Steven Wright

Apparently, fantasy author Tim Powers heard this saying at some point, because the plot of his novel Last Call revolves around a Tarot poker variant he named Assumption.

Assumption uses the minor arcana of a Tarot deck, which means that you'll be dealing with Knights in addition to the standard Kings, Queens and Jacks (Pages). It's possible for you to use regular playing cards for this game by adding doctored Jacks from an identical deck for your knights. In fact, Powers was too superstitious to mess with a Tarot deck, so he used a modified playing card deck to figure out the hands he'd need to use in the novel.

I participated in an Assumption game once; we set it up as a joke to spook Tim at Clarion the week he was leading the writing workshop. His wife Serena saw us playing with the tarot cards, shook her head and said to Tim, "See, if you put it in a book, the kids are going to try it."

The objective of Assumption is to combine your four card hand with a four card hand you buy from another player to create the best 5-card poker hand possible. However, the ultimate goal of Assumption is to to win other player's souls in the final round so that you can use their bodies as puppets years later.

Here's how to play:

  1. Thirteen players (ideally, but you can start with fewer) sit down and ante up. Whatever you do, don't play over water, like in a houseboat or in a canoe. And don't talk about anything important in front of the cards. Bad things could happen.

  2. The first 2 cards to each player are dealt face down. The 3rd is dealt face up.

  3. Players go through the first round of standard poker betting.

  4. The 4th card is dealt face up.

  5. Players go through the second round of betting.

  6. This is where it stops looking like regular poker:
    • First comes the "mating": each four card hand goes up for bid starting with the player to the left of the dealer. Any player may bid. The highest bidder, if the seller will part with his hand for that price, gets the hand and combines it with his own cards.
    • His or her new hand of 8 cards is now "conceived" and he/she cannot bid or sell anymore. Hands will be mated until as many 8-card hands are made as can be bought and sold.
    • If an odd number of players remains after the second round of betting, one 4-card hand will be left out. Getting stuck with the unmated, unsold, unplayable hand is the second-worst thing that can happen in this game.

  7. Players who bought hands and thus have 8 cards now enter a third round of betting.

  8. The best 5-card hand (using standard poker rules, adjusted for the presence of Knights) wins the pot.

  9. The player with the winning hand gets 90% of the pot. The other 10% goes to the player from whom the winner bought four of his cards. This latter player is called the "parent" of the hand.

  10. As a final showdown, the "parent" may claim Assumption by throwing in an amount of money equal to the entire contents of the pot:
    • The entire deck is shuffled and cut.
    • The two play a quick hand of War: the winning player picks one card from the deck, and the "parent" does the same.
    • The highest card wins the entire pot ... but the "losing" player takes the "winner's" soul.
    • Thus, the initial winner is forced into a double or nothing bet for the pot, and to win everything is to lose everything:

      "You're taking money for the hand," Leroy observed.

      "Uh ... yes." Again Scott was aware of the bulk of metal against his hip.

      "You sold the hand."

      "I guess you could put it that way."

      "And I've bought it," Leroy said. "I've assumed it." He held out his right hand.

      Puzzled, Scott put down some bills and reached across and shook hands with the big brown man in the white suit.

      "It's all yours," Scott said.

Pretty cool, huh? I won my friend Dora's soul in our workshop Assumption game, and I haven't a clue what I'll use it for (it should come "due" in 2015).


Assumption is, of course, a game created for fiction, but there are historically-based Tarot games still being played around the world, particularly in Europe.

One of the earliest records of Tarot card games is on a wall in the Borromeo Palace in Milan. The fresco depicts three ladies and two gentlemen in 15th Century costume grouped around a square table. They are all holding Tarot cards, but only three seem to be playing. The other two ladies seem to be shuffling an extra pack for the next hand.

This agrees with other historical records that indicate the games played with Tarot cards are traditionally for three players. If four play, the dealer does not take a hand; if two play they deal three hands and leave one unused.

Tarot games have varied quite a lot, but they all served as the ancestral games to modern games such as bridge, pinochle, and spades.

Modern versions of the old Tarot games are still popular in France, Italy, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, under the names of tarot, tarocco, tarock, taroky. Tarot games are especially popular in France; the Fédération Francaise de Tarot has over ten thousand members and has 300 clubs affiliated with it.

The modern games use special playing card decks from which the supernatural stigma of regular Tarot cards have been removed. They usually contain 54 or 78 cards. However, some Italian games use decks that contain 62 or 64 cards. The common features for all of these decks are that they contain five suits (four normal ones plus trumps) and The Fool.

During high school, some friends and I researched the old historical version of the game, and we had a great time playing Tarocky with a regular 78-card Rider-Waite deck. The rules are complex and take some getting used to, but once you've gotten a sense of the game it's very challenging and fun.

How to play:

  1. Three or four people sit down to play. If playing with a foursome, the dealer does not play a hand for that round.

  2. Deal twenty-four cards to each of the three players, beginning with the player at the dealer's right, and continuing counter-clockwise.

  3. The six cards left over are the widow. The dealer has the option of picking them up and discarding six cards of his/her own.

  4. Before beginning the play, each player declares his meld (the table for melding follows this play list)

  5. Now comes the play for tricks. The second hand leads, declares what suit is trump, and the play continues counter-clockwise. You must follow suit if you can, and if you cannot, you must play a trump.

  6. However, if you have The Fool you may play it instead of following suit or trumping. Otherwise the Fool is of no value in the play, although it counts as one of the seven "Tarot Trumps" in the melding.

  7. The highest card of the suit led takes the trick, unless it is trumped. In that case the highest trump takes it. The trumps rank from XXI high down to I low.

  8. The masculine suits of Swords and Staves rank from King high down to Ace low. The feminine suites of Cups and Pentacles (Coins) rank the same as the masculine from King down to Page, but from there on the order is revered: Ace is highest, then two, and so on down to ten.

  9. On scoring: the second-highest score is subtracted from the high score for each round. Say that Player 3 has the highest score: 74. Subtract from this the next highest, 51, and the actual score for that hand is 23 points for Player 3. The game coutinues in thls way until a player wins the game with a score of 100 points.

Scoring Melds and Tricks:

The five Greater Trumps (XVII - XXI, the cards which represent the triumph of Eternity): count 5 points for three of these, 10 points for four, 15 points if player has all five.

The five Lesser Trumps (I - Y, the cards which represent the captives of Cupid): count the same as the Greater Trumps.

The seven "Tarot Trumps" (I, XXI, The Fool, and the Kings of the four suits): count 15 points for every three of these.

Sequences in the same suit, including the Trump suit:

  • Count 5 for any four-card sequence
  • 10 for sny seven-card sequence
  • 15 for any ten-card sequence

Tricks containing:

Wheel of Fortune

Please read m_turner's excellent writeup on this game; see also The Fool's Errand for additional information.



Personal notes from high school

Last Call by Tim Powers

Thanks to the Internet, French suited Tarot decks used for French Tarot and Austrian Tarock may now be easily purchased by North Americans in online specialty stores. We no longer need to settle for Tarot decks which are more suited for divination. I recommend that Tarot/Tarock players reward online vendors who are now making the proper playing materials available to us.

Some Tarot decks which are currently sold for divination and fortune telling may also be used for Tarot, Tarock and Tarocchi games. AG Mueller's Swiss 1JJ Tarot is quite optimal for game playing as the suit signs of the court cards are always located in the upper left corner and sort of function as corner indices. This deck is currently used in Switzerland for Tarot card games. Another good deck for game playing is Lo Scarabeo's Ancient Italian Tarots. This is a reproduction of a late 19th century Tarocchi deck. Unlike many reproduction decks, the artwork of this deck is appealing to modern tastes. Although it may now be sold for divination purposes, it is still optimal for card playing.

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