Playing the Tarot Game

The Tarocchi Players ofCasa Borromeo, Milan 15th C
The Tarocchi Players of Casa Borromeo, Milan 15th C



It has occurred to me that I have never before seen a companion book for a Tarot deck that included the rules for actually playing the game.  So here they are, at least one version.  And there may be insight in the way the game is played that can apply to our understanding of the story of the cards.

French Rules

Tarot belongs to a class called trick-taking games, the closest comparison would be Pinochle or Hearts.   A trick is a single round of play, where players compete to take all the points in each trick.  Games involving math may be losing popularity, but Tarot play is fast moving.  Each game ends when the cards run out.  These rules are for four players, there are variants (at the end) for two, three or five players.

Card Values

The deck consists of 78 cards. There are four standard suits, and each suit contains fourteen cards ranking from high to low:

King, Queen, Knight, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

In addition to the four standard suits there is a extra suit of twenty-one trumps numbered from XXI (high) to I (low).

Finally, there is a special card called the excuse, the Fool card.

Three cards, the I trump (called the petit), the XXI trump and the excuse are particularly important in the game, and are known as bouts (ends).

In each hand one player, the taker (le preneur) plays alone against the other three who work together against them.  The taker’s objective is to accumulate enough card points to win the hand, by taking tricks.

The total points in the deck is 91.  For every card in every trick taken, you get the following card points:

Bouts (XXI, I, excuse)  4½
Kings                   4½
Queens                  3½
Knights                 2½
Jacks                   1½
All Other cards:        ½

In a nutshell, the taker tries to win tricks and collect as many cards as they can to win a bid.  The number of points the taker needs to win depends on the number of bouts the taker has in his tricks:

 Bouts   Points to Win
   3          36
   2          41
   1          51
   0          56

The Deal

The first dealer is chosen at random – thereafter the turn to deal passes to the right after each hand (the whole game is played counter-clockwise). The player opposite the dealer shuffles and the player to the left of the dealer cuts.

18 cards are dealt to each player, in packets of 3. During the deal, six cards are dealt face down to the centre of the table to form the talon (heel) or chien (meaning dog, in English we call this a kitty), for a group of cards set aside during the deal. The chien cards are dealt singly at any time during the deal, at the choice of the dealer. The first three and the last three cards of the deck cannot be dealt to the chien.

Curious Rule: Le Petit

A player who is dealt the I of trumps on the first pass of three, immediately declares this and the hand is cancelled – the cards are thrown in and the next dealer deals.  The I of trumps typically depicts a juggler or street magician.


Each player, starting with the player to the dealer’s right and continuing counter-clockwise, has just one chance to bid on the hand, or pass. If someone bids, subsequent players have the choice of bidding higher or passing. If all four players pass, the hand is thrown out and the next dealer deals (this happens quite often).

The possible bids, from lowest to highest, are as follows:

Petite (small) also called Prise (take).  You can use the chien cards to improve your hand (see below) and you then try to take enough card points in tricks to win.

Garde (Guard)Same as Petite but outranks Petite in bidding.

Garde sans le chien (Guard without the dog) No one looks at the chien, but the card points in it count as part of the taker’s tricks.

Garde contre le chien (Guard against the dog)No one looks at the chien and it is counted as part of the tricks of the opponents of the taker.

The highest bidding player becomes the taker. The remaining three players form a temporary team, trying to prevent the bidder from making enough card points.

In Petite or Garde, the taker turns the six cards of the chien face up for all to see and then takes them into his hand. He then discards face down any six cards which must not include trumps, kings or the excuse. In the (very rare) case that the taker can’t obey this rule, he can discard trumps (but never bouts); any trumps discarded must be shown to the other players. The cards discarded by the taker count as part of his trick.

Note on Bidding: As the number of bouts decides how many points the player must collect, the taker must win more than half the deck if they have one or no bouts, something to consider when bidding. The XXI trump is high card and won’t be taken, likewise the excuse usually returns to its owner, so only one bout, the I trump, is a possible addition after the cards are dealt, unless an available bout turns up in the chien.



Game Play

When the discard is complete, the cards are played. The player to the dealer’s right leads to the first trick.

Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or the highest card of the suit led if no trumps were played. The winner of a trick takes the cards and starts the next trick.

A player must follow suit if you can, and if you have no cards of the suit led you must play a trump. If trumps are led, the other players must of course follow with trumps if they can.

Curious Rule: Whenever you have to play a trump (either because trumps were led or because you have no cards of the suit which was led), you must if possible play a trump which is higher than the highest trump so far played to the trick. If you are unable to do this, you are free to play any trump, but you must still play a trump, even though you cannot win the trick with it.

The Excuse

The excuse is an exception to the above rules. If you hold the excuse you may play it on any trick you choose – irrespective of what was led and whether you have that suit or not. With one rare exception (see below), the excuse can never win the trick – the trick is won as usual by the highest trump, or in the absence of trumps by the highest card of the suit led.  You get the excuse back regardless of who wins, unless the excuse is played in the last trick, then the excuse is taken by the team who wins the trick.

You may lead with the excuse, and in this case the second player to the trick can play any card, and this second card defines what suit must be followed.

Provided that the excuse is played before the last trick, the team that played the excuse keeps it in their trick pile, even though they may have lost the trick to which it was played. If the trick is in fact won by the opponents of the player with the excuse, the trick will be one card short; to compensate for this, the team that played the excuse must provide a replacement card from their trick pile to the winners of the trick. This will be a 0.5 point card; if they do not yet have such a card in their tricks, they can wait until they take a trick containing a 0.5 point card and transfer it them.

There is also one extremely rare case in which the excuse can win a trick: if one team has won every trick except the last one, and then leads the excuse to the last trick, the excuse wins.

Playing Tarrochi, Castello di Masnago, Lombardy, 1500s
Playing Tarrochi, Castello di Masnago, Lombardy, 1500s


There are some special bonuses after a game. The scores for these bonuses are not card points, so they do not help you to win your bid. They are extra points which can be scored in addition to what you win or lose for your bid.

Poignée (grip) is a bonus scored if a player declares that he has 10 or more, that is to say, a grip of trumps:

  10 trumps : 20 points 
  13 trumps : 30 points 
  15 trumps : 40 points

To declare a poignée, the holder must show the correct number of trumps just before playing to the first trick. The trumps must be sorted so that the other players can easily see what is there. The excuse can be counted as a trump in a poignée, but if the excuse is shown, this indicates that the player does not have any other trumps concealed. The bonus is counted for the team who wins the hand, so if you declare a poignée and then lose, the bonus points go to the other side. A poignée is only scored if it is declared. It is not compulsory to declare a poignée when you have one; if you hold 10 or more trumps but are not confident that your side will win you may be wiser not to mention it.

Petit au bout is a bonus which occurs if the 1 of trumps is played in the last trick. In this case the team that takes the last trick wins the bonus (10 points).

Chelem (slam) is a bonus for taking all the tricks. The score depends on whether it was announced in advance:

Chelem annoncé: the team (the taker normally) announces chelem before the beginning of the play. The bonus is 400 points if they succeed in winning every trick and -200 points penalty if they fail.

Chelem non annoncé: the team wins all the tricks without having announced it. They get a bonus of 200 points.

Chelem excuse: If one side has won all the tricks except the last, and then leads the excuse to the last trick, the excuse wins. This special rule, which probably comes up about once in a lifetime, allows a chelem to be made by a player with the excuse. In addition, when making a chelem with the excuse in this way, it also counts as petit au bout if you won with the 1 of trumps in the second to last trick.



At the end of the hand, the taker counts his card points and the opposing team pool their tricks and count their card points. The six chien cards are added to the taker’s tricks, unless the bid was “Garde contre le chien”, in which case the chien cards are added to the opponents’ tricks. The taker wins if he has enough points, depending on the number of bouts in his tricks.

The amount of points won or lost by the taker is calculated as follows: 25 points for the game, plus the difference between the card points the taker actually won and the minimum number of points he needed (pt).

The petit au bout bonus is added or subtracted if applicable (pb)

This total is multiplied by a factor (mu) depending on the bid:

     Petite (Prise)         x 1
     Garde                  x 2
     Garde sans le chien    x 4
     Garde contre le chien  x 6

The following bonuses are then added or subtracted if they apply; they are not affected by the multiplier, the poignée bonus (pg)
and the chelem bonus (ch).

The calculation of the score, expressed as a formula, is: ((25 + pt + pb) * mu) + pg + ch

The calculated points are either won by the taker from all three opponents or lost by the taker to all three opponents. The opponents always win or lose bonuses equally: for example if one of them wins petit au bout they all benefit.

Examples of scoring:

Hand #1: A bids garde and has 56 card points with 2 bouts. Each other player gives (25 + 15) * 2 = 80 points to A.

Hand #2: B bids garde, has 49 card points with 3 bouts and takes the last trick with the 1 of trump. Each other player gives (25 + 13 + 10 )* 2 = 96 points to B.

Hand #3: C bids garde, has 40 card points with 2 bouts and the other team takes the last trick with the 1 of trump. C gives (25 + 1 + 10) * 2 = 72 points to each other player.

Hand #4: C bids garde with 3 bouts, and takes 41 card points, but the other team captures his 1 of trumps in the last trick. C now only has two bouts in tricks so his target score becomes 41. Each other player gives (25 + 0 – 10) * 2 = 30 points to C.

Hand #5: D bids garde, has 40 card points with 3 bouts and the other team declared a poignée of 10 trumps. Each other player gives (25 + 4) * 2 + 20 = 78 points to D.

Note: to make the addition easier, some players prefer to round all the scores to the nearest 5 or 10 points.

Giacomo Jaquerio, Issogne Castle
Giacomo Jaquerio, Issogne Castle


Tarot for Three Players

The game is essentially the same as with four players. Each player is dealt 24 cards, in packets of 4. Because the hands are larger the number of trumps needed for a poignée is increased: single 13; double 15; triple 18.

Because the tricks contain an odd number of cards, there will sometimes be an odd half card point when counting. This is rounded in favour of the taker if he wins, and in favour of the opponents if he loses. If the taker is half a point short of the target, the bid is lost by one card point.

Tarot for Five Players

Each player is dealt 15 cards, so there are only 3 cards in the chien. The number of trumps needed for a poignée is reduced: single 8; double 10; triple 13. Half card points are treated as in the three player game.

With five players, there are two teams. Before exposing the talon, the taker calls a king and the player who has that card plays as the partner of the taker; the other three players play as a team against them. If the taker has all four kings, he may call a queen. The holder of the called king must not say anything to give away the fact that he has it. The identity of the taker’s partner is only revealed when the called king is played, though it may be suspected earlier from the fact that the holder of the king will try to help the taker. If the called king (or queen) is found to be in the chien or in the hand of the taker, then the taker plays alone against four opponents.

Many people play that when the taker has a partner, the taker pays or receives double, while the partner and the three opponents pay or receive singly. Others play that the taker and partner split the gain or loss equally between them, which is more awkward, because it can lead to fractional scores. If the taker plays alone, the taker’s win or loss will of course be four times that of each opponent.

Tarot for Two Players

The game is basically the same as for four players, but each player has 21 cards in hand plus 18 more on the table in six piles of three, each pile having the top card face up.

The deal is as follows: three cards one by one to your opponent, face down, side by side; then three cards to yourself, similarly; then three more to your opponent alongside the first three cards and three more to yourself. At this point there is a row of six cards face down in front of each player. Now repeat the process, dealing the new cards on top of the old ones, so that each player has six face-down piles of two cards. Then do the same again, but dealing the cards face up on top of the piles, so that each player has six piles of three cards with a face up card on top. The remaining cards are dealt out three at a time to the two players, so that each has a hand of 21 cards.

There is no bidding. The non-dealer leads, and the play continues under the usual rules – i.e. you must follow suit and trump if void, and when a trump is led it must be beaten if possible. The face-up cards on your piles can be played to tricks as though they were part of your hand. At the end of each trick, if you have played from a pile you turn the next card of that pile face up. At the end of the play, when both players have played all the cards from their hands and their piles, the winner is determined using the usual targets – for example if you have two bouts and your opponent has one, you win if you have 41 or more points and your opponent needs 51 or more to win. If you want to keep score, the winner gets 25 points plus one for each card point the winner has in excess of the target. If the petit is played to the last trick, the winner of the trick scores an extra 10 for petit au bout. There is no score for poignéee.

Vilmos Aba Novák, Card Players, Hungary, 1932
Vilmos Aba Novák, Card Players, Hungary, 1932

Observations from the Tarot Game

As this is a book about reading the cards, here are some notes about what we might pick up in the meaning of the cards from the game play.

·The subjects of the trumps are arranged in a low to high ranking, giving credence to the idea of a Triumphant Procession.

·The court cards are valuable, the kings on par with the highest trumps, the bouts, for points.

·Still, the trumps beat the suits, an inference could easily be made that they represent, in some respect, fate.

·The bouts are pivotal and shape the whole game.  They are the first and last trump, and the excuse:

·The excuse is an outsider, neither ranked in the suits or a trump.  It’s range of early names makes this clear – the fool, the filthy, the mad, the crazy.  It has almost no shot at winning, but it can interfere with play, and help disguise a player’s hand.

·The I trump, the Juggler or Magician, has a distinct role in the game as Le Petit.  Easily defeated in the ranks, it is almost sure to be lost when it must finally be played, and that changes who’s ahead in the game quickly. But like the excuse, it has a special rule, the ability to stop a game before play begins. After learning how it plays, questions about the Magician are that of fame.  An entertainer, a street performer, using skills to change the shape of their life, low ranking but still among those able to trump the rank and file lives, and whose fortunes can change swiftly.

·The XXI trump, the World, has no special ability, besides being the highest ranking, the unbeatable card.  There is only one rare, slim chance, at the end round of a game in which a team has had an unbroken winning streak, and only then the outsider, the excuse, can beat the World.

·My final thought is that the arrangement of the trumps was not the work of cynics, who wouldn’t have been able to resist putting the Death card at the end, nor the work of the pious, or the Devil would not rank above the Pope.  I consider the arrangement as optimistic, for its uptake of humanist virtues, and with the final clue of the Fool’s slim but long shot at a win, indicates a realist.