It makes sense that you can use Tarot cards for various games, since the 78-card Tarot deck is the ancestor of the modern 52-or-54-card playing deck. 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.
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, because oversized cards can be hard to manage. And playing with a cheap-but-durable deck is important; your spiritualist friends are unlikely to surrender a prized deck to be battered and chafed in a card game.
Tarot Poker: Assumption in Last Call
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 amazing dark fantasy novel Last Call revolves around a Tarot poker variant he named Assumption.
In the novel, the game is played every 20 years and the winner becomes the new Fisher King, a modern-day mage who can control chance and chaos and, ultimately, the fate of the world. Most of the game's thirteen high-rolling participants are unaware of the true nature of Assumption; they think they're just playing an arcane sort of high-stakes poker. The book's wealthy antagonist, Georges Leon, uses the game to capture people's bodies and souls. Those who have lost their souls in a game are usually totally unaware of it until the next 20-year game. During the following cycle, Leon evicts said souls and transfers his consciousness into their empty-but-living bodies to increase his power and influence and attempts to achieve immortality.
Leon is a modern-day Cronus who invented the game as a way of spiritually creating children he could then turn into puppets. In the first part of the book, he is shown to be possessing his own young sons and evicting their souls, but while he is in the process of taking over his youngest son Scotty, the boys' mother enters the room to rescue her son. In the melee, she shoots Leon in the groin, castrating him. In order to maintain his power, he must find a way to create more children though he is biologically incapable of doing so.
The game of Assumption results in the creation of a winning hand created from two different player's initial hands that spiritually represents the fruit of the player's souls; instead of being "lost" it is actually "sold" by one of the hand's spiritual parents to the other. The "winning" player who takes the pot for the hand has in effect sold his or her own soul to the other "parent" of the hand, and the taker of the money then assumes the spiritual role of the child of the other player ... and is thus ripe for possession.
Assumption must never be played over "untamed" water like a natural lake, river, or ocean. Man-made bodies of water like Lake Mead are useful sites for play, and in fact the climactic final game takes place over that lake.
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:
- 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.
- The first 2 cards to each player are dealt face down. The 3rd is dealt face up.
- Players go through the first round of standard poker betting.
- The 4th card is dealt face up.
- Players go through the second round of betting.
- 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 dealer's left (yes, already this is a sinister game). Any player may bid. Provided that the owner of the hand is willing to sell for the offered price, the highest bidder gets the hand and combines it with his or her own cards (for a total of 8 cards). The two down cards aren't revealed to the buyer until after the sale. Sometimes hands simply won't sell. If an odd number of people are still in the game at this point, one 4-card hand will inevitably be shut out.
- Once a player has bought another hand, his or her cards are "conceived": he or she must continue the game with those 8 cards. Selling cards off to another player or buying others is against the rules. So, players must be choosy when buying hands.
- Buying and selling continues until as many hands are conceived as possible.
- Players who bought hands and thus have properly conceived hands now set aside the three least desired cards in their hands and enter a third round of betting.
- The best 5-card hand (using standard poker rules, adjusted for the presence of Knights) wins the pot.
- The winning player earns 90% of the pot, and the player who sold his or her four cards to the winner -- the hand's "parent" -- gets the other 10%.
- As a final double-or-nothing game, the "parent" may make an Assumption challenge by throwing down a stack of money that must equal the whole winning pot. Then:
- The entire deck is reshuffled and cut in half.
- 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's penny ante Assumption game, and I haven't a clue what I'll use it for (it should come "due" in 2015).