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Tarok (Danish)

This description was contributed by Jens Brix Christiansen

Contents

Summary

Tarok (Danish style) is a game for three persons played with a tarot deck of 78 cards. It is a trick taking game, where the primary emphasis is on winning the last trick with one of five designated cards (known as winning Ultimo), and there is secondary emphasis on winning many tricks and winning counting cards in the tricks. To play well, players need to form alliances during the play, to keep track of the cards that have been played, and to be able to play according to a well chosen plan. Together, this makes the game difficult to learn to play well. It thus embodies much of the intellectual challenge otherwise associated with games like contract bridge.

Rules

Players and Equipment

To play tarok you need three or four players, some tarok cards, a supply of chips to keep score, and two containers to serve as the pots.

Players

Although there are only three active players at a time, it is quite usual for four people to take part in a tarok game. With four people, the player sitting opposite the dealer takes no part in the play.

Cards

A standard French tarot deck of 78 cards is used. There are

  • four standard suits of 14 cards each,
  • 21 trumps (tarok, pl. tarokker)
  • one special card, the fool (skisen, scusen).

In the past, Tarok cards were made in Denmark for this game, but since the second world war these have no longer been manufactured, and Tarot cards imported from France are used instead. Of course the exact appearance of the cards, though interesting in its own right, is immaterial to the rules of the game. The old Danish cards had no corner indices, but players have become so used to the modern French cards, that cards without corner markings are now considered too cumbersome for practical play.

The standard suits, hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs each have four court cards (honnør, pl honnører). The corner indices stand for the French names of the cards, though in play the Danish names are used:

the king (konge) marked R for roi;

the queen (dame) marked D for dame;

the knight (kaval) marked C for cavalier;

the jack (knægt) marked V for valet.

Each suit also has the usual 10 spot cards (ladon, pl. ladoner) marked with numbers 1 through 10.

In the black suits (spades and clubs) the cards are ranked from high to low:

  • R D C V 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.
In the red suits (hearts and diamonds) the spot cards have the opposite ranking; from high to low the cards rank:
  • R D C V 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.
The trumps are marked with the numbers 1 through 21, and are ranked in numerical order with 21 highest and 1 lowest. In Italy, where tarot games originated, all the trumps had special names; only the names for the hoghest and lowest trumps have been carried over into the Dannish game:

the pagat is the 1 of trumps (the lowest trump) (pagaten) - from the Italian bagatto

the mondo is the 21 of trumps (the highest trump) (mondo) - unaltered from the Italian mondo

The fool is not part of any suit. It is marked so as to distinguish it from the other cards, often with a star.

In practice it is traditional to use two tarot packs, if possible with different coloured backs, which are used to play alternate hands. This saves some time, especially with four players. During the play, the inactive player can shuffle the cards for the new dealer, who can then start dealing while the players are still settling up from the previous hand - see logistics.

In North America, French Tarot cards can be obtained from TaroBear's Lair.

Chips

The scoring is always done using tokens, or chips, rather than on paper. Keeping score in writing, though possible, would be rather inconvenient, because of the two pots, and the payments that are made between players during the play of the hand.

It is best to use chips in denominations of 5, 20, 100 and possibly 500, distinguished by different shapes or sizes. Ideally all denominations should be available in three or four different colours, so that each player can begin with a supply of chips of their own colour. That way it is easy to see how much each player has won or lost, and it is not necessary for each player to have an equal number of chips at the start of the game.

The Pots

Two distinct receptacles are needed to hold the pagat pot and the king pot. In the past there were purpose built pots marked with a crown and a figure 1 respectively. Alternatively, you may use a wide, shallow dish with a smaller bowl standing in the centre of it (like a cup and saucer). The centre bowl is the king pot and the dish is the pagat pot.

The mechanics of the game

The general direction of the game is counter-clockwise.

Dealing

The cards are dealt five at a time to the three active players, until each has 25 cards. The dealer adds the remaining three cards to his own hand.

Discarding

The dealer now discards (ekarterer) three of his cards. These three cards are called the skat (skaten), and will not be used in the play. The skat constitues the first three cards in the dealer's trick pile.

Declaring

Certain combined holdings of court cards, trumps, and the fool are called declarations (meldinger). Any valid combinations held must be declared to the other players. Starting with the dealer, each player declares his combinations in turn. The information passed with the declarations have significant influence on the strategy in the play.

Play

The player to the dealer's right leads to the first trick, and play proceeds in counter-clockwise rotation. All players must follow suit, playing any card they wish in the suit led (trumps are considered as a separate suit). If a player cannot follow suit, he must play a trump (any trump he wishes). If a player has no cards in the suit led nor any trumps, he may play any card in any other suit. The trick is won by the player contributing the highest trump to the trick, or if no trump was played, by the player contributing the highest card in the suit led. The three cards in the trick are placed face down in front of the player winning the trick. These rules do not apply to the fool; see below. The player who wins a trick is on lead to the next trick.

The last trick

The prime focus of the game is on the last trick. In general, the winner of a hand is the player who takes the last trick. Five cards, i.e., the four kings and the pagat, are designated as Ultimo cards. There is a considerable bonus for winning the last trick with an Ultimo card; this is known as "winning Ultimo". Playing an Ultimo card in the last trick without winning the trick, on the other hand, is known in Danish as "Bagud" (literally "going out the back way"). There is a penalty, equivalent to the Ultimo bonus, for losing a Bagud.

For advice on how to win an Ultimo, or prevent someone else doing so, see the strategy page.

End of play

The new dealer deals, while the two other players count their trick piles (see scoring below).

The fool

The fool is a card with special properties during the play. The fool is used to extend any suit by one card, possibly even after the player holding the fool has not followed for several rounds of that suit. This is formalized as follows:

  • The fool can be played at any time, regardless of the suit led and the player's holding in that suit or in trumps (but see the rules below regarding the last three tricks).
  • Until it is actually played, the fool does not belong to any of the suits (including trumps). When it is led or played, it becomes the lowest ranking card in the suit led to the trick.
  • When a player leads the fool, he names the suit intended. (This is known as "naming the fool" (at benævne skisen))
Although the fool can never win a trick, for scoring purposes the card is not lost to the winner of the trick:
  • The fool is not surrendered to the player winning the trick; instead it goes to the trick pile of the player playing it (but see the rules below when the fool is played in the last trick).
Special rules govern the way the fool is used in the end play. They are probably intended to avoid giving the holder of the fool undue advantages:
  • The fool must never be played to the second to last trick.
  • When the fool is in the last trick, it is added to the trick pile of the player winning the trick.
  • During the third to last trick, any player who does not hold the fool may require that it be played. The play to this trick is then taken back as far as necessary to comply with this requirement. There is a penalty for requiring the fool erroneously.
Some special, somewhat complicated rules apply to the naming of the fool, when it is led. Their purpose is originally to prevent the fool from ever winning a trick. These rules are seldom needed.
  • If the second player is void in the suit named for the fool, he may make the statement, "I have no cards in that suit". The third player then checks whether he has any cards in the suit named, and makes a statement to that effect. If it turns out that he too is void in the suit, the fool remains led, but the second player has the right to name the fool.
  • If the second player is void in the suit named for the fool and plays to the trick anyway (which he may do either inadvertently or on purpose), he loses the right to name the fool. If now the third player is also void, he can claim the right to name the fool. The second player will now usually need to take his played card back in order to follow suit.
  • If both the second and the third players show out on the suit named for the fool instead of claiming the right to name the fool, then they were obliged to play trumps if they had them, and the higher trump wins the trick as usual. However, if both the second and third players have run out of trumps, then the card played by the second player automatically names the fool, and the third player may have to take his played card back in order to follow suit.

The discard (the skat)

The dealer may discard any three cards from his hand, subject to the following restrictions.

  • Ultimo cards (the kings and the pagat) can never be discarded.
  • The mondo (tarok 21) can never be discarded.
  • It is illegal to discard a card that would otherwise be part of a combination to be declared, except in the highly unlikely case where it is impossible to avoid doing so. If the dealer has more than 25 cards that belong to combinations that can be declared, he must declare and is paid for all of them, and he must also announce exactly which declared card(s) he is discarding.
  • The dealer may discard one or more trumps only if he thereby becomes void in trumps. For the purpose of this rule, the fool does not count as a trump. During the play, if the dealer shows out in trumps at the first opportunity to play one, he must if requested by an opponent declare whether he discarded trumps or not, but need not say how many. Note that if the dealer holds the pagat or the mondo he cannot discard trumps even if he has three or fewer of them.
  • The fool may not be discarded except in the rare case that the dealer wishes to play for Tout. If the dealer discards the fool for this reason, he must announce that he is playing for Tout.
Some play with slightly different discard restrictions - see variations section. See the strategy section for advice on what to discard.

The declarations

Certain combinations of cards in a player's hand must be declared before play starts. Declarations are made in rotation starting with the dealer.

Trumps
A player holding 10 or more trumps must declare how many he has. For this purpose, the fool counts as a trump. When trumps are declared, the player must also mention whether or not he holds the pagat. A sample declaration is "11 trumps, with the pagat" (11 tarokker med pagat); if there are no other declarations, it is not revealed whether the fool was one of the 11 trumps.
Matadors
3 matadors is the combination of the fool, mondo, and the pagat. 4 matadors additionally includes the trump 20. 5 matadors additionally includes the trump 19, etc. A player holding the fool, mondo, and the pagat must declare how many matadors he holds.
Cavallerie
A player who holds four court cards of the same suit must declare cavallerie of the suit. A typical declaration is simply "full hearts" (fulde hjerter). If in addition to the four court cards, he also holds the fool, he declares abundant cavallerie, e.g., "abundant spades" (sprøjtefulde spar). And if he holds three court cards of the same suit and the fool, he declares half cavallerie and mentions which court card he is missing, e.g. "half diamonds, no knight" (halve ruder, mangler kaval).
Kings
A player holding all four kings must declare "full kings" (fulde konger). With all four kings and the fool, he declares "abundant kings" (sprøjtefulde konger). With three kings and the fool, he declares "half kings" (halve konger) and mentions the suit in which he is missing the king.
Note: In Danish, "fuld" means both "full" and "drunk", and "sprøjtefuld" is a somewhat outdated slangy expression for "seriously intoxicated".

A player who has no declaration to make says "pass" (pas).

Scoring, payment

Scoring is done in terms of immediate payment in tokens. Payment happens at several points during the game, and payment is effected both directly among the players and with two pots (kop, pl. kopper). All payment is in multiples of 5 units.

Each player has his own tokens (jeton, pl. jetoner). In addition there are two pots, the pagat pot (pagatkoppen) and the king pot (kongekoppen), which each contain some tokens. Payments are made at the following points during the game.

1. Foundation (fundering)

At the very beginning of the game, each player contributes 20 to each pot. Subsequently, whenever a pot is emptied, each player contributes 20 to that pot. If there are four players, these foundation payments are also made the player who is sitting out; this is the only payment required of a player sitting out.

2. Dealing

The dealer pays 5 to each pot. This can be construed as payment for the privilege of choosing and knowing the contents of the skat. It can also be taken as payment for the privilege of the much higher likelihood of getting a good hand because of the extra three cards.

3. Declaring

When a player makes an (obligatory) declaration, the other two players pay him immediately. This can be construed as payment for the information received. The schedule of payment is as follows.

  • 10 trumps = 10. 11 trumps = 15. 12 trumps = 20. And so on (5 more for each additional trump).
  • 3 matadors = 10. 4 matadors = 15. 5 matadors = 20. And so on (5 more for each additional matador).
  • abundant kings or cavallerie: 15
  • full kings or cavallerie: 10
  • half kings or cavallerie: 5
One card may belong to several declarations. This is especially true of the fool. All such declarations must be made and paid for independently.

4. During play, but not in the final trick

When a player leads or plays a king to a trick, but does not win the trick, he pays 5 to each of the other two players and 5 to the king pot.

When a player leads or plays the pagat to a trick, but does not win the trick, he pays 5 to each of the other two players and 5 to the pagat pot .

When a player wins a trick with the pagat, the other two players each pay him 5 (but does not take anything from the pagat pot). (A variant of the game exists which does not recognize this payment. It is not clear which variant is the dominant one).

5. After the final trick

Tout
If one player has taken all 25 tricks, he has made Tout, both the other active players pay him 85. In addition he will receive payment from each player for the cards (see below), and he also takes the contents of both pots, which then both need foundation (unless there are simultaneous occurences of Bagud).
Nolo
If just one player takes no tricks, he has made Nolo, and the two other players pay him 25. When a player makes Nolo there is no score for the last trick or the cards, and Ulitimos do not count. The Nolo itself does not count if another player wins Tout.
Pagat Ultimo.
If a player wins the last trick with the pagat, and there is no Tout or Nolo, that player receives 45 from each of the other two players. He also receives the contents of the pagat pot, which then needs foundation.
King Ultimo.
If a player wins the last trick with a king, and there is no Tout or Nolo, that player receives 40 from each of the other two players. He also receives the contents of the king pot, which then needs foundation (unless there is a simultaneous king Bagud, see below).
Pagat Bagud.
If a player plays the pagat to the last trick without winning the trick, that player pays 45 to each of the other two players. He also doubles the contents of the pagat pot. Payment is effected regardless of a simultaneous Tout, Nolo. (Simultaneous Ultimo is not possible.)
King Bagud
If a player plays a king to the last trick without winning the trick, that player pays 40 to each of the other two players. He also doubles the contents of the king pot. Payment is effected regardless of a simultaneous Tout, Nolo, or Ultimo.
Last Trick
If a player wins the last trick with a card other than a king or the pagat, and there is no Tout, Nolo, or Bagud, he receives 20 from each of the other two players.

When several payments concerning the last trick affect the king pot, the contents of the pot is first counted; then, if there is an Ultimo winner, he is paid; finally, any player owing for Bagud pays the amount that was originally in the pot. Imagine, for instance, that three kings are in the last trick (no Tout or Nolo) and the king pot contains 135. The winner takes the 135, and each of the two losers pays 135 to the pot, which then contains 270.

Failed announced Tout. If the dealer discarded the fool and announced a Tout, but failed to win every trick, he must double both pots and pay 85 to each opponent. No Ultimo is possible. When this happens it is likely that one of the other players will win a Nolo, which must also be paid for in the usual way.

Apparently the difference between 40 for King Ultimo and 45 for Pagat Ultimo recognizes that winning the pagat in an earlier trick would be worth 5 on its own.

6. After the final trick payments are settled (the count)

With the exception of the next dealer, who should be busy dealing the other pack, the players count the value of their piles of tricks, according to the following schedule:

  • The pagat, mondo, the fool, and the four kings each count 4 points.
  • The four queens each count 3 points.
  • The four knights each count 2 points.
  • The four jacks each count 1 point.
  • Each trick taken counts 1 point.
  • The skat counts 1 point.
This amounts to 78 points in total (7*4 + 4*3 + 4*2 + 4*1 + 25 + 1)

In practice, the player simply counts 1 point for every three cards in the trick pile. The trick with the fool will have moved one card from one pile to another, but that should not confuse the counting player.

The total number of points counted for each player is compared with 26. The difference is rounded off to the nearest multiple of 5. The corresponding number of tokens is paid to the new dealer by a player with fewer than 26 points, or received from the new dealer by a player with more than 26 points. The most common payments are summarized in the table:

Point count
14-18 pay new dealer 10
19-23 pay new dealer 5
24-28 no payment
29-33 receive 5 from new dealer
34-38 receive 10 from new dealer

When there is a Nolo, there is no payment for point count.

7. After the final hand of the session has been played.

The contents of the two pots are divided evenly among the three (or four) players.

Proprieties

Tarok is a game of controlled communication among the players. Hence it is a game with no conversation and no body language during play. Information should be exchanged only through declarations of card combinations and the play of the cards.

In two cases it is considered improper to play safe in order to avoid Bagud: Consider the following end game with two tricks to go:

Position 1:
A: diamondR, T7
B: heartR, diamond9
C: club7, club2

If A is on lead, he can play the last trump and win his king Ultimo. If C is on lead, A's Ultimo is automatic. In both these cases, B will play the heartR and avoid Bagud. But if B is on lead, his play of the heartR will allow A to win his king Ultimo, whereas a diamond will drive out the diamondR, preventing the Ultimo at the cost of B's Bagud. It is normally accepted that in such a situation B is morally obliged to lose his Bagud, even though it is not in his interest (especially if the king pot is much richer than the pagat pot). The reasoning behind this is that the player's first obligation is to protect the values in the pots, and he therefore should not be holding on to his king if he cannot guarantee that there will not be another Ultimo.

Here are two other positions, still two tricks to go, B on lead:

Position 2:
A: T10, T7
B: heartR, diamond9
C: heart3, heart4
Position 3:
A: T10, heart3
B: heartR, diamond9
C: T7, heart4

Leading the diamond9 leads to Bagud in position 2 and to Ultimo in position 3. Leading the Heart king concedes the last trick, gives up the chance of Ultimo, and removes the risk of Bagud. It is normally accepted that if B has no information to distinguish the two positions, he should take the chance, run the risk of Bagud, and play the diamond9.

Sometimes a player has a choice of going for a king Ultimo or a pagat Ultimo. If there is a considerable difference in the value of the two pots, it is considered proper to go for the most profitable pot. However, it is not considered proper to seek information about the contents of the pots during the play of a hand.

Logistics, The fourth player

Payment is made by means of chips or tokens. The king pot and the pagat pot are maintained in specially designed cups, marked with a crown and the figure 1 respectively. Or they are simply kept in a normal cup and saucer, the king pot being the cup.

Usually two decks are used. While one is being dealt, the player on the dealer's left shuffles the other deck and places it on his own left.

Players should not pick up the cards until the dealer has finished dealing and verified that he himself receives eight cards at the end. The dealer does this by making the somewhat confusing statement "the discard is ready" ("skaten er klar").

The position of the pots on the table signifies who the dealer is. After play ends, the pots should be on the previous dealer's right, which is the new dealer's left. Once all payments have been settled, the new dealer pays for the privilege of dealing in each pot and simultaneously moves the pots from his left to his right, thus signaling that he has indeed paid for dealing. If there has been an Ultimo or Bagud, he may be well into the deal before all the payments of the previous deal has been settled. Any doubt that arises as to whether the dealer has paid for his privilege is resolved by the position of the pots.

A player who has not been dealt any trumps (the fool does not count as a trump here) may declare a misdeal and require that the same dealer shuffles and deals again.

Tarok can be played in a company of four. The player opposite the dealer sits out, and takes over the obligation of shuffling the extra pack, leaving it on his own left. In general, he may observe the game but make no sound or gesture during play. The fourth player does not participate in payments, except when an empty cup needs foundation.

A fourth player joining a party of three can enter the game by adding to each pot one third of what is already there.

The winner of a pot is responsible for ensuring the subsequent foundation (when needed). If the pot is later found to be deficient, he must complete the pot from his own funds.

Irregularities during play - fines

If an irregularity occurs during play, the players must agree on the severity, and a fine is then paid. If four players are in the game, and no agreement can be reached, the fourth player can be used as arbiter. There are four categories of irregularities:
Superficial. No fine.
Examples are
  • Wrong number of cards after dealing, when the player with too many cards still has not seen the face of his cards.
  • Revoke (failure to follow suit or failure to play a trump on a trick where a player cannot follow suit), provided that the revoke can be corrected without divulging essential information and without unduly influencing the play.
  • Naming the fool in a suit that cannot be followed.
  • Declarations can be corrected without penalty until the opening lead; but only if the correction does not divulge essential information. (It is acceptable to correct a declaration of 12 trumps to 11, but not to correct a declaration of 10 trumps to "pass").
Minor. 5 in each pot.
Examples are
  • Failure to move the pots after paying for dealing.
  • Wrong number of cards dealt in such a way that the cards must be redealt. (Same dealer)
Major. 20 in each pot. Play continues.
Examples include
  • Making a declaration before the dealer has discarded and made his declarations.
  • Lead out of turn. The lead is taken back.
  • Premature play of a card. The card cannot be taken back.
  • Calling for the fool when it has already been played.
Irrecoverable. 40 in each pot. Play abandoned. New player deals.
Examples include
  • Improper discarding. Cannot be corrected once the player to the right of the dealer makes his declarations.
  • Irrecoverable revoke.
  • Errors in declarations that are not superficial. The bonus received for the wrong declaration is paid back. The error is not penalized if discovered after all payments have been made at the end of play.
  • A player holds the wrong number of cards, as discovered during play (i.e., after the opening lead has been made).

Variations

There are several minor variations in the discard restrictions for the dealer.

  • Some play that the fool can never be discarded, in which case it is impossible for the dealer to play for Tout if he holds the fool.
  • Some play that if the dealer discards trumps, at the point in the play when he shows void of trumps he must, if asked, declare not only that he has discarded trumps, but also how many trumps he discarded.
  • Formerly it was legal to discard the the pagat (but not the mondo) in order to create a void in trumps. This rule is given by J.V.V. Hermansen in his classic manual Tarok (1926) and may possibly still be observed by some players. However, Hans Jørgen Møller, author of Tarok (1988), informs me that all clubs now use the rule that ultimo cards can never be discarded.

Danish Tarok compared with other Tarot games

For readers who have a general knowledge of other tarot games, the game can be summarized in these terms:

  1. Danish Tarok is a game for three players using the full 78 card pack. It is unlike most modern tarot games in that there is no bidding and no formal partnerships. However, an informal alliance often forms against the player with the strongest cards.
  2. It is the last surviving member of a group of games, typified by Großtarok, which were played throughout Germany, and in many neighbouring countries from the late 18th century and through most of the 19th century.
  3. The fool is used as an excuse, not as the highest trump: the fool can never take a trick and can be played instead of following suit.
  4. Scoring is dominated by special pots that are awarded to a player winning Ultimo (i.e. making the final trick with a king or the pagat), but other payments among the players are frequent. The bonuses and penalties are such that winning Ultimo, or conversely, preventing other players from winning Ultimo, is the major purpose of the game, overshadowing all other purposes. Still, tricks taken and counting cards have some value.
  5. Normal tarot-style rules for leading, following, and trumping apply. French Tarot players should note that there is no obligation to play higher when playing a trump; also that the ranking of the spot cards has not been rationalised as it has in France; the traditional order has been preserved, with the red suit spot cards ranking in reverse order.

References and Web Sites

  1. Emil Wolff: Tarok. København: H. Hagerups Forlag 1899.
  2. Oberstløjtnant R. L. Borch: Tarok. En vejledning i Spillets Regler og Anvendelse. 1924. Reprinted 1959 by "Tarokklubben af 1959".
  3. J. V. V. Hermansen: Tarok. Published 1943.
  4. H. J. Møller: Tarok: En vejledning i det ædle kortspil. København: Strubes forlag 1988.

Reference 2 has been used here to resolve disagreements among the sources regarding the finer points of the rules.

Here is the web site of the Dansk Tarokforbund with club information and a blog. On this site, Hans Møller has published a history of Danish Tarok analysing changes in the game over the last two centuries. Here is an English translation of this history.

Card images used with permission of France Cartes