Tartli

This page is based on a contribution from Róbert Kovács.

tartli

Introduction

Tartli is a two-player card game that was popular around the turn of the 19th and 20th century in Hungary. Sándor Bródy, a Hungarian author from that era, was so fond of it that he would even pay players to join him for a game or two after lunch. By the mid 1920s, the game was on the decline, a situation described as „agonizing” by the prolific writer and card game enthusiast István Szomaházy.

Tartli is a trick and draw game of the Jass family played with a 32-card German suited pack, in which combinations can be declared not only at the start but during the game, as and when the necessary cards are collected. In Tartli, unlike most Jass games, it is the Over-Knave rather than the Under-Knave that is the highest trump. In Hungarian this card is called Felső (roughly translated as "Upper"), and the game is sometimes known as Felsős in contrast to Alsós in which the top trump is the Lower Knave (Alsó).

A version of Tartli is also played in Austria under the name Tartl, although there too it has declined in popularity. The Hungarian form of the game will be described first, and then the differences in the Austrian version will be listed.

Players and Equipment

Tartli is traditionally played with a 32 card Hungarian deck of cards, which has German suits of Acorns (makk), Leaves (zöld), Hearts (piros) and Gourds (tök) and depicts the four seasons on the Aces and characters from Friedrich Schiller’s William Tell play on the Upper and Lower cards.

Since the cards have no index letters, here is a list of the cards in each suit and how to recognise them.

  • The Ace (ász) is also known in Hungary (as in Austria and Southern Germany) as the Pig (disznó). The suit symbols in the four corners of the Aces are rotated and they show scenes depicting the four seasons of the year.
  • The King (király) is mounted on a horse and has upright suit symbols. It is also known as the Foal (csikó), probably because of the horse.
  • The Over Knave (felső) has no horse, and a suit symbol at the top left corner of the card. It is also known as filkó.
  • The Under Knave (alsó) is distinguished from the Over by having its suit symbol lower down the left hand side of the card.
  • The Ten (tízes), Nine (kilences), Eight (nyolcas) and Seven (hetes) have the appropriate number of suit symbols at each end of the card and the corresponding Roman numbers X, IX, VIII, VII.

Here for example are all the acorns in the order Ace, King, Over, Under, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven.

acekingoverundertennineeightseven

Players in North America can obtain William Tell cards from TaroBear's Lair. Alternatively, in an emergency it would be possible to play with international cards, using Queens for Over Knaves and Jacks for Under Knaves.

Tartli is a point-trick game with trumps. Points are scored for winning valuable cards in tricks and for melding combinations (sequences and sets). The values of the individual cards are given in brackets in the lists below. The cards within each suit have three different ranking orders.

  1. The order used for making sequences is as above from high to low:
    Ace, King, Over, Under, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven.
  2. The trick-taking order in trumps from high to low is:
    Over (20), Nine (14), Ace (11), Ten (10), King (4), Under (2), Eight (0), Seven (0).
  3. The trick-taking order in non-trump suits from high to low is:
    Ace (11), Ten (10), King (4), Over (3), Under (2), Nine (0), Eight (0), Seven (0).

There are a total of 61 card points in the trump suit and 30 card points in each other suit. In addition the last trick is worth an extra 10 card points to the player who wins it, so the total number of card points in the deck is 161.

For maximum authenticity the score should be kept using slate and chalk (and a sponge to erase marks as needed). However in the absence of this equipment a pen and paper is adequate.

Melds

There are three types of combination that can be melded: sequences, sets and the 'béla'.

A sequence consists of at least three consecutive cards of a suit, using the order A-K-O-U-X-IX-VIII-VII. The names and values of the sequences are as follows.

Terc (3 cards): 20 points
Kvart (4 cards): 50 points
Kvint (5 cards): 100 points
Szext (6 cards): 100 points
Szept (7 cards): 100 points
Okt (8 cards): 100 points

A set consists of four equal cards, but not VIII's or VII's. A set of four is sometimes called a 'vannak', which is just a part of the Hungarian verb 'to be' meaning 'they are'. The values are:

Four Unders, Kings, Tens or Aces: 100 points
Four Nines: 150 points
Four Overs: 200 points

During each trick only one of the players can score for a sequence and/or a set of four. If both players declare meld, only the owner of the highest declared combination will score. For this purpose:

  • Any set of four equal cards (vannak) beats any sequence
  • Sets of four rank in trump order from high to low: Overs, Nines, Aces, Tens, Kings, Unders.
  • Any longer sequence beats any shorter sequence, irrespective of the suit or the rank of the cards.
  • Between two sequences of equal length, the one with the higher top card wins, the cards ranking for this purpose in the sequence order from high to low Ace, King, Over, Under, Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven.
  • Between two sequences of equal length and equal top cards, a sequence in the trump suit wins.
  • Between two equal non-trump sequences the one declared first (by the player who led to the trick) wins.

The béla is a special meld consisting of the King and Over of trumps, which scores 40 points and neither beats nor is beaten by any other meld. A player who holds these two cards can meld them and score for them independently of anything else declared by either player.

Deal

The first dealer is chosen by any convenient random method. For example each player draws a card from the shuffled deck and the player who draws the lower ranked card deals first. After the first hand, the turn to deal alternates between the players.

The dealer shuffles, the non-dealer cuts and the dealer deals 9 cards to each player in packets of 3 at a time. The dealer turns up the next card, which will indicate the trump suit for the hand, and then stacks rest of the deck face down, crosswise on top of the trump indicator, so that trump indicator card remains partially visible. These 14 undealt cards are called the talon, from which players will draw cards during the first phase of the play.

Play

The non-dealer leads to the first trick and the winner of each trick leads to the next. Any card from hand may be led. Each trick is won by the highest trump card in it, or if no trump was played to the trick it is won by the highest card in the suit of the card that was led.

After each of the first 7 tricks, whoever wins trick draws the top card of the talon and adds it to their hand without showing it, and then the loser of the trick does the same, so that after drawing each player's hand again contains 9 cards. During this period the second player to a trick may play any card - there is no requirement to follow suit or to trump.

Immediately before any of the first 7 tricks, if the player due to lead to the trick holds the VII of trumps, they may exchange it with the trump indicator card before leading to the trick. This exchange is not compulsory - the player may prefer to keep the trump VII in hand, for example if it forms part of a meld the player wants to declare, or to keep it concealed from the opponent. The trump indicator card - either the one originally dealt or the VII if it has been exchanged - will be drawn by the loser of the 7th trick.

Starting from the 8th trick, when the talon has become empty, the rules of play change. From this point onwards the second player to each trick is obliged to follow suit. If holding no card of the suit that was led, the second player is obliged to play a trump if possible. With no cards of the suit led and no trumps in hand, the second player may play any card, but of course cannot win the trick. When following suit there is no obligation to beat the leader's card - the second player is free to play a higher or a lower card of the same suit at will.

Declaration of Melds

During the first 8 tricks, players may declare sequences, sets and béla that they hold in their hand. These combinations are described in the meld section above. In each trick a player may declare at most one set and one sequence. These may have a card in common - for example an Under-Vannak and a Heart-Over-Terc can be declared together, using the Under of Hearts twice. Each player declares their sets and sequences before playing their card to a trick. The order of actions during a trick is as follows.

  1. (optional, first 7 tricks only) If holding the trump VII, the leader to the trick may take the trump indicator card and replace it with the VII.
  2. (optional, first 8 tricks only) The leader to the trick may declare one set and/or one sequence of cards held in hand.
  3. The leader plays the first card to the trick.
  4. (optional, first 8 tricks only) The second player may declare one set and/or one sequence of cards held in hand if the highest combination declared can potentially beat the highest declared by the leader.
  5. If both players have declared meld, further details are given to establish who has declared the highest combination.
  6. The second player plays a card to the trick.
  7. If either player has declared meld the player with the best item of declared meld specifies and scores for all the meld they declared.
  8. The winner of the trick is determined, and the winner stores the two played cards in their trick pile.
  9. (first 7 tricks only) The winner of the trick draws the top card of the talon and the loser draws the next card.

In steps 2 and 4, a set is declared by saying 'vannak' and a sequence by stating its length, for example 'kvart' for a 4-card sequence. If the leader declares meld in step 2 the second player can only declare meld in step 4 if it could potentially score. So for example if the first player's declaration included a vannak, the second player could only declare meld if the declaration also included a vannak - it would not be possible, for example, just to announce a kvint. If the first player declares only a sequence, the second player needs to declare an equal or longer sequence or a vannak. For example if the first player declared a kvart, the second player could declare a kvart or a kvint or a vannak with a terc, but not a terc alone. A set or sequence that is not declared at the appropriate time (step 2 or 4) during a trick cannot be scored (step 6) in that trick.

In step 5 the players exchange minimal information to determine who has declared the best meld. If neither player or only one player has declared, or if the second player's meld is already known to be better, this step is skipped. If both players declared a vannak, the first player states the rank (for example ''King-Vannak") and the second player replies "Good" if the first player's Vannak is better or "Higher here" if not. If the contest is between equal length sequences, the first player states the rank of the top card and now the second player will reply "Higher here" if holding a higher sequence or an equally high sequence in trumps, and "Good" otherwise.

In step 7 the player scoring melds (if any were declared) specifies them by stating the rank of a vannak and the top rank and suit of a sequence - for example "Under-Vannak" or "Acorn-Over-Kvart" (meaning O-U-X-IX of acorns) - and records the score.

Melds that were declared but not scored because the opponent won a contest of melds can be redeclared and scored in a later trick so long as the cards are still in the player’s hand and there is an opportunity. It is possible to play to a trick one of the cards of a meld that is being declared in that trick, but if the player loses the meld contest, the opportunity to declare that particular meld is lost since the card is no longer held.

After scoring a sequence it is possible for the same player to declare another sequence in the same suit in a subsequent trick, and even to reuse cards of the sequence that has already been scored, but only if the following conditions are met. Either

  1. the top card of the new sequence must be higher, or
  2. if the top card of the new meld is the same the new meld must be longer, or
  3. the new meld must be separated from any previous meld in that suit by at least one missing card.

So a player who has previously scored a Heart-King-Kvart but no other heart sequences can subsequently declare a Heart-Ace-Terc (case "a") or a Heart-King-Kvint (case "b") but not a Heart-King-Terc (too short) nor a Heart-Over-Kvint (too low). A player who has previously scored a Heart-Ace-Kvart but no other sequences can declare a Heart-Nine-Terc (the missing Heart-Ten makes a gap between the two sequences) but not a Heart-Ten-Terc (because the sequences are adjacent and form one long sequence). This last case is academic because in practice the player would no doubt prefer declare the Heart-Ace-Kvint, then the szext and then the szept for 100 points each in the next three tricks.

It is possible to score a long sequence in multiple segments during several tricks. For example a kvint can be scored as 3 terces, 2 kvarts and a kvint during 6 tricks, so long as the cards are still in the player’s hand and the opponent does not interfere by declaring better meld. Care must be taken, however, to declare the sequences in the right order. For example the sequences within an an Over-Kvint could only be declared in the order Ten-Terc, Under-Terc, Under-Kvart, Over-Terc, Over-Kvart, Over-Kvint. If the opponent can delay this process by declaring higher sequences in some tricks there might not be time to declare all of them within the first eight tricks, and in that case the player would do better to skip some of the lower value sequences to be sure to score at least the kvarts and the kvint.

The Béla is entirely independent of this process. It can be declared and scored at any time during the first 8 tricks if the player has the two cards in hand. If the points are enough to win the game the holder will of course declare it immediately. If not, it may be better to delay declaring it so as not to reveal prematurely that one holds those two cards.

Scoring

At the end of the play each player totals the value of the cards won in tricks, the winner of the last trick adds 10 card points, and each player adds the result to their cumulative score. The scores of the two players for tricks should always add up to 161 card points.

If one player wins all of the last 9 tricks - that is all the tricks played after the talon is exhausted - the opponent's tricks are forfeited. The winner of the last 9 tricks scores 161 for tricks while the opponent scores nothing. This situation is sometimes known as stichmatsch.

The first player to reach 501 or more points scores one buli point (victory point) if the opponent has 251 or more points at the time. This normally takes several deals. If the winner's opponent has 250 points or less, the winner scores two buli points - this is known as a maccs. When a buli point is won, both players' card point scores are erased and begin again from zero.

Normally a session lasts until someone reaches 5 or 10 buli points, after which if playing for money the players settle at an agreed stake per buli point difference. This would be a nominal amount - say 10 cents per buli point in today's money.

A player whose score including the value of completed tricks is 501 card points or more can stop the play and claim to have won. This is known as "going out", and it can happen at any time, even in the middle of playing a trick. For this reason it is good practice to keep a mental count of card points if either player is near 501. The player who went out shows the tricks they have won so far, and if the card points in these together with the other points the player has scored are sufficient the player wins one buli point (or two if the opponent has not reached 251). For example a player who has just won a meld contest can go out and include the meld value in their score, and in this case the card points for the current trick do not count for either player. Or a player who has reached 461 or more and has just drawn the second card of a béla can declare it immediately for 40 card points and go out before the following trick begins.

If a player makes an incorrect claim, going out with less than 501 points, the play still ends and their opponent wins the buli point irrespective of their card point total. If both players have 501 points or more, the player who goes out first wins even if the opponent in fact had more card points at the time. If at the end of a hand when the card points are added up it turns out that both players have reached 501 card points or more but neither has claimed, the player with more card points wins the buli point. If they are equal, the first player who scores any card points in the next hand wins the buli.

Note that if a player goes out during a hand, both players count the points in the tricks they have won up to that point, even if one of them could have won the last 9 tricks causing the other to forfeit their tricks. So a player whose card point score is 501 or more but who is in danger of losing the last 9 tricks should go out before the end of play if the transfer of their tricks to the opponent would leave them with less than 501. On the other hand, a player who has 501 card points and a good prospect of winning the last 9 tricks may prefer not to go out but to play the hand to the end if taking the opponent's tricks would leave the opponent with less than 251 card points.

The card point score is traditionally recorded using chalk marks on a slate. There are special signs for 20, 30, 50, 80 and 100 as follows.

tartli scoring

As you can see, it is easy to convert a 30 to a 50 or an 80 to 100 by adding a stroke when an additional 20 is scored. Odd card points (usually 10 or less) are written as negative or positive numbers on the slate. This way of scoring allows meld to be scored during the play by adding just a stroke or two and allows a quick check of the total, which becomes important when someone is near 501 points. At the end of each hand the current card point total of each player should be announced for both players to hear.

Advice on play

During the first half of the play, the aim should normally be to collect valuable melds, which may entail sacrificing some high value cards. The exception is when someone is close to winning, in which case taking high value tricks can be more important.

When waiting for meld, a potential sequence that is open at both ends so that there are two cards that will complete or extend it, is better than a sequence that ends in Ace or VII or is missing an interior card, when there is only one card that will help. For example X-IX is a better prospect than A-K or U-IX.

A long Sequence should be announced in one go if there are not enough tricks left to split it up, or if it gives you enough points to win or get out of maccs.

It is essential to keep track of cards that have been played, to avoid a futile wait to complete a meld with a card that has already gone.

It is worth keeping a sequence, especially a kvart, for a while after scoring it if there is a chance of extending it to a more valuable sequence.

Overs and IX's are very important. Not only they can form high value vannaks and are valuable trumps, but having the IX and Over of a suit prevents the opponent from making any sequence in that suit.

In the second phase of the play when melds are no longer possible, taking high value tricks is the priority. In the first phase trumps should be collected rather than played to prepare for this.

Try to keep a card that guarantees you can win at least one of the last 9 tricks, to avoid the risk of having to surrender your tricks.

There are further tactical notes and tips in József Pais’ book Ulti, Tarokk és néhány kis játék (in Hungarian) and Fritz Beck's book Tartl und Zensa (in German).

Austrian Tartl

The Austrian Perlen Reihe book Tartl und Zensa by Fritz Beck gives another version of Tartl. The cards used are the same as in Hungary, except that the inscriptions on the Aces, Overs and Unders are in German. The differences from the Hungarian game described above are as follows.

  1. The card turned up as the trump indicator can be the next card after any of the packets of three that are dealt, that is the 4th, 7th, 10th, 13th, 16th or 19th card. The non-dealer can specify which. If the non-dealer says nothing the dealer must turn the 19th card, after completing the deal of the players' 9-card hands.
  2. The turn to deal does not alternate. Instead, the winner of each hand deals the next.
  3. There is no declaration of four Nines. The only sets of four (Vierlings) that can be declared are Overs (200), Aces (100), Tens (100), Kings (100) and Unders (100).
  4. Some play that a set of four Tens ranks below a set of four Unders, not above a set of four Kings. The players must agree before the start of the game which rule to play.
  5. The rules on declaring sequences (Terz, Quart, Quint, Sext, Siebt, Acht) are less restrictive than in the Hungarian game.
    • A player can declare more than one sequence in the same trick, provided that each declared sequence is in a different suit.
    • The only restriction on declaring a new sequence in the same suit in which the player has already scored a sequence is that the new sequence must not be entirely contained within a longer sequence that has previously been scored. So for example after scoring a Heart-King-Quart the same player cannot declare a Heart-Over-Terz but is allowed to declare a Heart-Unter-Terz since it contains a card, the IX, that was not in the Quart.
  6. Any meld combinations that are scored must be shown at the at the end of the trick if the opponent asks to see them.
  7. The holder of the trump VII can exchange it for the original trump indicator card at any time - it is not necessary to be on lead to a trick to do this. However, if the trump VII is exchanged it cannot be used as part of a sequence meld in the same trick.
    • Example. Suppose that after your opponent wins the 6th trick the score is 495-440 against you. The trump indicator is the Acorn Over. You have Acorn IX and VIII in your hand and after the 6th trick you draw the Acorn VII. Your opponent leads the Leaf Ace to the 7th trick without declaring anything. You need to trump this trick to stop your opponent from scoring 11 points for the trick and winning, but if you allow your opponent to draw the trump indicator card she will use that card to win. So you need to swap the trump VII for the Over and you would also like to declare your Terz for 20 - then you would have an immediate 11 points for this trick, 20 for the Terz, and 34 for the trump Over and IX on the next two tricks - enough to win. But you cannot do all these things because if you use the VII take the trump indicator in this trick you cannot also declare your Terz. The best you can do is to exchange the trump-VII, win the trick with the trump-VIII and then lead the trump Ober and IX, bringing your score to 485 plus whatever your opponent contributes to these two tricks, and then try to win the remaining card points you need before your opponent can take 6 more points.
  8. The winner of the 7th trick must show the second to last card of the talon before taking it.
  9. There is no special reward for winning the last 9 tricks. Players keep all the tricks they have won in the first part of the play even if their opponent wins every trick after the talon is exhausted.
  10. Each game to 501 card points is a separate event. There is no accumulation of 'buli' points up to a target score. The winner is paid the agreed stake by the loser. If the loser has less than 250 card points the game is a Double (the Austrian equivalent of maccs) and the loser pays two stakes instead of one. With 250 card points exactly the loser is out of Double.
  11. Beck gives several additional symbols for scoring.
    • Single strokes representing 20 points can be built into groups of five representing 100 like this.
      tartl scores
    • If a player has a 'V' symbol representing 50 and scores another 50, the 'V' can be closed into a triangle representing 100.
    • Negative numbers are written with a bar above the number. Two-digit positive numbers can be underlined to a clear distinction between one two-digit number and two single-digit numbers.
      tartl scores
      So the signs below show a score of 319 - that is 100+80+50+80-3+12.
      score 319

Variations and References

The descriptions above are based on the rules given in the books by Pais (Hungarian) and Beck (Austrian) listed below with one exception. Unlike all other sources, Pais does not allow béla to be scored at any time but only during a trick at the same time that other meld is scored (at step 7). Since the béla is always scored regardless of the result of the meld contest, this can create a situation where both players reach or pass 501 simultaneously and both go out. In this case the player with more points wins the buli, or in case of a tie the play has to go on to the end of the trick or beyond until the tie is broken.

Shorter descriptions in other Hungarian books indicate that there were a number of other variants, and in practice players probably used various mixtures of the rules given above.

József Pais: Ulti, Tarokk és néhány kis játék (Hungaria Sport, Budapest, 1990)
István Szomaházy: Kártya-Codex (Athaneum, Budapest 1898, reprinted by Szkarabeusz Kiadó, Budapest, 1999)
István Szomaházy: Kártyajátékok élete és halála from the Pesti Hírlap (1926) quoted at https://www.kartya-jatek.hu/kartyajatekok_elete_es_halala/
Gyula Zsigri: 21 válogatott kártyajáték (Szukits Könyvkiadó, Szeged, 1993)
Fritz Beck: Tartl und Zensa (Perlen Reihe volume 660, Vienna, 1960)

The illustration at the top of the page is by Leó Kóber.

This page is maintained by John McLeod, john@pagat.com   © John McLeod, 2020. Last updated: 26th February 2020

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