Vorms / Voormsi

This page is based on an article contributed by Anthony Smith.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Objective
  3. The Cards and their Ranking
  4. The Players
  5. The Deal
  6. The Lead
  7. The Score
  8. The 3-Player Game
  9. The 2-Player Game
  10. Sources for Vorms
  11. Some Greenlandic Vocabulary
  12. Related Games
  13. Sources for Related Games

1. Introduction

Vorms or Voormsi is the national game of Greenland. It is said (10.d) to be much played on the coastal ferry. It is a trick-taking game for four players, with versions for three and for two. There are many local variations.

A Danish-Greenlandic dictionary (recent, but before the implementation of the Greenlandic spelling-reform of 1973) equates both "brus" and "vorms" in Danish to "vôrmse" in Greenlandic. In (10.b) it is spelled "Wumps". The initial consonant is pronounced like an English "w" (10.b). The word "vôrmse" (spelled "voormsi" since 1973) is not of Greenlandic origin. Neither have I found any other reference to any Danish word "vorms".

The game is reputed to be ancient. Some Greenlanders have speculated that it may date from the Whaling Period, the period between the late 15th century disappearance of the Norse Settlement and the early 18th century arrival of Danish missionaries, when the only contacts with Europeans were with pirates and whalers.

2. The Objective

The objective in Vorms is to gain points by winning tricks and by either bringing certain high cards home or preventing the opponents from doing so.

3. The Cards and their Ranking

A 36-card pack is used, consisting of A, K, Q, J, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 in each of the four suits, clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds, except that the King of Diamonds is nowadays replaced by the 3. But the cards do not rank in the standard order.

  • The highest two cards, equal in rank, are the Jack of Clubs, called Toqutsit (Greenlandic for "your executioner", literally "he who kills (you)" ) or Toqu (Greenlandic for "death") and the King of Hearts, called Voormsi (not a native Greenlandic word). These are pronounced approximately as if spelled "dogutsit" and "woormsi" in English. If both of these cards are played to the same trick, the second to be played beats the first.
  • The third highest card is the Eight of Spades.
  • Next after the spade8 come, in descending order, the Nines, the Aces, the remaining Jacks, the Sixes, Fives, the remaining Eights, the Queens and the remaining Kings (lowest). Within each denomination the cards rank Club (high), Spade, Heart, Diamond (low).
  • The 3 of Diamonds is worthless if led and anything beats it, but is unbeatable when it is added to a trick. It beats even Sevens and Sevens headed by black kings.
  • The Sevens are worthless unless led (or played as second card when the 3 of Diamonds has been led), but can then be beaten only by a Seven in a higher suit, or by the diamond3, or by the King of Clubs, which has the special power of beating all Sevens but is otherwise the second lowest card. Cards (other than diamond3) played between the Seven and the King of Clubs do not prevent the King of Clubs heading the trick.
  • If a Seven is led and has been beaten by the King of Clubs, then the King of Clubs can in turn be beaten by the King of Spades, provided that the spadeK is played directly on the clubK, with no intervening plays. In other circumstances the spadeK is the very lowest card; it has no direct power over Sevens and the clubK beats it.

4. The Players

Normally four play, as partners sitting opposite one another, and nine tricks are played. Alternatively three can play, each on his or her own behalf, and twelve tricks are played. The two handed variant is described separately

5. The Deal

The player cutting lowest deals 4 cards to each. {Variant - according to (10.b) all the cards are dealt out. This variation is unknown to my correspondent in (10.c), but was true in the former Polish variant in reference (13.i)}

6. The Play

The dealer's left neighbour leads first, and subsequently the winner of each trick leads to the next.

A lead may consist of a single card or of a pair or three or four of the same rank. The other players in turn play the same number of cards. There is no obligation to head the trick when able to, except that if an opponent's Voormsi is heading the trick a player holding Toqutsit must play it. A pair, triple or four can only be beaten by two, three or four cards, not necessarily of the same rank, which beat all those led, and counts as two, three or four tricks respectively. Sets of any rank, even Sevens or Kings, can be led.

After each trick the hands are replenished to four, so long as the stock lasts, the winner of the trick drawing first.

7. The Score

A line with cross-strokes is drawn. Each partnership has one arm of each cross-stroke. Points scored are recorded by erasing or otherwise ticking off strokes and the first side to erase all its strokes has won the rubber. Nine strokes are played in the four-player game and the two-player game, 12 in the three-hander.

Points are scored for winning tricks, and sometimes the trick to which the Voormsi (heartK) is played brings extra points to the winners.

Scoring for tricks

  1. Normally the team which takes five or more tricks scores one point for their first five tricks, and one for each additional trick.

  2. In the two- and four-player games, a team which wins the first five tricks scores an additional point for this.

  3. However, if one team wins all nine tricks, the whole hand is nullified, and no one scores any points.

Scoring for the Voormsi

  1. Voormsi may be played to any trick. A team which wins a trick with the Voormsi scores one point for this, if there was a possibility (from the point of view of the person who played the Voormsi) that it could have been beaten by the Toqutsit. The point for winning a trick with the Voormsi is therefore not scored:
    • if the Voormsi is the last card played to the trick;
    • if the Toqusit has already been played to a previous trick;
    • if the player of the Voormsi holds the Toqutsit as well.
    A player who claims a point for winning a trick with the Voormsi must, if asked to do so, quickly show their cards to prove they do not hold the Toqutsit.
  2. If the Voormsi was winning a trick but is beaten by an opponent's Toqutsit which then wins the trick, the team which played the Toqutsit scores two points. This score does not apply if the Voormsi was not winning the trick when the Toqutsit was played. For example if an opponent discards the Voormsi on a double trick, which you win with the Toqutsit and the diamond3, you do not score the two point bonus.
  3. If the Voormsi was winning the trick but is beating by partner's Toqutsit (or by the same player's Toqutsit in the two-player game), the team that played the Voormsi and Toqutsit lose all their points and the game.
  4. Beating the Voormsi when it was heading the trick with you 3 of Diamonds gains you one point, irrespective of whether the Voormsi was your partner's or an opponent's.
  5. Using your diamond3 to beat a Toqutsit which has just beaten a winning Voormsi gains you 2 points, and the bonus for executing the Voormsi with Toqutsit is cancelled.
  6. Note that there is no bonus if the 3 of Diamonds beats Toqutsit unless theToqutsit has beaten the Voormsi.

The Endgame

  1. It is possible for play to end in the middle of a hand if one team has enough points to win. However, play cannot cease and no points can be scored during the hand until the scoring side loses a trick. For example if your team has 4 points and you win the first 8 tricks, you have not won yet. If you succeed in losing the ninth trick you can score your 5 points (1 for five tricks plus 1 for first five plus 3 for three tricks extra) and win the game; if you win the ninth trick the hand is annulled and your score remains at 5.
  2. A team that scores too many points, taking their score beyond 9, goes bust and is set back from the target by the number of overshoot points. As explained above, points are scored at the moment when the scoring team loses a trick (or at the end of a hand). Thus it is possible to go forward and backward several times during a hand. For example, you start with 7 points, and win the first five tricks, winning one of the tricks with the Voormsi. The opponents win the sixth trick. At this moment you score 3 (five tricks plus first five plus Voormsi) taking your score up to 9 and back to 8. You then win the last three tricks. As you already had five tricks, each of these last three tricks is worth an extra point, so your score goes up to 9 and then bounces back to 7.

8. The 3-Player Game

As there are now 12 tricks to be played, the scoring goes up to 12. The other details are as for the 4-hander.

9. The 2-Player Game

This is played to nine points, but differs from the 4-hander in that

    a) All my sources agree that only four cards each are dealt out initially and the hands are replenished during play.

    b) Each trick contains a multiple of four cards, because each player contributes twice to each trick. [Perhaps this represents each player's own play and that of an imaginary partner.] The leads can be a single card, a pair, a triple or all four of a kind, just as in the 4-player version. After both have played once the hands are replenished if possible, the person who is currently heading the trick drawing first and then playing third to the "trick". The best of all four cards (or combinations) wins the trick.

10. Sources for Vorms

a. Correspondence in 1995 between myself and an Archivist at the Greenland National Museum. Unfortunately she is not herself a player.

b. Notes taken in 1989 by Matthew MacFadyen of a description obtained by a Swede from a Greenlandish player. Unfortunately Matthew did not witness a game.

c. Correspondence in 1996/7 between myself and Lars Petersen of KN-RTV.

d. Correspondence in 1995 between myself and Professor Petersen of Greenland University. Unfortunately he is not himself a player.

11. Some Greenlandic Vocabulary

The Greenlandic language is closely related to Labrador Eskimo but has taken many of its card playing terms from Danish. Danish influence on the Greenlandic language began with 18th century missionaries. One word may be of Dutch origin, from Dutch whalers perhaps.

arnaq (lady)
atequtilik (skirt-wearer)
aalaterpai(he) shuffles
nallukattaq (ataaseq)(one) card
pinnattaaq (that which is newly got)trick
nerfala (that which is turned)
tolufve, torufve (pre-1973 spellings)trump (cf Dutch troef)
Vocabulary sources:
(i) The dictionaries Oqaatsit, 1990, ISBN 87-558-0520-5 and Den Groenlands Ordbog, 1926, by Schultz-Lorentzen.
(ii) Correspondence in 1996/7 between myself and Lars Petersen of KN-RTV.

12. Related Games

Related games are or have been played in several Baltic and Nordic countries:-

A related game called Bräus is currently played on the Swedish island of Gothland.
Related games called Alkort and Treikort were played in Iceland until at least the late 19th century. They continue to be described in Icelandic game-books.
A related former Danish game, also called Brus, is clearly described in several manuals, 13(e)-(h). It continues to be described, and ascribed to Jutland, in both Danish and Finnish game-books.
A former Polish game Drużbart is vaguely described in the two manuals (13.h) and (13.i).
The Estonian Isles:
Swedish-speakers had settled what are now the Estonian islands in the thirteenth century and their descendants remained there until 1944 when they fled from the approaching shoot-out between the forces of Hitler and Stalin. This community was described in (13.m).
Nine card games are mentioned on page 115, one of which is Brus. Locations are given for the games, and for Brus the location is "Worms", the German name of the island spelled Vormsi on modern Estonian maps. The name of this island is extremely close to the name used in present-day Greenland for the game, but as I can suggest no mechanism by which the name of the Estonian island can become the name of a high card in the Greenlandic game I fear this is merely a beautiful coincidence.
The multi-volume dictionary "Ordbog over det Danske Sprog", ed. Dahlerup, traces the word brus to "Brusbart", "man with curly beard", and reference (13.k) says on page 34 that in the mid 18th century "Brusbart" was one of the three favourite games of the middle classes in Riga [who at that time were largely German-speakers] and cites an early 19th century poem "Die Oberpahlensche Freundschaft" (recte "Die Oberpahl'sche Freundschaft", by J J Malm) in which Brusbart is named as being played by both German speakers and Estonian speakers. On page 43 we are told the game survived into the beginning of the 19th century but was unfashionable by 1879. On page 44 the author says the game was undoubtedly of German rather than Russian origin. But an editor of Malm's poem comments that it is a Swedish game. No details of the mode of play are given.
I have not myself seen reference (13.l), but I am told that "Bruzbard" is listed among the games of non-Russian origin played in Russia. An alternative Russian name "Dulya" is given, but no details of the mode of play.

More distant relatives include the Faroese Stýrivolt in which the rearrangement of the ranking is confined to two "trump" suits and the modern Swiss Kaiserspiel and its ancestors in which it is confined to a single "trump" suit.

13. Sources for Related Games

e. "Spillebog for Boern", anonymous, 1853, Copenhagen, pp21-23.

f. "Reglerne for 52 gamle Spil", 'Per David', pseudonym of Sv. Frederiksen, 1920, Copenhagen, pp19-24

g. "Spillefuglen", ed. Herman Dedichen, 1952, Copenhagen, pp121-123 of 1995 edition.

h. "Korttipelit ja Pasianssit", ed. Ilmo Kurki-Suonio, 1973, Helsinki, pp19-20; p-89 of 1982 edition. This appears to be a straight translation of source (13.g) into Finnish.

i. "Gry i zabawy różnych stanów w kraju całym lub w niektórych tylko prowincjach", Łukasz Gołęmbiowski, 1831, Warsaw, pp45-46

j. "Gry w Karty", 'Stary Gracz', pseudonym of Stanisław Kozietulski, 2nd, corrected, edition 1893, Warsaw, pp23-25

k. "Die Kartenspiele des estnischen Landvolkes in Livland", F. Amelung, pp33-48 of "Sitzungsberichte der gelehrte Estnischen Gesellschaft zu Dorpat", 1879, Dorpat [now Tartu, in Estonia]

l. "Opisanie kartezhnykh igor s pokazaniem pravil, pomoshchiyu kotorykh vsyakoy sam soboyu i bes utichela vo vse v Rossii upotreblyaemyya kartezhnyya igry mozhet nautichiťsya igrať praviłno i ikusno", G Komov, 1779, St Petersburg

m. "Eibovolke, oder die Schweden an den Küsten Esthlands und auf Runö", C. Russwurm, 1855, Reval (now called Tallinn).

This page is maintained by John McLeod (john@pagat.com).   © Anthony Smith 26 April 1998. Last updated: 18th September 2020