- Players and Cards
- Deal and Discard
- Counting and Scoring
- Typical Game Sayings
This account by Guntram Kommerell of a Tarock game played in Tübingen at the end of the 19th century is of considerable interest since it is a version of Tarok-Quadrille, a type of game that was previously thought to have died out in Germany by the mid 19th century.
The history of Tarot card games in Germany goes back to the early 18th century  with the arrival of a game called Tarock that was very similar to early French Tarot games such as that described by Abbé Michel de Marolles in 1635. Over time the 78-card game in Germany developed its own variations such as the addition of new declarations, an option to lose all tricks, a bonus for winning the last trick with trump II, and notably the introduction of bidding in imitation of l'Hombre to create the game Tarok l'Hombre. A further development that appeared in the late 18th century was a form played between four people in the manner of Quadrille, the four-player l'Hombre variant in which the bidder chooses a partner by calling a King. This variant was later dubbed Tarok-Quadrille by Michael Dummett who believed that it had probably died out in Germany by 1850, although a 4-player Tarot game based on similar principles survived in France as Tarot d'Appel, and Königrufen, played with the shortened 54-card pack and Fool as highest trump, has continued to thrive and evolve in Austria to the present day.
Guntram learned Tarock in the 1940s from his grandfather, Otto Kommerell, as an entertaining family game. Otto grew up in Tübingen in the Café Kommerell, a student bar founded by his father that was very popular around 1890. The variant of Tarock played by the students at that time was probably the one that was passed down orally by the Kommerells. Guntram wonders if there are other families who still play in this way and would be very happy to hear of this: Guntram Kommerell .
Players and Cards
There are 4 players. The game is played counter-clockwise (unlike Skat and most Anglo-American games).
A pack of 78 French-suited cards is used, which are best obtained in France. (Editor’s comment: in the past these would have been German-manufactured cards with genre scenes on the trumps. Today, packs used for French Tarot may be used. These are manufactured in France by, inter alia, Ducale, Ebiz and Cartamundi France, in Spain by Fournier and in Austria by Piatnik.)
There are 21 trump cards called ‘tarocks’. These have numerals in which the higher numbers beat the lower ones. In addition, there are 14 cards in each suit, including a Cavalier ranking between the Queen and the Jack. In the black suits (Clubs and Spades), the cards rank in their natural order from King down to Ace. In the red suits (Hearts and Diamonds), the order of the pip cards or numerals (Blättle i.e. “little cards”) is reversed such that the ranking is K Q C J A 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10. Finally there is the Fool, known as the Ski, from the French word Excuse.
The card values are:
- 4.5 points: King, Tarock 21 (Einundzwanziger-Tarock), Tarock 1 (Einser-Tarock), Ski
- 3.5 points: Queen
- 2.5 points: Cavalier
- 1.5 points: Jack
- 0.5 point: all pip cards and Tarocks 2–20
The total value of the cards in the pack is 91 points.
Deal and Discard
The dealer shuffles the cards and has the player to his left cut the pack. Three packets of 5 and one packet of 4 cards are dealt to each player, with the exception of the dealer, who receives 6 cards in his last packet instead of 4. After each deal, the role of dealer rotates to the right.
The dealer discards two cards face down to end up with 19 hand cards like the other players. This is known as 'legen' (laying away). Any card may be laid away except a King, the Ski, Tarock 1 or Tarock 21. Tactically, the dealer should use discarding to void one or two suits and protect endangered high-value cards, such as an unguarded Queen. The cards laid away remain the property of the dealer or his team.
This is the first of two rounds of bidding. After the dealer has announced “ready” (es liegt), there is the opportunity to bid a Raus, i.e. to undertake to play alone against three opponents. The player to the right of the dealer is asked first. He may either bid a Raus or say “pass” (Pass), in which case his right-hand neighbour has the same options. Finally, it is the dealer’s turn. He may bid a Raus overtly, but is the only one who also has the option of playing a “concealed” (versteckten) Raus - see Rufen below.
If no player has bid a Raus, there is a second round of bidding, called Rufen (“Calling”). Starting with the dealer this time, players in turn have the opportunity to call a King. The caller (Rufer) forms a team with the player holding the called card. However, the player with the called King is only revealed when he plays it. Prior to that, the identity of the caller’s partner may indirectly become apparent, for example, when he smears a high value card onto a trick won by the caller.
In most cases, a player may only call a King that he does not hold. If the caller has 3 Kings in his hand, he may (but does not have to) call "the fourth" (den Vierten) without naming its suit. If the caller has all 4 Kings in hand, he may call the 21, the 1 or the Ski if he does not hold that card in his hand. A player who does not wish to call, simply says “fort” i.e. “carry on” passing the option to call to the right. A player who does not want to call despite having at least 8 tarocks, says “fort mit”. As soon as someone has called, the game begins.
The dealer is the only player who may play a concealed Raus by calling a King held in his own hand. Concealing the Raus is an advantage, because the 3 opponents only realise the dealer is playing alone when he plays the called King.
If all four players say “fort”, they ‘order’ (stecken) their cards. Each player puts his good cards (the 21, 1, Ski, high tarocks and Kings, but not the lower courts) on the left side of his hand. Then all 4 hands are placed on top of one another and the cards are cut just once. Now the same dealer distributes the cards again. Ordering the cards in this way almost always results in one player receiving good cards. He then usually plays a Raus and wins by a huge margin.
Little Tout and Grand Tout
If a player is dealt a hand with no cards worth more than ½ point (discarded courts do not count), i.e. he has only ‘pip cards’ and no more than 7 tarocks, those tarocks not including the 21, 1 or Ski, he can ask the others: "Do any of the ladies or gentlemen here wish to play a Little Tout?" A Little Tout (Tout being French for “all”) is an undertaking to make all but one trick. If the declarer of a Little Tout succeeds, he scores 120 points. If he takes all the tricks, this is a Grand Tout (Großer Tout) which earns 240 points. If he has to concede 2 or more tricks, he loses 240 points. If no player wants to risk a Little Tout, the cards are thrown in, shuffled and redealt by the same dealer.
The player to the right of the dealer sits “in front” (vorne) i.e. is forehand. He leads the first card; thereafter that right goes to the player who won the previous trick. Then the other players in anticlockwise order play a card. Each hand consists of 19 tricks of 4 cards each. If a suit card is played, it must be followed. A player who cannot follow, must trump with a tarock if possible. If he is out of tarocks, he may play any card. If his partner is likely to win the trick, he will "smear". If his opponent looks likely to win the trick, he will discard a card worth as little as possible.
If a tarock is led, players must follow with a tarock if able. When leading high Tarocks from an unbroken sequence, they should be played "from above". For example a player who has the 21, 20 and 19 is expected to lead the 21, not the 19 which would be considered unfair deception. However, the 17 could be led if the 18 were still in play in another player’s hand. A player who has no tarocks may throw any card.
A trick is taken by the player who played the highest tarock or the highest card of the led suit if no tarocks are played. He picks up the trick and places it face down in his trick pile to be scored later. Once the teams are known, the tricks of one team can be combined. By contrast, in a Raus, tricks must be collected in four separate piles (see below).
The Ski acts as a Joker. It can be played in place of any other card, but has no trick-taking power. The Ski always remains with its original owner. After the trick has been completed, if it falls to the opponents, they are given a pip card or tarock worth ½ point from the tricks collected by the player or team with the Ski. This does not apply to the last trick. Here the Ski falls to the winner of the trick; it is said to "go across" (geht über). This may be desirable in a Raus in order to contre the Ski (see below). Playing the Ski (skisieren) is often used to save a tarock or to spare a Queen if a trick with a King is going to be won by an opponent.
Counting and Scoring
The cards in the tricks won by each player or team are scored based on the values above. The dealer scores additionally for the two cards initially discarded.
- Rufer (Ruf-Spiel) – Two against Two
- Each side counts its card points up to 23 and then starts again at 0. The winner is the side that scores at least a further 23 points after passing zero, i.e. more than half of the 45 points available after the first 23 have been counted by each team. For example, if team that has 62 card points in its tricks will scores 29 points (62 = 23 + 29): the caller and his partner are each given 29 points. If the other side has scores at least 23 points (beyond the initial 23, which count as 0), for example 27 points, the caller loses double i.e. 2 x 27 = 54 points. No points are deducted from the called player, so it is always advantageous to be called.
- Raus – One against Three
- Players only count up to 18 in the first round of scoring and then start again at 0. The declarer (soloist) wins if he has scored more points than the best of his opponents. The 3 opponents may not combine their tricks. Exception: Points from another opponent may be added to those of the best opponent if they consist of no more than 3 ’empty’ tricks, i.e. tricks that only contain cards with a point value of 0.5. Only the Ski may be included in the case of empty tricks. The 2 cards initially discarded by the dealer may also be added, even if they are courts, but only if the dealer has taken a maximum of 3 empty tricks. If the declarer has e.g. 21 points after passing the 18=zero threshold, but the best of the opponents only has 20 beyond the theshold, the soloist will be awarded 3 times 21 = 63 points. If the declarer has 21 and has lost to the best opponent who has 22 points, 66 points are deducted from the declarer. So a Raus is won or lost treble.
Once the winner of the hand is decided based on the points scored in tricks, bonuses may be declared. These extra points are called Strafen (“penalties”), even though they maybe favourable or unfavourable for the team in question. Strafen may only be declared up to the point when the cards are cut for the next deal. If declared late, they no longer count. Your opponents will be delighted if you forget to declare Strafen.
If both teams score Strafen, these are combined to calculate the net gain or loss for the declaring team.
If the game is won, Strafen gained by the declaring team are added to the declaring side’s points scored in tricks, and if the game is lost, Strafen gained by the declaring team are deducted from the opponents’ points in the tricks before determining the declaring side’s loss. Strafen are calculated before the score is multiplied by the game value: ×2 in the case of a lost Rufer, ×3 in the case of a Raus. In the event of a lost game, the opponents’ points may only be reduced down to zero by Strafen bonuses but no further; Strafen cannot be used to convert a lost game into a win. After all, the loser will be content if he succeeds in reducing his loss to zero (runterstrafen).
Based on the cards in hand before play begins, the following Strafen apply:
- Skimon (in French the 21 is monde = world): Ski + 21 + 1 = 10 bonus points
- Three or more Oberers (top tarocks): 21 + 20 + 19 etc. in unbroken sequence. The Ski can plug a gap in the sequence or extend the number of Oberers by 1. Each Oberer is worth 2 bonus points.
- Three or more Unterers (low tarocks): 1 + 2 + 3 etc. These score in the same way as Oberers.
- Kingdom (Königreich}: all 4 Kings in hand = 10 bonus points.
- Ski Kingdom (Skisiertes Königreich}: 3 Kings + Ski = 5 bonus points.
- Natural Family (Natürliche Familie): All 4 courts of one suit = 10 bonus points
- Ski Family (Skisiertes Familie}: 3 courts of one suit + Ski = 5 bonus points.
Bonuses may also be claimed for Strafen that occur during play as follows:
- Fein (fine): winning the last trick with trump 1 = 10 bonus points.
- Einser gefasst (captured 1): losing trump 1 to the opponents = 5 minus points.
- Einser fein gefasst (finely captured 1): losing trump 1 in the last trick = 10 minus points.
1. If the Strafen result in a net gain for the declarer's opponents - for example one of the opponents held all 4 court cards of a suit for 10, or the opponents managed to capture the declarer's trump 1 for 5, while the declarer's team scored no positive Strafen, then these Strafen points will obviously be subtracted from the declarer's score if the declarer's team won or added to the opponents' score if the declarer's team lost.
2. The practice of giving a score only to one team, so that the resulting scores do not add up to zero, is unusual for Tarot/Tarock games. In most of games of this family the result of each hand is a payment between players, and if the score is recorded on paper the players will have balancing positive and negative totals representing the amount each player has won or lost. In this Tübingen game a natural scoring system would be that in a successful Rufer each member of the declarer's team is paid by one of the opponents, and when unsuccessful the caller pays both opponents, while the called partner neither receives nor pays. In a Raus, the soloist would be paid by each of the three opponents if successful and would pay each opponent if unsuccessful. It seems quite likely that the game was originally scored this way and that this is the origin of the ×2 and ×3 multipliers in Guntram Kommerell's version.]
Dem Freund eine Neue. "A new one for your friend." If a player is leading and his left-hand neighbour is his partner, it is advisable to lead a suit that has not yet appeared. As rearhand, the partner then has the opportunity to safely play valuable court cards.
Spannen. “Stretching." This is where the King is held back in order to capture the opponent's Queen in a later trick. However, this increases the risk of losing the King to an opponent's tarock.
Nicht mit einem König rausplatzen. “Don't blurt out a King.” Leading a King is usually unwise because the chance of luring out a Queen is lost. In addition, it is dangerous since the opponents may capture the King with a tarock.
In a Raus, the declarer's 3 opponents should attempt to counter the declarer by concentrating their points on the strongest member of their own team, called the Contre. An opponent may not announce that he wants to be the Contre but may indicate, through his playing style, that he has a relatively strong hand, e.g. by playing a King. The other opponents who have weaker cards should never lead a King (if they have one), but smear it to the Contre when a good opportunity arises.
Typical Game Sayings
Players spoke in Swabian, whence some of the sayings below.
Der Skar stimmt. “The skat’s good.” Said if you have dealt correctly. The Skar refers to the two extra cards that the dealer receives. The word comes from the Italian scarto = difference. What is meant is the difference in the number of cards dealt to the dealer compared with those dealt to the other players. The term is used in other Central European Tarot games. There it is called Skart or Skat. The name of the game of Skat, invented in a tarock club around 1810-1815, also comes from scarto.
Zehn auf die Badehose. “Ten on your swimming trunks.” A deduction of 10 points when someone has misdealt.
Da sind zwei Bäcke zamme komme. “Here are two bakers together!” Said when it turns out that both the caller and the called have good cards.
Des buttet. “That’s buttering.” When several high-quality cards are taken in one trick.
Die beinet uns aus. “That’s pared us to the bone.” Said when opponents take one trick after the other.
Tack, tack, tack, do kommet se. “Rat-a-tat-tat, here they come.” When the opponent finally has to give valuable courts after many low cards.
E blutte Dam. “Nothing but a dame.” A singleton Queen without a guard card.
Über’s Kreuz. “Crosswise”. When the players sitting opposite are partners. In this case, nobody can play dem Freund e Neue i.e. play a new one to his partner.
S sind a scho am Mische gstorbe. “You’ve already died shuffling.” When someone shuffles for a long time.
I wart a Viertelstund, i wart a halbe Stund, i nehm a Vollbad. “I’m waiting a quarter of an hour, half an hour, I’m going for a bath.” Said when a player takes too much time playing a card.
E kart oder a Stick Holz. “A card or a piece of wood.” When someone takes forever deciding what to play.
Herz wie alle Anfänger. “Hearts, just like all beginners.” Said when someone calls the King of Hearts.
I weiß, jetzt werd i gschimpft. ”I know, I’ll be scolded.” Said when someone does not dare to beat the Queen with his King and accepts that others will think he’s a chicken.
Jaja, mit de Küh schwätzt mer ja au. ”Yeah, yeah, I always chat to the cow too.” Said when someone tries to give their friend advice.
I will’s glei wisse. “I want to know now.” When forehand immediately leads the called suit to clarify who is playing with whom.
Immer der Ohrfeig nach. “Always like slapping a face.” Deal and play are anticlockwise (only works for right-handers)
I kann die Steckerei net leide! ”I can't bear to order my cards!” When rearhand decides to call even though he has a weak hand. If he then loses the game, he suffers a Hintermannsfuhr or "tail end Charlie" beating.
Ja, ja, der richtige Einsatz des Ski. "Come on, use the Ski properly." When the Ski has not been used properly.
Oh Ihr Wüüschte. “Oh you lovelies!” When valuable cards are drawn from you.
Opfer müssen gebracht werden, denn dazu sind sie da. ”Sacrifices have to be made, cos that's what they’re there for.” When a suit is played to which both opponents play a tarock, but your partner has to play a court.
Machet me no voll hi. “Don’t make me homesick” (voll Heimweh). Said when you're losing.
Du hascht ons a rechte Freid gmacht. ”Never mind, you’ve made us very happy.” Said to console a player who has lost badly.
- Martin, Ulf (2015). “The Tarock of the Skat Inventors. Part I: Grosstarock Redefined” in The Playing-Card, Vol. 44, No. 3, Oct – Dec 2015, Journal of the International Playing-Card Society, ISSN 1752-71X, p. 144.