Major Poker: Playing poker with a tarot deck.

Cassiel C. MacAvity

Decks of 52 and 78

    Of quite a number of card games of varying ages and complexity, one factor they share is the game being played with a standard modern card deck of 52 cards and maybe a pair of jokers. The games range from the many variations in poker and solitaire to the basic uniform rules of twenty-one or blackjack, go fish, baccarat, all of them played quite successfully with one or more decks at a time, using the one same unvarying set of cards. At the same time, aside from the card decks that are specifically tailored for one game only, the other deck of cards that is in fairly major circulation is that of the tarot.

    Of the tarot, both it and the regular card deck seem to have a parallel and interlinked history that dates back to Europe of the 1400s to 1500s. From there, there are all sorts of speculations and stated origins, all of which are outside the scope or interest of this paper, although Oy Vey do some of the websites on the subject get Really Thick with How Deeply Symbolic and Magickally Greatly SigNificant They All Are . . .

    At any rate, there are indeed a number of points which seem to be universally agreed upon, or at least a look at a number of decks, both tarot and regular play, do make them obvious.

A deck of 52

    The regular playing deck is made of four suits of 13 cards each, for the total of 52. The suits are clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades, and within each suit, the cards start with the ace and then the 2, and continue up to the 10 and the jack, queen, and king. In varying games, the ace can be the supreme card or be rated below the 2, which suit is being played can have significance to the play of the game, and so forth as the deck gets used for it's primary use as a means of playing games.

A deck of 78

    Of the basic tarot deck, one of its stated origins is as merely a playing card variation. Today, such a deck is still used in game play, but a primary use is as a divination tool where there almost seems to be about as many variations in placement and interpretation, and also style of divination deck, as there are practitioners. Almost.

    The tarot deck itself is divided into two groups of cards, called the minor and major arcanas. The minor arcana is made of four suits of 14 cards each, where the four suits are: 1) Wands, staffs, or batons. 2) Cups. 3) Swords. 4) Pentacles or coins. The regular card deck's jack, queen, and king are replaced by the tarot deck's page, knight, queen, and king. The major arcana is a series of 22 individual cards that represent historical and legendary archetypes that begins with the Fool at number 0 and The Magician at number 1, and finishes with Judgment and The World, numbers 20 and 21.

    The tarot-as-game theories state that the the major arcana were merely cards that would have particular meanings or influences within the individual game being played with them. This does tend to be the case with 78 card tarot playing decks. For those using the tarot for divination, the individual cards of both arcana are considered to have particular philosophical meanings which come out as each card is played. The minor arcana have generally prosaic meanings, with the major arcana having the entirely universal meanings and influence.

    With tarot game playing decks, the cards are like regular playing cards in that all the cards are printed so that they will read the same regardless of which end is up. With a regular divination oriented tarot deck, the cards have only one orientation, letting them be placed face up but upside down, which is called "reversing". When a card is so reversed, there are variations in meanings, but the meaning of the reversed card is almost entirely the opposite of the card placed upright. Such reversing of cards is a very important matter because with both majors and minors, most of the meanings of the cards are basically benign when upright. Reversal of most of the cards can give the bad news of the reading and thus guarantees requiring the possibility of card reversals in all readings. After all, in all circumstances and not just divinatory, fantasizing that bad news is just not relevant usually proves guaranteed to bring disaster in any circumstance.

    Beyond that, a main variation to note is that in various tarot decks, the conceptual images related to the numbers 8 and 11 in the major arcana cards are switched. The historically documented reason for these differences is found in Thee Ollde And Deeply Symbolick Discussions Of Dyverssee Greate Masteres, As Mentioneeed Aebove. Yeah, I juste hate it when mye "E" key gets stucke that waye.    Ande Whate du youe mean Thee Symolicke Meaninges arre notte cleareley documenttedde??    Off Course Theyrre Doceumemetede.    Aske Ye Localle Experte to showe you.    Alsoe thenne aske f'r a deale on oceanne beachefronte propertie in Arizona. Butte I digresse. Getting Back To The Matter Of Major Poker, the switch in the images tends to have little effect for divinatory card readings because they tend to be based more on the image of the major arcana card rather than its number. For simply playing poker, the switch in images has no effect at all.

Adapting 52 card play to 78 cards

    For the purposes of playing card games usually played with a regular card deck, the extra card of the minor arcana and the entirety of the major arcana are easily adapted to preexisting games. Of much more complex games such as bridge, those already are somewhat the nature of the modern tarot variation playing games and decks.

What deck to play with?

    When playing poker with a tarot deck, clearly the easiest way to play is to dig out some tarot deck. On an other hand---or several---often tarot decks can be somewhat obscure in the reading. While the suit images can be clear, sometimes the numbering may not be, where the major cards are often counted in Roman numerals, and certainly not going to be divided out into the three major suits of Major Poker. In turn, when translating from poker to tarot, one is changing from the clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades and three face cards of the regular playing deck, to the four face cards and the wands, staffs, or batons, the cups, the swords, and the pentacles or coins of the standard tarot deck.

    One thought linked to the writing of this paper is to get around to designing and printing up a Major Poker deck. Such a deck will have 78 cards and have reversible cards, like a tarot deck, and have much of the features of the regular playing deck. Thus, there would be four minor suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades, with face cards of page, jack, queen, and king. There would also be the three major suits of first major suit ace/The World--21, and 10/The Fool--0, the second major suit ace/The Magician--1 through 10/The Wheel Of Fortune--10, and the third major suit ace/Strength or Justice--11 through 10/Judgement--20.

Playing Poker with a Tarot deck

    When playing poker with a tarot deck rather than a regular card deck, three issues come into play;
1) The major arcana cards are counted as three additional suits; The first majors---0 and 21, the second majors---1 through 10, and the third majors---11 through 20.
2) Any reversed card beats the same card when upright.
3) Any hand with any major arcana card beats any hand with no major arcana card.

The major arcana forms three additional suits

    The minor arcana remains unaltered, forming four suits that are each made of the 14 ranks of cards. The major arcana is divided into three equal rank suits, consisting of 0 and 21, 1 to 10, and 11 to 20. In both major and minor arcana, no suit takes precedence aside from major taking precedence over minor. The descending rank of single cards is ace, king, queen, knight, page, 10 through 2. For the major arcana, the rank is decided by the second digit of the two digit number of a card, with the zeros counting as 10s, ranging from 10 for The Fool, to ace for The World.

Thus, for the major arcana, the rankings are as follows:

The Fool                    10                    First Majors
The Magician ace Second Majors
The High Priestess 2 Second Majors
The Empress 3 Second Majors
The Emperor 4 Second Majors
The Hierophant 5 Second Majors
The Lovers 6 Second Majors
The Chariot 7 Second Majors
Justice or Strength 8 Second Majors
The Hermit 9 Second Majors
The Wheel of Fortune 10 Second Majors
Strength or Justice ace Third Majors
The Hanged Man 2 Third Majors
Death 3 Third Majors
Temperance 4 Third Majors
The Devil 5 Third Majors
The Tower 6 Third Majors
The Star 7 Third Majors
The Moon 8 Third Majors
The Sun 9 Third Majors
Judgment 10 Third Majors
The World ace First Majors


    Poker played with a tarot deck card play also features reversal of cards, exactly as when using a tarot deck for divination, so that upright cards have a different effect than cards upside down, or reversed. In divination, the individual cards have individual meanings that can sometimes be the opposite when reversed, and fairly often can have the more malevolent or bad news reading. Given that bad news takes precedence because good news will take care of itself, then likewise when playing Major Poker, a reversed card beats the same card when upright. Thus any 2 reversed will beat any 2 upright, but will still lose to any 3. Likewise, any pair reversed beats any pair upright, and still loses to any three of a kind. This does rather emphasize that the shuffling of the cards must always rotate half the deck. As contrasted with the shuffling of a regular deck, the importance of reversed cards when shuffling a tarot deck requires the complete change of orientation as well as order.

    The orientation of house or community cards remains as they are placed, whether upright or reversed. This means that turning face down cards to be face up requires turning them on the long axis. The orientation of upright for an individual player is in the direction of the player, where the base of an upright card image is towards the player. The orientation of the cards dealt to each player is up to that player. The orientation of all player cards also remains as they are placed by that player, whether upright or reversed---Once a player has placed the card on the table face up, the orientation is not changed just because some other player then remembered to reverse his or her cards, play them reversed as needed, and thus beat the earlier player.

Majors beat minors

    Any hand with a major arcana card takes precedence over any hand with no major arcana card. To repeat, any hand whatsoever with a major arcana card takes precedence over any hand with no major arcana card.

The best to worst Major Poker hands are as follows, basically as usual:

Straight Flush:
Five cards in sequence from the same suit. For two straight flushes, the hand with the highest card wins.

Five Of A Kind:
Five cards of one rank, such as the 10 of wands, the 10 of coins, The Fool, The Wheel of Fortune, and Judgment.

Four Of A Kind:
Four cards of one rank and some other card. When the four cards in two or more hands are the same, the highest fifth card wins.

Full House:
Three of a kind and two of a kind, consisting of three cards of the same rank and two cards of a different rank. With two full houses, the higher three wins. With two full houses with identical threes, then the higher two of a kind wins.

Five cards of the same suit. Two flushes are compared for the highest ranking card, and then the next highest until one wins or they tie.

Five cards of sequential rank. Two straights are compared for the higher card which wins. Two hands with the same high card tie.

Three Of A Kind:
Three cards of the same rank and two more cards of differing ranks.

Two Pair:
Two cards of one rank, two cards of a differing rank, and a fifth card of a rank other than the first two. With opposing two pair, the higher pair of one and then the other decide the win, and if both pair in each hand are identical, then the higher fifth card decides.

One Pair:
Two cards of the same rank, and three cards of differing ranks. A higher pair beats a lower pair, and when the same, then the three other cards are compared until one proves higher than the other.

High Card:
Five cards that are all of different rank, are not in sequence, and not all are of the same suit. With two high card hands, the highest card decides, where when the highest cards are the same, with succeeding cards compared as needed.

The following includes some near random examples of ranking of cards.

    As a general tactical observation, the hand with more majors will tend to beat the hand with fewer majors. Beyond that, again, no suit takes precedence aside from major taking precedence over minor.

    Having stated the above, a hand that consists of the 6 of wands, the 6 of swords, some major card, and two more completely random minor cards, will beat a hand of five major cards that are otherwise all random. The latter hand may be all majors but is merely an all major high card hand, where the former hand is a major one pair hand, of 6s.

    Yes, with 7 suits to draw from in any hand, a five of a kind is indeed possible, where the highest five of a kind will consist of The World, the major 11, The Magician, and two minor arcana aces, all reversed.

    A hand that consists of The High Priestess, The Emperor, The Chariot, Death, and The Sun is not a flush. As all major suits are equal, it is a high card hand that consists of a major suit 2, 4, and 7--The High Priestess, The Emperor, The Chariot---, and a different major suit 3 and 9--Death and The Sun---. But it will beat any hand that is all minor cards and no majors.

    Yes, there can be a royal flush when playing Major Poker, as a royal flush would consist of ace, king, queen, knight and page. However, all of such must be from the same suit, no major suit contains the royal face cards, and doing weird things with The Empress and The Emperor merely to invent a major royal flush would be weird. Therefore, any royal flush will be beaten by any hand with any major.

    The 2 flushes that beat all other hands less than a full house with at least one major arcana card consist of:
The Wheel Of Fortune and some four other majors from 1 to 9, all reversed,
Judgment and some four other majors from 11 to 19, all reversed.
As no suit takes precedence aside from major taking precedence over minor, these two hands tie each other.

    The 2 highest straight flushes possible in Major Poker consist of:
The Wheel of Fortune, The Hermit, Justice or Strength---whichever is the 8 card--, The Chariot, and The Lovers, all reversed,
Judgment, The Sun, The Moon, The Star, and The Tower, all reversed.
As no suit takes precedence aside from major taking precedence over minor, these two hands tie each other.

    Indeed, no flush will ever include The Fool or The World.

    The Empress and Death will beat The Empress or Death and any minor arcana 3, which will beat a pair of minor arcana 3s.

    A hand consisting of The Tower reversed, The Lovers, the Six of Coins reversed, the Six of Wands, and The Six Of Cups reversed are not five of a kind but are instead a full house.


© 2010 Cassiel C. MacAvity