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.
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.
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.
A standard French tarot deck of 78 cards is used. There are
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:
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.
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.
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 general direction of the game is counter-clockwise.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The new dealer deals, while the two other players count their trick piles (see scoring below).
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 dealer may discard any three cards from his hand, subject to the following restrictions.
Certain combinations of cards in a player's hand must be declared before play starts. Declarations are made in rotation starting with the dealer.
A player who has no declaration to make says "pass" (pas).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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:
When there is a Nolo, there is no payment for point count.
The contents of the two pots are divided evenly among the three (or four) players.
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:
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 R and avoid Bagud. But if B is on lead, his play of the R will allow A to win his king Ultimo, whereas a diamond will drive out the R, 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:
Leading the 9 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 9.
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.
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.
There are several minor variations in the discard restrictions for the dealer.
For readers who have a general knowledge of other tarot games, the game can be summarized in these terms:
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