Jass and Hearts are Trump



One of the unique Swiss pastimes is playing cards. Their favorite game is Jass (pronounced yahss). The deck consists of 36 cards (6 to Aces) using either the French cards or the German cards. There is also a special mat you use and a chalkboard to keep score. It is usually a 4 person game, two against two. You can also play with only 3 people or everyone for themselves, like in tournaments. This game is so popular it is played in restaurants in the afternoon and evenings. They even play it on national primetime TV (‘Saturday Jass’ and ‘Thursday Jass’). They pepper the show with folk music (yodeling and accordions) and Swiss ‘stars’. A must see.

I like playing cards so, of course I learned how to play. We played every chance we got and as a team we were very good. At one point we were practically unbeatable. We have since slowed our pace down a bit and don’t play quite as often, for some reason people stopped inviting us over to play. Maybe they just didn’t like losing all the time, who can blame them? Now when we play we are more normal, win some, lose some.

German cards

German playing cards

When I started playing I imagine most Swiss didn’t think an American could play their game as well as they could. Then it’d be my turn to shuffle and deal the cards. I’d shuffle the way I’ve always done it and inevitably everyone would all stare. They thought I was some kind of card shark. Someone would ask “Did you learn that in Las Vegas.” Sometimes they would try to shuffle like me and end up spitting cards all over the place.

The Swiss version of shuffling cards is akin to cutting the deck a couple of times and waving your hand over it and saying “you are now mixed”. No, not really that bad, but it is actually a bit like just cutting the cards a bunch of times. In the beginning I dealt the cards the way I knew, one at a time. Ben told me that was not correct and have since changed to the Swiss way: 3 at a time. Not sure if it makes a difference but that is the way you do it so I go with the flow when jassing.

We’ve had some really good times while playing. Like the time the electricity went out (in the capitol! that doesn’t happen very often) so we pulled out the candles and continued playing. The only time we ever played cards by candlelight.

French playing cards

French playing cards

The game itself is difficult to explain with all the intricate details and strategies and my explanation will certainly not make anyone an expert. The goal is to win by getting to the set amount of points first. You do this by strategically declaring groups of cards you have before starting each Hand. Then count the value of certain cards in the tricks your team takes.

Four jacks are great (or farmers as the Swiss call them) because that doesn’t happen often and is the nonplus ultra. It will get you 200 points when you declare them. I still remember very well the time I had them and forgot to declare them! I realized my mistake as soon as we started playing but then it was too late. You have to declare before anyone plays a card. I was so upset and just hoped that no one would notice that I was playing jack after jack after jack after jack. Needless to say we lost that game, I couldn’t concentrate. But thankfully no one noticed, I regained my composure and we went on the win the match!

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