What’s the background to Jass?
Though Jass is widely recognised as Switzerland’s national card game, its origins are still debated. Card games originally reached Europe in the 14th century via the Far East, and some say the origins of Jass can be traced back to 12th century Korea and China, though it is generally recognised to be a Dutch game that came to Switzerland with Protestant mercenaries in the late 18th century.
One of the first printed images of Jass cards in Switzerland can, however, be traced back to Basel in the 1500s. Even after 500 years, the cards are clearly recognisable as depicting – in late Gothic fashion – a chap (Schellenunter) dressed in a sleeved skirt, pointed shoes and a typical jester’s cap with a bell and jester’s staff in hand.
The first record of the Swiss version of Jass dates to 1796 in Schaffhausen when two priests are said to have sued two farmers for playing a game ‘which one calls Jassen for a glass of wine’. The city of Schaffhausen has since – not by fluke – become one of Switzerland’s centres for manufacturing playing cards.
A special feature in the Swiss Jass version is the suit ‘Schilten’. It can be traced back to Swiss citizens who emancipated from the nobility and acquired coats of arms of their own.
This is how uber rich Basel merchant Heinrich Halbisen printed the cards he produced in his paper mill with his own coat of arms: half a horseshow.
The remaining three suits – roses, bells, and acorns – are thought to be variants of the German cards which themselves feature bells, hearts, leaves, and acorns.
The Swiss cards have different suits depending on the region you are in, and the game can be played with the French, German, or Austrian hand.
How is it played?
In Switzerland, ‘Jass’ is a generic term for an estimated 70 (!) card games, so rules differ. However, with Schieber (‘mover’) being by far the most popular Jass variation in Switzerland, let’s focus on the rules for this game to get a basic idea of how it’s played.
Schieber is played with four players, with the opposing players forming a team. The aim of the game is for your team to score 1,000 points (or 2,500 points) first in which game a match automatically finishes.
A deck of cards consists of 4 suits and each suit includes 9 playing cards. There are a total of 36 cards in play. With every Jass game variant, 3 × 3 cards are dealt, i.e., each player receives 9 cards.
Once the cards have been dealt – each player is dealt 3 x 3 cards – the forehand (the player to the right of the dealer) must either choose a trump or pass to their partner. If the forehand passes, their partner must nominate the trump suit instead.
In Swiss German, the deciding rule is called Stöck, Wys, Stich (marriages, melds, tricks) and applies if both teams score 1,000 points at the same time. In this case, the former determines in which order the points will be counted, hence, determining the winner.
In some cases, the target score is set at 2,500 in which case Schieber is played with multipliers. The points for trump Acorns/Diamonds or Roses/Hearts are counted once, for Shields/Spades or Bells/Clubs all points count double. With tops-down or bottoms-up (Obenabe/Undenufe) the points count treble.
When the target score is set at 1,000, all points count only once.
What are the rules for Schieber?
In the Schieber Jass, the following rules must also be observed:
- If you have a card of the suit played, you must play that suit. Unless you have the trump Jack/trump Under – then you can play that as an alternative.
- If you don’t have a card of the suit played, you can choose the card freely. Note that you can only play a lower trump card, if all you have left in your hand is trump cards.
- Players may play a trump at any time, even if they could serve the required suit.
- If trump is played, then trump must be served. If you only have trump Jack/trump Under as a trump card, you can play any other card instead.
Melds, marriages, and tricks
You can score additional points for melds, marriages, and tricks.
Meld points can be scored for identical cards or a sequence of three (or more) cards of the same suit.
A marriage can be won if you hold a blend of King and Ober (Queen) in your trump suit which is worth 20 points.
When the forehand plays the first card, each player must decide whether they want to declare a meld. However, only the player in possession of the best meld can score.
As a result, the team with the highest individual meld scores for that team’s collective meld points.
If melds happen to be of equal value, the number of cards decides who scores. If that number also happens to be identical, then the player with the meld in trumps wins.
So-called partner melds are also permitted.
Sounds simple enough, right?
You can practise your very first Jass game on www.swisslos.ch.