Jass, also called „der Jass“ in Swiss German, is the most popular card game in Switzerland and is even considered to be a national game. Although known to be a game played by old men in pubs, „in de letzschte Johr“ (en: in recent years), young people have rediscovered the game. There are even two television shows featuring jass; the shows, which are broadcast on Thursdays and Saturdays on Swiss television have been popular for years. What then is jass and what is so fascinating about this game?

The history of jass

Jass is a popular pub game
Jass is a popular pub game

Playing jass is thought of as a typical Swiss tradition. Its roots, however, lie in the Orient; the playing cards only came to Europe in the Middle Ages. It is said that Swiss mercenaries discovered the game in the Netherlands and then brought it back home. Jass cards used today have a varied provenance, which can be seen in the different designs of the „Spielcharte“ (en: playing cards). In the western part of Switzerland, people usually play with French cards (hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs) whereas in the eastern part of the country, the German cards (bells, roses, spades and acorns) are more popular.

The Schiebera classical Jass game

German cards with bells, roses, spades and acorns
German cards with bells, roses, spades and acorns

There are endless varieties of jass, but the most known, and easiest for beginners, is the Schieber. In this game, four players are dealt nine cards at the beginning of the game. In the first match, the player who holds the 7 of Hearts/Roses may call the „Trumpf“ (en: trump) suit. If, for instance, hearts is declared to be the trump suit, all heart cards trump the cards of all the other „Farbä“ (en: colours – meaning: suit); all cards in the trump suit are of higher value that the others. In this game, for example, the 6 of Hearts is a stronger card than the King of Spades.

Schieber is played in teams of two with the players in each team sitting diagonally opposite each other. The teams must then try to win as many „Stiche“ (en: tricks) as possible to get as many points as possible. This variant of jass is called Schieber, because the player who gets to declare the trump suit has „d Möglikeit“ (en: the possibility) to “schieben” (en: pass) the privelege of nominating the trump suit to their partner.

Other game variants

Classical French jass cards
Classical French jass cards

Many other variants of the card game exist; most of them are played by advanced jass players. Differenzler is a game that is not played in a team. Before every round, each player must declare how many „Pünkt“ (en: points) they intend to get. The winner is the player with the smallest difference between the points they have declared and the actual points won. The Differenzler is also very popular due to regularly being featured on the television show Samschtig-Jass.

Molotow, as the name would imply is a rather destructive variant of jass. In this game, players focus on getting as few points as possible.

Bieter is a variant which is popular when there are an irregular amount of players. A player plays against two others or two players play against three. Not all sides have to get the same amount of points to win.

If you play Coiffeur, expect to play the whole evening. In this game, each team has to play through a list of different game variants, so that each team has played every variant by the end of the evening.

Special card rankings

As a trump game, jass would not be complete without the special cards that come into play. The highest ranking card in the trump suit is not the Ace, but the Jack; in some regions this card is called the „Buur“ (en: farmer), in others it is called the Under. The second highest ranked card is the 9, called Nell. The rest of the suit is ranked conventionally from the Ace downwards.

Secret agreements

Fairness is a basic principle of playing jass. It is frowned upon to openly „usztuusche“ (en: exchange) information about your hand of cards, but prior agreements about the meaning of certain moves are not discouraged. Teams can hence often exchange information about their cards in this manner. Many advanced players, in particular teams who have played together before, take advantage of this little subterfuge.

A piece of Swiss culture

Jass paraphanalia – the blackboard
Jass paraphanalia – the blackboard

Jass has produced many generations of enthusiastic players and is an important part of Swiss culture just like the Alphorn or Swiss wrestling. Practically every „Beiz“ (en: pub) can offer all the equipment needed for a good game of jass: the playing cards; a map to put on the table and keep the cards clean; and a blackboard for noting the scores. There is a special method to keep score, which is best shown to you by a Swiss friend the first time you play together. This is a good way to kill two birds with one stone; have fun and practise your Swiss German at the same time!

Vocabulary list

Swiss German English
1 in de letzschte Johr in recent years
2 Spielcharte playing cards
3 Farbä colours
4 d Möglikeit the possibility
5 Pünkt points
6 Buur farmer
7 usztuusche exchange
8 Beiz pub

 

Jass – a Popular Swiss Card Game
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