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Deftly Dealt - Playing Cards in India (Part 1)

Deftly Dealt:
Presented by Jack Karde

The following letter accompanied Jack’s original case file and is included here as an introduction as well.

From gallery of Audacon

My esteemed colleagues of the Royal Game Society, I send greetings from the Game Range and trust this letter finds you shuffling in good fortunes of your own. I will soon dispatch a courier with the correspondence I am writing herein and I humbly request that you warmly receive him in my stead. My current expedition must be continued and I apologize that I will not be present for our annual explorers’ dinner. I trust that you will find this letter of sufficient interest that the deviation from formalities will be pardoned and you will understand why I have remained here to continue my work.

As you assuredly know, I have invested the fairer amount of my efforts in the remotest environs of the Card Canyon. It was some nights ago that I sat and pondered the various individual findings I had acquired over the years as a collection. It was then I had an epiphany. These findings were not random, isolated things – but instead formed a distinct set of closely related items. The seemingly disparate games I had collected were in fact the trail that I needed to but follow to finally obtain the holy grail of playing cards I have so long sought – the original deck.

I shall now endeavor to illuminate you on my findings and ask your pardon in advance for having provided such a lengthy preamble to my correspondence.

This was the last correspondence ever received from the esteemed Jack. He has not been seen or heard from since. We can only assume that he is still out there in the canyon searching…

Let me begin with but a few illustrations to set the stage rightly.

From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon

Do you see anything in common between these four artifacts? Yes, of course three are rectangular. But look at all four! Of course they all have red; but that’s not important. I mean look right there! You see it now, yes? I didn’t think so.

Allow me to shed some light on the subject. The artifacts are playing cards that hail from vastly different packs and differ not only in size and shape, but in the number of cards contained and number of the suits. In almost all respects, these cards have nothing in common at all! Yet despite these differences, the primary and most popular games played with each deck closely resemble each other in ways that cannot be attributed to mere coincidence. The connections may not be immediately recognized and in order fully come to terms with the profundity of the relationships; you need to learn some of what I have unearthed in my expeditions. I shall begin my story in the distant and mysterious lands of India.

Ganjifa – Playing Cards in India:
There I was standing in the jungles of Orissa, with nothing on but my night britches, eating my sausage breakfast and staring into the eyes of a Bengal tiger. I was most assuredly done for if not for the previous evening’s party at which my uninformed guests inadvertently appropriated my prized Ganjifa deck for use as cocktail coasters. There scattered around the camp and within easy reach lay no fewer than six of the little known circular cards. Tossing aside my breakfast in an effort to distract the beast, I quickly swooped up a small hand of cards. I called upon years of idle practice flinging cards and in rapid succession succeeded to place several shots about the giant cat’s ears. Startled and stung, it turned and jumped back to the jungle, leaving me with a slightly soiled set of cards and britches in much the same condition.

Now if you, like my honored guests, are not familiar with Ganjifa cards I can honestly express a most sincere understanding. It seems that very few people, even so-called experts on the subject, know much of anything about this quite unique playing card. In addition to being the only known circular playing card in the world, they are also one of the most numerous. And by this I mean not so much the success one might have in finding a pack – that task has become nearly impossible and price prohibitive – but that if one could find a pack, it would contain a voluminous number of individual cards. By all reckoning, a standard Mughul style deck numbers no less than 96 cards, while the Vishnu inspired Dashavatara decks number 120 or even more!

Indeed what matter of game could require such absurd quantities? Well, you shall shortly see that it is a game not so foreign as you would be initially inclined to believe. Before I can relate the intricacies of the game though, I must first introduce you to the nature of the cards in more detail and define the very foreign terms used to describe the rules of play.

There are two principle types of Ganjifa decks that I have discovered - the Mughul deck and the Dashavatara deck. The decks differ only in the name and number of suits. The Ganjifa deck I have provided for you is of the Dashavatara style. It consists of 120 cards divided into 10 suits of 12 cards each. The ten suits are not universally common in all packs; however 8 of the 10 do appear to be consistent. The 8th and 9th suits appear to vary by region. Each suit corresponds to one of the ten incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu.

Within each suit are 2 court cards, a Raja and a Pradhan – or as we are more accustomed to call them, a king and jack (though officially I am told it is closer to advisor). In addition to the court cards are 10 number cards ranging, conveniently, from 1 to 10. Not so conveniently, the card ranks vary by suit.

The 10 suits are divided into 2 sets – 5 ‘weak’ suits (ekka-bandibaji) and 5 ‘strong’ suits (daheli-bandibaji). Regardless of the deck style, all Ganjifa packs share this trait. For all suits, the Raja is the highest card, followed by the Pradhan. The number card rank differently. In weak suits the numbers decrease with rank while in strong suits, the numbers increase in rank. Thusly:

Weak Suits: Raja, Pradhan, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Strong Suits: Raja, Pradhan, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

There is no apparent reason for such segregation of the suits, nor for altering and confounding the sensible order of the numbers. I had thought this peculiar concept a uniquely Indian construct meant to keep the uninformed from playing the game, but as I later discovered, that is far from the truth of the matter.

Ganjifa cards are (or perhaps more appropriately, were) all hand made by artists who constructed the cards and hand painted the images. This art has all but vanished from the country and is why the particular deck I provided is actually made by me. The deck is in the style of a Maharashtra Dashavatara (or so I think). I have provided below, suit names and signs appropriate to my cards.

Weak Suits:
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon

Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha,Vamana

Strong Suits:
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon
From gallery of Audacon

Parashurama, Ramachandra, Krishna, Buddha, Kalkin

As this correspondence regards cards and not theology, I’ll forego any lengthy explanation of the avatars and their symbolic meaning.

In many foreign games, especially card games, there exists a specialized vocabulary describing a multitude of aspects of the play. To provide you any chance of following the rules, I must take yet more of your time to introduce these critical and unusual terms to you.

Hukm: The highest unplayed card in a suit. Initially this is always the Raja but will change throughout play.
Dukkal: The Hukm and an uninterrupted succession of cards down from it.
Gheni: Holding the Raja of any suit while not holding the Pradhan of the same suit as well.
Deni: Holding the Pradhan of any suit without holding the corresponding Raja card of the suit.

These terms and their use will become apparent in the rules which follow.

Rules of Play:
Ganjifa is trick taking game for 3 players played in rounds. Each round of the game is split into two phases; the boundary between these is known as the tigasta. The first phase (pre-tigasta) lasts until each player has had and subsequently lost the lead. The second phase (post-tigasta) then lasts until the end of the round. The differences in the two phases are the rules that govern what cards must be lead. Forced leads is one of Ganjifa’s most unique features.

Individual rounds are played out in a series of tricks. Each trick starts with a lead of one or more cards per prescribed rules. All play proceeds anticlockwise. Unlike most trick taking games, Ganjifa does not require players to follow suit to a lead, even if they have a card of the suit. What it does require is for a player to play the highest card of the lead suit – the hukm – if the player has it. This means that when someone leads a low card, the current holder of the hukm must play it. Anytime the hukm is required but not played, the card is said to be “burned” and loses any value it had for the remainder of the round – that is, the card is now considered to be the lowest ranked card of the suit. The required play of the hukm is a key feature of Ganjifa and requires players to pay close attention to the cards played so that the hukm of any suit is known at all times.

The Deal
All players collectively shuffle the cards – usually by mixing them together in a large pile in the center of the table. The dealer gathers the cards and the player to his left cuts the deck. When cutting the deck, the player looks at the card cut to. If it is a Raja, the cards are replaced and cut in a new location. Once cut, the dealer deals 4 cards at a time to each player in anticlockwise order. The first and last sets of cards for each player are dealt face-up for all to see. All other sets are dealt face down. With all cards dealt, the players take a moment to note the face up cards, after which the cards are picked up and arranged as desired. If any player is without a Raja card, the deal is cancelled and redealt.

Opening Lead:
The lead player for the round is determined by the player who holds a particular card known as the Surkhya. If the game is played during the day, that card is the Raja of the Ramachandra suit. If the game is played at night, the lead card is the Raja of the Krishna suit. The player holding the Surkhya plays it out along with any low card of any suit. These two cards cannot be beat. The other players, in anticlockwise order, each contribute any two low cards of any suit.
Prior to the lead player claiming the cards, all players may exchange one card from their hand for one card (except the Surkhya) in the first double trick under two specific conditions:

• If a player has no cards of a suit played to the opening trick or has a singleton deni, he may exchange any card in his hand for a card in the opening trick which matches the desired suit.

• If a player holds a singleton deni in a suit which was not played to the trick, the player may request from the player holding the Raja of that suit to provide a low card of the same suit in exchange for a card from the requesting player’s hand. The player holding the Raja cannot refuse unless his Raja card is also a singleton.

These exchanges are optional for all players, but if players meet the conditions, the exchange is usually advantageous. Once all exchanges are completed, the cards are gathered by the trick winner (player who lead). Phase 1 begins in full.

Pre-Tigasta: Tricks of Phase 1
In phase 1, a player with the lead must play a dukkal if they have one. This involves laying down all cards in the sequence except the lowest. The other players then add in turn order an equal number of low cards to the multi-trick.

After every dukkal has been played, the lead player then checks for any deni. If he has one, he must ‘give the deni’ by leading a low card of the suit. If a player must give a deni and does not have a low card of the suit, they must lead the deni or lose it as a high card. The player with the gheni must play it and take the lead. The gheni player has the option to turn the trick into a double by playing a suit card higher than that lead. If playing third, this is assured. If playing second, the third player may play a still higher card and thus split the trick.
If a player has no deni, he may optionally play a talafa. This is a lead where the player has the 2nd rank card to the hukm. The player leads a low card of the suit to force the hukm out.

A player with no dukkal, no deni, and who can’t or opts not to play a talafa must play an utari. This lead consists of first playing out all hukm cards in hand simultaneously. Once completed, the player has no winning cards left and must lead a randomly selected card (as agreed to by both opponents).

Post-Tigasta: Tricks of Phase 2
After the tigasta the rules regarding the valid leads shift slightly. Players are still obligated to play any dukkal, then give a deni. However, in playing a talafa it is no longer required to play a low card of the suit; instead any card may be played face down and the desired suit named. Also, utari do not require all hukm to be played at once, thus allowing a player to play these out one at a time. This can be important as the cards discarded take on more significance as the round progresses.

There are also several new optional leads available. One is an utaruna-sir. To play this lead, a player must have the hukm and the 3rd ranked card of the suit. The hukm along with a low card of the same suit is offered to the other players as a double trick. One will be won by the hukm lead while the second will be won by the player holding the 2nd rank card – who will also win the lead.

A player who holds the 3rd rank card, but not the hukm or the 2nd rank card has two options to play. If the player believes that the two high cards are held by different players, he may play a special talafa known as a natavani. To do so, a low card of the suit is led which will force the hukm. When the player again has the lead, he must play a second special talafa known as a tavani to force the 2nd ranked card. The tavani may be played with a card of any suit face down.

If a player believes that the two cards are held by the same player, he may force them both out by playing a low card of the suit and declaring a hardu. When done, if both cards are in the same hand, both must be played. The lead player contributes another card and the other player contributes 2 cards. If both cards are not in the same hand, the lead is declared void and a taken back. A new card must then be led which cannot be a natavani.

If a player with the lead believes the other players are void of a suit, he may lead all his cards in that suit and declare a sokta. If he is right, he wins the entire trick. If he is wrong and a player still has a card in the suit, he loses all tricks and the other player wins regardless of the other player’s actual card rank.

The Final Trick
The final trick of a round is called the akheri and is typically won by the player with the lead. It is possible that another player can beat the lead. This is known as akheri-marne (killing the akheri). If both players can beat the final lead, it is known as rangeri. Killing the final trick is important in subsequent deals.

Additional Deals
All players try to obtain as many cards in tricks as possible. If a player obtains less than 40 cards, they will owe any player who obtained more than 40 cards a payment of 1 card per card short of 40 prior to the start of the next round. These payments follow a strict process.
After the cards are shuffled and cut, the dealer will deal all card sets face down to any player who owes cards. The player owing cards has to, at his choice, set aside either the first, second or last set of dealt cards (if more than 4 cards are owed, then multiple sets must be set aside). One additional card must be set aside separately as well. Without looking at the sets of cards, the player owed cards takes the number of cards owed to him from the offered sets.

If the surkhya card is received in the payment, it must be returned and the single card set aside is provided as payment instead. The payment cards are added to the receiver’s hand. The receiver then provides an equal number of low cards as were paid to him back to the payer. If a player killed the akheri in the previous round, the player is exempt from making any card payments.

Scoring and Game End
There is no official rule stated for scoring the game or for the end of the game. A player’s scores might be calculated in each round as the number of cards captured minus 40. It is also possible that instead of, or in addition to, card payments between deals, money payments were also paid.

Regarding the end of the game, it is possible that the game is played for either a fixed number of deals or until a player obtains a particular score or until a player runs out of money. If played for a number of rounds, the winner is the player with the highest cumulative score at the end of the final round. If played to a particular score, the first player to achieve the score is the winner.
Based on limited information, I suggest playing the game for points over 3 deals (one per player).

Card Game Nirvana
In ancient Sanskrit, nirvana (निर्वाण) is said to be a state free of suffering – the end of the world; the extinction of the individual. In India, Ganjifa is quickly achieving its own nirvana. The game is hardly known by anyone these days and will likely be completely unknown within just a few generations. It is not clear why, but the game’s natural oddities may be the most likely cause. At first Ganjifa appears as a normal trick-taking game. Then it forces your hand, quite literally, and leaves you wondering where the game play and strategy is. Then you find yourself scratching your head and wondering how your opponent just won the game – was it random luck or was some skill involved? This duality of familiar and foreign lies at the heart of the game. It is what makes this game both so very interesting and so very hard to approach.

Ganjifa is a truly unique game in the world of playing cards. It has been suggested that there are no other games like it. While it is tempting to follow this line of thought, it can be immediately challenged. Clearly the game has a common heritage with other trick-taking games. The structure of the card pack is also remarkably close to other known packs. I realized there must be a connection to other games and I was determined to find it. I began to inquire about the origins of Ganjifa.

NOTE: The rules for Ganjifa are heavily borrowed from the book Ganjifa - the Playing Cards of India by Rudolf von Leyden [1982]. I've taken creative license to impart the style of "Jack Karde" into the text throughout. The historical information is pulled together from the above reference and several internet sources.

To be continue...
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