For love or money

Wed, 22. Aug. 2018

The oft-used idiom of the title, bandied since the Blickling Homilies in 971 A.D., essentially translates as “not under any circumstances”, which is pretty much when I’m going to be able to confidently participate in a pickup game of Coiffeur, a variant of the 36-card Swiss national card game known as Jass.

But that’s just a personal viewpoint. Plenty of people in Switzerland do play Jass, some three million according to the Swiss government, and if it’s not for love or money, I have no idea why anyone would otherwise subject themselves to such a mind-numbingly complex sortie with the pasteboards.

Jass originated in the Netherlands and was brought to Switzerland in the last third of the 18th century by Swiss Protestant mercenaries in Dutch service. The Dutch word ‘Jas(s)’ is akin to ‘farmer’, and initially was the name of the highest trump card, the Jack; the Swiss word for the trump nine, ‘Näll’ (Nell), was also a Dutch loan (possibly an attenuation of ‘manelle’, describing the second-highest trump card in the game Ombre). The first mention of Jass in Switzerland was in 1796 in Siblingen, Schaffhausen, where two farmers were sued by the city council for drinking wine and playing a card game called ‘Jassen’. Hardly an auspicious debut.

You’ve heard of the Röstigraben (‘Rösti ditch’, the cultural line dividing French and German Switzerland)? Well, there’s also a ‘Jassgraben’, which demarcates the areas that use the German, or ‘Catholic’, suits of Bells, Shields, Roses and Acorns from those that use French-style cards, featuring ordinary suits. The boundary is not along the language border, as logic might dictate, but along the old Protestant-Catholic division between Burgundian French Switzerland and Alemmanic eastern Switzerland. Today French cards predominate west of the Bruenig-Napf-Reuss line in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, but also in the German-speaking parts of Valais, Fribourg and Bern; the cantons of Solothurn, Basel, Thurgau, Graubuenden, and Ticino; and around half of the Aargau.

Over the course of time, more than seventy variations of Jass were developed, and each region, and even each valley, tenaciously defended its own version. In order to facilitate supra-regional Jass gaming, and to counteract the frequent and vehement rule disputes which often flared up, in 1936 the 'Schweizerische Wirteverein' (Swiss Hosts Association) published the generally-accepted 'Swiss Jass Regulations', which contained 20 different variations of Jass. Interestingly, these regulations came into force before to the Federal Criminal Code in Switzerland.

The most widespread variation is Schieber (push or slide), a common four-hand point-trick game employing trumps. Coiffeur (Hairdresser), with its sub-variants of Gusti, Mittendurch, Tutti or Marie, comes from the French 'Quoi faire?' (What to do?), which requires one to decide where to tactically deploy your cards to yield the greatest advantage. Differenzeler is the supreme discipline. Players call their point goal in the beginning of the game, and after twelve games the player with the lowest difference wins.

Jass is played by young and old, in tournaments, taverns and living rooms, promoting conviviality and mental stimulation. Proficient playing requires a good poker-face, swift recall of cards played, and an uncanny ability to read both partners and opponents. It is so popular that since 1968 it has had its own Saturday show, ‘Samschtig-Jass’, one of the longest running entertainment programmes continuously broadcast in German-speaking countries.

So, the next time you see a cheery group of Saaners shuffling decks at the local Stammtisch, know that it may not be simply for lust or lucre, but just plain fun.

Alex Bertea

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Abländschen celebrates its tradition

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