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Why skat is the king of German card games

October 26, 2022

The game's rules can appear mysterious to the noninitiated, yet more Germans play it than football. It's also listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage asset.

Image: McPhoto/Luhr/IMAGO

To start out, full disclosure: I'm not sure I'll ever learn. I've tried, a bit. But to be honest, as a Canadian who's been living for 15 years in Germany and who's otherwise well integrated in the country, it's nice to know I still have something left to learn that would "make me even more German": how to play skat.

And to my defense, it's not a game you can simply pick up through observation.

"With poker, you can watch other people play for a half hour and then you can play, whereas most people play skat their whole life and they still don't get it," says skat expert Jan Ehlers.

But even with its seemingly puzzling rules, there are more people who play skat than football in Germany: some 20 to 25 million, according to the estimates of the German Skat Association. In Berlin alone there are 200 associations meeting up at least once a week to play, says Ehlers.

Jan Ehlers sitting at a table playing skat
Jan Ehlers contributed to having skat listed as a German UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage assetImage: Elizabeth Grenier/DW

As the former deputy president of the German Skat Association, Ehlers promoted the successful bid to have the game listed by the German branch of UNESCO as  Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016.

Temporary alliances and memory skills

Skat is a three-player strategy card game. It involves an auction at the beginning of each round, based on each player's prospect of winning according to the cards they've been dealt. The highest bidder plays solo against the two others, who form a temporary alliance for the round. The players in the defending team, however, cannot communicate with each other — except through the cards they decide to play.

Traditionally, German-suited playing cards —with acorns, leaves, hearts, bells — were used, but the internationally widespread French-suited ones work as well, leaving out a number of cards as there are only 32 in the game. Each card has a certain value, and the whole game is worth 120 points. "And the winner is always the one who has more as half of the points," explains Ehlers.

For him and for many other skat fans, the skill factor is more important than the chance factor in this game. "To play skat, you need a good memory. You need to be able to calculate in your head; a good skat player obviously counts the cards passing in every round."

Two hands holding German-suited cards
German-suited cards have acorns, leaves, hearts and bellsImage: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture-alliance/ dpa

How it started

In 1813, court chamberlain Hans Carl Leopold von der Gabelentz, an administrator from the Thuringian city of Altenburg, near Leipzig, wrote down in a notebook his wins and losses for a game called "scat." It's the oldest known written reference to the card game.

That year, thousands of soldiers were stationed in Altenburg in preparation for the Battle of Leipzig during the Napoleonic Wars. Involving half a million soldiers and resulting in 127,000 casualties, it went down in history as the largest battle in Europe before World War I.

While waiting for combat, the soldiers spent a lot of time playing cards. They are the ones who contributed to turning the game into a popular pastime.

Now written "skat," the game took its name from the Italian "scartare," referring to the two cards that are discarded at the beginning of the game.

Skat in popular culture

Novels, paintings and even an opera pay tribute to the game.  

In Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel set during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, skat is mentioned several times.

In one scene, the soldiers sitting in the trenches try to stop worrying about fellow troopers going insane during the attacks: "Kat suggests a game of skat: It is easier when a man has something to do."

Later in the book, a group of soldiers help out a wounded comrade-in-arms who can't leave his hospital bed during his first encounter with his wife in two years. Turning their backs away from the couple while they have sex, the men watch the door for intruders, all while playing a "loud" game of skat.

Concentrated skat players aren't typically loud, even though writer Kurt Tucholsky sarcastically described the game in 1920 as the nation's expression of joy: "When a German is truly happy, he doesn't sing. He plays skat." 

The same year Tucholsky wrote those words, Otto Dix created The Skat Players, a painting portraying three German military officers playing cards. It's not a scene of joy, however: They are extremely disfigured, with missing body parts replaced by prosthetics. The work, now part of the collection of Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, clearly criticized the horrors of war. According to art historians, the inspiration for the painting came from a real-life scene Dix had observed in a cafe.

'The skat players,' a painting by Otto Dix
'The skat players,' a painting by Otto Dix Image: dpa/picture-alliance

But not all pop culture depictions of skat refer to war. In his comic opera Intermezzo, which premiered in 1924, composer Richard Strauss, a passionate skat player, included a scene of his alter ego playing the game.

Men playing skat, members of a skat club in 1936
A skat club in 1936Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Skat also appears in post-WWII novels, including two works written by German Nobel Prize winners, Heinrich Böll's The Train was on Time and Günter Grass' The Tin Drum. Among others, the three-player card game serves as a metaphor for the love triangle between Oskar Matzerath's mother and his two "presumptive fathers." Grass was a renowned skat player himself.

Next generation?

What fascinates Jan Ehlers about the game is that it brings together people of all ages and social classes.

When players come together for a game or a tournament, Ehlers says, "doctor" or "professor" titles that are usually so important in Germany no longer matter. Everyone is on a first-name basis, using "du" instead of the formal "Sie." "When I played with Gerhard Schröder [the former German Chancellor and another skat enthusiast], I addressed him informally too."

It also attracts players of all ages. Ehlers feels that children can easily learn by the age of 10 — he learned when he was 6, during breaks while helping his great-grandfather herding cows.

Even though volunteers from different regional branches of the German Skat Association are devoted to teaching the game to children, the tradition could be dying out. Many enthusiastic skat players are getting old. As for the younger generation, instead of a pack of 32 cards in their pocket, they usually have a smartphone always available to kill boredom.

Skat a Traditional Card Game

This article was originally published on May 12, 2021.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture