Card Counting Techniques in Tarot

It seems there are two big schools of thought in the Tarot world when it comes to reading with spreads. In one camp, there are readers who use spreads religiously, and who hate to perform a reading without first fixing the meaning of each card’s position. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that these readers are uninventive or that they always use the same spread; just that they like to have a spread of one kind or another to structure their readings.) In the other camp, there are less rigid readers who will throw down three cards on a table and then tell you what those three cards mean together, as a whole.

Generally speaking, I belong to the first camp. I like structure in my Tarot readings, and since each card can represent such a wide range of ideas, I find it helpful to have a spread position in place to narrow my focus. For a long time, the positionless reading of the latter camp drove me absolutely nuts,* but I’m slowly expanding my Tarot practice in that direction and am trying to find the value in using the cards to tell a free-flowing story rather than a strictly structured one.

However, I’m not perfect about this. I kind of cheat, because, well, I like structure. So I’ve recently been experimenting with card counting.

What Card Counting Is

The basic idea here is that you have a stack of cards (let’s make it ten for the sake of ease), starting with A and ending with (in our ten-card example) J. But you don’t read the cards A through J as a single linear narrative. Rather, you start with A–or another pre-determined card from the stack–and, based on the value of that card, count to the second (or third, or fifth, or whatevereth) card after A in the stack. That card, which is second/third/fifth/whatevereth in the actual original sequence of the stack, becomes the second card you read in the linear narrative you build for your reading.

And then from this second card, depending on its value, you count out another two or three or five cards to get the third card in your reading, and so on, and so forth. Generally, from my understanding of it, you keep counting out cards until the cycle takes you back to a card you’ve already read, at which point the sequence begins to loop and there’s no point in counting further.

Hmm. Not sure how clear that is. Example time.

Let’s say you have cards A through J. We start with A and count five cards after it, taking us to F. Then, from F, we need to count nine, but there aren’t nine more cards in the stack, so we loop back around to the beginning (i.e. G-H-I-J-A-B-C-D-E). And then from E, we need to count six (F-G-H-I-J-A), which takes us back to A. Now, counting again from A is going to do us no good, because it’ll just take us to F (and then on to E and A again), so we stop here.

This means that, while the original order of the ten card stack was A through J, we don’t read the whole stack (and not even in the same order). Instead, we only end up reading three cards: A-F-E. The card-counting method allows us to distill a large and disorganized set of cards into a more concentrated narrative for the purpose of a Tarot reading.

The Traditional Way of Doing It

But then how, specifically, does one count the cards? The method used in the Golden Dawn’s massive ritualistic Opening of the Key is largely based on Kabbalistic and astrological attributions of the cards. In the Major Arcana, each card linked to a sign of the Zodiac was assigned the card-counting value of 12, for obvious reasons. The three cards assigned to the elements (the Fool the Hanged Man, and Judgment) were given the number 3, for equally obvious reasons. And the seven cards assigned to the classical planets of astrology were given the number 9 (not 7), for obscure reasons that I still don’t understand at all.

Cards 2 through 10 in the Minor Arcana were counted at face value (i.e. the Five of Swords has a card-counting value of 5). The Aces are assigned either to the number 11 or the number 5, depending on whether you follow Aleister Crowley’s method or the rest of the Golden Dawn.

And then the Court cards are really weird. The Kings, Queens, and Knights all have the counting value of 4, but the Pages are assigned to the number 7. Don’t ask me why.

The OOTK method is counterintuitive (for me, at least) in another way, as well. When you’re counting from a card–let’s say it’s card A–the first card you count is card A, not the card after it. It’s rather difficult to explain, and my usual unparalleled eloquence is failing me today, so I’ll show an example, instead.

Card Counting Sample

In the spread above, card A is the Queen of Wands. Queens have the value 4, so we count four cards starting from A (A-B-C-D). We land on card D, the Knight of Swords, which has a value of 4 again. D-E-F-G takes us to the Fool, which is given the numerical value 3 because of the whole three-elemental-cards thing. G-H-I takes us to the Empress, which has the number 9 because it’s one of the planetary cards. I-J-A-B-C-D-E-F-G takes us back to the Fool, and the loop is complete.

So now instead of reading this sequence as ten cards starting with A and ending with J, we’ve distilled it down and changed up the order a bit. Our shortened narrative reading is the Queen of Swords, the Knight of Swords, the Fool, and the Empress. (I leave it to you to interpret this string.)

Innovations on the GD Method

That’s all well and good, but the Golden Dawn is long since dead, and I don’t think Mathers would be able to protest overmuch if modern readers tweaked the system a little bit. In my personal practice, I’ve made a few changes that make the process easier and more logical from my perspective.

The first thing I did was to abandon that whole business about starting the counting with the card that you’re counting from. If I’m counting 4 cards from A, I’m going to start with B and work my way up, instead of starting with A. This just makes sense to me, because it fits my first-grade arithmetic view of how counting ought to work. (One plus four is five, not four, so we should land on the fifth card, shouldn’t we?)

I also switched the value of the Aces to 1, because I’m a simpleminded creature. In the original GD system, this isn’t possible, because counting 1 from a card would mean that we don’t move at all, but since I’ve done away with that peculiarity, I see no reason why the Ace should be taken at anything other than its face value.

Similarly, I switched the value of the planetary cards to 7, not 9. I’m sure there’s some deep esoteric meaning behind the use of the number 9, but I don’t know what it is, so it’s not terribly useful to me.

I also changed up the counting values for the Court cards, because once again, the rationale behind the GD system is insufficient from my perspective. I gave the Courts numerical values based on the Sephiroth they occupy on the Tree of Life: Kings (Chokmah) at 2, Queens (Binah) at 3, Knights (Tiphereth) at 6, and Pages (Yesod) at 9. For many Tarot readers, this is probably just as ridiculous-looking and counterintuitive as the original method, but I’ve done a fair bit of work with the Tree of Life and it makes sense to me.

So let’s look at our same scenario, except now with my adjusted counting method. We start with A, which is the Queen of Swords. This means that we count three cards, starting with B (B-C-D), which still lands us on the Knight of Swords. But then from the Knight, we count six cards, starting with E (E-F-G-H-I-J), taking us to the Tower instead of the Fool. The Tower is one of the planetary Major Arcana, so we count A-B-C-D-E-F-G, and now we come to the fool. H-I-J takes us back to the Tower, and the cycle is complete.

So now our narrative-style reading is the Queen of Swords, the Knight of Swords, the Tower, and the Fool. This is a very different story from the one we told with the Golden Dawn counting method. And of course, as with all things Tarot, there’s no one objectively right way to do it. This process was all about finding a consistent way of doing things that worked well for me as an individual reader–a way of doing it that made sense to me and that I could use without feeling like I was twisting myself into too many knots.

Going Further: Reversals and Directionality

But there’s no need to stop there. For example, why only count to the right? Why not count backwards (i.e. A-J-I-H-G-F-E-D-C-B)? The Golden Dawn’s way of doing this was to count in the direction that the figure on the first card in your narrative sequence*** is pointing. The Queen of Swords, for example, points to the right, so you would count to the right, but if your card was pointing to the left, you would count left. I’ve also seen it done with reversals: An upright card means we count right, and a reversed one means we count left.

But here’s a thought for you: Why do you need to count in the same direction for the entirety of the cycle? If card A is the upright Queen of Swords, then we count to the right. But if we land on the Knight of Swords, which is facing left, wouldn’t it be interesting to then count six (or four, depending on what method you use) to the left, instead of to the right? Or, if you prefer, you could do this with reversals: an upright card means that we count right, and an upside-down one means we count left. (This fixes the ambiguity of cards like the Hierophant, which aren’t really facing one way or the other.) I, personally, have not yet integrated anything like this into my (relatively young) card-counting practice, but it’s something worth considering.

Taking Cards at Face Value

And of course, if we’re making changes to the system, why not change the counting values of the Court cards and the Major Arcana even further, to make everything as damned simple as it could possibly be? Instead of dividing the Major Arcana into planetary, elemental, and zodiacal groups, why not just give each one the counting value equivalent to its card number? (i.e. count one card from the Magician, two from the High Priestess, and so on.)

The same could be done with the Court cards, if a reader was so inclined. We could easily make the Pages worth 11, the Knights 12, the Queens 13, and the Kings 14, and this is by far the simplest and most intuitive way to approach the issue. I think that I, at least, will be experimenting with this idea in the weeks and months to come.


*I’ll confess that, to an extent, it still does. This is really just a matter of reading style, and people who read this way aren’t objectively wrong, but it’s so alien to my approach to Tarot that I chafe when I come up against it.

**Although this depends on the method of card counting you use, which is actually the whole point of this post. But I feel like I have to explain the concept of counting before I can get to the nitty-gritty of different methods.

***The Opening of the Key has you pick a significator, generally from the Court cards, and then look for this significator in the large, messy, disorganized stack of cards. The significator is the starting point for the card-counting process. Sort of an anchor to help focus the rest of the reading.

For anyone interested in learning more about card counting, or anyone who wants to check my sources because the word of one blogger on the internet is hardly credible, I highly recommend Benebell Wen‘s book, Holistic Tarot. You can also find a full description of the Opening of the Key spread and associated card counting technique here.

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4 thoughts on “Card Counting Techniques in Tarot

    1. Thank you for the kind words! Life has gotten extremely busy in the past couple of weeks, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to spend much time on the internet, but I promise I’ll be back soon.

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