The way that one shuffles and draws Tarot cards is (like just about everything else in the Tarot world) highly dependent on one’s personal views on what Tarot is and how it works. Do you work with reversals? Do you believe that a Tarot deck will always produce the “right” cards for your spread, regardless of your shuffling? Do you believe that Tarot works through some inherent quality of the deck, or perhaps as a reflection of your own energies as a reader? All of these perspectives factor in to the way any given reader will choose to shuffle.
Myself, I commit what many Tarot readers consider sacrilege. I riffle shuffle my Tarot cards, the same way I would a poker deck.
There are many reasons for this, but we’ll start with the simplest. I grew up in a town where there were a lot of casinos, and while no one in my family was inclined to gamble, card sharking was just common knowledge. When I was in elementary school, we used to play poker on the playground at recess, using Magic Markers instead of chips to place our bets. I wouldn’t call myself magnificent with cards–and God knows I don’t have the eye-hand coordination to be able to cheat at cards–but shuffling is just a skill that I learned very early on. So when I first picked up a Tarot deck, I didn’t even give a second thought to the riffle-and-bridge approach, and I only found out several years after I started reading that most readers take issue with this kind of shuffling.
Secondly, I read with reversals, and riffle shuffling makes that easier. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg question going on here–does reading with reversals make me want to riffle shuffle, or does riffling make me inclined to use reversals?–but either way, the two aspects of my reading practice mutually reinforce each other. Riffling is the quickest and most efficient way to take half the deck and turn it upside-down. Riffling repeatedly ensures that you have about fifty-fifty chances of turning up an inverted card, and that they’ll be evenly mixed: you’re not necessarily going to get large swathes of upright cards and reversed cards, which is important to me. After all, no one wants to turn up a spread and find that eight out of ten cards are inverted, but if I do have that, I want to make sure it’s actually significant to the reading, and not just a matter of poor shuffling on my part.
This brings us in to the third major reason that I like to riffle shuffle Tarot cards. My reading style relies on randomness. Tarot reading for me is based on the premise that any one of seventy-eight cards could come up in any spread position. Otherwise, if a card shows up in multiple consecutive readings, it doesn’t actually mean anything other than that I didn’t sufficiently mix the deck; Reading B isn’t actually a reading of its own, but is an afterglow of Reading A.*
And, well, riffle shuffling is much more efficient than that sloppy old overhand method that many readers prefer. With a simple 52-card playing deck, it takes approximately seven rounds of riffle shuffling to completely randomize the pack, but it would take more than ten thousand overhand shuffles to accomplish the same effect. With a 78-card Tarot deck, it takes eight riffle shuffles, mathematically speaking, although I don’t have the numbers on how long an overhand shuffler would have to keep at it.
(For the mathematically minded among you who are interested, I’m getting this information on riffle shuffling from Dr. Persi Diaconis’s groundbreaking work, “Trailing the Dovetail Shuffle to Its Lair“.)
So there you have it. Despite the dirty looks and uncomfortable coughs I get from other readers whenever I mention how I shuffle my decks, those are the primary reasons that I keep doing what I do. From what I’ve seen, the main issue that other Tarot readers have with riffle shuffling is that they claim it damages their decks and wears them out more quickly. This may be an issue for many people, but I can honestly say I’ve never encountered it. When I shuffle, I do it from both sides–that is to say, with the cards facing down and with the cards facing up–so there’s very little bending or warping that happens. And if I notice that a deck is starting to bend a bit, I’ll lay off reading with it for a while and set it under a brick (or something equivalent) to press the cards flat once more. And in my experience, an inexperienced overhand shuffler will do far more damage to card edges than a skillful riffler.**
I’m on the losing side in the Great Shuffling Debate, and I know it. Allow me to make clear that I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shuffling overhand, if that’s what works for you. (After all, the entirety of Tarot reading can pretty much be summed up as “do what works for you”.) But I’m also not entirely sold on the widely accepted view that riffle shuffling is a heresy worthy of Dante’s sixth circle of hell.
*This particular quandary is not actually an issue for some readers, who will draw cards at random from different parts of the deck based on what “feels” right to them. Myself, I’m like a poker dealer, thanks once again to the gambling heritage of my hometown. I shuffle, cut, and deal from the top. This means that if the cards are not well shuffled, it’s entirely possible to see runs of cards that hold over from one reading to the next.
**Although perhaps I flatter myself over-much in calling myself skillful.