Sunday, March 24, 2002


By Linda

In The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern, Mat and five Tairen lordlings play chop, a card game. They play with an expensive hand-painted and lacquered deck for high stakes. This article summarises what we know about chop and then compares the game to its closest real-world equivalents.

What We Know About Chop

The Cards

Chop is played with a deck of five suits: Cups, Rods, Coins, Winds and Flames. The suits are ranked: Cups are highest and, in Tear, at least, Flames are lowest. The highest rank in each suit is the ruler:

The rulers in a deck varied according to the land where the cards were made, with the nation’s own ruler always as Ruler of Cups, the highest suit.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

In the deck Mat played with, the Ruler of Cups is a High Lord of Tear and the Ruler of Rods is the Queen of Andor. Sometimes the First of Mayene is the Ruler of Flames in a Tairen deck. The very latest Tairen decks have Rand with dragon banner as Ruler of Cups. The identities of the Rulers of Coins and Winds are unknown.

The Ruler of Flames is:

...the Amyrlin Seat balancing a flame on her palm. However, the Tairens felt about Aes Sedai, they acknowledged the power of Tar Valon, even if Flames was the lowest suit.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

The Amyrlin was one of the rulers in decks of all countries except Amadicia.

The lowest card in each suit is the fool. In the Tairen deck, the King of Illian was the Fool of Flames, the lowest. The First of Mayene was sometimes the Fool of Cups. In Amadicia, the Fool of Flames is the Amyrlin Seat.

Apart from the Ruler and the Fool, there were ten numbered cards for each of the five suits, making sixty cards in the deck (The Wheel of Time Compannion).

In the game Mat played, six players were dealt five cards each, so at least 30 cards were required for the game. This does not mean that other card games in the Wheel of Time world don’t use a larger deck (and there are other card games, see Arrays article). Early versions of real world games similar to Chop used shortened decks of 20 cards (Old Poker, for four players) or 32 to 36 cards (Poque, for up to six players).

The Game

There were six players in the game: Mat, Reimon, Edorion, Estean, Carlomin and Baran; and each player purchased and was dealt five cards facedown.

When the scene opens, the players already have three cards and there is already money in the centre of the table:

He [Mat] tried to concentrate on the cards lying facedown in front of him and on the coins spilled in the middle of the table.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

The money may be from the purchase of one or more of the three cards each player holds, or it could have been left over from the previous hand if all players dropped out without gambling. We see the players buy their fourth and fifth cards one card at a time, adding a silver coin to pile in centre, which is referred to as the pot.

The aim of the game is to match pairs, and/or three, four or five of the one rank from the five cards dealt. The more cards of the same rank, the more likely the hand is to win. Cards of a higher rank beat cards of a lower rank. In the event of two players both having a pair of the same rank, the hand containing the highest ranked suit wins.

It is not known if other combinations such as straights (five cards of consecutive rank) or flushes (five cards of the same suit) are allowed.

Mat refrained from lifting his cards to check them again. They would not have changed. Three rulers, the highest cards in three of the five suits, were already good enough to win most hands.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

Three of the same rank (three of a kind) would be beaten by four or five of any rank or by three of a kind plus a pair (full house)—and also by a flush or a straight if these are allowed.

Five of a kind is the highest hand:

If he was dealt the fifth ruler, there was no hand in Chop could beat him.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

And five rulers is unbeatable because the rulers are the highest ranked cards in the suits. Four rulers would be beaten by five of any rank. (The photo above shows Mat's winning hand using a reproduction of a 15th century hand-painted deck published by US Games Inc.)

After buying their fifth card, players then bet if they think their hand has a reasonable chance of winning. If they assess their hand as unlikely to win, they drop out of that round:

Reimon had neatly stacked his facedown beside the pot to show he was out.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

The Betting

Naturally there is a certain amount of bluffing to keep other players guessing. Mat doesn’t want to look confident in case he scares the other players from betting against him:

He put on a small frown and puffed worriedly at his pipe, to look unsure whether his cards were good enough to go on with.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

Other players are bluffing too—Edorion, for instance:

He put in a crown and took his card, grimacing when he peeked at it. That meant nothing; going by his face, Edorion’s cards were always low and mismatched. He won more than he lost, though.

- The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern

Baran opens the betting with three gold coins, Estean adds six to the pot: three to see Baran’s hand and three to raise the stakes higher. Other players would have to add at least six coins to bet in this round, and this would continue until no one is prepared to raise the stakes further.

Mat expects to have to show his hand—he has no thoughts of bluffing the other players into quitting without seeing his hand once the stakes are large. Of course, Mat holds the winning hand, and we never see the betting conclude in this game.

Real-world Parallel to Chop

Poker would be the closest modern equivalent to chop. In both games, players are dealt five cards and try to match ranks or suits to make the highest hand possible. The players then bet if they think their hand is a winning hand.

In poker, there are often betting intervals following the deal of each card. In chop, cards are purchased and the betting is only done once all five cards are dealt.

There is a wide range of poker variants from which the dealer can choose to play. Chop incorporates some of these variants:

  • There is no draw. Unlike in chop, there is often a draw in poker—where the players discard up to 3 cards and buy and are dealt replacements in the hope of improving their hand. Straight poker is the variant with no draw and is therefore the variant most like chop.

  • Cards are dealt face down. Chop is different to stud poker in that all cards are dealt face down so each player is the only one to see their own cards.

  • The highest hand wins in chop. The highest hand often wins in poker, although in some poker variants highest and lowest split the pot, or lowest wins.

  • Aces are low in chop. Since the ruler is the highest ranked card in a suit, the ace (or one), if present, must be the bottom rank of the suit. The rank of individual cards in a suit in poker is usually A, K, Q, J, 10…2, unless the player has a straight running from 5, 4, 3, 2, A. If aces are low, the ranks in a suit run K, Q, J, 10…2, A. Aces low is not a common variant, but it does occur.

  • There are no wild cards. Mat was certain that his rulers were the highest cards possible, therefore there were no wild cards. (Of course, Mat as Joker with his twisting of the Pattern, is a wild card himself.)

  • Different deck size. The number of ranks in the suits, and therefore the deck size for chop, is different to poker’s four suits of 13 ranks. There are five suits in chop and in order for there to be a reasonable probability of high hands, there are 10 ranks in the suits, fewer ranks than in modern poker. Old Poker was played with a 20 card deck (4 players receiving 5 cards).

  • The suits are ranked in chop (hearts highest and flames lowest). They aren’t ranked in poker except in Italy, where hearts is highest and spades lowest, just like in chop.

The Cards

Playing cards appeared in Europe in the 1370s. Early cards were individually hand-made and painted, which made them expensive to produce. Similarly, Mat thinks of how the card-maker in Tear has grown rich supplying the aristocrats’ demand for cards. He also notes that the common folk prefer their faster and simpler dice games.

The suits in chop are different to those of poker, which uses the international deck. The chop suits are fairly close to those in traditional Latin (Spanish and Italian, see photo of cards by Fournier) or Arabic playing card decks and in tarot decks. In fact, three of the suits are exactly the same—Cups, Coins and Rods. The fourth suit in Latin/Arabic and tarot decks is Swords. Flames is probably equivalent to Swords, since the ruler of Flames stabbed Mat with a sword and the sword image stayed. This would make Winds the extra suit. In the fifteenth century decks with five suits were common.

Below is a list of the Latin and chop suits and their corresponding suits in international decks (from Wikipedia):

Rods (sometimes Batons)...........Clubs
Swords (Flames in chop)............Spades

Chop, of course, has the Winds suit as well. The regionality in chop deck design—with the Rulers varying by nation—is typical of that in Continental Europe.

The Betting

In both poker and chop, once the players have assessed and finalised their hands, they gamble or vie with each other. The following is a description of vying in poker:

Vying consists of progressively raising the amount it costs to stay in the game, until some drop out and others will raise no further but merely pay to ‘see’ the highest raiser. If it comes to a showdown the player actually showing the best hand wins the pot (the total amount staked during play), but if all save one drop out the one left in wins the pot without showing their hand, which may in fact have been good, bad or indifferent.

- The Penguin Book of Card Games, David Parlett.

The point of poker lies in the exercise of competitive psychology, which is the essence of game-play whether in ‘real life’ or over the card table...The fact is that the consistent bluffer loses consistently, because the losing factor lies not in his bluffing, but in his consistency.

- A History of Card Games, David Parlett

We don’t see the conclusion of the betting in chop, but Mat has no thoughts of bluffing the other players into quitting without seeing his hand once the stakes are large, so he probably expects to have to show his hand. However, Mat is his usual lucky self, so he had no need to consider bluffing. He also doesn’t think of the other players bluffing in previous hands.

Mat is a newcomer to chop, yet he follows the recommended strategy for betting in poker games:

The first rule for beginners who think Poker is all chance and bluff is a hard one to abide by, but cannot be over-estimated. It is: only stay in the game if you genuinely believe you have the best hand…If you are sure of having the best hand, your next object is to make the most of it. Skill here lies in knowing exactly how to string opponents along with you.

- The Penguin Book of Card Games, David Parlett.

Mat tells a story where he is the butt of the joke in order to keep his opponents in the mood for the game. His strategy worked too, except the Dark One's timing was also perfect.

Card Games With Five Suits

As Nas is an old Persian card game with five suits that may be a forerunner of poker and is also similar to chop.

It is usually played with five players. The deck consists of 25 cards: five ranks (fives, fours, threes, twos and ones) in five suits. The suits are ranked—hearts, spades, extra suit, diamonds and clubs. The chop deck has at least 30 cards, and the suits are ranked cups highest and flames lowest.

The aim in as nas, as in chop and poker, is to match pairs and/or three, four or five of the one rank from the five cards dealt. Straights (five consecutive suits) are not recognised. Flushes (five of the same suit) are not usually recognised either. In this respect, chop is more like as nas than like poker.

The Game

Two cards are dealt to each of the five players, and then the players, in turn, starting at the dealer's left, make a bet or drop out.

Each player remaining in the game is dealt two more cards. The remaining players, in turn, starting at the dealer's left, make an additional bet or drop out.

Each remaining player gets a fifth and final card and the remaining players then bet a final time or drop out.

Those who are still in the game show their hands and the highest-ranking hand wins the wagered money.

The ratings of the hands are similar to poker although straights (5 consecutive ranks are not recognised).

The rank of hands from highest to lowest are:

Five of the same rank. (5 fives, 5 fours, 5 threes, 5 twos, 5 ones)

Four of the same rank. (4 fives, 4 fours, 4 threes, 4 twos, 4 ones)

Three of one rank and two of another rank. ("Full House")

Three of the same rank. (3 fives, 3 fours, 3 threes, 3 twos, 3 ones)

Two of the same rank. (2 fives, 2 fours, 2 threes, 2 twos, 2 ones)

If flushes (five of the same suit) are recognised, they are the highest hand, with the suits ranked in the order given above.


Chop is a combination of dealer’s choice straight poker and the Persian game as nas.

The game ended abruptly when the first undeniable bubble of evil animated the cards into attacking Mat. (Rand may have experienced a bubble of evil on top of the Fal Dara fortress (The Great Hunt, The Flame of Tar Valon)). Inanimate objects ‘coming to life’ is a reversal of world order, and represent:

that medieval nightmare ‘the world turned upside down’.

- David Parlett, A History of Card Games

The Dark One aims to cause chaos and anarchy in this fashion by distorting reality to weaken the Light; and it is most appropriate that this first manifestation of chaos took place during a card game. Some card games, for example Karnoffel, were banned in the 15th Century because the ranked order of cards in the game did not follow the social order of King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9...down to 3 and 2, but had threes outranking Queens, or a two or a six beating a King. Mat, too, rejects the conventional acceptance of the superiority of nobles. The symbolism in this scene is thus especially striking.


Written by Linda, June 2004 and updated December 2015


Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.

Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.

Anonymous said...

Does the game Nas recognise 2 pairs of 2 different suits? Eg 2 two's and 2 one's.

Linda said...

Anon 1 and 2: thanks!

Anon 3: Yes, it does.

Anonymous said...

Awesome article, I especially loved the pictures of the old reproduction tarot cards that match what Mat might have had. Two things to add:

1. Another possible "five suited" game could be tarot itself, with the normal four suits and a permanent trump suit of numbered cards (the equivalent of the major arcana in divinatory deck usage). This allusion doesn't support the whole chop is mostly poker angle, which I agree with, but could show that tarot was a contributor.

2. It is possible that flames is the extra suit. I agree that the Ruler of Flames produces a sword as her weapon, so it would seem to point to flames being the stand in for swords. However, in divinatory tarot, the swords suit is often associated with the element air/wind, not fire. Thus, it could be reasonable to argue that Wind is the stand in suit for swords instead of flames.

Great article, I love Mat and Tuon.

Linda said...

Thanks for your comments.

The game is definitely a poker game and not a tarot game (I've played those).

In RJ's symbolism swords are associated with fire and not air. He follows alchemical symbolism here and not tarot symbolism.

If you like the tarot, I discuss the motifs in the character essays, including those of Mat and Tuon.

Anonymous said...

Agreed about chop being based on poker; I just prefer tarot (the game) so I want to concentrate on that. I did not realize that RJ used alchemical symbolism vs. tarot symbolism, so thanks for the information.

Another interesting thought is that many of the tarot suits appear in the the sa'angreals present in the story...

Swords - Callandor, clearly. Can be used to make flames and part balefire (the suit of flames).

Wands/Rods/Batons - Vora's sa'angreal is described to be a fluted wand.

Cups - Demandred's Sakarnen is described as a chalice/cup on a scepter.

Coins/Pentacles - Nothing obvious. A stretch might be to say the crystal balls on both the CK statues.

Not sure if RJ intended another layer of this symbolism, especially since I don't know if Sakarnen is a purely Brandon creation or if RJ intended it to appear all along, as described. Still interesting to think about though.