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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Skat

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Skat was once a popular card game in the German Hill Country, but good luck if you are looking for someone who knows how to play it. You may have an easier time finding someone who speaks Latin or can balance a checkbook.

The game of skat (pronounced 'scot') originated in Altenberg, Germany in the early 19th century when members of the local card players' club combined elements of a popular Italian game called Tarock with another game called Schafkopf (sheep's head).

The game they invented is played by 3 players. The deck is 32 cards with deuces through sixes taken out. Each player gets 10 cards. The players bid on their ability to take tricks. The top bidder gets the 2 extra cards and then discards two. That discard is called the "skat."

Spread by students from the University of Leipzig, skat quickly became the most popular card game in Germany, a country that takes its card playing seriously. Just about the only Germans not hooked on Skat were the Nazis who discouraged the game. I guess they were afraid that thinking might catch on.


Skat is a complicated game and maybe the most difficult card game to learn. I'm told it takes years of practice to get really good at it. Experts say the game requires patience, calculation skills, recall and "a sublime grasp of strategic and technical thinking." An ability to read facial expressions is a plus.

Most really good skat players started playing the game when they were young. They learned it at home watching their fathers and uncles play it at the dinner table.

Experts say about 15% of the game is luck and 85% is skill and psychology. For the most part it is a supreme challenge of "wits, logic, imagination and card sense."


Skat came to the United States with the German migration in the 19th century. It is the only card game other than bridge organized on a national scale with regular competitions. Players formed the North American Skat League in St. Louis in 1893.

In the Texas Hill Country the love of the game may have been nourished by lonely isolation and by the drudgery of manual labor. In a world where mental stimulation could be hard to find, skat was a way to give the brain a workout.

Skat tournaments were common all over the Hill Country. There are stories of the old Germans playing for beer at Fischer Store. Competition was fierce.

Turner Hall Skat Tournament Announcement
Turner Hall Skat Tournament Announcement
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard

Skat was an important form of recreation in early 20th century Fredericksburg. Families would gather at St. Joseph's Hall for an entire day of skat, pinochle, high five or canasta. Children played a dice game called bunco.

There were skat tournaments at Turner Hall in Fredericksburg. Entry fee was $1. There were cash prizes for the winners, but the money was secondary. This competition was bigger than money. It was about bragging rights.

Turner Hall in Fredericksburg hosted the State Skat Tournament in 1928 and again in 1963. In the 1950s there was a skat-pinochle tournament every 3rd Saturday at Herman Sons Hall. There were community card parties (skat, pinochle, bridge, high five and bunco) in the basement at St. Mary's School. Stonewall held Skat tournaments at the school gym.

There were some very good local players. The November 1941 issue of The National Skat Magazine carried a story and a picture of Dr. Lorence Feller of Fredericksburg who had an impressive score at a Sheboygan County Skat League Tournament in Wisconsin.

Then after WWII the game went on a steady decline. The rock and roll generation wasn't interested in playing cards. The difficulty of the game also worked against it. Fewer young people were willing to put in the time it took to really get good at it.

There are still skat tournaments in Seguin and New Braunfels, but not so much in Fredericksburg anymore. Skat has gone the way of 9-pin bowling and cursive writing. There were efforts to teach the game to the younger generation, but it wasn't in the cards.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" December 12, 2022 Column

Source:
"Great Skat,"New Braunfels Zeitung, September 12, 1999.
"Dr. Feller Places in Wisconsin Skat Tournament," Fredericksburg Standard, November 27, 1941.
"What's the Deal," New Braunfels Zeitung, February 9, 2003.


"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

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