The Binary Dilemma: A Yes-or-No Spectrum

As much as we encourage them to frame their questions in a flexible manner that invites meaningful commentary from the tarot cards rather than an open-and-shut “yes-or-no” verdict, I would venture to say that the majority of people who request the services of a tarot reader aren’t seeking a panoramic view of their future circumstances. They want a straightforward “yes” or “no” about the likelihood of some occurrence and could not care less about all the fancy word-play. The main challenge in delivering this message is that there are 78 different “flavors” of probability, and the more flavors we bring into the recipe the more likely we are to wind up serving our sitters a mud-pie. Reducing our readings to a single card doesn’t help the situation much because we still have to attach a qualitative value to any card that comes up. If we subscribe to the theory that “there are no bad cards, only necessary ones,” it can be difficult to tamp down our urge to over-explain and embellish, which may only confuse the issue. Some readers refuse to entertain yes-or-no questions; I’m too intrigued by the ambivalence to let it go.

I’ve made a couple of efforts to simplify my approach to fielding “yes-or-no” questions, but none of them has completely satisfied my own criteria for economy and clarity, for the simple reason that the cards have too many layers of meaning to pin them down to one unconditional answer. Granted, some are easy to apply in a narrow event-oriented way (Sun means “yes,” Death means “no,” etc), but most aren’t if we’re trying to be as precise as possible because they just have too much to say. Much of this has to do with the visual complexity of the cards and our tendency to free-associate in imaginative ways from the imagery. I decided to have another go at creating a definitive single-card model.

Short of defaulting to Lenormand cards and their more explicit positive and negative properties, my first move away from the usual method of delineation was to choose a tarot deck such as the Tarot de Marseille that doesn’t lend itself to “scripted” interpretation. The next step was to strip the deck of any cards that are too emphatically verbose. That meant removing all of the trump cards, and I also dumped the court cards because they embody an amalgam of characteristics that can yield shades of gray rather than a clear black-or-white judgment; in other words, they aren’t sufficiently binary for my purpose. That leaves the 40 minor cards, Ace through Ten. I shuffle and cut the reduced deck in my normal way and then pull one card from the pack to serve as my answer. From there, I work with number theory first, and then augment my determination with suit qualities.

My objective is to produce a single-pointed outcome from a sliding scale of possibilities. In the elemental scheme of things the Aces are clear-eyed and fresh, making them my choice for an unequivocal “yes,” while the weary Tens, being nearly depleted of the original motive force, occupy the opposite pole, a categorical “no.” (Another pertinent analogy would be that when you “ace” something you nail it perfectly.) The Fives and Sixes represent a “bridge” or tipping point between the extremes, meaning that the situation could go either way according to where they sit; Fives partake slightly more of “yes” than of “no,” and vice-versa with the Six, but I wouldn’t take either one to the bank.

Similarly, depending on which end of the spectrum they favor, the transitional cards (Two through Four and Seven through Nine) represent a gamble, the advice being to hedge one’s bet in one direction or the other, with Two through Four moving between a probable “yes” and “maybe” and Seven through Nine shifting between “maybe” and a likely “no.” The answer will be more definitive the closer it comes to either end of the series. This is an entirely systematic approach that makes no use of the various positive and negative “keyword” meanings that have accrued to the cards: the more basic the number, the more likely it is to yield a “yes,” and the opposite for a “no.” Although more iterative, the process is not much different from a coin-flip or a roll of the dice.

Another factor that could be examined is the odd or even quality of the number. Odd numbers are regarded as active and even numbers as passive; the former push to achieve the equilibrium they lack and the latter strive to maintain their present binary state of balance. If the question is about whether things will stay the same, an even-numbered card would lean toward “yes,” while asking if they will change would elicit a “yes” from an odd-numbered card.

Regarding suit influence, the active suits of Wands and Swords reinforce whatever verdict the numerical value generates, while the passive suits of Water and Earth erode the firmness of the judgment, blunting its certainty (in which case the advice would be to keep one’s eyes and options open). In all cases, though, the nature of the number will anchor the conclusion and any other considerations will offer only minor adjustments.

Here is a tabular exercise in sorting this out. In this model, the Ace of Batons is the most emphatic “Yes” and the 10 of Coins is the most decisive “No.”

Aces = Yes (support change, discourage status quo; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Twos = Yes (support status quo, discourage change; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Threes = Likely Yes (support change, discourage status quo; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Fours = Leaning Yes (support status quo, discourage change; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Fives = In Doubt, Maybe Yes(support change, discourage status quo; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Sixes = In Doubt, Maybe No (support status quo, discourage change; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Sevens = Leaning No (support change, discourage status quo; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Eights = Likely No (support status quo, discourage change; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)
Nines = No (support change, discourage status quo; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay )
Tens = No (support status quo, discourage change; Batons and Swords affirm, Cups and Coins gainsay)

Only after a bare-bones statement is obtained as above will I endeavor to flesh out the reading with other cards, and only if the sitter desires more information. This could be done by shuffling the trump cards separately and drawing one of them to aid in explaining “why” the answer came out the way it did and how one might cope with it. Alternatively or in parallel, the court cards could be brought to bear to show whether another person will have a say in the outcome; according to their suit, Kings and Queens could be more supportive and trustworthy while Knights and Pages come across as more stimulating but less reliable. In either case, I pair the supplemental card with the “answer” card to see how cooperative they appear to be.

Here is an example reading.

I was asked to do a reading to determine whether the casual acquaintances between a couple and two others can be expected to blossom into real friendship. This “yes-or-no” question presented a perfect opportunity to test-drive my new approach to binary inquiries.

I selected the Conver Ben-Dov Tarot de Marseilles for this reading, and used only the “pip” cards in the initial pull. I did not apply reversals. After I got my answer, I shuffled the trump cards and drew one of them to show how the group might facilitate the matter. Then I shuffled the court cards and pulled one to see whether the men or the women would be instrumental in deciding the outcome.

The Ace of Wands as the “answer” card is an unequivocal “Yes,” with the active, positive suit of Wands reinforcing the certainty of the Ace.

The Fool as the “facilitator” card suggests that the parties don’t really need to do anything to force the issue. The situation will play out naturally in due course if they let it. Since the Ace and the Fool both symbolize a “beginning,” they are sympathetically inclined. At worst, there could be a caution against naive assumptions or expectations.

The Queen of Cups as the “affinity” card indicates that the women will most likely forge an emotional bond, although with Fire and Water they may have to “agree to disagree” on some things. The mature wisdom of the Queen will rein in the fecklessness of the Fool.

That’s it. Short, sweet and right to the point. Prospects look good for the awakening of friendship as long as the gentlemen support the emerging rapport between their ladies. (They aren’t intentionally represented by the Fool here, but the implication is plain.)

Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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