As a Tarot reader, you will likely eventually face the well-known problem of how to reduce the infinite meanings potential within a Tarot card into a simple yes or no answer. I humbly offer this post as a complete guide to Yes/No Tarot Card Readings.
Before I get into different methods for producing yes/no answers with the Tarot, we need to first answer the question: is it even a good idea to ask yes/no questions of the Tarot?
Why You Might Not Want to Ask Yes/No Questions of the Tarot
So half the battle of being a good Tarot reader is asking good questions.
There are some people who believe that asking questions that admit of simple yes/no answers are not good questions for Tarot reading. You might as well flip a coin and ask the gods to intervene.
From a traditional sortilege perspective, that is essentially what Tarot is anyway: a method for using the randomness of the world to make decisions for you or to deliver messages from the gods.
For example, consider the ancient practice of casting lots as described by Julian Jaynes in his famous book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind [affiliate link]. He calls sortilege an “exopsychic decision-making process”. He describes sortilege as follows:
Sortilege or the casting of lots differs from omens in that it is active and designed to provoke the god’s answers to specific questions in novel situations. It consisted of throwing marked sticks, stones, bones, or beans upon the ground, or picking one out of a group held in a bowl, or tossing such markers in the lap of a tunic until one fell out. Sometimes it was to answer yes or no, at other times to choose one of out a group of men, plots, or alternatives. But this simplicity – even triviality to us – should not blind us from seeing the profound psychological problem involved, as well as appreciating its remarkable historical importance. We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of them vestiges of this ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times. Therefore, the discovery (how odd to think of it as a discovery!) of deciding an issue by throwing sticks or beans on the ground was an extremely momentous one for the future of mankind. For, because there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined. (1976, p. 240)
In effect, the practice of cartomancy, Tarot, and oracle cards, is a continuation of this ancient practice, and follows a similar “exopsychic” logic: if there is no such thing as “pure chance,” then the result of a dice throw, or a Tarot card shuffle, must be caused by the gods. By casting lots (or shuffling a deck of 78 cards) we can work out the intentions of the gods.
Now, obviously, if you don’t believe in the existence of gods, then what’s going on is really a kind of interesting cognitive phenomenon that takes advantage of randomness to make decisions or gain insight. Regardless, the logic of traditional sortilege bears on the question of asking yes/no questions of the Tarot.
If all you want is to combine randomness with a clear-cut yes/no answer, then rolling a dice or flipping a coin is probably better than the Tarot. Despite the protestations of some, the Tarot is not inherently magical. Magic is what we make of it. If you want to turn a coin-flip into a magical operation, simply bring some level of intentionality and ritual, and it will likely have the same effect as anything you could do with the Tarot.
And if flipping a coin gives you the same predictive power as asking yes/no questions of the Tarot, we might wonder: is that really the best usage of the Tarot?
Some people, myself included, believe that the Tarot thrives on open-ended questions. This is because Tarot reading is essentially a matter of hermeneutics, which is just a fancy word for interpretation.
A good Tarot reading should give your brain a workout as it flexes its creative muscles in weaving a narrative or story. Getting a definite answer in some sense defeats the point because it stops the process of reflection and introspection, which are critical to self-growth.
And isn’t that the point of Tarot? To become knowledgeable of our own Self and thereby become empowered to improve our lives? To weave a better narrative? To learn more about the central character of our own story: ourselves?
Transforming yes/no questions into open-ended questions
Asking good Tarot questions is important. Especially if you want to learn how to read Tarot for other people.
One of the most important skills in reading both your yourself and others is the art of turning bad questions into good questions.
Now, in some sense, there in no such thing as a “bad question.” Only bad answers. But certain questions are more likely to lead to bad answers than others.
Most experienced Tarot readers give the advice of asking open-ended questions. But how do you do that?
Here are some examples of how to transform yes/no questions into open-ended questions:
“Will I get the job I want so badly?” transforms into “What need would be served if I got the job I wanted so badly?”
“Will I get back with my ex?” transforms into “Why do I care so much about getting back with my ex?”
“Will next week suck?” transforms into “How can I prepare myself for the events of next week?”
“Should I break up with my bf?” transforms into “How can I be my best self in the world of relationships?”
“Will I fall in love soon?” transforms into “Is worrying so much about love serving my best self?”
“Does my crush like me?” transforms into “How will my life go if my crush does or does not like me back?”
“Will I die within the next 5 years” transforms into “Why am I so scared of death?”
“Will I get fired? transforms into “How can I be my best self at work?”
“Will I ever be happy?” transforms into “What does happiness mean to me?”
“Is my friend being unfaithful to her husband?” transforms into “Why do I keep thinking about whether my friend is being unfaithful?”
“Will my mom’s cancer return?” transforms into “How can I best prepare myself for the inevitability of death?”
“Will I be successful?” transforms into “How can I be successful?”
“Will I become rich?” transforms into “If money was no concern, what would I do with my life?”
“Will Biden be reelected?” transforms into “Why am I so anxious about politics?”
“Is my partner cheating on me?” transforms into “How can I communicate better with my partner to address our deep needs?”
“Is he or she The One?” transforms into “What values do I care about deep down?”
“Will my business be successful?” transforms into “How can I be a better business owner?”
Hopefully, this is useful to you. These are just suggestions, of course. Feel free to change the questions/answers as you see fit. But the point is that open-ended questions are almost always more psychologically beneficial than yes/no questions or questions that admit of simplistic, black-or-white answers.
Nevertheless, despite all of these points, you might still be interested in asking the Tarot yes/no questions.
The following is a fairly complete guide to the various types of ways one might go about doing this.
First, I distinguish between two broad strategies: interpretative methods and mechanical methods.
Yes/No Answers by Interpreting the Cards Themselves
This is arguably the most difficult strategy for answering yes/no questions with the Tarot. It requires that you know ahead of time exactly what each of the 78 cards means in terms of Yes/No.
Take the 7 of Cups. Usually people use it to talk about the imagination, but with a slightly negative connotation. But what if it means “maybe” instead of “no”? Or you might even be a contrarian and spin it as positive daydreaming (depending on how the artist themselves draws it). There’s no right or wrong answer.
Thus the problem with this method is that some Tarot cards do not always admit of clear-cut yes/no connotations, are relative to the deck and the individual reader.
Consider the 2 of Pentacles. Life is a chaotic process of juggling? Negative, right? Or, maybe, life is a harmonious balance of duality. So positive.
Which is it?
So you have two options:
- Memorize ahead of time exactly which cards you associate with yes/no/maybe (a tedious task, and one that might be impacted by the deck itself)
- Make it up on the spot based on how it feels
The advantage of the first technique is that it’s “objective” or “predetermined.” The downside is that you have to come up with a list of associations for each card and what it means. You can find a guide to yes/no/maybe card associations here and here.
With the second method, you might be liable to give self-serving or biased answers.
So now that you have your interpretive method chosen, there are all kinds of methods for doing yes/no readings.
A common method involves a 3 card spread. 3 “yes” cards means yes, obviously. 2 yes cards means probably, but with difficulties. 1 yes card means no, but there is still a chance. 3 no cards means absolutely no way.
There are infinite varieties on this theme. But they all essentially involve: (1) Predetermining Tarot meanings as yes/no/maybe and (2) “adding up” the amount of positivity or negativity to give a yes/no/maybe answer.
So, faced with these difficulties, I do not actually recommend using the interpretative method.
Instead, I recommend a “mechanical method.”
Mechanical Methods of Deriving Yes/no Answers
With a mechanical method, you do not make yes/no answers a matter of interpretation. Rather, you produce a reliable method that does not require interpretation.
Reversals are perhaps the easiest way to get yes/no answers. If the card is upright, then you get a “yes” answer; if it is reversed, you get a “no” answer. Doesn’t get any simpler than this.
Another method using reversals is to lay out, e.g. 3-5 cards, and if there are more upright cards than reversed then it means “yes” and vice versa.
The trick to making this effective is your shuffling technique. If you don’t shuffle properly, you risk getting an imbalance in the probability of yes vs no.
Although this is perhaps the most “childish” shuffling method, for reversals, it’s one of the most effective: just spread the cards out in a big pile and shuffle and twist them around and then gather them together again.
Another method is to just cut the deck, turn it 180 and then shuffle as you normally would.
Even vs Odd
This is another super easy technique. If you see a card with an even number on it, it is “Yes” and if it’s odd, it’s “No.”
Now, obviously, not all cards have numbers on them e.g. the Court cards. To get around this you simply draw cards from the pile until you get a numbered answer, and voila! You have your yes/no answer.
If it makes it easier, feel free to just to a pips only readings with just the cards 1-10 in each suit.
Splitting up the deck
There are all kinds of other ways to split up the deck to be yes or no.
You could do:
-Majors and even minor cards = yes
-Court cards and odd minor cards = no
Now obviously, there are more Major cards (22) than Court cards (16) so this split would bias slightly towards yes. So keep that in mind. You might reverse it to be more biased towards no.
Or you might come up with some other arrangement that gives a perfectly 50/50 split between all 78 cards. You could designate some Majors to mean “maybe” and make it balanced that way.
Problems with the Mechanical Method
The problem with the mechanical method is that the images, symbolism, interpretation, and narratives inherent to Tarot reading are replaced with a simplistic mechanism. You might as well flip a coin.
But some people just really feel there is something special about Tarot and feel there is magic intrinsic to it.
Personally, I have argued that there is nothing special about the Tarot from a magical perspective (which doesn’t mean that it’s not special, just not intrinsically special.)
Other Tips for Yes/No Tarot Card Readings
BiddyTarot makes a good point that it can be useful to turn “yes” or “no” answers into “favorable” vs “unfavorable.”
I think this is great advice because it gives your reading a more probabilistic flavor that makes the answers slightly more open-ended than just a simple yes or no answer. I’ve already explained at great length why open-ended questions are, generally speaking, better than simplistic questions.
Should you use time as an element of your reading?
Consider the difference between these two questions:
- Will I fall in love again?
- Will I fall in love by the 27th of October?
Which one is the better Tarot question?
Now, if we are going based on my earlier discussion about yes/no questions, then both are less than ideal insofar as they are black-or-white instead of open-ended.
But, if you are going to ask the Tarot yes/no questions, then it might be stretching its power of prediction to be able to answer things with such precision.
There are plenty of Tarot readers who don’t even believe the point of Tarot is to predict the future. I myself have discussed at length the limits of fortune-telling as well as whether Tarot can predict things like love.
Largely, whether or not you believe Tarot can deliver answers with such temporal precision depends on whether you take a psychic approach to the Tarot or not.
If you are convinced that you have psychic powers, or that you are in communication with a god, then clearly it seems like predicting love with such precision is not outside the realm of possibility, unless there are some intrinsic limits on what psychic powers or divine communication is capable of (which doesn’t make sense.)
If you are not convinced you have psychic powers, and do not believe in divine communication, then the first question will probably be “better” than the first.
So use temporal specificity at your own risk. The more specific your questions, the greater risk there is of being wrong. Obviously, Tarot skeptics will take this to mean “Duh! That’s why it’s all bullshit!” But if you believe that the point of Tarot is more psychological than supernatural, then the skeptics concern is beside the point.
Asking good Yes/No Questions
So although I explained above how to turn yes/no questions into open-ended questions, there is also an art to asking good yes/no questions. Some pointers:
- Make sure the question actually does admit of a yes/not question. If the question itself is too vague that your reading won’t help you. For example, “Is this new job good enough?” is kind of vague because whether it’s yes or no depends on what “good enough” means. Really work on drilling down the answer to be truly binary
- If you’re asking about the future, make sure there are only two options. Asking “Will Biden win his reelection campaign?” is more vague than “Will be Biden be reelected?” The later is simply yes or no. But what if Biden never has a reelection campaign at all? Knowing if he will requires knowing the future itself.
- Be neutral. If you ask, “Will my life continue being beyond terrible?” is less neutral than “Will my situation improve?”
Other Cartomancy Methods Besides Tarot
I’ve already argued why I think mechanical methods are better than interpretative methods for giving yes/no answers.
But if you’re interested in cartomancy (divination with cards), you might be interested in using playing cards instead of Tarot. The simplicity of red vs black and the different suits makes it much more straightforward than trying to determine whether The Hermit is good or bad (kind of depends on how much you like being a hermit, no?).
A simple method might: black cards = yes, and red = no.
You can also use the even/odd method I described above for Tarot.
You can even use the joker card as a kind of “wild card” that says “unknown” or whatever else you decide.
You might also transform the binary yes/no into a spectrum of probability in the following way:
Shuffle and draw 6 cards:
6 red cards: absolutely yes!
5 red cards + 1 black card: likely yes
4 red cards + 2 black cards: only a slight chance of yes
3 red cards + 3 black cards: equal chance of yes vs no
2 red cards + 4 black cards: only a slight change of no
1 red card + 5 black cards: likely no
0 red cards + 6 black cards: absolutely no
The possibilities of cartomancy are really endless, so the most important point is just to pick a system and stick with it.
Tarot historian Mary K. Greer has an excellent post on a forgotten Tarot method for giving yes/no answers.
How to Learn Tarot: Learning How to Learn
How to Shuffle Tarot Cards: A Complete Guide