The Checkmate Tarot Spread

A small business that has hired you to provide financial consultation needs advice on how to deal with a litigious company that’s pushing them out of business. A group of friends is preparing to take a long journey across multiple different countries, and they’re looking for some advice on what they’ll need to take into consideration for the trip. A group of alt-right folk have been causing trouble in the local pagan community, and your coven of antifascist witches needs to formulate a gameplan.

In situations like these, you might be looking for a tarot spread that’s a little more in-depth, something with a lot of opportunities to strategise, to simulate possible moves, to apply lateral thinking, and to come up with multiple adaptable approaches to a complex problem.

The Checkmate Tarot Spread is a new spread developed to satisfy those needs.

The Checkmate Tarot Spread uses the concept of a game of chess to provide a spread that represents a complex, large-scale problem in the Querent’s life where there are two “sides” in conflict: the Querent, and their opponent. The spread uses the 22 Major Arcana and 16 Court Cards of a traditional Tarot Deck, and requires a flat surface large enough for four rows of eight cards, plus six that can be placed somewhere beside the rows. The reading is split into three distinct Operations – laying out the spread, maneuvering the cards using the rules of chess, and reviewing the outcome. The Checkmate spread is best used by experienced Tarot readers for Querents with complex situations and who have more time and attention to spend on the spread; it is principally intended for strategising, formulating multiple responses to possible occurrences, simulating problems and proposing solutions.

The following guide is split into two sections: one with abbreviated instructions which provides steps to performing the spread with the minimal explanation, and one which provides further detail and explanation for the mechanics of the spread, including what to do with possible limit cases.

Abbreviated Instructions

First Operation

The First Operation involves taking the 38 cards and dealing them into four rows of eight: the two rows closest to the Querent represent their side of the conflict, with the two rows on the Reader’s side representing the Querent’s opponent. Additionally, three cards are dealt to either side, to give a broad overview of each’s position.

  1. Optionally, the Operation begins with the Querent deciding on a Significator card to represent the Querent in the current situation, placing them on their side of the table in the position of the King, or, if appropriate, another position.
  2. The Querent shuffles the deck, and alternates placing cards face-down on either side of the King (i.e., starting with the King, then Queen, then King’s bishop, e.t.c.) or the Significator, until a row of eight cards is made. This row represents the major chess pieces (from left to right: Rook, Knight, Bishop, King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, and Rook).
  3. The Querent places eight cards face-down in a row above the previous row, starting from left to right. This row represents the Pawns.
  4. The deck is passed to the Reader, who alternates placing cards face-down at their side of the table, starting with the King, then on the either side of the King (starting with the Queen), until a row of eight cards is made. This row indicates the opposing major chess pieces.
  5. The Reader places eight cards face-down in a row above the previous row, starting from left to right. This row indicates the opposing Pawns.
  6. The Reader takes the remaining six cards and places three face-down on the Reader’s side of the table, and three face-down on the Querent’s side of the table.
  7. The Querent turns the three cards dealt to them at the side of the table: this set of cards is interpreted as a broad overview of the Querent’s perspective on the current situation.
  8. The Reader turns the three cards dealt to them at the side of the table: this set of cards is interpreted as a broad overview of the side opposing the Querent in the current situation.
  9. Starting with the Querent’s King (or a card beside the Significator), the Querent alternately turns over the King, Queen, each Bishop, each Knight, and each Rook. The Querent then turns over each of the Pawns, from left to right.
  10. The Reader alternately turns over each card from the King, Queen, each Bishop, each Knight, and each Rook. The Reader then turns over each of the Pawns, from left to right.

With all cards revealed, the Querent and Reader work together to interpret the cards, taking into consideration the meaning of the position they occupy in the spread. The Reader also notes down the position of every card in the spread, and possible interpretations of the cards.

Second Operation

One goal of the Second Operation is to resolve the spread by maneuvering one’s cards in order to place the opposing King in checkmate. The other goal is for the Querent to maximise the number of cards/pieces they have taken. The game should not be played strictly competitively – the game is a simulation of the various possibilities at play regarding the situation the reading is about, with a view to identifying and maximising the Querent’s number of helpful options in the situation.

  • Starting with the Querent, both Querent and Reader take turns to maneuver one card in the spread in order to take an opponent’s card by placing their own on top. The Querent and the Reader must justify and interpret their maneuver by describing what this move would represent in the actual situation which is being read for, and if both agree the justification is appropriate, the maneuver is completed. The maneuver each card can make is dependent on its initial position in the spread (i.e., a card in a Knight position moves across the spread as a Knight would in chess).
  • After each maneuver is made, the Reader notes down the cards that are involved and the justification and interpretation for the maneuver.
  • Continue taking turns until the spread is resolved by one side placing the opponent’s King in checkmate, until there are no further maneuvers that can be made, or until the Querent feels they have enough information.

Third Operation

The Third Operation is an overall review of the resolution of the Second Operation. Each of the various stacks of cards from the board are summarised, aided by the notes the Reader has made about each maneuver and how they were justified and interpreted during the Second Operation.

Full Instructions

Chess Rules

The spread is facilitated by the rules and pieces of chess, itself an abstract representation of a real-world struggle which allows players to move around pieces on the board which represent key figures, locations, forces, or other important factors in the field. This spread is intended for the 22 Major Arcana and the 16 Court Cards of a traditional Tarot deck.

This spread works best with two people – the Reader and the Querent – but it can also be performed with just one, where the Reader takes on both roles. This reading is likely to require a little more time than most Tarot spreads, due to the fact that there are a large number of cards in the spread, an element of decision-making and strategising, and the ability to “reset” the spread to attempt multiple strategies during the Second Operation.

Chess Roles

As with many Tarot spreads, the position of each card in a Checkmate Spread has its own distinct meaning: specifically, each card drawn is placed in the position of a piece from the game of chess, such as Rook, Pawn, or Knight.

  • King: The main principle or person at the head of the Querent’s side. This most often represents the Querent themselves, and the placement of their Significator should default to this role unless a more suitable role is negotiated. The card in this position represents the driving force behind one side of the conflict, the most authoritative voice, the person with the most responsibility, the perspective that dominates, the group vision that is served, or the core principle that is shared.
  • Queen: The principles or people support the main principle/person. The figure or force represented by a card in this position may lack the King’s authority and responsibility, but they may also enjoy more freedom of possible decisions as a result. This could represent a spouse, a business partner, the rest of a group (as opposed to the group’s leader, represented by the King), a constituency, a family unit, a following, or an audience.
  • Bishop: An advisor or advisory body, intercessor, intermediary, representative, trusted figure, or someone with specialist knowledge and/or access, a teacher, a guide, or an elder, schools of thought, perspectives that can be adopted, strategies that can be used, or guidelines that can be followed.
  • Knight: People in the scenario who can take action, have a skill that may be useful, have executive power, or ; or (in a more abstract sense) the actions themselves that the King can take, tactics that can be utilised to support a strategy, or roles or personae that can be taken on temporarily.
  • Rook: The environment, places, spaces, property, locations, platforms, fields of play, contact zones, sites where action can be taken.
  • Pawn: The resources available to one side of the conflict. These resources can be material (money, physical space, energy), people-based (a workforce), or more abstract (such as Justice representing the ability to take legal action, the Hermit as the ability to retreat, take time, and contemplate). Cards in this position can also be interpreted in light of which cards are behind them in the initial setup – for example, the Ace of Swords as a Pawn placed above a Queen of Swords as a Knight can represent a figure distant or disconnected from the conflict (Queen of Swords) who is nonetheless able to be called in to take action (Knight) because they possess something (Pawn) that allows them to make executive decisions that are swift and rational (Ace of Swords).

Certain cards will be more resonant with certain roles if their meanings overlap: for example, the Hierophant in the role of a Bishop can be interpreted as someone who befits the archetypal role of a guide or advisor, such as a teacher. Cards can also be discordant with certain roles if their meanings are at-odds or seemingly-unfitting: the Emperor in the position of a Pawn may represent an authority figure who feels uncomfortable with being given what they consider to be a menial role. However, this is a simplistic binary, and should be taken as a general guideline: there is no reason why a Page taking on the role of King is necessarily a bad thing, and it may in fact represent someone being granted a role much higher than they have achieved in the past.

A Spread in Three Operations

Performing the Checkmate Spread is split into three stages, or Operations:

1. In the First Operation, the 38 cards are shuffled and dealt into a spread of four rows of eight cards, with six cards places to one side – two rows for the Querent, two for the Reader (representing the Querent’s opposition), and two sets of three cards for providing a general overview of both sides.

2. In the Second Operation, the Querent and Reader take turns moving their cards, using the rules of chess, to capture each other’s cards, with a view to placing their opponent’s King in check.

3. In the Third Operation, the Querent and Reader review the outcome of the Second Operation, and the Reader provides a summary of the reading overall.

The First Operation

Significator

Optionally, the Operation begins with the Querent deciding on a Significator card to represent the Querent in the current situation, placing them on their side of the table in the position of the King, or, if appropriate, another position. This step uses the principles of choosing a Significator in other spreads. In most cases, the Significator should be placed in the King’s position, however, another position may be more appropriate: such as the King’s Bishop if the Querent feels their role in this situation is more advisory, the Queen’s Knight if they consider themselves an activist within a larger community. Similarly, the Querent may choose a Significator for the opponent and place it in whatever opposing position they choose; however, it might be more effective to simply let the cards determine this instead.

Performing the Spread

The Querent shuffles the deck, and alternates placing cards face-down on either side of the King (i.e. starting with the King, then Queen, then King’s bishop, e.t.c.) or the Significator, until a row of eight cards is made. This row represents the major chess pieces (from left to right: Rook, Knight, Bishop, King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, and Rook). If there is not enough space on one side of the Significator to set down cards alternately (e.g., if the Significator is at the edge of the board, with cards to one side of it), begin to set down cards alternately from the King as above, skipping over any cards set down already beside the Significator. This row represents the major chess pieces (Bishop, Knight, Rook, e.t.c.) of the Querent’s side of the issue, and by extension the major players or forces on their side of conflict.

The Querent places eight cards face-down in a row above the previous row, starting from left to right. This row represents the Pawns. The Pawns indicate resources that the Querent can use during the conflict.

The deck is passed to the Reader, who alternates placing cards face-down at their side of the table, starting with the King, then on the either side of the King (starting with the Queen), until a row of eight cards is made. This row indicates the opposing major chess pieces.

The Reader places eight cards face-down in a row above the previous row, starting from left to right. This row indicates the opposing Pawns.

The Reader takes the remaining six cards and places three face-down on the Reader’s side of the table, and three face-down on the Querent’s side of the table. These cards represent each side overall.

Revealing the Cards

The Querent turns the three cards dealt to them at the side of the table: this set of cards is interpreted as a broad overview of the Querent’s perspective on the current situation. Each set of three cards functions as a traditional three-card-spread for the Querent’s side in the conflict, and can be interpreted in any way that a three-card spread can (e.g., representing past, present and future; representing active, passive and neutral forces, e.t.c.).

The Reader turns the three cards dealt to them at the side of the table: this set of cards is interpreted as a broad overview of the side opposing the Querent in the current situation. As before, this set of three functions as a traditional three-card spread.

Starting with the Querent’s King (or a card beside the Significator), the Querent alternately turns over the King, Queen, each Bishop, each Knight, and each Rook. The Querent then turns over each of the Pawns, from left to right. Rather than both sides revealing all cards at once, having the Querent turn over their cards first, one by one, allows the Reader to gain general impression of their side of the conflict, to see to what degree it aligns with the first three cards drawn.

The Reader alternately turns over each card from the King, Queen, each Bishop, each Knight, and each Rook. The Reader then turns over each of the Pawns, from left to right.

With all cards revealed, the Querent and Reader work together to interpret the cards, taking into consideration the meaning of the position they occupy in the spread. The Reader also notes down the position of every card in the spread, and possible interpretations of the cards. Consider the relationship of the card to the position it occupies on the field. Some cards may be resonant, in that they appear in position they are well-suited to, analogous to a planet being in the House they rule. For example, the Emperor fits well to the King position, which may indicate an autocratic leader: the Hierophant is suited to the Bishop position, which could indicate the presence of a traditional type of advisor. Likewise, some cards may be discordant with their position, in that the place on the field they occupy is very different to where you’d expect them: for example, a Page in the King position might indicate someone in a leadership position who isn’t ready to assume the mantle, a Knight in the Pawn position may indicate someone willing to fight for what they believe in — or a willingness for that side to put their most important people on the front lines rather than keep them safe.

Note that, from the Querent’s point-of-view at the table, all of the cards on the opposing side will appear reversed: the Reader is free to interpret these cards as they would reversed cards in a traditional Tarot spread.

The Second Operation

The First Operation established what all the pieces on the board represent: the Second Operation establishes how those pieces can be maneuvered against one another.

One goal of the Second Operation is to resolve the spread by maneuvering one’s cards in order to place the opposing King in checkmate. The other goal is for the Querent to maximise the number of cards/pieces they have taken. The game should not be played strictly competitively – the game is a simulation of the various possibilities at play regarding the situation the reading is about, with a view to identifying and maximising the Querent’s number of helpful options in the situation. Since each maneuver represents an action being taken in the situation being read for, this provides a way of encouraging creative ways of addressing problems, responding to further developments, and simulating possible outcomes, using variations of the resources available.

Starting with the Querent, both Querent and Reader take turns to maneuver one card in the spread in order to take an opponent’s card by placing their own on top. The Querent and the Reader must justify and interpret their maneuver by describing what this move would represent in the actual situation which is being read for, and if both agree the justification is appropriate, the maneuver is completed. The maneuver each card can make is dependent on its initial position in the spread (i.e., a card in a Knight position moves across the spread as a Knight would in chess). Cards may be maneuvered into an empty space, or onto a space occupied by an opposing card in order to capture it. Instead of removing captured pieces from play, the capturing player simply puts the card on top of their opponents’. This allows the cards in this stack to be interpreted together during the Third Operation.

After each maneuver is made, the Reader notes down the cards that are involved and the justification and interpretation for the maneuver. Note that, because the positions of all the cards have been recorded in the First Operation by the Reader, the Second Operation can be “reset” at any time to allow multiple simulations of the scenario. This can be useful to plan alternative methods, to apply lateral thinking to problems, or to clear the slate if poor planning in the early maneuvers of the Second Operation has resulted in unfeasible decisions in the latter maneuvers.

Continue taking turns until the spread is resolved by one side placing the opponent’s King in checkmate, until there are no further maneuvers that can be made, or until the Querent feels they have enough information. 

During the Second Operation, the Reader and Querent are free to re-interpret the significance of cards if they feel the new interpretation is more appropriate than the one given in the First Operation. Particular note should be taken of the circumstances under which either King is placed in Check, and the way by which the losing side’s King is in checkmate – these may provide useful opportunities for interpretation.

The Third Operation

The Third Operation is an overall review of the resolution of the Second Operation. Each of the various stacks of cards from the board are summarised, aided by the notes the Reader has made about each maneuver and how they were justified and interpreted during the Second Operation. The Reader is also free to use their own intuition and interpretive ability, and as before, the cards may be freely re-interpreted where appropriate.

Further Notes on the Checkmate Spread

  • Note that the board is set in four rows of eight cards, not the eight rows of eight squares of a chessboard, in the interest of saving time and reducing complexity.
  • The rules for maneuvers in the Second Operation can be simplified: instead of using chess movement rules, the Querent/Reader can instead simply maneuver any card from their side of the table and place it on any card on their opponent’s side of the table. The stack of two cards is then removed from the table and set aside, to be reviewed during the Third Operation. This method results in smaller stacks of equal size to make interpreting individual tactics easier.
  • This spread assumes that the Querent’s conflict can be neatly boiled down to two sides in a zero-sum game: in reality, this may be far too simplistic a binary.  It may be useful to consider the core conflict being read for not as two sides working against each other, but in a multitude of different groups working both with and against each other: this can prevent certain key figures in the situation being interpreted to be on one side or another when they may stand independently of either, for example.
  • It must be re-iterated that the strength of the Checkmate Spread is not necessarily in the accuracy of predicting the future of a complex situation, any more than any other spread: as with many readings, it may be more useful to consider the spread as a source of inspiration, lateral thinking, and planning – in other words, cognitively solving problems by representing them in the cards and considering various combinations of strategies to deal with them.
  • Similarly, it should be noted that the purpose of the Second Operation is not for either side to “win” – instead, it is an opportunity for helping the Querent to formulate and simulate possible tactics and strategies, as well as responses to possible future events.

A Brief Example of the Checkmate Spread

Note that, as the Checkmate spread can involve a great number of steps and re-interpretations, only some abbreviated maneuvers and interpretations are given below for illustrative purposes.

Ana, the Querent, has asked for a reading about her business, which, although it has led to helping her build a community, has had numerous issues. Ana’s business began as an ad-hoc small business working at fairs and festivals, without shop premises or a distribution network, but over time, she was able to make enough to buy her own premises. However, the landlord (who owns much of the property in the area) has recently increased her rent to an unfeasible amount, as part of a broader scheme of gentrification to invite trendier, higher-earning families and businesses to the area. As well as this, she and other small businesses in the area have been negatively affected by the local council refusing to deal with poor plumbing systems in the block where the businesses are situated, costing them extra. Although Ana’s partner is supportive in whatever action Ana chooses to take, Ana is worried that the stresses of running her business will eventually lead her to abandon her shop, and she may lose friendships and work relationships with the rest of the community in the area.

With the Reader’s help, Ana selects the Queen of Disks as her Significator: this card is interpreted as representing her in the role as the business manager, eager for new growth, but worried about the possible desertification of her realm (in other words, the closing of her shop and losing her links with the community of other small business owners).

During the First Operation, the spread is laid out below.

The interpretation of Ana’s side of the First Operation (bottom of the photograph) is as follows:

  • King –  Queen of Pentacles (Significator): Ana, in her role as business manager.
  • Queen – Queen of Wands: Ana’s community with other small business owners, and the customers she has built up over time.
  • Bishops – The Lovers, the Wheel of Fortune: Both represent cards about destiny/free will and thinking with the head or the heart, Ana interprets these as two close friends whom she often turns to for advice.
  • Knights – The Tower, the King of Cups: The Knights refer to executive forces and people who can take action – the Tower is interpreted as an activist in the local community who has helped Ana in the past, and the King of Cups is seen to recognise her partner, who provides emotional support to her.
  • Rooks – King of Pentacles, King of Swords: As her Significator is the Queen of Pentacles, Ana interprets the King of Pentacles as representing some property or location associated with her partner. The King of Swords is interpreted as Ana’s business premises within the block of buildings in the area.
  • Pawns: The Pawns on Ana’s side are understood to represent tools at Ana’s disposal, including marketing and other business practices (Page of Wands); the ability to take legal action or seek counsel (Justice); drawing on the emotional support of the community (Knight of Cups); the experiences she gained to get where she is now (The Hanged Man); using a public awareness campaign (Page of Cups); taking decisive actions for the business (Knight of Swords); information shared in the community about her landlord’s duplicitous practices (The High Priestess); and the money Ana makes from the business (Knight of Pentacles).

Some of the steps in the Second Operation include the following:

At one point, the Ana decides to use the Justice card (a Pawn) to take the opposing Emperor card (a Knight). Ana, aloud, justifies the decision by stating that this represents taking legal action (Justice) to intervene against their landlord, a figure with a tyrannical attitude (Emperor). The Reader agrees the justification makes sense, and Ana places the Justice card on top of the Emperor card, indicating that it has been taken, and the Reader adds this maneuver to the list.

In a later stage of the Operation, the Reader decides to maneuver the Empress, which in this spread represents the local community being deliberately cultivated for gentrification: aloud, they state their intention to use the Empress to take Ana’s Queen of Wands, which represents her network in the local community: if the area is gentrified, this resource might be broken up and made ineffective. The Empress takes the Queen of Wands. Later in the spread, Ana states her intention of using the Tower to capture the opponent’s Queen of Wands, which would represent calling on the help of her friend, an activist, to protest the attempt at gentrification through activism. Later, the Reader takes the Tower with the Devil, which represents lawyers, binding business contracts, or other legal agreements: this represents a worry of Ana’s, that taking any action against the council may jeopardise any financial assistance that she gets. However, she follows this up by taking the opponent’s Devil with the Hanged Man: she justifies this as knowing that she has had to work with even less resources and with greater pressure than she has now, and is prepared to be vocal about the various issues she’s experienced.

With only a few cards left on the board, Ana castles her King, moving her Queen of Pentacles (King) and King of Pentacles (a Rook): she interprets this as the possibility of moving in with her partner in order to reduce her residential rent. The Reader then moves their Bishop (the Star), putting Ana’s King in Check – this maneuver is interpreted to ask the question of how bad the plumbing issues have to be before Ana decides to close her business completely. Ana then maneuvers a Knight (the King of Cups), to take the opponent’s Bishop, thereby placing the opponent’s King in checkmate. This maneuver is understood to represent that so long as Ana is able to keep her business away from her personal life, and it doesn’t place strain on her partner, she’s prepared to keep going and fight for her business.

Final Notes

The Checkmate Spread is a little project we’ve been working on recently, inspired by spreads like the Assens-Flornoy, which have some moving parts and a fair bit more complexity than other spreads. It’s fairly unwieldy, so it’s not recommend it for everyday readings, or ones where the Querent (or the Reader) might get bored or frustrated — instead, it’s for those kinds of situations where you and your fellow witches convene in your coven’s war-room and plan some strategic sorcery. It’s also still very much a work-in-progress, and as such, there may be rule conflicts or difficulties with the spread generally – if you find any issues with the spread or the instructions above, please let us know.

Additional Information

This feature was originally posted on Patreon in November 2019.