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There are numerous ways it can happen that you are not reading with a full deck. Sometimes it is completely accidental. It’s happen a couple of times over the past twenty years that I’ve gone through a day of readings and discovered that, at some point, a card has fallen to the floor unnoticed. Since the readings all went well I didn’t worry about it, figuring the gods of tarot wanted it that way. I picked up the card and shuffled it back in.

On a practical level, many tarot cards say similar things. If the Eight of Swords had fallen, for instance, the Devil of the Nine of Swords might fill in the gap. If the Two of Cups is missing, the Ace of Cups or the Ten of Cups might step in.

Of course, if you find the missing card before the end of the reading there can be some speculation about why that particular card jumped away. Surely it represents some energy of which the client needs to be particularly aware.

I have heard of readers who, when discovering their deck is permanently missing a card, continue to knowingly read with it. I would never approve of knowingly working with a broke deck, but I understand that the readings would still be valid.

I enjoy tarot exercises that work with a subset of the full deck. To shuffle just the Aces, for instance, and pull one to give you a particular focus is very helpful. Working with subsets as big as the whole Major Arcana or as small as just a few cards is a good way to build an understanding of how different tarot cards work together.

I have heard some advice from tarot teachers that I find questionable in this regard. On tarot teacher suggested that if you want to answer a question about money you should read just from the suit of Pentacles. Or, if you wanted to ask a question about love you should read just from the suit of Cups.

As an exercise in learning the suits this would be fine. As a proper reading it would not be fine, and here’s why.

No aspect of life exists independently. Matters of money and work influence our relationships, for instance. If we have real questions about our lives we should use the full deck to get the fullest measure of wisdom from the tarot.

Recently I was asked if I ever removed the “problematic cards” from the deck. Apparently some readers do, especially when reading for children. The problematic cards are those with difficult names or images, like Death, Devil, Tower and the Ten of Swords.

There is a circumstance where I do this, but never in an actual reading. Sometimes I keep a basket of miniature cards on my reading table. When the reading is finished I ask the client to pick one card at random as final advice. They take the card home with them. People really enjoy this. Sometimes repeat clients have a whole collection of cards in their wallet. Sometimes I visit someone’s home and see a few cards held onto their refrigerator with magnets.

I do filter out the less pleasant images when I put the cards in the basket. I want the client to have a pretty image to take home. And, as I said before, the cards can stand in for each other. If the Universe wanted the client to choose Death, for instance, and that card wasn’t present, the Wheel of Fortune might deliver a close enough message.

When I sit down to do a reading for someone, however, I always work with a full deck. Yes, there are some disturbing images in the deck. And, yes, the reading would be fine without those few cards. But I like to have every bit of information available to me. As I said earlier, some cards are similar to others. But similar isn’t as good as spot on. I like to squeeze every bit of possible truth out of the cards, no matter the context of the reading or the age of the client. And so I use a full 78 card deck, each and every time.

Very rarely do those difficult cards come up for children. Most young people don’t have that kind of intensity in their lives. When those cards do come up I do as I do with an adult, but in language appropriate for a child.

I explain what the card means. For instance, Death speaks of the death of something, but not usually an actual person. We talk about different things that could be, and how it may relate to the child’s life.

If it is a difficult image such as the Ten of Swords, I explain how the swords represent thoughts or words, and ask the child if he/she has had difficult thought or heard angry or upsetting words recently. Again, this can be very helpful and healing.

And that’s the thing about the difficult cards. They give us a chance to heal.

For me, there are times to work only with specific images, or a subset of the deck. Sometimes the Universe sets up situations for us to work with a deck that has dropped a card. But for an actual, formal reading, my commitment is always to play with a full deck.