A Little History About Playing Cards - 52 Facts!
52 Cards in a Deck
Over the centuries, decks of cards have come in variations of 24, 36, 40, 48, and just about any amount in between. No one can say for sure just why 52 has become the most common deck size, other than that due to English and French colonialism, the French deck (with 52 cards) was able to spread around the world quite easily. An interesting tidbit is that just like there are 52 cards in a standard deck, there are also 52 weeks in a year, and if you add up all the symbols in a deck of cards, it equals the same amount of days in a year = 365.
Ace of Spades
As the popularity of playing cards skyrocketed in the 18th century, British rulers levied taxes on the sale of playing card decks to fund wars (as well as their own lavish lifestyles). When a card deck owner had paid his tax, the ace of spades was stamped with a design indicating the deck was legal. Forging this stamp or an ace of spades card was a crime punishable by death. Thankfully, the trend of executing people for forged cards didn’t last long, but the tax did: England’s tax on playing cards wasn’t abolished until 1960. Another example of the societal symbolism for the Ace of Spades is that it was originally the low card until the French Revolution. Then, after this time, it was high as a tribute to the peasantry overthrowing the aristocracy.
Ace of Spades Update
In 1862 the law changed, allowing printers to design their own Aces. In “The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards,” the Dawson’s write that companies quickly used their ace as a built-in trademark affirming the brand. Several companies featured several different aces, but the USPCC bucked that trend by using one ace design for all their decks: The current Lady Liberty that is still in use today. Modeled after Thomas Crawford’s sculpture “Statue of Freedom,” which can be found at the top of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC., the lady holds a sword and an olive branch.
If you add up all the values of the cards in a deck (assigning 11 for the Jack, 12 for the Queen, and 13 for the King), plus add one for the Joker, you end up with 365 – exactly the same as the number of days in a year. Add a second Joker, and you have one for each day in a leap year. Is this perhaps further proof that there’s a card calendar hidden in a deck of cards?!
Back of the Cards
These days, you can get cards with everything from Mickey Mouse to Lady Gaga on the back, but traditional cards have those distinctive patterns in either red or blue. These have meaning, too, however – each manufacturer has its own pattern, which is as distinctive as the tartan of a Scottish clan. There are two major kinds of backs, and that’s a big deal to card workers, magicians and casinos. Most decks of cards feature a wide variety of back designs. But the nicer, more durable decks are a bit simpler. Usually toned with only one or two colors, they feature symmetrical designs. There’s a key feature that magicians look for: Borders. Does a card’s back design go all the way to the edge of a card? Or is there a border? Without giving away too many tricks of the trade, both of those design options hide different things. Those different kinds of backs also are a big deal for casino operators, who go through tremendous expense to fight against cheats and scams. The U.S. Playing Card Co. doesn’t really discuss backs much with normal customers, but if a customer has a casino, the company has plenty to advertise about what kinds of backs are better for different games.
Playing cards are printed on large sheets, and when machines cut these sheets into individual cards, this creates a tiny bevel on the edge of the cards. Depending on the direction of the cut, decks are considered to have a traditional cut or a modern cut. This tiny difference usually goes unnoticed, except by people who weave the cards together one by one in what is called a faro shuffle.
The world’s largest manufacturer of playing cards is the United States Playing Card Company. Their product line includes many of the most well-known brands of cards, including Aviator, Bee, Bicycle, Tally-Ho, and many others. USPCC’s brands are the top choice of many famous casinos around the world. A Belgian company, Cartamundi, also claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer, however, their scope extends beyond basic playing card decks and into other types of card games.
Card Values Aren’t Set In Stone. Obviously, the values of different cards vary slightly depending on the type of card game you’re playing, but there are also cultural influences that affect how much a card is worth. The “British Rule,” for example, transfers the highest card value to the queen when a queen is in power in the United Kingdom. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Today, there are other fun things you can do with cards and though magic tricks are some of them, I’m talking about cardistry. The term combines the words ‘card’ and ‘artistry’ and refers to the performance art that’s visually impressive and appears almost impossible to do.
The 52 cards in a deck correspond to the 52 weeks in a year.
Most casinos use cards that are 100% plastic. Unlike the paper cards you probably use at your weekly poker games, plastic allows the cards to be used for more hands before being swapped out, especially in games like poker where card-handling by players is much more frequent. Plastic cards also provide additional security as they make it more difficult for players to mark than their paper counterparts.
One of the strong areas of symbolism within playing cards is in the two colors of the suits. The clubs and spades suits are black, while the diamonds and hearts suits are red. Many believe this is to represent opposing forces such as day and night, good and bad, right and wrong, etc. This is said to symbolize opposing forces existing harmoniously.
There are more card deck combinations than there are atoms on Earth. Don’t blame your bad hand at the poker table on a stroke of bad luck; it’s really just a matter of math, seeing as there are more ways to arrange a deck of cards than there are total atoms on Earth! If a card deck is shuffled properly, there’s a pretty high chance that it comes out in an arrangement that has never existed before, because a deck of 52 cards has an astronomically large number of permutations. (Put simply: It’s a 69-digit number!) Just how many exactly? 52! (52 factorial = 52x51x50x49 … x2x1). That’s an 8 with around 67 zeroes! Or to be exact: 80658175170943878571660636856403766975289505440883277824000000000000. This means that even if you shuffled a new arrangement every single second, it would still take millions of years to cover every combination. So next time you shuffle a deck of cards, think about how unique that arrangement and that moment really is. Each time you pick up a shuffled deck, it’s almost certain that the exact order of the cards in your hands has never existed before and will likely never exist again!
Playing cards have been around since we all can remember. Many of us grew up playing games like Go Fish, Crazy Eights, Spoons, Gin Rummy, Solitaire, Bridge and much more. Some of us love cards so much, we’ve even invested in customized playing cards of our own design!
It’s possible to date a deck of cards made by the USPCC by the code printed on the Ace of Spades. The code used is a letter followed by a number, and the letter gives an indication of what year the deck was manufactured.
Earliest Card Game
Scholars have argued that the “game of leaves,” played in China in the 9th century, was the earliest card game. While different forms of card games have appeared in the centuries since, the pastime was popular enough to cause problems in medieval Europe. Historians have found evidence of card games being banned in many European countries throughout the 1300s, with preachers claiming card games were a gateway to a life of sin. Most scholars agree that playing cards were invented by the Chinese in the 9th century. Many also recognize that the first “real” deck of printed cards was the 32-card Chinese domino deck that featured all 21 possible combinations of a pair of dice. These first packs were printed on paper, bone, and wood. Some also think these first cards were a form of currency used specifically for gambling games. Throughout the following centuries, playing cards spread to India, Persia, Egypt, and then Europe, developing their own unique variations along the way.
It is said that each of the suits on a deck of cards in a card game represents the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Hearts represented the Church, Spades represented the military, Clubs represented agriculture, and Diamonds represented the merchant class.
It is said that each of the suits on a deck of cards in a card game represents the four natural elements…Hearts = Water…Clubs = Fire…Diamonds = Earth…Spades = Air
Four French Suits
There have been many variations of suits over the years across many different cultures, but the exact origins and reasons are open to debate. Many agree, however, that suits similar to how we know them, now first appeared on Chinese “money-suited” cards circa the early 15th century, where each of four suits represented a different amount of money. The clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades that grace modern card decks are the same ones that appeared on French decks hundreds of years ago. Historians have different theories about the origin of the symbols themselves, which are called pips, but many believe they represent the economic classes of the time.
Did you know that playing cards contain glue, and do you know why? Most playing cards are made from two layers of paper glued together, but the glue isn’t merely there to stick these two layers together. It also plays an important role of ensuring that the cards are opaque – which means that you can’t see through them when they’re held up to the light. In addition, a coating is applied to cards near the end of the production process, but this is designed to help protect them from moisture. In other words, paper playing cards aren’t just paper!
Houses of Cards
Many people build houses of cards but there’s one that has a Guinness World Record for the tallest card tower. Bryan Berg, a professional card-stacker, has an official record from 1992. Since then, he’s broken his own record.
The King of Clubs is supposed to be holding an imperial orb with his other hand. The face cards are full of mysteries (what the heck is the Jack of Spades holding, anyway?) and unsettled debates, but clues to their identities can be found in most modern designs. English and French decks altered identities back and forth, but both cultures used the same four legendary kings: Charles, David, Caesar and Alexander. According to the International Playing Card Society, the French designs held names early on, and British publishers mixed them up. The orb held by the King of Clubs is thought to be Alexander’s. Bad replications and print run basically obscured the hand holding it. Now, the orb looks like a badge or part of the royal robes.
The negative space between all the pips on the Eight of Diamonds actually depicts the figure eight!
It’s a Man’s World!
The early decks of cards had no queens and no female characters in general. They featured a king, a knight, and a knave (which later became the jack). Though female-fronted cards appeared from time to time prior to the 15th century, they only became a staple in the French cards. Moreover, the Paris pattern associated their faces with those of famous queens from history and mythology.
Jacks & Knaves
People love an argument over terminology, and one of the most popular where cards are concerned is over jacks and knaves. The discussion has been going on for years, and lovers of classic literature will remember Estella’s exclamation when playing cards with poor young Pip: “He calls the knaves jacks, this boy!” Knave is the older term, loosely meaning a servant, but the term Jack, meaning “everyman,” came into common parlance in the 19th century. It became a more standardized term when it became common to include the letter for Kings, Queens and Jacks in the corner of the playing card. With K already in use for Kings, Knaves were abbreviated to Kn, which was clearly less than ideal. No wonder J for Jack became the standard.
In Japan, there’s a Hanafuda card deck, which has 12 suits and 4 cards in each suit. Yes, the roles are reversed. Moreover, in this deck there’s no guessing as to what the 12 suits correspond – they clearly represent each of the months in a year.
Originally, there was no joker in the deck of cards. But towards mid-19th century, in the United States, it appeared as a trump card in the game of Euchre. A trump card is a card which is elevated beyond its usual value. Euchre is actually a variation of the Alsatian game Juckerspiel. Alternative theories claim the roots of the joker are in Italian tarot cards where there’s a card called the Fool. Irrespective of its origin, the joker is here to stay as contemporary 52-card decks usually feature 2 or 3 jokers. Fact: The Joker is the only card derived in America. In the 1800s, card makers sought to assist by presenting “bower” cards, including a big and little bower. But as poker spread up and down the Mississippi, the bowers found their way into the deck as wild cards. According to USPC history, designers twisted the German “juker” card into a joker, adding bells and floppy hats to those bike-riding bowers. The jokers have been standard features of decks ever since. In our pack of cards, we have added President Donald Trump to the Joker card, as it is the highest card in the pack, and the “Trump” card!
Most card brands are printed by the same Kentucky facility. A few decades ago, cards were like cars: shoppers had several “makes and models” to choose from. Brands such as Hoyle and Arco gave the U.S. Playing Card Company’s Bicycle brand a run for its money. “The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards,” by Tom and Judy Dawson, is filled with a card collector’s dream of printers across the U.S., including the New York Consolidated Card Company, Dougherty, Russell & Morgan and more. Over the last century, and especially over the last 20 years, the USPCC has acquired many of those card publishers. In the last decade the company, currently owned by Jarden Corporation, owns the brands of Bee, Hoyle, Maverick, Fournier, Aviator, Kem and others. The company also prints custom decks for casinos and other clients around the world.
King of Hearts
The king of hearts is known as a suicide king. This is because it appears that he’s sticking his sword into his ear. The sword is supposed to be raised as if the king is charging into battle. With graphics and printing being what they were at the time, the actual appearance of the card turned out much differently. The sword was also originally a battle ax. Changing this altered the appearance of the card too.
Depending on how busy the table is, the type of game, and whether they are being shuffled by hand or by machine, decks in Vegas can last up to 12 hours. But during periods of heavy play, that number can be as little as one hour before being switched out.
Most Famous Deck of Cards
While there are many centuries-old decks of cards held in places like at Yale University’s Cary Playing Card Database, the most iconic card decks are probably the Bicycle brand of playing cards used by gamblers, magicians, casinos, and casual card players all over the world.
Before a deck of cards even leaves the factory, it is first shuffled by machine. When a new deck is introduced, it is inspected and signed off on by the pit boss and dealer, who spread out the entire deck to look for imperfections that might give away what a card is. If approved, it is then shuffled again either by hand or by machine.
Not Playing with a Full Deck
The above-mentioned tax stamp led to other significant changes, apart from inflating the price for a deck of cards. It accidentally brought the ace of spades into the spotlight. Paying the tax meant getting a stamp. Since aces have the most room on their front, it was the ace of spades that got the stamp. However, people weren’t excited about paying a large sum of money for a deck of cards and some manufacturers tried to bypass the tax by selling decks without the ace of spades in them. That’s how the phrase ‘not playing with the full deck’ was born. It used to mean just that but today this card-inspired idiom is used to describe someone who is crazy or not very bright.
One Eyed King
There is also a one-eyed king, and he’s not grabbing his weapon. The one-eyed jacks get all the attention. No one is paying attention to the one-eyed king. They aren’t one-eyed, of course—they are depicted in profile, looking squarely in their chosen direction, staring at their favorite feather or whatever that thing the Jack of Spades is holding. While the other three kings are shown from the front, the King of Diamonds, also known as Caesar, is looking to the side. Also, interesting to note is that where the other three kings have firm grips on their swords, Caesar’s axe is behind him, clearly not in his open palm. An online casino said gamblers know that the king is not actually a king, but a god. In Norse mythology, Odin sacrificed his eye to learn the secret of the runes. His chosen weapon resembles Odin’s spear, and he’s not holding it like the other kings—he’s using his godly powers so that the axe is ready to strike at the twitch of a finger.
There is a common misconception that Queen Elizabeth I is represented as the Queen of Hearts. When you look, it is easy to see why people might think this, as there is a striking similarity. However, this is not actually the case. Elizabeth was born in 1533, and the Queens, as they appear in the modern age, go back far further than the Kings, and predate Elizabeth’s birth by some years. The Queen of Hearts is based on Judith, a biblical figure, and the other Queens have similarly ancient inspiration.
Rarest Deck of Cards
Card-deck collecting is a hobby for many around the world, though there is no clear-cut market prices like in other collecting hobbies. However, the rarest–and oldest–deck of cards is considered to be a 52-card tarot deck from mid-15th century Netherlands. Now residing in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was originally sold to a collector in the 1970’s for $2,800. On eBay, obscure decks of cards (such as the ultra-rate Microsoft-David Blaine Create Magic deck) regularly go between $400-$1,000.
Those ornate kings and queens peering out from your winning hand might look like random illustrations, but they’re based on very real monarchs. In British and French card decks, the king cards always show the same roster of famous rulers: Charles, David, Caesar and Alexander the Great. The queen cards have been more varied, but Pallas, Judith, Rachel and Argine are popular choices. Today, we have lost the concept of monarchs as the face cards and have developed other ways to depict them.
Retired Card Decks
When a deck of cards is retired, every card must first be accounted for. Then, the deck is either shredded or has a hole punched through it or the corner clipped off each card and then resold. This is so that the deck cannot be manipulated and then somehow snuck back into use at the casino.
12 Royals represent the 12 months and are referred to as the “Court”.
Each of the Kings, Queens and Jacks looks quite distinctive, and this is because they are based on real historical figures. The designs originated in France, where playing cards were enormously popular among the aristocracy during pre-revolutionary times. They have all evolved over the years, and the four Kings as we know them today first appeared in the 18th century. They are based on Charlemange (hearts), Caesar (diamonds), King David (spades) and Alexander the Great (clubs).
Cards in casinos typically have large symbols and characters so that security cameras can more easily pick up on any specific cards that seem to be involved in an inordinate amount of the action.
Due to the number of order possibilities in a 52-card deck (52 factorial, or the number 8 with 67 zeroes after it, to be exact), it’s probable that a properly shuffled deck of cards has never yielded the exact same order of cards in all of history. Thus, any sort of shuffling technique (and then especially a cut of the deck afterwards) ensures that the deck is in a random and unpredictable order.
Contrary to popular belief, it is glue that makes playing cards snap, not plastic. Quality playing cards are known for their feel, spring and snap. The tension and elasticity is important for the durability and feel of each card. But while cards feature a plastic coating (usually dimpled, to give a little bit of a slide), it’s layers of glue that give each card its backbone. Each card is like an Oreo, where laminated sheets of cardboard are the cookies and glue is the cream filling. The combination provides a curiously strong, thin and pliant piece of paper perfect for a shuffle or a trick. Bonus detail: The plastic surface on the paper does not completely enclose each card. The sheets of cardboard are laminated before the gluing process. You can spill a drop of water directly on the center for a few seconds without ruining the card, but if the water gets to the edge? Ruined. The water seeps into the card’s paper like a sponge.
Take a regular deck (minus the Jokers) and spell the names of all the cards from Ace through King, dealing off one card every time. Remarkably, the very last card you will deal for the G of KING will be the final card in the deck! This means that the total number of letters in the values of all the cards coincidentally happens to add up to exactly 52. Try it for yourself and be amazed!
Styles of Shuffling
The most common methods of shuffling are the overhand, riffle, and Hindu shuffles. Riffle shuffling is where the deck is split into two, held next to one another in each hand with thumbs inward, then released so that the cards interweave with one another. This is the method of choice by casinos because it has a lower risk of revealing the cards during the shuffle. The Hindu shuffle is extremely common in Asia, and has the shuffler holding the full deck in one hand and then quickly drawing random “packets” of cards into the palm of the remaining hand. Faro shuffles are a specialized type of shuffle where the cards are inter-weaved together exactly one card at a time. If you do eight perfect faro out-shuffles, the deck will return exactly to its original order!
The four suits correspond to the four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter.
With playing cards taking over Europe, the church took charge and banned them on the grounds that playing cards led to other vices. You see, the widespread of cards led to a rise in gambling. Not that gambling was a new thing. In fact, up to the 18th century, it was common for people to only play games with wagers. The church forbade playing cards – it led to drunkenness and fighting, they said. For instance, in the 15th century, the English parliament made playing cards illegal except on the 12 days of Christmas. Luckily, in the 17th century, a company asked the king for an exception which was granted by King Charles I in 1628. In return, however, the king imposed a tax on each deck of cards, which led to an increase in the price of a pack of cards – it soon went up to £16.
The Making of Cards
When we think of cards, we all think of rectangular pieces of paper with a glossy finish. Ironically, none of these three characteristics was present in the early cards. The first cards were made of ivory tiles and were played in a way like dominos. Indians used circular cards. When they arrived in Europe, cards were hand-made and painted by hand and they were owned only by the elite. They didn’t have either round edges or high-gloss varnish. They couldn’t be reversed, either. Cheaper printing methods gave rise to card playing. For instance, the Germans used wooden blocks to print cards, which allowed for more decks to be produced and sold at a better price too. But can you imagine playing with such cards… Luckily, the world developed. Today, cards can be made of plastic or paper. To make cards, layered paper is used – thus the product is not only more durable, but it also guarantees that the players can’t see through them.
The United States Playing Card Company is the world’s largest producer of playing cards today. It has more than 700 employees and produces over 100 million decks each year. That is the equivalent of more than 5 billion individual playing cards – almost as many as the number of people on the planet right now!
The thirteen cards in each suit correspond to the 13 weeks in each quarter, and to the 13 lunar cycles.
In Vietnam, entire crates of Ace of Spades cards were shipped by the company to U.S. soldiers, as it was believed at the time (later proven to be a myth) that the Viet Cong were superstitious of the card and would flee battle at the sight of seeing it resting upon the body of one of their dead.
World War Two
First produced in 1885, the Bicycle brand gained particular notoriety during World War II and the Vietnam War. In WWII, special decks of Bicycle cards were given to American POWs. When peeled apart and put together in a particular manner, they would create a map of the area that would assist in an escape.