The Truth About Playing Cards Isn’t All Fun And Games

Playing cards are one of the most common things found in every household, dorm room, apartment, or office building. Endless games can be created and played with cards, leading to hours of fun for all ages. But how much do you really know about playing cards? Have you ever wondered about the obscure history of playing cards or what all the symbols mean? This article will tell you everything that you need to know about one of the world’s most common items!

The Joker Card Is An American Creation

a baby dressed as a joker playing card
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Playing cards have gone through a number of changes since they were first used in the ninth century. One of the most recognizable cards in the deck, the Joker, is a relatively recent addition, having first been introduced in the United States in the 1800s.

At the time, Americans were playing a trick-taking game and needed a new card for it. Cardmakers introduced the “Bower.” As the trick game spread through the country, the card evolved into the Joker that we know and love today.

The Suits Are French

a french woman with a playing card in he hair
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

The suits of modern-day playing cards are French in origin. Since first being used, each region to enjoy playing cards has created its own suits. It was the French who first used Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs.

In Germany, the suits were Bells, Hearts, Acorns, and Leaves while in Spain Cups, Cudgels, Swords, and Coins were used. It is thought that the French suits were adopted universally because of the ease of printing the simple shapes over and over again.

The Same Company In Kentucky Prints Most Cards

a deck of cards shaped into a circle
Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Before 20 years ago there were a plethora of playing card manufacturers: the U.S. Playing Card Company (USPCC), Arco, and Hoyle, just to name a few. The USPCC, which already ran Bicycle, began buying up everyone else.

In the last two decades, the USPCC has become a monster in the playing card industry and is currently responsible for printing and distributing nearly every card brand imaginable. And they do it all from the company’s main factory in Kentucky.

The Beveled Edge Matters

a dealer shuffling cards
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Playing cards come with a beveled edge. When the cards are stacked in the factory, a very sharp and powerful knife cuts through them, leaving one side of the card slightly larger than the other.

While this may seem like an unimportant feature, any experienced dealer or magician will tell you just how wrong you are. The sharp edge of the cards come together more easily, which is something professionals notice. Some high-end magicians even have signature card lines with their own special cuts.

Glue Creates That Signature Snapping Sound

cards being snapped by dealer
Chris George/Digital Camera Magazine/Future via Getty Images
Chris George/Digital Camera Magazine/Future via Getty Images

There are few things more satisfying than the “snap” a good deck of cards makes when you shuffle it. The signature noise of the cards is created by the glue used to bond the two sides together.

A playing card is actually two laminated pieces of cardboard glued together. It is this sticky substance that provides the elasticity and tension needed. It is not the lamination process, which is what most people credit for the snap.

High-End Cards Have Simple Backs

the back of a deck of playing cards
Newscast/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Newscast/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

You can buy a pack of playing cards with any kind of back design you want these days. From your #1 sports team to your favorite bands, if you want it, a card manufacturer has probably made it. If you want high-end cards in your collection, though, your options are more limited.

Playing cards like you would find at a casino usually have simple two-colored backs with symmetrical designs. This allows the dealer, and any security watching, to be able to spot cheaters trying to hide cards or use other tricks.

The Stamp On The Ace Of Spades Indicates That Taxes Have Been Paid

an ace of spades card in a movie poster
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

If you’ve ever really studied a deck of playing cards, you might notice that the Ace of Spades stands out. This is because of the playing card tax that was established in 1765 in England. The stamped Ace indicated during the era that the tax had been paid.

The “tax stamp” was so important that men who were caught forging them to avoid taxes were sentenced to death. In 1862, the punishment was ended, and card companies began using the Ace of Spades to signify their brand, bringing a unique design for the card so you would know whose deck you were playing with.

Who Is The One-Eyed King?

odin the one eyed king saying farewell
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In a deck of playing cards, the four King cards are represented by King Caesar, King Charles, King David, and King Alexander. The problem is that information might not be the truth. For example, history tells us that the one-eyed King card is Caesar, but experts tell a different story.

If you ask “gambling aficionados” they will tell you the one-eyed King is actually King Odin, the Norse god. They believe this because unlike the other cards his weapon is not held, but instead floats behind him. And of course, the reason he is shown in profile is that he only has one eye.

A Deck Of Cards Equals One Year

a globe spinning in place
Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images
Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

This is not the reason there are 52 cards in a deck, but it is very strange. Over the course of playing card history, the amount of cards in a deck has varied. As colonialism spread, so did today’s standard 52-card deck, not including the Joker cards.

There are also 52 weeks in a year. As if that weren’t coincidence enough, if you add up all the cards in the deck, it equals 365, the number of days in a year.

The First Playing Cards Were Made In China In The Ninth Century

playing cards recovered from the Titanic disaster
Wang He/Getty Images
Wang He/Getty Images

Today, it is impossible to nail down the date the first playing cards were made, but most modern scholars agree it was around the ninth century. The Chinese are credited with the invention, as well as printing the first real deck of 32 cards.

The Chinese used 32 cards because then it would include every possible combination of a pair of dice. They printed the cards on anything from wood to paper and even bone. One popular theory claims that these cards were also used as a form of currency.

The Lifespan Of A Deck In Casinos Isn’t Very Long

playing poker in a casino
LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images

When being used over and over again in a casino, dealers constantly have to use fresh decks of playing cards. On a typical night, one deck will only last a maximum of 12 hours. On a busy night, that number shrinks exponentially.

The main reason for this is wear and tear. Anyone paying attention at a table would start to recognize certain cards by their damage. This gives these extra attentive players an advantage. These used cards don’t get thrown away, though, and often times end up being sold in the casino’s gift shop.

Bicycle Cards Were Used As Maps By Soldiers In War

soldiers heading off to war
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

One of the most recognizable brands of playing cards is Bicycle. The company produced their first deck of cards in 1885, and the gained famed during WWII. Decks of cards were sent to prisoners of war in German camps with pieces of escape maps inside them. When the cards were wet, they could be pulled apart, revealing the path to safety.

Similarly, crates of Ace of Spades cards were sent to soldiers during the Vietnam War. It was believed that the Viet Cong were superstitious of the card and would flee after seeing it, which turned out to be false.

The Jack Was Originally A Knight

a painting of men playing cards
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

One of the biggest changes in the history of playing cards is the Jack. Originally, the card was a Knight or Knave. Unfortunately, this caused confusion for users because of the King card. “K” couldn’t represent separate cards.

To solve this problem, the Knight was changed to the Jack, which really makes more sense to begin with. The only other choice would have been Prince, a fitting option to place with the King and Queen.

The Ace Has Always Varied In Value

an ace of hearts
Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In most modern card games, the Ace is either a high or low card. In some, the player even has the choice of which one the Ace will be. Historically, though, the Ace has carried varied values.

Originally designed to be the low card in the deck, the value began to change in the 15th and 16th centuries with introductions of new games. One game, Triomphe, places the value of the Ace between the 10 and the Jack.

Playing Cards Were Banned In Europe In The 1300s

three playing cards from france
Pierre-Jean Chalencon/Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Pierre-Jean Chalencon/Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the 1300s, playing cards had become so popular in Europe that something strange happened — they were banned. Preachers believed that card games led to cheating, dishonesty, and a life of sin, and had them banned.

Eventually, these bans were dropped, although there is no recorded date in history to inform us when that happened. We know from one record in 1367 they were banned, and then in 1377 in Paris rules were made to “keep players in check.”

Casino Cards Are Made Of Plastic

plastic cards at a casino
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

While most decks of playing cards you can buy are made of laminated cardboard, casinos need something a little more durable. Because cards are used over and over again, most of the ones you find in casinos are made from plastic.

Aside from plastic cards being more durable and higher quality than cardboard ones, there are a few other advantages. Most importantly, plastic cards are difficult to write on, cutting out one of the most common forms of cheating that has been used in the past.

The Queen’s Mistaken Identity

queen elizabeth i depictued in a painting
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Most card players believe that the Queen of Hearts is represented by Queen Elizabeth I. Every royal card, after all, is designed to represent a historically significant person. The problem here is that Queen Elizabeth I was born in 1533 while the Queen of Hearts was introduced prior to that date.

In actuality, the Queen of Hearts is based on Judith, from the Book of Judith in The Bible. In the story, she helps to save Israel while refusing to re-marry and becoming a widow.

“Playing Without A Full Deck” Is Rooted In History

a group of men playing cards on the dock
Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Have you ever heard someone say that someone else “isn’t play with a full deck?” The statement might seem like just a random playing card reference but is actually rooted in history. To explain, we have to go back to 1765.

As a way to get around the Ace of Spades tax, some people would avoid decks with 52 cards, and only play with 51 card decks. Those decks would be missing the taxed card. They would then play their normal games, literally without a full deck.

The Highest Card Tower Was 25 Feet Tall

bryan berg stacking cards
Kate Leblanc/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Kate Leblanc/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Playing Poker, Go Fish!, and other games isn’t the only thing people do with cards. Card stacking is another popular game that developed over the years. In 1992, Bryan Berg turned his passion into a career and entered the record books with his card tower.

That tower stood 14 feet tall. Since then he has broken his own record multiple times. His most recent card tower was 25 feet and 9 inches tall. Berg’s work has been featured in magazines and television shows around the world.

The Suits On Cards Represent The Class System

a group of kids playing cards on the street
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

When the French came up with the suits of cards that we still use today, they decided each one would represent a class of people. The Spades were nobles, Hearts were the holy clergy, Clubs were peasants, and Diamonds were merchants.

Throughout history, as the class system changed and evolved, the suits in the deck of playing cards stayed the same. Next time you shuffle a fresh deck, don’t forget to think about all the history and mystery hidden inside!