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Playing card

Some typical modern playing cards

A playing card is a typically hand-sized rectangular piece of heavy paper or thin plastic used for playing card games. Playing cards are often used as props in magic tricks, as well as occult practices such as cartomancy, and a number of card games involve (or can be used to support) gambling. As a result, their use sometimes meets with disapproval from some orthodox religious groups. They are also a popular collectible (as distinct from the cards made specifically for trading card games[?]). Specialty and novelty decks are commonly produced for collectors, often with political, cultural, or educational themes.

Shuffling a pack of cards

One side of each card (the "front" or "face") carries markings that distinguish it from the others and determine its use under the rules of the particular game being played, while the other side (the "back") is identical for all cards, usually a plain color or abstract design. In most games, the cards are assembled into a "deck" (or "pack"), and their order is randomized by a procedure called "shuffling" to provide an element of chance in the game.

Table of contents

Early History

The origin of playing cards is obscure, but it is almost certain that they began in China after the invention of paper. Ancient Chinese "money cards" have four "suits": coins (or cash), strings of coins (which may have been misinterpreted as sticks from crude drawings), myriads of strings, and tens of myriads. These were represented by ideograms, with numerals of 2-9 in the first three suits and numerals 1-9 in the "tens of myriads". Wilkinson suggests in The Chinese origin of playing cards (http://www.ahs.uwaterloo.ca/~museum/Archive/Wilkinson/Wilkinson) that the first cards may have been actual paper currency which were both the tools of gaming and the stakes being played for. The designs on modern Mah Jong tiles and dominoes likely evolved from those earliest playing cards. The Chinese word p'ai is used to describe both paper cards and gaming tiles.

The time and manner of the introduction of cards into Europe are matters of dispute. The 38th canon of the council of Worcester (1240) is often quoted as evidence of cards having been known in England in the middle of the 13th century; but the games de rege et regina there mentioned are now thought to more likely have been chess. If cards were generally known in Europe as early as 1278, it is very remarkable that Petrarch, in his dialogue that treats gaming, never once mentions them. [Boccaccio]], Chaucer and other writers of that time specifically refer to various games, but there is not a single passage in their works that can be fairly construed to refer to cards. Passages have been quoted from various works, of or relative to this period, but modern research leads to the supposition that the word rendered cards has often been mistranslated or interpolated.

It is likely that the ancestors of modern cards arrived in Europe from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s, by which time they had already assumed a form very close to those in use today. In particular, the Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King), nā'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and thānī nā'ib (Second or Under-Deputy). The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons (at least not in any surviving specimens) though they did bear the names of miltary officers. A complete pack of Mameluke playing cards was discovered by L.A. Mayer in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Istanbul, in 1939; this particular complete pack was not made before 1400, but the complete deck allowed matching to a private fragment dated to the twelfth or thirteenth century. There is some evidence to suggest that this deck may have evolved from an earlier 48-card deck that had only two court cards per suit, and some further evidence to suggest that earlier Chinese cards brought to Europe may have travelled to Persia, which then influenced the Mameluke and other Egyptian cards of the time before their reappearance in Europe. It is not known whether these cards influenced the design of the Indian cards used for the game of Ganjifa, or whether the Indian cards may have influenced these, but the Indian cards have many distinctive elements, such being round, being generally had painted with intricate designs, and comprising more than four suits (often as many as twelve).

European Spread and Early Design Changes

In the late 1300s, the use of playing cards spread rapidly across Europe. The first widely-accepted references to cards are in 1371 in Spain, in 1377 in Switzerland, and in 1380 they are referenced in many locations including Florence, Paris, and Barcelona. A Paris ordinance dated 1369 does not mention cards; its 1377 update includes cards. In the account-books of Johanna, duchess of Brabant, and her husband, Wenceslaus of Luxemburg, there is an entry under date of the May 14, 1379 as follows: "Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, wherewith to buy a pack of cards". An early mention of a distinct series of playing cards is the entry of Charles or Charbot Poupart, treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France, in his book of accounts for 1392 or 1393, which records payment for the painting of three sets or packs of cards, which were evidently already well known.

It is clear that the earliest cards were executed by hand, like those designed for Charles VI. However, this was quite expensive, so other means were needed to mass-produce them. It may be that the art of wood engraving, which led to that of printing, may have been developed through the demand for the multiplication of implements of play. The belief that the early card makers or cardpainters of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg, from about 1418 to 1450, were also wood engravers, is founded on the assumption that the cards of that period were printed from wood blocks. Many of the earliest woodcuts were colored by means of a stencil, so it would seem that at the time wood engraving was first introduced, the art of depicting and coloring figures by means of stencil plates was well known. There are no playing cards engraved on wood to which so early a date as 1423 (that of the earliest dated wood engraving generally accepted) can be fairly assigned; and as at this period there were professional card makers established in Germany, it is probable that wood engraving was employed to produce cuts for sacred subjects before it was applied to cards, and that there were hand-painted and stencilled cards before there were wood engravings of saints. The German Brief maler or card-painter probably progressed into the wood engraver; but there is no proof that the earliest wood engravers were the card-makers.

The Europeans experimented with the structure of playing cards, particularly in the 1400s. Europeans changed the court cards to represent European royalty and attendants, originally "king", "chevalier", and "knave" (or "servant"). Queens were introduced in a number of different ways. In an early surviving German pack (dated in the 1440s), Queens replace Kings in two of the suits as the highest card. Throughout the 1400s, 56-card decks were common containing a King, Queen, Knight, and Valet. Suits also varied; many makers saw no need to have a standard set of names for the suits, so early decks often had different suit names (though typically 4 suits).

The cards manufactured by German printers used the suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns still present in German decks today used for Skat and other games. Later Italian and Spanish cards of the 15th century used swords, batons, cups, and coins. It is likely that the Tarot deck was invented in Italy at that time, though it is often mistakenly believed to have been imported into Europe by Gypsies. While originally (and still in some places) used for the game of Tarocchi, the Tarot deck today is more often used for cartomancy and other occult practices. This probably came about in the 1780s, when occult philosophers mistakenly associated the symbols on Tarot cards with Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The four suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs) now used in most of the world originated in France, approximately in 1480. The trèfle, so named for its resemblance to the trefoil leaf, was probably copied from the acorn; the pique similarly from the leaf of the German suits, while its name derived from the sword of the Italian suits. It is not derived from its resemblance to a pike head, as commonly supposed. In England the French suits were used, and are named hearts, clubs (corresponding to trèfle, the French symbol being joined to the Italian name, bastoni), spades (corresponding to the French pique, but having the Italian name, spade=sword) and diamonds. This confusion of names and symbols is accounted for by Chatto thus:

"If cards were actually known in Italy and Spain in the latter part of the 14th century, it is not unlikely that the game was introduced into this country by some of the English soldiers who had served under Hawkwood and other free captains in the wars of Italy and Spain. However this may be, it seems certain that the earliest cards commonly used in this country were of the same kind, with respect to the marks of the suits, as those used in Italy and Spain."
Court cards have likewise undergone some changes in design and name. Early court cards were elaborate full-length figures; the French in particular often gave them the names of particular heroes and heroines from history and fable. A prolific manufacturing center in the 1500s was Rouen, which originated many of the basic design elements of court cards still present in modern decks. It is likely that the Rouennais cards were popular imports in England, establishing their design as standard there, though other designs became more popular in Europe (particularly in France, where the Parisian design became standard).

Rouen courts are traditionally named as follows: the kings of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs are David, Alexander, (Julius) Caesar, and Charles (Charlemagne), respectively. The knaves (or "jacks"; French "valet") are Hector (prince of Troy), La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc), Ogier (a knight of Charlemagne), and Judas Maccabee (who led the Jewish rebellion against the Syrians). The queens are Pallas (warrior goddess; equivalent to the Greek Athena or Roman minerva), Rachel (biblical mother of Joseph), Argine (the origin of which is obscure), and Judith (of the Apocrypha). Parisian tradition uses the same names, but assigns them to different suits: the kings of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs are are David, Charles, Caesar, and Alexander; the queens are Pallas, Judith, Rachel, and Argine; the knaves are Ogier, Le Hire, Hector, and Judas Maccabee. Oddly, the Parisian names have become more common in modern use, even with cards of Rouennais design.

Later Changes

In early games the kings were always the highest card in their suit. However, as early as the late 1400s special significance began to be placed on the nominally lowest card, now called the Ace, so that it sometimes became the highest card. This concept may have been hastened in the late 1700s by the French Revolution, where games began being played "ace high" as a symbol of lower classes raising in power above the royalty. The term "Ace" itself comes from a dicing term in Anglo-Normal French, which is itself derived from the Latin as (the smallest unit of coinage). Another dicing term, trey (3), sometimes shows up in playing card games.

Corner and edge indices appeared in the mid-1800s, which enabled people to hold their cards close together in a fan with one hand (instead of the two hands previously used). Before this time, the lowest court card in English cards was officially termed the Knave, but its abbreviation ("Kn") was too similiar to the King ("K"). However, from the 1600s on the Knave had often been termed the Jack, a term borrowed from the game All Fours where the Knave of trumps is termed the Jack. All Fours was considered a low-class game, so the use of the term Jack at one time was considered vulgar. The use of indices changed the formal name of the lowest court card to Jack.

This was followed by the innovation of reversible court cards. Reversible court cards meant that players would not be tempted to make upside-down court cards right side up. Before this, other players could often get a hint of what other player's hands contained by watching them reverse their cards. This innovation required abandoning some of the design elements of the earlier full-length courts.

The Joker was an American innovation. Created for the Alsatian game of Euchre, it then spread to Europe from America along with the spread of Poker. Although the Joker card often bears the image of a fool, which is one of the images of the Tarot deck, it is not believed that there is any relation.

Card Game Rules and Hoyle

Most card games simply do not have universally accepted official rules (Contract bridge being one of a few notable exceptions). Instead, there are many rule books that attempt to capture rules (and common variations) as practiced by at least some people they have interviewed. When moving from one group to another, the rules will often change, so it is wise for any group to be sure they understand the rules they'll use before beginning.

In the 1740s Edmond Hoyle determined that, since so many people were interested in learning to play the card game Whist well, he would become a professional Whist tutor. Along with personal instruction, he also wrote down his basic approaches to playing Whist well in a small book which his clients could buy. The book was popular but unaffordable to many, so many illegal or questionable copies were made. In November 1742 Hoyle copyrighted the work, and made the work more widely available; copies of the book were extremely popular. Hoyle never actually wrote down the rules of Whist; he presumed that his reader already knew the basic rules, and his work was focused on teaching how to play it well. Observing his own success, Hoyle immediately wrote books on other subjects (Backgammon, Piquet, Chess, and Brag[?]). Hoyle died on August 29, 1769.

Hoyle's works began the idea of selling popular game books. Many of these books contain the word "Hoyle" (just as many dictionaries contain the word "Webster"), but Hoyle would not recognize most of the games described in today's books. In particular, having the world "Hoyle" in a title does not give a book any greater authority, since anyone can write a book with Hoyle's name in the title.

Playing Cards Today

The primary playing cards in use today, called Anglo-American playing cards, includes the English suits, reversible Rouennais court cards, and usually two Jokers (often distinguishable, with one being more colorful than the other). The fanciful design and manufacturer's logo often displayed on the ace of spades began under the reign of James I of England, who passed a law requiring an insignia on that card as proof of payment of a tax on local manufacture of cards.

Though specific design elements of the court cards are rarely used in game play, a few are notable: the jack of spades and jack of hearts are drawn in profile, while the rest of the courts are shown in full face, leading to the former being called the "one-eyed" jacks. The king of hearts is shown with a broadsword behind his head, leading to the name "suicide king".


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