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The History of Playing Cards

By: Rick Balding, Tuesday April 20th 2010
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There are new casino players who straightaway get involved with the rules and strategies of the games and are not interested in the history and evolution of the games. However there are also players who take interest and pleasure in learning about the history. It is for this reason that many online casinos and portals like CasinoAdvisor have articles on the histories of various casino games, including card games like blackjack and baccarat. However the history of playing cards is a subject that is not commonly written about. This article traces some of the defining moments in the evolution of playing cards.

There is no doubt in the minds of historians that playing cards originated in China. There are references of playing cards being used by Chinese royalty as early as the ninth century. These ancient Chinese playing cards had four suits and generally had the numbers from 2 to 9 in each suit. The merchants along the silk Route eventually brought the playing cards from China to India, the Middle East and Egypt. In India the playing cards evolved differently with the shape being around and there being more than four suits. The playing cards as we know them today began to evolve in Egypt around the 12th century.

In Egypt playing cards were commonly used during the regime of the Mamluk Sultans and the deck they used has come to be known as the Mameluke deck. This deck had 52 cards in four suits of 13 cards each. The suits were polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit had ten number cards, which were identified by the number of suit symbols, and three court cards named after King, Viceroy and Under Deputy. The court cards displayed abstract designs and not persons.

The earliest authentic reference to playing cards in Europe is from Spain in 1371. Thereafter regular references have been found all over Europe. The first playing cards were hand made from woodcuts and later from engravings. The mass printed cards came much later. Within the different countries in Europe there were some similarities and some differences. Four suits were used almost everywhere but the names and symbols were different. The suits as we know them today, spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs, originated in France towards the end of the 15th century. They were taken from different systems prevalent in Europe. Ultimately the English too accepted the French system thus giving it the stamp of universality. Originally the court cards were named King, Knight and Knave. Later the Queen replaced the Knight.

A significant development that took place in the 17th century was the introduction of the indices at the corner. The importance of this innovation was that the cards could be recognized without spreading them wide and therefore could be held with one hand. In the English deck at first the Knave was indexed as Kn. But this was inconvenient and led to confusion with the King, which was indexed as K. Therefore the Knave was replaced by Jack. In other countries the index of the court cards depended on what name they were given in the language of that country.

One of the final innovations took place at the fag end of the 18th century. This was the design of the reversible court cards. Till then the court cards were designed as full length figures. Some players would turn the court cards to make them upright and this often revealed the nature of the card. With the reversible court cards this problem was solved. As in gambling games, America has contributed to playing cards as well. The Joker was invented in America around 1870 for a card game called Euchre.

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Comment by: Nathan Black On: April 29, 2010
Good article I didn't know much of what was being mentioned in here about playing cards and the history of them. Makes a lot of sense though.

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