Playing cards are so common today that we take them for granted. But, have you ever really looked closely at them or wondered what they could mean? Like, who is that suave King that doesn’t have a mustache? Stay with us to find out, as we countdown 10 Things You Don’t Know About Playing Cards.
10. Cards inspired many sayings
Many terms used during card games have been adopted as phrases in general life. Let’s look at a straightforward example first – ‘to follow suit’. In cards, this means to play a card which is of the same suit as the one played prior to it. In general language, it refers to a person’s actions and therefore it means someone has acted in the same way as another person.
To ‘come up trumps’ had a more interesting evolution. It is a variation of a saying which originated in the 17th century which was to ‘turn up trumps’.
This came from the card game triumph where the deck was cut to select the trump suit. If you selected a trump suit that matched your hand, you were at an advantage.
Therefore, to ‘turn up trumps’ signified success in the game. In the 18th century, this meaning became figurative and is used in day-to-day life to mean having something lucky occur or be unexpectedly successful.
9. How the four suits arose
It is generally agreed that playing cards originated in China in the 9th century before spreading to many other countries. But the four suits style had its origin in the Middle East as cups, coins, swords, and sticks.
Italian merchants discovered them in Egypt and imported them to Europe in the mid-1300s.
As cards spread throughout the world, each country put their own spin on elements of the cards. The German and Swiss cards came to feature hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves.
These European designs are thought to be a representation of the four classes of medieval society: the church, nobility, middle class, and peasantry. Hearts represent the Church, and Bells the nobility while Leaves and Acorns, the middle classes, and the peasantry respectively.
The four suits we know today came into production in France, in the 1480s. Back then Hearts represented the Church; Diamonds were arrowheads, symbolic of the vassals from whom the archers and bowmen were drawn; clubs represented clovers, from shepherds and spades represented knights as they resembled Piques, the points of lances.
Nowadays some people believe that playing cards have mystical significance and each suit stands for distinct characteristics. Clubs denote to air, words, and neutrality. Spades signify fire, strength, willpower, and masculinity. Diamonds are for the earth, wealth, and matter, while Hearts signifies water, love, imagination, and the feminine.
8. Why there is a joker
The joker card first appeared in printed card decks in the 1860s. The card was used as the Best Bower, which was an extra trump card in the new American version of the game Euchre.
The name progressed from the Best Bower to the Little Joker and then the Jolly Joker.
© WOPC, Rich and Regular, and Alta Carta
English card decks included the Joker just a little later, in the 1880s. But the card didn’t always feature the quirky jester that we know him to be today.
The joker card had many different designs, such as floral and architectural emblems. Most often it featured the card company’s logo for the brand identity of the deck. Joker cards are so intriguing that card companies have created entire decks using them. Because of its uniqueness, the Joker card has become a sought-after collector’s item.
7. Why the King of Hearts doesn’t have a mustache
If you’ve ever played close attention to the Kings in your card deck, you’ll have noticed the King of Hearts is unique for a couple of reasons. One of these reasons is that he’s the only King without a mustache. So why is that?
© PX Here
Unfortunately, there is no official reason, however popular belief abounds. One of the most popular explanations is that his lack of facial hair signifies him to be the purest of the four Kings. Apparently being clean-shaven is an indication of goodness! What seems to be the most logical reason is not related to the King’s goodness or vanity, but that he originally did have a mustache and it was mistakenly lost through reproduction.
I guess no one ever cared enough to give him his dignity back!?
6. The King of Hearts is stabbing himself
The second unique thing about the King of Hearts relates to his weapon. Until the 1800s his weapon of choice was a battle axe, and yet today he holds a sword. Because his sword seems to disappear behind his head, he has been dubbed ‘the Suicide King’, with people believing he intends to run his sword through his own head.
The combination of the King of Hearts ‘hiding’ a sword behind him, as well as being the only King without a mustache has also earned him the title of ‘the False King’ because there is a belief this indicates his devious nature.
It has been debated whether it’s even the King’s own hand holding the sword and this would lead us to a very different conclusion altogether – that he was being stabbed by someone else!
5. Why there are 52 cards in a deck
It’s the French we can thank for there being 52 cards in a standard deck. Different countries developed different versions of card decks which ranged from 24 to 52 cards. The French version had 52 cards and this became the most popular worldwide, spreading easily because of French and English colonialism.
52 seemed to be just the right amount, with card players agreeing they could play the best game with this number.
What is very interesting is the relation between a deck of 52 cards and our calendar year. For there are 52 weeks in a year after all and the four suits align with our four seasons. If you add up the value of all the cards in the deck and add one for the joker, you’ll get 365, the number of days in a year.
Think that’s a bit eerie? It’s actually just mathematics.
4. The court cards were attributed with personalities of historical figures
Because the court cards obviously represent positions in social hierarchy, over time people came to attribute historical royal figures to these cards.
The Kings are the most well-known of course. The King of Clubs represents a lively and energetic nature which is embodied by Alexander the Great, one of the greatest rulers of the ancient world.
The King of Spades represents an authoritative and forceful nature, as well as bravery whereas the King of Spades is said to be King David of Israel, biblical and worthy.
A noble and distinguished King of Diamonds comes from a military background, characteristics associated with Julius Caesar. Traditionally, this King appears in profile, much like Roman Emperors did on coins.
The King of Hearts is said to be friendly and worthy and is associated with King Charles of the Holy Roman Empire, also called Charlemagne. Technically, he was the only true emperor in this cluster of kings.
Some card manufacturers even went as far as to print the names of these historical figures on their decks.
3. Why is the Ace of Spades different?
Ever noticed that the Ace of Spades often has a more ornate design than other aces? This practice originated in Europe in the 16th century, where there was a tax on the manufacturing of playing cards.
During Queen Anne’s reign a stamp was placed on English playing cards after production, but before entering the market to show taxation had been paid. The Ace of Spades was the card to put the stamp because it had the largest blank space.
In 1765, the Tax Office started printing their own Ace of Spades cards to help prevent forgery and it was very ornate in design to make it more difficult to copy.
Another name of the Ace of Spades was the ‘hanging card’ because the punishment for forging a duty-paid Ace of Spades was hanging.
In the late 19th century, the authorities relaxed the laws, and card manufacturers could print their own Ace of Spades again. However, many manufacturers chose to keep the more ornate design the tax office had used – just in case!
2. It’s possible a deck of cards has never been properly shuffled and yielded the same result in all of history
You’ll be aware that there are many ways to shuffle a deck of cards. The most common are riffle shuffling, as used in casinos, Hindu shuffles, commonly used in Asia, and the overhand shuffle, which is perhaps the easiest technique.
Any of these techniques, particularly when followed by a cut of the deck, ensure a proper shuffle has taken place. This means the cards result in an unpredictable order. The number of order possibilities in a 52-card deck is approximately the number 8, with an incredible 67 zeros following it. It’s actually a bit larger than this number, but this is the easiest way of explaining it!
To give you some perspective, imagine shuffling just 20 cards. The order possibilities equate to 2.5 billion. No wonder you can’t yield the same shuffle order – the probability is mind-blowing to comprehend.
1. Design secrets behind Bicycle cards
The United States Playing Card Company owns Bicycle brand cards which are the most iconic cards worldwide, originating from the first back design which featured penny-farthing.
But Bicycle hid some incredible design secrets in their cards in past generations and also manufactured their cards for some notorious purposes. Bicycle-brand cards were sent to American Prisoners of War in WWII and the Vietnam War. When these special cards were peeled apart and put in a particular order, they contained maps to help the Prisoners of War escape.
Bicycle Spotter Decks were also produced at this time to help American soldiers identify aircraft, tanks and ships belonging to other nations.
In 1966, during the Vietnam War, entire crates of just Ace of Spades cards were sent to Americans soldiers to leave on bodies of dead Viet Cong soldiers. This had been prompted by two lieutenants writing to the United States Playing Card Company because it was believed that the Viet Cong were superstitious of them as they were a symbol of death.
Despite it being a myth, it at least improved the morale of American troops.
Did you know any of these things about playing cards? What surprised you the most? Let me know in the comments.