The Origin of Playing Cards
‘CARDS, anyone?’ In any language, this expression would easily be recognized, for playing cards are international and can truthfully be said to span the globe from north to south and from east to west. From the barren, lonely outposts at the poles to the steamy jungles of the equator, you can find a pack of cards. An interesting observation is that cards have had a tremendous influence on human affairs. Decisions, whether successful or otherwise, have been made with the aid of playing cards. Fortunes have been won and lost at the turn of a card.
What is it about a pack of cards that promotes such popularity, such universal amusement? Let’s consider some of the facts.
First and foremost would be its size and convenience. A modern pack of playing cards requires very little storage space and weighs only a matter of ounces. Next would be the number of players required for a game. Unlike most games, cards can be played by as few as one person. There is the game of Patience, or Solitaire as it is known in the United States, that can fill many lonely hours and form a welcome pastime for those forced to spend long periods of time by themselves. Since card games are universal, one can usually find someone, old or young, with whom to play.
You might well ask at this point: ‘Where did this popular pastime originate? Who invented it, and when? Has it always been in its present form?’ These are intriguing questions. Shall we investigate?
The New Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia says that playing cards originated in Hindustan about 800 C.E., with the king, queen, and jack dating from the Middle Ages. A Chinese dictionary of 1678 C.E. states that they were invented in the year 1120 B.C.E. for the amusement of Seun-Ho’s concubines. Some antiquarians say that playing cards were introduced into Europe by the invading Saracens who crossed the Mediterranean in the year 711 C.E. Others claim that the Crusaders brought back playing cards from the East. There is some agreement, however, on the fact that cards were not commonly used in Europe before the first part of the 15th century. Some investigators have thought that playing cards found their way from East to West by the same means as chess, through that race of wanderers known as Gypsies. It is of interest to note that, in many places, chess also was played with cards. Spain introduced playing cards to the “New World,” the Americas, when Cortez conquered Mexico. King Montezuma took great pleasure in watching the Spanish soldiers play cards.
By now you must have come to the conclusion that there is much controversy over the origin of playing cards when it comes to pinpointing the definite time and place. But regardless of the difference of opinion, playing cards evidently originated in the East. A remarkable similarity is noted between the early Chinese paper money of the Tang Dynasty and the Chinese playing cards.
Regardless of what part the Gypsies played in introducing playing cards to the West, it is of interest to note that those people primarily used them for the purpose of fortune-telling, or divination. Today cards are used for this purpose. The ancient Tarocchi pack of cards numbered 78 and were without suits, numbers, or pips such as we have today. During the 14th century, the numbers and pips were introduced in Europe, using all 78 cards, of which 22 were face cards. The 22 Tarots, or special face cards, were used in divination. They represented allegorically the material forces and natural elements, virtues and vices. The designs included such things as a king holding a star in his hand, Death wearing a cardinal’s hat and mantelletta, two cupids, a knave with coins, and characters from fairy tales. Even proverbs were illustrated.
One of these special cards was known as the fool, or joker. This card exercised a very powerful influence over the outcome of the divination, since it served to intensify or multiply the meaning of the card next to it. If good fortune was indicated and the fool came up next, the good fortune supposedly was multiplied. On the other hand, if bad news was indicated, the joker would intensify that bad news, which would overshadow any good news that might be foretold during the session.
The remaining 56 cards were divided into four suits of cups, coins, swords and cudgels. These represented all classes of people. Cups, or vases, represented the priestly class or rulers. The coins represented the merchants. The swords clearly indicated the warriors. Finally, the cudgel pointed to the farmer or the worker. Each suit had four court cards comprised of a king, a vizier, a knight, and a jack, along with 10 numbered cards. The four court cards represented various ranks or levels of authority. For example, the king was the royal ruler, the vizier was a high official, the knight was of military rank (such as chief commander or general), and, finally, the jack was a leader among men. These four suits covered appropriately all classes of human society, both ancient and modern, all competing with one another, manipulating one another in their efforts to come out ahead of their fellows.
The similarity to human affairs is clearly seen in the game of cards. Each player received 14 assorted cards representing perhaps some merchants (coins), some farmers (cudgels), some warriors (swords), and some rulers (cups), and maybe a king as royal ruler and a knight as military commander to boost his hand. To win, he had to deploy with skill his manpower as represented by cards.
The Encyclopædia Britannica shows that the details of the pack varied as to design and number. Among the Anglo-Saxons, the pack consisted of 52 cards with four suits of 13 each. In Italy, it was comprised of 36 cards, and the older German packs had only 32 cards. In China, the early Portuguese missionaries found that the pack consisted of 30 cards, with three suits of nine each and three superior cards. The French deck of 52 cards, now standard, evolved from the now numbered cards of the Tarot deck. Modern games requiring a short deck are played by removing cards from the standard deck.
A host of subjects has been used by the nations on the face of the cards—such things as horsemen, elephants, hawks, bells, flowers, birds and many others. In the “New World,” the cards manufactured in New York in 1848 C.E. had neither kings, queens nor jacks. Instead, the President of Hearts was George Washington, the President of Diamonds was John Adams, that of Clubs was Benjamin Franklin, and that of Spades was Lafayette. Rather than queens, these cards had the goddesses Venus, Fortune, Ceres and Minerva. The jacks were represented by Indian chiefs.
Ancient packs of cards were printed from wood cuts and were hand-painted. However, during the 15th century, the German invention of engraving was perfected for playing cards, replacing the hand-painted ones. Our modern four suits originated in France during the 16th century. The clover-shape trefoil that we call “clubs” was trefle in French. The tip of a pike, now called “spades,” was pique. The third suit was called coeur, the French word for “heart.” The fourth suit was called carreau, meaning square, but this was translated “diamond” because the spot was diamond-shaped.
The size of our modern playing card, three and a half inches by two and a quarter inches (8.9 x 5.7 centimeters) was derived also from the French style, as the Chinese playing card was long and narrow, and the Indian type was round. As already noted, the close connection between chess and cards is again seen in the two colors red and black, which dominate the four suits.
One of the features that make playing cards universally attractive is the great variety of games and the variation in the number of players using either single or double packs, with each game having its own set of rules. Today most of the games formerly played are unknown, their names being found only in antiquarian works. Games played in the 18th and 19th centuries still survive, such as Piquet, Loadam, Noddy, Macke, Ombre, Gleek, and Post and Pan. Today card games can be categorized into four groups (to name a few among these): (1) Gambling games—Poker, Fan Tan, Faro, Baccarat, Blackjack; (2) party games—Beggar-My-Neighbor, Cassino, Old Maid, Rummy; (3) ranking games—Napoleon, Five Hundred, Ombre, Skat, Spoil Five; and (4) solitaire games, of which there are more than 350 variations.
The number of players varies with the different games. Cribbage can be played with two or four persons; Poker can have ten; Canasta has from two up to six players; whereas Whist and Bridge can be played by 20 to 40 persons divided into fours, each winning pair moving up to another table.
The origin of Whist is obscure. The game was first referred to in 1529 C.E. Edward Hoyle published a short treatise on Whist in 1742 C.E., but the popularization of the game among the philosophical society took place in the decade following 1860 due to the labors of Henry Jones and William Pole.
According to Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, Bridge is another variation of Whist, making its first appearance in Greece early in 1880. It was known as Russian Whist in London, England, in 1886, where it became more and more popular, and by the year 1900 it had displaced the old game of Whist.
Early in the 20th century, Auction Bridge developed. In this game the players bid against each other for the right to declare the trump suit. Each bid was an undertaking to win the specified number of tricks. Duplicate Bridge, like Whist, can be played by 20 to 40 players divided into fours, each winning pair moving to another table. Finally, Contract Bridge was developed in 1925 by an American of the famous Vanderbilt family.
The variation feature of playing cards would not be complete without mentioning the probability factor associated with the 52 cards. The Guinness Book of World Records states the mathematical odds against dealing 13 cards of one suit as being 158,753,389,899 to one. The odds against all four players receiving a complete suit are 2,235,197,406,895,368,301,559,999 to one.
So, while considerable skill is involved in playing cards, probability of chance plays a large part. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why card games are popular—they appeal to a wide spectrum of players, some games being designed for the skillful, others for those who merely want to relax and pass the time. Too, cards provide an inexpensive diversion.
However, when one hears the popular call, ‘Cards, anyone?’ it is good to keep in mind that card games, like all other forms of entertainment, can consume a lot of time. When any amusement or entertainment goes beyond what is actually good for relaxation, the time used becomes wasted time, time in which more important matters should be cared for. As a consequence, the individuals involved suffer, often both materially and spiritually. A consciousness of this fact, along with the exercise of self-control, will prevent a person’s letting the entertainment become a snare to himself and others. And the use of cards in fortune-telling is condemned by the Bible, which tells us that all forms of divination and spiritism are detestable in God’s sight.—Deut. 18:9-14.