Playing cards: Pick a card, any card, and marvel at the variety

Countless numbers of people belong to a Bridge Club. There are many more who find time to play Poker, Pinochle, Whist or Canasta with friends or family members. Folks often enjoy a game of Black Jack, Cribbage, Crazy Eights, Hearts, Rummy, Twenty-One or a European favorite such as the German Skat, Spanish Mus or Russian Preferans. Kids or grandkids love to beat their elders at favorites card games such as Concentration, Old Maid or Go Fish. The use of Tarot cards is a whole other subject in and of itself.

It’s said there are some 350+ variations of Solitaire many of which can be played on a computer without even the need to shuffle or deal the cards.  Often the same game may go by many different names. So-called experts estimate there are anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 such pastimes!

Ming dynasty playing cardConsider how many clichés and idiomatic expressions use references relating to card playing, particularly Poker and Bridge with all their variations. Here’s just a dozen examples: He’s not playing with a full deck; put your cards on the table; call a spade a spade; she upped the ante; they hold all the trumps; keep an ace in the hole; I forced his hand; let’s cash in our chips; he called her bluff; don’t deal him in; She’s living in a house of cards; We always play according to Hoyle.

And speaking of Hoyle – that British gentleman, who lived 1692-1769, wrote a short booklet about Whist that became so popular he authored similar treatises about chess, backgammon and other games. But collectors beware! The first 15 editions of his works are owned by museums or private collectors and are extremely rare; yet many modern card game rulebooks use the word "Hoyle" in their titles, further proving the entire history of cards is a crowded field in which fact and fiction are intertwined.

A Chinese playing card circa 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty, found near Turfan

So where, when, why and how did playing cards first appear? Public libraries offer many books of value to folks curious and interested in history and art as well as those eager to collect certain categories for a myriad of reasons. The following three volumes  (among many more) are a good place to begin such a search: "A History of Playing Cards" by Roger Tilley;  "Playing Cards of the World: A Collector’s Guide" by Kathleen Wowk; and "The Oxford A-Z of Card Games" by David Parlett (who has authored a number of other card game books including "A History of Card Games.")

The Internet also lists a large number of books such as "Playing Cards: Identification & Value Guide" by Mark Pickvet and "The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards" by Tom and Judy Dawson. Fascinating, colorful and informative sites may be found under such subjects as "art and playing cards" or "playing cards and famous paintings." Information and history about Tarot cards, their varying size decks – up to 78 cards; and their use either as a game or as a means of prophesizing the future; attitudes and influences for and against them as far as religion is concerned. All are almost endless subjects on their own.

So many legends exist about the origins of playing cards! They’ve been found to have many shapes and sizes and have been produced on a variety of materials. Choose among credit given about their beginnings to ancient China, India, Egypt, Persia, and then on to medieval Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Contradictions abound.  For instance, many sources claim the four kings in a 52-card deck represent Charlemagne, David, Caesar and Alexander. Just Google  playing cards history  to have this belief disputed and to learn about many  superstitions, myths and contradictions as well as historical facts about this extensive subject, including its role in today’s casinos.

The 1300s seem to be the century when Europe became enamored with playing cards; the 1800s in America. Two excellent web sites are for the International Playing Card Society and for The World of Playing Cards. Check on the web to learn about the United States Playing Card Company and the leading  "Bicycle" and "Bee" brands as well as many more labels. Cards are now made of plastic rather than cardboard. As with any memorabilia price and value depend on scarcity, artistry and uniqueness. Cards depict almost every sport and hobby; there are cards for blind players; famous personalities; scenic splendors; erotic and pornographic subjects. Playing cards are available for card tricks and magic and even cheating.

children playing cards on postcardIt’s an incredible world for seasoned or novice collectors to explore, as one more cliché advises: "It’s dealer’s choice!"


Playing cards have been adapted for use by the visually impaired by the inclusion of large-print and/or braille characters as part of the card. Both standard card decks and decks for specific games such as UNO are commonly adapted.

Besides playing card games, building houses out of playing cards or "Cardstacking" is a favorite pastime for many people. A man named Bryan Berg has turned this pastime into a career. He earned the Guinness World Record for the "world’s tallest card tower" in 1992. Since then, Berg has won even more honors for building higher towers. His highest to date measured 25 feet, 3.5 inches. Bryan Berg used 2,400 decks of playing cards to build this huge tower.

In poker, the “dead man’s hand,” which is a two-pair of aces and eights all black, is named after the hand No. 10 in Deadwood.

Playing cards were issued to British pilots in WWII. If captured, they could be soaked in water and unfolded to reveal a map for escape.

Next time you’re sitting around eating lunch you can thank John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.  It seems back in the 1700s ole John was an avid poker player, so much so he wouldn’t get up from the table to eat.  Instead he would get someone to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread. John’s delicacy caught on and soon other players were ordering "what Sandwich is eating" and the rest is history.

Richard Nixon won $6,000 playing poker during his first two months in the US Navy. He later used his winning to fund his first run for the US Congress.

In the US each year over 70 million decks of playing cards are sold.

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