The Playing Card

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Historical Background

The playing card was, as most historians believe, originally created 1000ad in China. It is believed they were developed from the flattening of dominoes. It has become a commonly used, frequently ignored part of our society’s lifestyle. For magicians it is a clever prop (when used well), for the gambler it is a means to earn money (when hidden well), and for the everyday people of the world it serves as a medium through which fun, entertainment, and competition is derived.


The material that the common Bicycle deck card is made of is stiff paper, with an outer coating of plastic. It’s dimensions are approximately 8.8 cm (or 3.5" for us “Yanks” ) in width, and approximately 6.3 cm (or 2.5" for those same Yanks) in height. Its thickness is about the same as a thick piece of paper with plastic coating on it (nearly identical, as a matter of fact). Each deck consists of fifty-two cards, excluding the Joker and extraneous cards.

The numbered cards in the deck range from the Ace (typically valued at either one or eleven), to the ten. From there, the remaining three cards are known as “Face cards” or “Royals.” The Jack, the Queen, and the King each represent different people through the ages. Here’s the list, taken from Gunnysack’s page about playing cards:

  • Jack of Hearts- One Eyed Jack, La Hire
  • Jack of Spades- One Eyed Jack, Ogier
  • Jack of Diamonds- Hector
  • Jack of Clubs- Lancelot
  • Queen of Hearts- Judith
  • Queen of Spades- Palas
  • Queen of Diamonds- Rachel
  • Queen of Clubs- Argine
  • King of Hearts- Suicide King, Charlemagne
  • King of Spades- David
  • King of Diamonds- Caesar
  • King of Clubs- Alexander
  • The pattern on the back of any given playing card is identical to the others in the deck it was removed from. These designs are symmetrical on a multilateral level. The patterns and figures are very complex, to prevent forgery. The designs are also monochromatic, being typically either entirely red or entirely blue (depending on the deck and company you buy from). On the back of the typical Bicycle deck is the image of two cherubs on what appears to be pogo sticks. One might infer that these are the imps of fate playing upon the hand of the dealer, but that’s just my guess.

    The four suits in every deck are Spades, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds., each representing a different class of people or personality. The spades are for the farmers, The Peasant Class (spades were sticks in the older versions implying rudimentary tools). The Hearts symbolize the Upper Class and love, as it was believed that love was an abstract concept only to be appreciated by the rich and educated. The Clubs show the Warrior Class, shown as swords in the earlier versions, and the diamonds represent the Merchant Class, coinage being a commodity of the middle class (sometimes coins or pentacles). The Joker, not usually included in card games was put as a “wild Card”, for poker games as well as having cultural significance. The Joker also represents the Artist class, as well as many other “unmentionables”.

    A little-known fact of early versions of the playing-card deck was that the Jack Daniel’s deck in particular had what was known as an “Empty Card”. These were placed to keep the deck in play by providing a canvas for a makeshift replacement card. This way, if in a game of poker a card is lost (for whatever reason), the deck is still playable.

    Cultural Significance

    The card has become an indispensable career prop for almost all magicians. It is nearly a universally accepted code that every magician should know at least five card tricks or so, so that they might be able to perform without the use of expensive props. Modification of the meaning of “card trick” has resulted in a few card levitation tricks developments, gag cards, and custom decks.

    The everyday card has also found its place in literature, the most notable being in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The cards acted out as the stereotypical “grunt” soldiers that protected the Red Queen. These, I believe, represent the hierarchy of the queen over the other cards in the deck.

    The physical card itself has found root among minimalist combat enthusiasts, as a weapon! In his book Using Cards as Weapons, Ricky Jay describes how to effectively cause bodily harm to an assailant by the effective use of a playing card. It describes the proper angles and grip techniques as well as the pressure-point targets to aim for.

    Card Games of the U.S.

    Although Poker has become a symbolic game of the old west, it's influence and spinoffs are still felt at every drunken frat party in the US. Strip poker, although a game of cunning and nerve, still uses the common rules of Poker to different gambling "ends."

    One of the lesser-known games among the mainstream users of the Playing Card is Mao. Mao is typically played between three or more people, with only one or two members knowing the entire list of rules. Punishments are dealt out by the card, usually given by the dealer. The object is to get rid of every last card you posess and scream MAO (in one version I'm told).

    Tarot is another form of "Card Game" to some, but carries with it a mystic stigma of fortune-telling. It's suits are the Cups, the Swords, the Wands, and the Pentacles. Believed by some still to be the earliest iteration of the common deck of cards, it is still held by many to be a divination technique worthy of distinction.

    And last but certainly the least, come the scourge known as Trading Cards. Taking the United States by storm, the plague of Pokemon cards grew to monstrous proportions, swallowing the paychecks of every parent responsible for children under 13.

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