Four Fascinating Playing Card Facts

The Tip Top Fox reveals four fascinating facts about the humble playing card that may surprise you

Without playing cards, the world of gambling would be a barren landscape. With only bingo and roulette and no blackjack, baccarat, and poker, Las Vegas would be a lot less exciting – if it even existed.

The history of the humble playing card dates back to 9th Century China. The earliest ancestor of the modern deck of cards used today – the English pattern pack – first appeared in 14th Century Italy.

Originally a hand-painted luxury item associated with the upper classes, cheaper manufacturing methods developed as playing cards increased in popularity. Proving popular with soldiers, playing cards spread throughout Europe, reaching the UK in around the mid 15th Century.

Phrases like ‘play your cards right’, ‘when the chips are down’, ‘up the ante’, and ‘follow suit’ pepper the English language, none of which would exist without playing cards.

With such a lengthy past, there are a lot of amusing anecdotes and forgotten trivia about ‘the devil’s pasteboards’ that may surprise you. The Tip Top Fox has compiled a list of the top four fascinating facts about playing cards:

Death and Taxes

‘Old Frizzle’ the ace of spades from a British deck dating back to 1828

Nothing is certain except for death and taxes and our first fun fact covers the most iconic card in any deck – the ace of spades, also known as the ‘death card’.

In the English pattern pack, spades replaced the Italian suit of swords used in early decks, where the ace of spades was known as ‘The Reaver’ – another name for death. Another name for a spade is a shovel, commonly used to dig graves.

Used as a military symbol as far back as World War I where the British painted it on their tanks, the modern-day connotations connecting the ace of spades as synonymous with death can be traced back to the Vietnam war.

It was rumoured (wrongly as it turns out) that the Vietcong dreaded the ace of spades, believing it to be the symbol of death.

While that’s not true – the number four represents death in Asian culture – that didn’t stop US soldiers leaving the card in the mouths of dead Vietcong fighters and airdropping it all over the country.

In fact, the card was so popular with the US military that the United States Playing Card Company shipped out boxes full of decks containing just the ace of spades.

Ever wondered why the ace of spades is larger and more elaborately decorated than the other three aces in the deck? That’s all down to the British and tax.

First implemented by James I and later Queen Anne, stamp duty extended to playing cards back in 1711. This saw the top card of the deck – usually the ace of spades – hand-stamped to indicate the manufacturer had paid the duty owed.

In 1765, the Stamp Office replaced hand stamps with an officially printed ace of spades bearing the royal coat of arms. Back in 1828, the duty was one shilling (around 5p in modern sterling) with the official ace of spades known as ‘Old Frizzle’.

By 1862 card makers were free to use whatever design they chose, with most opting to continue the tradition of an ornate ace of spades that depicted the card manufacturers’ information.

Amusing Nicknames

The king of hearts; the suicide king

Our second fun fact is the amusing nicknames some of the cards have picked up over the years, with many cards in the modern deck bearing another moniker. Twos are often called deuces; threes are also called treys.

Back in 1791, the Queen of clubs was known as ‘Queen Bess‘ because that queen (Elizabeth I), history says, was of a swarthy complexion. Then there’s the nine of diamonds, otherwise known as the ‘curse of Scotland‘.

This possibly stems from the fact diamonds imply royalty, and according to legend every ninth king of Scotland was ‘a tyrant and a curse to that country’ (Grose, 1785) as just one of many reasons this card bares its unusual moniker.

By far the most well-known of card nicknames, however, is that of the king of hearts, otherwise known as ‘the suicide king‘.

The reason for this dates back to 17th Century England when the majority of playing cards were imported from Rouen, France. The introduction of stamp duty on cards saw foreign imports banned and English card manufacturers began copying European designs. Sloppy copying saw mistakes creep in, becoming recopied down the ages until each card had its own distinct look.

Originally, the king of hearts held a battle axe. Over time, this became a sword, held behind the head. When the British started depicting the suit in the top left-hand and bottom right-hand card corners, the tip of the sword disappeared making it appear that the king of hearts was stabbing himself in the head.

Interestingly, the king of hearts is the only four-armed court card in the modern deck. The suicide king is also the only one without a mustache – again due to the card copying and manufacturing process.

Suits You, Sir

Our third fact covers the four most important elements of any deck of cards – the suits. The exact origin of playing cards is hard to pinpoint exactly. The earliest conclusive evidence found in Europe dates back to the late 1300s, where they are thought to have been imported from the East.

One of the first 52 card decks can trace its origins back to 14th Century Italy where the four suits were known as coins (Denari in Italian), swords (Spades), cups (Coppe), and clubs (Bastoni – sticks or batons).

It was in 15th Century France where the icons depicting the four suits used today came to prominence: hearts (coeurs), spades (piques), diamonds (carreaux), and clubs (trefles).

The French also standardised the three court cards used in the modern deck – the king, queen, and knave, otherwise known as the jack. The French also split the four suits into the two colours of red and black still used today.

Taxes followed the rising popularity in card manufacturing in France, and then subsequently the UK, reaching there in the mid to late 15th Century. You can thank the British for coining the names of the modern suits, replacing the previous European names.

In tarot cards, which the modern deck derives from, the four suits also represent the four natural elements; hearts represent water; clubs, fire; diamonds, earth; spades, air.

Suits in the modern deck represent the four classes prevalent in Medieval society. Hearts are derived from cups and chalices and represent the clergy; swords (spades) are the nobility or military; coins (diamonds) represent the merchant class, and batons (clubs) represent peasants.

The ranking of suits in the modern-day comes from the game of bridge. This also translates over to poker when it comes to purposes of high carding for the dealer button; spades (highest), hearts, diamonds, clubs (lowest).

The Joker

Commorative playing card from Batman: The Three Jokers

The fourth and final fun fact covers the Joker, and we’re not talking about Batman’s nemeses.

First introduced to the modern deck in the United States back in 1860, the Joker was originally for Euchre – a popular trick taking game – where it was referred to as “the best bower”.

The Joker was played as a trump card, beating the highest ranking card in the game, the jack of the trump suit (right bower) and the other jack of the same colour (the left bower).

The name “Joker” comes from the German word Jucker, which is the name for Euchre there.

Following its Euchre debut, it was quickly adopted for use in many other card games, often playing as a wild card in the various games of poker, with the first recorded instance of this occurring in 1875.

The first Joker in the English pattern deck hit the British market in around 1874 and by the 1940s it was standard for the 52-card deck to contain two additional cards in the form of the two Jokers.

A staple in the modern-day deck, there is no standard image representing the Joker, with manufacturers free to produce their own depiction of the card. Most companies trademark their Jokers, a bit like they do with the ace of spades, giving each company’s pack of cards their own distinct identity.

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