Playing Cards: From Woodblocks To Online Casinos
A deck of playing cards is one of the most recognizable objects the whole world around. Almost every culture has their own variation, and they’ve been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. But the deck hasn’t always looked like the 52-card set we’re familiar with today. Years of magic tricks, divination and gameplay helped lead to the deck you’ll find in modern online casinos.
Cards seem to have been associated with gambling from the beginning, though they’re used to play all sorts of different games today. Whether you’re playing a round of euchre with your friends or playing in an online poker tournament, you’ll be using a deck of cards that has a ton of history behind it. Find out where cards came from originally and how their appearance and uses have changed over the years.
The Earliest Cards
Playing cards have been around for so long that it isn’t clear who invented them or even where they came from. Historians’ best guess is that they came from China or Persia, with most experts agreeing that they were originally from the East. Many people think that the Chinese game yezi ge (game of leaves) could have been an early use of cards, as long ago as 800 AD.
Games using tiles (like mah-jongg) and dice have been around for even longer, but cards began to challenge their popularity around 1300 AD. From the very early days, cards were associated with gambling, which was often banned. In fact, police records from Shandong, China are one of the first clear records of playing cards being used. Two gamblers were arrested for having cards and printing blocks, making it clear that playing cards was still popular even if it wasn’t allowed.
There’s a lot of speculation about how the cards got from the East into Europe, but it likely had something to do with the Crusades. These wars were fought from the 11th to 13th century, between European Christians and Middle-Eastern Muslims. People fighting on both sides of the war may have used similar cards to pass the time.
The first known deck of cards that looks like the ones we use today is the Cloisters Deck, which you can see in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They date back to the late 1400 and historians believe they came from the area that’s now the Netherlands. Around the same time, the Mamluk deck was being used in Egypt. These ornate cards are from around 1500 and are now on display in Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul.
Even after spreading across half the world, cards still had a long way to go. Back then, there wasn’t a great way to produce them in bulk, so nice cards were more limited to the upper classes until the printing press. But once they could be easily made, they started to spread even more and people loved them.
Different Suits Around the World
If you’ve played poker, blackjack or bridge, you’ve almost definitely used a French deck of playing cards. These are the most popular cards used by online and land casinos, in New Zealand and around the world for their games. There are 52 cards divided into four suits, with ten “pip” cards and three “face” cards. On the French deck, those four suits are the familiar hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs.
If you play a card game with the locals in Spain or Italy, though, you’ll see cups, coins, clubs and swords. In Germany, there are hearts, bells, acorns and leaves, but there are roses, bells, acorns and shields in Switzerland and Swiss Germany. Depending on the region, the deck may have fewer pip cards than a French deck, too.
The “face” cards are also different depending on the region. In British and French decks, there’s a nod to famous rulers on the King cards, including Charles, David, Caesar and Alexander the Great. In Spain, there are Knights (or cabelleros) instead of Queens. In German decks, the highest card is the King, followed by an “upper” man and “lower” man.
Queens still get some recognition, though. Some British players follow the “British Rule”, which makes the Queen higher than the King when England has a female monarch.
Wondering about the joker? This “wild” card wasn’t always included in the deck. They first appeared in the late 1800s but aren’t used in many games. There are often two in the pack, but they’re often set aside before playing. Because they’re not standard, their design varies widely, so you can see all sorts of different representations of the joker.
Even though French cards are the most popular today, there are still plenty of other popular card decks around, which vary in shape, size, number and design. In India, there are circular playing cards, while Japan cards with poems on the as well as their famous flowery hanafuda cards. These interesting cards have a lot of different designs because they were repeatedly banned by the government, so creative gamblers kept coming up with new sets that hadn’t been outlawed yet. In spite of all the bans, hanafuda cards continued to be popular throughout the years, and Nintendo was actually originally founded to make these cards.
The Magic Side of Cards
If you’ve ever used tarot cards, the suits in Spain and Italy might sound familiar to you. Most people might guess that fortune-telling cards are older than our modern playing cards, but they’d be mistaken. Tarot—which comes from the Italian word for “triumph” that was used for trump cards—actually used to be a normal card game. It didn’t stay popular for long, because it was super complicated, with 78 cards and 22 different trump cards with different values, but the cards stuck around.
The trump cards in a tarot deck are known as the Major Arcana when used for fortune-telling. They have familiar symbols on them, which some people believe have an esoteric link to ancient knowledge. Cards like the Fool, Death and the Wheel of Fortune symbolize different stages in life’s journey, and each card has a meaning associated with it.
Cartomancy, or reading fortunes in cards, started in the 1700s, and there have been lots of different variations on the artwork in the decks. The most common decks today are the original Tarot of Marseilles and the newer Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Tarot card readings are usually done by pulling cards to answer a question about the past, present or future. However, you don’t have to believe in magic to enjoy tarot cards. In the last century, they’ve also been used by psychologists like Carl Jung to symbolize psychological archetypes and used as a tool for personal introspection.
Another “magical” use of cards is doing sleight of hand tricks. These illusions are used for parlor tricks and street magic. There isn’t anything magical about the cards themselves—they’re just easy to use for magic tricks because they’re easy to find and inexpensive.
A magician never reveals their tricks…but you can still learn how to do card tricks yourself. Most of them involve palming cards, lifting cards from the deck, slipping different cards to the top of the deck, or falsely dealing cards so the performer knows what was dealt.
Custom and Collectible Cards
Having been around for so long, it’s no surprise that there are lots of collectible cards out there. You can find old ornate decks in museums around the world, because they’ve been part of almost every culture for the last thousand years. They also tend to reflect a society’s art and customs, making them an interesting way to see culture.
Some people collect ace cards in particular. Even though it’s technically the lowest-numbered card in a deck, it’s often the highest-valued card in the game. The Ace of Spades is generally the first card in a new deck, so it usually bears a unique design. In 1700s England, there was a tax on playing cards, and a stamp indicating that the tax had been paid was placed on the Ace. Today, the tradition of bold aces has continued, and the Ace of Spades will often bear the logo of the manufacturer or another unique design.
Cards are often a popular collector’s item as souvenirs, so they’re available in almost every gift shop around the world. You can find all sorts of decks with different pictures on them to keep as a souvenir of a trip, or to bring home as gifts. Many online retailers also let you design custom cards, which make another great gift. You can choose a favourite photo or quote to go on the back of the cards for a unique present.
For gamblers, there’s no better souvenir from a trip to the casino than a deck of used casino cards. Many on-land casinos sell or give away decks that have actually been used at their tables. After cards are done being played, casinos will alter them in some way so they can’t be used to cheat. This usually means cutting a corner or punching a hole in the cards. Even though they can’t be used in the casino anymore, you can still use them at home, so that every time you play you can remember your exciting trip. Another way to relive the excitement of vising an on-land casino is to play in a NZ online casino like JackpotCity. You’ll find all your favourite games like poker, blackjack and roulette—all online and playable from anywhere!
One Deck, Endless Games
One of the reasons the French deck is currently the most popular type of cards is that they’re very versatile and can be used for a large number of games. (Of course, it helps that they were used in France and Britain, who spread them to their colonies throughout the world.) With just one small deck of cards, you can open up a whole world of entertainment.
We all know casino games like poker and blackjack, but there are a lot more games you can play with a standard deck. Here are some fun card games you might not have tried before.
- Blitz (or 31): This game is kind of like blackjack, but instead of 21 you want 31. You’re dealt three cards and then draw and discard one card each turn, with the goal of getting the closest to 31 points in a single suit.
- Rummy: Rummy is a classic way to use a set of cards and has lots of variations. Players take turns drawing and discounting to make runs or matching sets of at least three cards.
- Spoons: Next time you want a fun party game, Spoons is always a hit for large groups. Everyone plays at once, with a hand of four cards and discards unwanted cards to the left for the next player to take. Once you get four matching cards, you grab a spoon from the middle of the table. There’s one less spoon than there are players, so the goal is not to get caught without a spoon.
- 500: 500 is very popular in Australia and New Zealand, and is a very fun trick-taking game. You bid for the number of tricks you think you can win with your partner, and the winning bidder gets to exchange cards with the kitty and select the trump.
- Bridge: Bridge is a popular game to play in clubs, and many seasoned players are part of leagues. It’s kind of hard to play—and especially to play it well—because it has a lot of rules.
- Euchre: Euchre is popular in the New Zealand, the US and Canada. Euchre uses a smaller deck of cards of just 25. Similar to most trick-taking games, it’s played by two sets of partners trying to win the most tricks with a five-card hand. In this game, jacks are the most powerful cards, called “bowers”.
- Hearts: Many people are familiar with Hearts because it was featured on old Microsoft PCs. It’s a classic trick-taking game but taking a trick with hearts results in negative points.
- Cribbage: This two-player game uses a standard deck of cards but also requires a special board with pegs. You want to be the first to 121 points by scoring different combinations. It’s a pretty complicated game, but fun once you know what you’re doing.
- Solo Whist: This is another game that’s popular in New Zealand, where it came from Britain in the late 19th century. Players bid contracts for how many tricks they think they’ll take. It usually involves gambling with money, and is settled based on the bids and resulting scores.
Learning a new card game can sometimes be tough if you’re not being taught by someone who knows how to play. However, you can find lots of instructional videos on the internet that will help you learn the rules. (It’s also a great way to become the best at online casino games!)
These days, a lot of the cards we see are virtual, though they’re still based on the standard French deck. When you play in an online casino in NZ, you’ll see the four familiar suits and card images.
It didn’t take long after the invention of computers for cards to go digital. Card games were an obvious choice to include on computers because they didn’t require advanced graphics, and many people already knew how to play the games. Even computer novices were able to easily learn how to play solitaire, one of the original standard computer games starting in the late 1980s. These card games looked a bit different than the flashy games you can see in online casinos, though.
As technology advanced, game developers could use better card graphics, which allowed realistic animations like shuffling and dealing cards. Even though the suits and numbers stayed the same, the games got a lot more life-like. There were eventually more options for card games like hearts, and eventually the best online casino games in NZ like poker and blackjack.
Now, you can play all sorts of online games using standard playing cards. These days, online casinos are the best place to play card games. At JackpotCity, you’ll find a huge number of variations on favourites like poker, including the classic Texas Hold ‘Em or fun versions like Deuces Wild Bonus Poker. Live poker games let you experience a real-life casino setting for your games, making things even more fun!