Paying Homage to the Humble Playing Card

playing cards

Playing cards are certainly rudimentary tools, more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. Yet, it’s these same playing cards – the deck of 52 cards and four suits – that continue to deliver hours upon hours of entertainment and competition.

Now an icon of the Wild West and the core piece that allows for some of the most popular and intricate games in the world. From blackjack to rummy, many people turn professional and make a living on these 3.5’’x2.5’’ pieces of stiff paper. Many even seek out my very own membership training videos to learn poker and enhance the application of strategy.

Here, we’re paying homage to the humble deck of playing cards. We’re looking into the interesting history of how they came to be developed and the meanings behind what are now the standard and instantly-recognisable suits. So, at the very least, you should find yourself equipped with plenty of factoids to pop out during lulls in a game of cards.

From China to every gaming house in the West

The first reference found to playing cards or dominoes tracks back to 10th Century China. The similar usage of cards and dominoes in China remains fairly strong today. The tile game mah-jong being a prime example of the likeness in the playstyle of using your hand to win. Playing cards for games like poker, are said to have come to Europe in the late 14th Century.

Merchants from the Mamlūk dynasty of Egypt imported the playing cards to fellow nations of the Mediterranean Sea, such as the lands of Italy and Spain. Both nations would create distinct designs. Without printing presses or similar manufacturing capabilities, playing cards were hand-crafted, hand-painted, and luxurious items to buy. That all changed at the dawn of the 15th Century, though, with Germany developing woodcut printing lines.

Now, marked with hearts, tiles (diamonds), clovers (clubs), and pikes (spades), the majority of playing cards are manufactured using a system of printing plates and large sheets of paper being glued together through a machine. The sheets are then cut up from a whole deck into single cards, most of the time, corners get rounded, and they’re all then stacked into a neat tuck box of between 54 (including the joker) and 57 (with rule and brand cards) cards.

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The importance of playing card symbols

In Europe, we know of at least five different styles of suits and imagery that were used before playing cards became standardised. The Germans would have hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves, while the Spanish cards donned cups, coins, clubs, and swords. Italian cards followed the same suits as the Spanish, which is likely due to the two areas first receiving their playing cards from the same civilisation in Egypt.

As detailed by The Atlantic, pips could vary greatly between decks, often put down to wanting to hide the fact that they were playing cards. Now, however, it’s all standardised under the French design, making them universal and very accessible. It’s because of this that the symbols can be extrapolated into other areas. While people recognise ace, king, and queen as being top-ranking cards, thus high grading in any reference, this isn’t always the case.

Online slots invariably feature high-card symbols as low-paying ones. Aces, kings, queens, and jacks are commonplace on the reels of the free slots to play for fun. However, the top-paying symbols, the more unique in design, for the likes of Cleopatra and Siberian Storm are reserved for in-theme symbols. Perhaps this is down to the widespread use of cards.   

It’s also been noted that tarot cards have drawn heavily from playing cards, only in a way that more or less reflects the standardised tier system. Wands, swords, pentacles, cups mirror clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts, and each of these four suits comes with four court cards. They differ slightly in the makeup, running ace to ten before the four court cards, but akin to many modern playing card games, the ace is often valued as being high.

Playing cards have been part of society for centuries. Simplicity and dynamism have allowed the deck of 52 to remain relevant through to the modern day and well into the future.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay

Narciso Baldo is the Director and Head Coach of Texas Hold'em Questions. He has been playing poker for over 16 years. After spending many years as a professional, he now runs UK poker training site Texas Hold'em Questions. Narciso regularly writes poker articles sharing tips, strategy, news and experience with gambling enthusiasts. Narciso also writes for reputable gambling portal Casino City Times, (bio here). Contact: