Card Games

views updated


Playing cards are used around the world in games that range from simple children's activities, to high-stakes gambling in casino games, and world championships in forms such as bridge. Playing cards can be regarded as randomization devices, similar to dice or roulette wheels, in that they are shuffled (randomized) prior to their distribution to players. A few simple card games involve pure chance, with winning and losing depending on who gets the "best" and "worst" collection of cards at distribution, while most card games involve strategy in that players can choose to add cards to their hands, discard some and add others, or make some other wise attempt to improve their odds of winning through decision making.

The Modern Deck

It is surprising to many that what is considered the "standard" deck of playing cards varies around the world. The standard deck in use in the United States, and the most commonly used deck worldwide, consists of fifty-two cards in four suits of thirteen cards each. Card values in each suit include numbered cards of two through ten, an ace, and three "face" or "court" cards consisting of a jack, queen, and king. The appearance of the face cards has become fairly standardized since cards have been mass-produced. Decks also often include two "joker" cards that are sometimes included for game variations. Many games also make use of "stripped" decks in which certain cards are removed for play.

Suits are identified by symbols or "pips," which on an English deck consist of the familiar spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. In decks from other countries, suits are often represented by different pips. For example, hearts, leaves, bells, and acorns are found on German cards; shields, "roses," bells, and acorns on Swiss cards; and coins, cups, swords, and cudgels on Spanish cards. Generally, there is no ranking system for the various suits in a deck of cards, however, ranks are assigned to suits in certain games.

There is no standard back or card reverse, so these designs vary widely. At one time, blank card backs were common. Card reverses have also been used to advertise a wide array of products, including soft drinks, airlines, beer, sports teams, soup, motorcycles, and more. There are a variety of card decks available today, from miniatures less than an inch in height, to oversized cards sometimes used as shooting targets. One can find rectangular decks, round decks, and even "crooked" decks. There are often specialty or commemorative decks created with face cards that depict actual people (the John F. Kennedy deck issued in 1963) or fictional characters (The Simpsons, Spider-Man), instructional decks (the Red Cross deck with safety and first-aid procedures or instructions), informational decks (depicting plants, animals, or other items), and cards marked in Braille. Also available are decks depicting artwork held in European museums and packs with scenic views of a state or city. Many popular card games can also be found as computer programs, complete with illustrated faces and backs.

History and Evolution of Playing Cards

It is generally believed that playing cards first developed in either the Middle East or East Asia, but beyond this there is no consensus on how modern-day decks of playing cards developed. It is unlikely that playing cards have one discrete point of origin, and, like many other pastimes, playing cards experienced a long evolution into the modern decks. There are, however, many stories, some rather improbable, that attempt to describe the origins of playing cards. One popular legend is that playing cards were invented by the irritable wife of an Indian maharaja who became increasingly annoyed by her husband's habit of pulling at his beard. The wife devised cards as a means of occupying both her husband's hands and his mind, thereby lessening the causes for her irritability. A second story of Chinese origins contends that playing cards were invented by members of the Imperial harem in 1120 a.d. as a cure for the perpetual boredom associated with palace living. At this time, there were an estimated 3,000 members (the empress, spouses, consorts, and concubines) of the inner chamber of the Chinese Imperial Palace; thus, a means of passing the time was necessary.

Other, less fanciful theories include the possibility of Chinese playing cards originating from the adaptation of Korean divinatory arrows. In support of this theory individuals have cited the long, narrow shape of early Chinese playing cards in conjunction with apparent feather marks on the ends of the cards as evidence of this connection. A case can also be made for Indian cards giving rise to European cards because of similarities in early suits—cups, coins, swords, and batons—and the inclusion of face cards that were absent from the Chinese decks. Historians have often suggested that knights on the Crusades brought packets of cards to Western Europe upon their return home, although this theory has been largely disregarded.

Whatever their origins, playing cards appeared in European countries in approximately 1370. There was no mention of cards in gaming ordinances in the 1360s, and cards were included in ordinances issued in the 1370s. Decks of cards in the 1370s are described as having four kings in a deck of fifty-two cards.

Decks of playing cards were first brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers, and playing cards were undoubtedly used in the early American colonies. There are numerous examples of laws pertaining to or forbidding the use of playing cards. The joker cards found in today's English decks originated in the United States around 1863. American euchre players introduced the "Best Bower," as it was originally called, as an extra trump card. The card was renamed the "Jolly Joker" before being shortened to the "Joker" of today. Contrary to popular legend, the court cards of modern English decks are not named and do not represent any particular nobility.

Playing for Fun

While playing cards themselves are not a game, they have been described as one of the most convenient and portable props for instant game playing. Their widespread availability combined with the variety of games that appeal to different ages and skill levels makes playing cards one of the most popular forms of leisure throughout the world.

It is often difficult to find the definitive rules for any particular card game. Even though there are many books that purport to share the rules of a particular card game, there are many regional differences in game rules, and they continue to adapt and evolve over time. Some games—such as bridge—have an official governing body that has a standard set of rules for tournaments. However, many card games do not have such a governing body and so the rules in social play are those that everyone has agreed upon at the start of play. These are generally referred to as "house rules."

Card games may be classified into one of several game types according to the general objective of play. The first category is that of solitaire or patience games, which are played by a single player, although many can be adapted for play by more than one person. There are over 150 varieties of solitaire games documented, and doubtless many more that have not been recorded. The largest classification of card games is that of trick-taking games, which include euchre, spades, bridge, hearts, and other variations. A "trick" is a set of cards where each player has contributed one card. In trick-taking games there is often a group of cards identified as "trump" that will win against any other card.

Rummy games include gin rummy, canasta, straight rummy, and many lesser-known variations. Interestingly, rummy games take their names from the fact that at one time they were played primarily for drinks. The primary object of rummy-type games is to create matched sets or sequences. The most popular class of card games is the poker family. More money exchanges hands and more individuals play poker in its many forms than any other class of card game. In poker, players attempt to win the "pot" by causing the other players to drop out of the competition or by having the highest ranked hand. Card games that do not fit into the previously mentioned categories or that have categories of their own include stop games, cribbage, skarney, and children's games.

A popular trend among game manufacturers is to create special decks of cards that can be used for traditional card games. These specialized decks are typically useful only to play the game for which they were created, and cannot be used for other games. Originally, many examples could be seen in children's card games, such as special decks for Old Maid or Crazy Eights. This trend has expanded to "adult" card games where traditional games are given an update or twist when packaged for sale. Examples include Canasta Caliente, Rummy 21, and SeaNochle (a pinochle variation).

Playing Cards and Gambling

Long before the establishment of Las Vegas, playing cards were used for gambling. The earliest references to playing cards in Western Europe are, in fact, found in gambling ordinances of the time. Both church and civil authorities issued prohibitions against playing cards, and cards were considered to be the devil's tools to entice men to lives of sin and sloth.

In some American colonies, cards and gambling were strictly prohibited. In other colonies, card playing and gambling with cards were accepted pastimes. For example, a 1624 Virginia law forbade ministers to play cards, and, as recently as 1832, one could be fined $50 in Ohio for selling a pack of playing cards.

Gambling in the United States has experienced several periods of growth and decline over the years. During the 1800s, New Orleans became the hub of gambling in the United States. Rooms and tables for gambling were initially available in area taverns. Gambling was legalized in New Orleans in 1823, at which time a gambling license was available for the hefty sum of $5,000. On 19 March 1931, gambling was institutionalized in the United States when it was legalized in the state of Nevada. One month later, the city of Las Vegas issued six gambling licenses. In addition to Las Vegas, Nevada, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, the modern card player can gamble on riverboat casinos or in reservation casinos hosted by Native American tribes. Today gambling with cards, both commercial and private, results in a substantial exchange of money in the United States and worldwide.

Card games found in North American casinos are typically limited to blackjack (twenty-one), variations of poker, and baccarat. Casino games can be played in homes, though modifications to the rules are sometimes necessary. Card games where the primary objective is to gamble rather than to facilitate social interaction are completed more quickly and require little player interchange.

Collectible Card Games

A recent phenomenon, collectible card games (CCGs) have created a unique place in the world of playing cards. CCGs typically focus on a particular world or theme, and players acquire cards to build decks for play against decks built by other players. The rules governing play vary from game to game, but a common goal is to reduce your opponent's points (or life points) to zero through a combination of attacks with the cards. There is a wide selection of collectible card games designed to appeal to a variety of audiences. Popular examples of collectible card games include Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Collectible card games are played both in social settings and competitively. Most CCGs have sanctioned tournament programs associated with the games, many of which culminate in a "world championship" tournament. Some individuals focus not on play, but rather on the collectible aspect of the cards. Cards are typically assigned a rating, such as "rare," "uncommon," and "common," that influences the value of cards to potential collectors and players. New expansions and additions to the various collectible card games are another frequent occurrence, with older editions becoming excluded from some tournament play.

See also: Atlantic City, Gambling, Las Vegas


Beal, George. Playing Cards and Their Story. New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1975.

Hargrave, Catherine Perry. A History of Playing Cards. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

Tilley, Roger. Playing Cards: Pleasures and Treasures. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

——. A History of Playing Cards. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973.

Rachelle Toupence and Louis Hodges