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Play Your Cards Right (A Brief History of Playing Cards)

Everyone who’s ever handled a deck of cards has a story to tell. We’re going to bet that it’s one they’d rather not revisit. Unless you’re Dan Bilzerian or Rain Man, cards probably evoke memories of sore losses, family feuds and, for any games that got really heated, tables being flipped and cards flying like confetti.

Then again, maybe that’s only the people who can’t tell a queen from an ace and always lose. We’re sure there are masters reading this who are born to win once their hand has been dealt; who always hit 21; who can do that card shuffle thing with their finger and thumb; who never fail to flip the right King at just the…basically, we’ve got no idea what we’re talking about.

So when someone told us that playing cards we’re introduced to Europe from China via the Middle East, we decided to look into the history of arguably one of the most recognisable items in the world, in an effort to educate ourselves.

The (Very) Early History of Cards

With something as ubiquitous and enduring as playing cards, it can be hard to pin down an accurate lineage. They are old, and age leads to uncertainty. Luckily, a David Parlett of London wrote to the Guardian a few years back to offer a brief history, which we feel sums things up well:

‘Playing cards were invented by the Chinese before AD 1000. They reached Europe around 1360, not directly from China but from the Mameluke empire of Egypt.’

Following a brief google, we discovered that David is a historian of both card and board games, not some crazy person who writes erroneous nonsense to broadsheets. As such, his brief can serve as the bridge by which we must cross this chasm of playing card queries we face. Anyways, back to China.

Playing cards are thought to have been invented by the Tang dynasty, as a ninth Century text from the era refers to members of Tang royalty playing the ‘leaf game’. Later texts described games with cards featuring numerals and symbols, with some historians believing that the cards may have doubled up as currency.

Travelling West to the Middle East

Playing Cards

Four playing cards from the Mameluke empire.

As the popularity of cards increased, they inevitably followed people who travelled from the Far East to the Middle. We can’t state ‘Mr X, famous mover of cards across Asia, introduced a deck to Persia circa AD 500’, because it’s not that specific. Like the deck of cards in the drawer in your kitchen, they just appeared at some point and stuck around.

By the 12th century, during the Mameluke empire, playing cards had gained a foothold in Egypt. Decks had 52 cards (which has lasted to this day) and were usually decorated with elaborate calligraphy. Historians reckon this is due to Sunni Islam forbidding depictions of people.

Cards Make it to Europe

Two Moorish playing cards, early fifteenth century. Credit: WOPC.

As trade between the continents increased and the Moors cemented their rule over southern Spain, cards made their way into Europe. According to the World of Playing Cards, early literature refers to a card game being introduced by ‘a saracen’ – the name given by Christian writers during the Middle Ages to Arab and Muslim warriors – and other texts refer to cards as ‘the Moorish game’.

The Origins of Suits

Now that we’ve outlined the route playing cards took from the Far East to Europe, we’ll explain how they evolved into the clubs, spades, diamonds and hearts decks we use now. To do this, we’re revisiting the words of our letter writing pal, David Parlett:

‘The history of suitmarks demonstrates a fascinating interplay between words, shapes and concepts. The Mameluke suits were goblets, gold coins, swords, and polo-sticks. Polo being then unknown in Europe, these were transformed into batons or staves, which, together with swords, cups and coins, are still the traditional suitmarks of Italian and Spanish cards.’

So there you have it. Bossman David says the Mamelukes were the first to use symbols to differentiate between cards. After the Italians drew inspo for their own versions, the Germans followed suit (sorry), setting the groundwork for the symbols we know today:

‘Fifteenth-century German card-makers experimented with suits vaguely based on Italian ones, eventually settling for acorns, leaves, hearts and bells (hawk-bells), which still remain in use.’

As reproduction of cards proliferated across Europe, the quality and cost naturally decreased, meaning exotic acorns and expensive bells were diluted into budget clubs and ropey spades.

Skipping a Few Hundred Years to Wrap This Bad Boy up

via GIPHY

Look, we know you’re busy people. We’re just here to give you a brief overview of the topic. If you’re in the mood for an in-depth history of playing cards then by all means hit up your local library or Google dot com and start unpicking the minutiae surrounding the subject.

Otherwise, we’re cutting out a few hundred years because we don’t have the energy to explain why Italians use swords, not clubs; or who decided to put the number and suit in the top corner and when; or any of the other details that have slightly altered playing cards which – to everyone except, maybe, a card expert like David Parlett – have pretty much done the same job since the French started simplifying the German styles around 1480. (Speaking of which, the 52 card French deck is now the most popular across the globe. It’s probably the kind you use with your mates.)

Just like today, people from all walks of life have spent the past few centuries playing all sorts of games with cards. What’s important to remember is that almost every corner of the globe has had some influence on their current form, from the Far East to Islamic empires; from the Moors to French printmakers.

Even the Americans chipped in at one point. They introduced the Joker to the pack.

Make of that what you will.

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