Whether it’s the instant thrill of a winning a hand of Blackjack or the quiet tension of a Poker game, the excitement of cards attracts players for all kinds of reasons. Beginning in the far reaches of the Orient and ending up on the tables of every casino, a simple deck of playing cards has quite a long story.

Made In China

In China, the earliest versions of playing cards were made out of bone and ivory as an alternative to dominoes, chess, and dice games.

Tea, paper, fireworks, and noodles all come from China originally, and cards prove no exception. The earliest playing cards originate in China dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the Chinese played with card tiles made of bone or ivory as an alternative to dominoes, chess, Mahjong, and dice games. With the invention of paper in the 12th century, the Chinese began shuffling and dealing cards made with a heavy paper containing symbols like bamboo, batons, coins, and numbers.

The Chinese have all sorts of ways to gamble. Learn more about Asian Casino Games here.

The Middle East Follows Suit

The four card suits first appeared in the Middle East as coins, cups, swords, and sticks.

Playing cards soon traveled west from China to the Middle East. The Muslim World brought a new twist to playing cards, adding the four suits, card ranks, and face cards seen in a standard deck today. The four suits started out as coins, cups, swords, and sticks, and later evolved; coins became diamonds, cups turned into hearts, spades replaced the swords, and the sticks became clubs. Eventually, the Mamluk deck from Egypt contained 52 cards with four suits, ten number cards, and three court cards. The court cards included a malik meaning King, nā'ib malik meaning Viceroy, and thānī nā'ib meaning Second Deputy.

Playing Cards with a French Twist

The French designed face cards found in standard decks today with each representing real historical figures.

By the time cards made it to Europe in the 14th century, all kind of new designs sprung up. Suit systems varied based on cultural influences with images like flowers, bears, rabbits, falcons, roses, hounds, and boars. In Germany, cards suits appeared with hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. Spanish and Italian cards continued to feature the Middle Eastern suits with some variations of gold coins, swords, cups, and sticks. A Bohemian pack of cards from Eastern Europe depicted animals, musical instruments, swords, long spears, and halberds. However, like many iconic fashions, the French get the credit for the original design still seen on standard decks today. The French design incorporates the four modern suits; spades, diamonds, clubs, and hearts with each face card representing actual historical figures.

The Kings

  • King of Spades – King David of Israel
  • King of Diamonds – Julius Caesar
  • King of Clubs – Alexander the Great
  • King of Hearts - King Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor born around 742 and only King in the deck without a moustache and with a sword through his head, otherwise known as the "Suicide King".

Did You Know?

The King of Hearts represents the only King in the deck without a moustache and with a sword through his head, thus coined the Suicide King. Earlier images of the same card show the King of Hearts wielding an ax. Over time, poor copying by card makers caused the ax to lose its head and eventually turned into a sword which seems to stick right through the King’s head.

The Queens

  • Queen of Spades – Athena, the Greek Goddess of War
  • Queen of Diamonds – Rachel, Biblical Matriarch, Wife of Jacob
  • Queen of Clubs - Argea, a Queen in Greek mythology or Argine an anagram derived from regina, the Latin word for queen.
  • Queen of Hearts – Judith, Biblical heroine who saved Israel from Assyrian invasion

The Jacks

  • Jack of Spades – Ogier the Dane, a knight of Charlemagne
  • Jack of Diamonds – Hector, a Trojan Prince
  • Jack of Clubs - Judas Maccabeus, a Hebrew warrior or Lancelot, an Arthurian knight
  • Jack of Hearts - La Hire, comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc and member of Charles VII's court

What’s in the Cards?

When churches banned gambling, many Europeans disguised their decks with extra cards, which later evolved into tarot cards used for fortune telling. Notice how the tarot kept a few familiar features.

Mention tarot cards and images of a gypsy fortune teller peering over a crystal ball might come to mind. Actually, the earliest tarot cards in Europe started out as an ordinary deck of playing cards. When churches began denouncing and prohibiting gambling, many Europeans disguised standard decks used for betting by adding extra cards. Notice how the suits used in tarot cards closely match those used in the Middle East - swords, staves (or a wand), cups, and coins (disks or pentacles). Tarot cards also use face cards like Kings and Queens as well as number cards from ace to ten.

The tarot decks with 78 cards started out as a game called triumph, similar to bridge. Early forms first appeared between 1430 and 1450 in Northern Italy, where it became tarocchi, Italian for tarot. Followers of the occult saw the symbolic symbols in the tarocchi decks as a divination and used them for cartomancy. Some of the early associations of the occult may have also traveled from the Mamluk deck used in Egypt where fortune tellers thought a pack of cards contained hieroglyphic secrets to life.

The Leader of the Pack

“Duty Three Pence” - The Ace of Spades stands out because it would traditionally indicate that the tax had been paid on a deck of cards.

Ever notice how the Ace of Spades always stands out in a deck of cards? This didn’t happen by chance. After cards became popular, European rulers saw the opportunity to make more money by taxing each deck. Initially, a stamp was placed on the wrappings of playing cards. Later, one card in each deck received a stamp to indicate the duty had been paid even after the wrapper was torn off.  In the 1700s, the Ace of Spades commonly received the stamp probably because it lay on the top of every deck. Today the Ace of Spades still carries the tradition of standing out as the leader of the pack.

You Don’t Know Jack!

Can you tell the difference between the King and the Knave?

Ever wonder why the third rank face card goes by Jack and not Prince or Knight? Actually, the court cards originally featured a King, Queen, and Knave, meaning a male royal servant. The word Jack came along for a few reasons. First of all, it has a similar meaning to Knave referring to a “common man” as in the expression, Jack of all trades, master of none. The term Jack may also come from the game cricket in which the worst batter would go last. Teammates often teased the final batter, calling him “Last Man Jack”. 11 people bat in cricket, similar to the number 11 represented by the Jack in a deck of cards. Finally, a card game called Game of Fours dating back to the 16th century referred to the Jack as a point awarded for winning a trick with the Knave of Trumps.

In the past, calling the Knave card a Jack was considered low class as seen in Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations when Estella exclaims, "He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!" The official switch happened when card makers abbreviated face cards by the first letters in 2 or 4 corners; King to K, Queen to Q, and Knave to Kn. Instead of writing Kn to distinguish Knaves from Kings, the 11th card became J for Jack to more clearly distinguish the two cards.

The Joker in the Pack

The Joker used to serve as the highest trump card in the many games.

What’s the point of having that court jester in the pack of cards anyway? As a matter of fact, the Joker used to represent the highest trump card in most games. The Joker comes from Juker, the original German spelling of the card game, Euchre. Many antique Joker cards contain labels such as "Highest Trump" or "This Card Takes either Bower". (Bower or Bauer means Jack in German, and refers to the highest pair in a game of Euchre.) Later the card became less popular, but modern decks still contain two Jokers, usually one in color and the other in black and white.

Playing cards have come a long way since they started out as inscriptions on bones centuries ago. Today even the smallest detail carries a story of its own. In the end, whether you get a pair of Jacks or a Royal Flush, it’s all about how you play the hand you’re dealt.

Like playing Card Games? Check out our Casino Guide featuring tips and tricks for card game favorites like Blackjack and Baccarat.