The standard deck of cards is also referred to as French suited cards, and there are other types of decks. The Spanish deck, for example, has 40 cards: Four suits (Clubs, Swords, Coins, Cups) with 10 cards each (1-7, 10-12). One through seven are just numbered cards, eight and nine are skipped altogether, and the ten through twelve are respectively the Jack, Knight, and King.

Playing cards are a set of cards with symbols on, known as a deck, that are used to play an incredibly wide variety of games. The cards are typically about 5cm by 8cm in size, allowing a number of them to be held easily in the hand.

The earliest record of playing cards in Europe is 1377, but it is likely they were invented in China, where paper was invented. The original images on the cards were coins. The Islamic empire added cups and swords, as suit symbols, and court cards. When cards reached Europe, the court cards were replaced with courtly figures, i.e. kings and their knights, servants, etc.

The standard English deck has 52 cards, divided into four suits, spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Each suit has 13 cards, numbered from 2 to 10 and then the court cards, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. The Ace can also be counted as card 1.

Playing cards can be used to play games such as Poker, Bridge, Rummy and Solitaire. They are also a favourite prop with magicians and con artists.

See also: Card game

The standard deck of cards used in most parts of the world consists of 4 suits:

Each suit has 13 cards including an Ace (which usually equates to 1), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King for a total of 52 cards in a deck. The Jacks, Queens, and Kings are known as face cards or court cards because they contain a picture on them as well as a value. As a general rule, each card in a suit has a greater "value" than its predecessor, with the Ace frequently used as both the highest and lowest card, while no suit outranks any other. However, there is no actual standard value associated with any card - each card game has its own separate rules for card and suit values.

The earliest documented use of playing cards was in eastern Asia and used in the game of dominos. Instead of mixing up the dominos and allowing the players to choose them, the paper dominos were simply shuffled and dealt. The use of decks with four suits is believed to have started in the Middle East (coins, cups, swords, and sticks), and later imported to Europe in the late 14th century. The Middle Eastern coins became diamonds, the cups (a symbol for love) became hearts, swords became spades, and sticks/staves became clubs. At this time, all cards were hand painted and owned only by the most wealthy. With the invention of woodcuts, playing cards were able to be mass produced.

France provided the concepts behind today's deck of cards. The use of simple shapes and colors allowed for increased popularity of various games. The original face cards actually represented historical figures (see below). France exported their popular playing cards throughout the world, with shipments eventually making it to the American colonies.

Additional practical improvements were made to the deck in America including the use of double headed court cards (so you wouldn't have to flip your cards over to view the pictures), varnished surfaces for easy shuffling and dealing, card marking, and rounded corners. Some sources state that the Joker was also introduced in America, while other sources say that is was part of the original French deck. Strangely enough, American sources attribute the Joker to the French, and French sources attribute it to the Americans. No one seems to want to claim it.

Historical Figures in the Deck

The original French cards were actually named and designed after popular historical figures. It should be noted that today's cards no longer hold any strong relation to these people. Representations have changed due to copying, differing artist renditions, and company branding that little remains linking them to this history.

♥ Hearts

♦ Diamonds

♣ Clubs

♠ Spades

Other Interesting Cards

☻ The Joker

Not belonging to any suit the joker is most assuredly a card imported through the influence of Tarot's The Fool. The Joker is most commonly used as a wild card or as a trump card. While it is not part of the standard deck of cards, it has uses in numerous games and therefore in included by most manufacturers. It is the most commonly collected card by those who... well, collect cards.

A♠ Ace of Spades

Ever wonder why the Ace of Spades is different than the rest of the Aces? It's a tradition held over from when there was reason for the distinguishing mark. Cards were seen by Kings and Queens as a source of income for their kingdom. As a result, consumers were required to pay a tax for each deck of cards purchased. Because the Aces have the most "white space", it was relatively easy to stamp the card with the seal indicating the proper fees had been paid. Over time, it simply became customary to stamp the Ace of Spades. The mark is still on our cards today simply out of tradition (plus it gives the card manufacturers a place to put their name and trademark information).

Probably the most common playing card manufacturer (at least in the US) is the United States Playing Card Company. This company is the maker of Bicycle brand (aka Rider Back) cards, Bee brand cards, and Aviator brand cards. Because of the pattern on the back of the cards, Bees and Aviators are well known by magicians and those that cheat at card games because they can easily bottom deal and perform other slight of hand tricks without the viewer/player noticing.

The Rest of the Deck

A♥ 2♥ 3♥ 4♥ 5♥ 6♥ 7♥ 8♥ 9♥ 10♥ J♥ Q♥ K♥

A♦ 2♦ 3♦ 4♦ 5♦ 6♦ 7♦ 8♦ 9♦ 10♦ J♦ Q♦ K♦

A♣ 2♣ 3♣ 4♣ 5♣ 6♣ 7♣ 8♣ 9♣ 10♣ J♣ Q♣ K♣

A♠ 2♠ 3♠ 4♠ 5♠ 6♠ 7♠ 8♠ 9♠ 10♠ J♠ Q♠ K♠

Interesting Facts

  • There are 52 cards in a standard deck of cards
  • There are 52 weeks in a year (52 weeks x 7 days in a week = 364)
  • There are 13 cards in each suit (A,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,J,Q,K)
  • There are 13 lunar months in a year, each with 28 days (13 months x 28 days per month = 364)
  • If you add up the values of all the cards in the deck (with A=1,J=11,Q=12,K=13) you get (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13)*4 = 364
  • OK, so this one doesn't match up. There are 365 days in a year. Sue me. It's still cool. Maybe if you add 1 to 364 for the joker...


  • (this is an incredible site even though it is on the evil Geocities)
  • (in French)
  • and thanx to m_turner for the suggestions/constructive criticism/input

The Origins of Playing Cards

Gin rummy, draw poker, blackjack, go fish, crazy eights, canfield, baccarat, war, five card stud, aces and kings, Texas hold 'em—there are thousands of games that can be played with a standard deck of cards. In fact, cards may qualify as the most versatile amusement that humans have ever created; but who first thought of putting numbers on pieces of paper and playing games with them? And how did they reach their current form?

The Early Days
There is a quaint legend from India regarding the origin of playing cards. It seems that a certain maharajah had a compulsive problem pulling his beard. So, in order to give him something else to occupy his hands, his wife invented playing cards.

While historians can not seem to agree on the exact time or place that cards were invented, they have pretty well narrowed it down to either India or China, sometime before the tenth century CE. Between the death of Jesus and around the ninth century, simple gambling games were developed in China, played with paper money. This land also had games such as mah jongg and dominoes, which were played with ivory or wooden chips. Many historians believe these playing pieces evolved into paper cards, perhaps inspired by the paper money games. There is also a Chinese card game called keu-ma-paou (chariots - horses - guns) which is based on a board game of the same name. Some scholars opine that this game may have inspired the creation of playing cards.

A few scholars have advanced the idea that playing cards may have evolved from the same source in India as the game of chess. Early Chinese decks seem to have included three court cards: king, viceroy, and deputy (some sources call the latter two 'deputy king' and 'second deputy'). These became king, queen, and knave (or knight) which could imply some cross-pollination. Other parallels are not so convincing, however. A deck of cards has ten (rather than eight) minor (numbered) playing pieces and three (rather than eight) major pieces. Card games also lack castling, en passant capture and zugzwang, which is also rather unlike chess.*

Playing Cards Come to Europe
By the 12th century, people throughout India, Persia, and the Middle East were playing card games. The first recorded reference to playing cards in European history was in 1377 by a German monk. A century later, in a 1480 history of the town of Viterbo, Italy, historian Giovanni Covelluzzo said:

"In the year of 1379, the game of cards was brought into Viterbo from the country of the Saracens, where it is called naib."

The word naib was thus incorporated into the Spanish language as the word for playing cards, and it is believed that Spain, with its close association with Northern Africa where the very first card games in Europe were played.

A commonly-cited theory credits the gypsy (Roma) people with the invention of playing cards. It seems that these nomadic folk did in fact use fortune-telling cards. The Roma deck seems to have been modelled on Hindu and Buddhist cards, and it was likely brought from their original homeland (northern India and Tajikistan area). In case you are leaping ahead, these cards were quite possibly the inspiration (at least partially) for the tarot deck. However, there does not seem to be much evidence that the Roma cards had much (if any) influence on regular playing cards. Others have claimed that crusaders had brought the game back from the Middle East, this one is hard to credit; as the Crusades ended in 1291, and there was no mention of the cards for almost 100 years after that.

It is difficult to find specimens of the earliest European playing cards, but they can be traced on their trek through Europe by examining legal bans on card games, which were often prohibited in hopes of preventing gambling (also, perhaps, to try to prevent people from telling fortunes—it is not likely that these bans had much effect on the spread of cards apart from helping us trace their movements). Berne, Switzerland banned card games in 1367; Florence, Italy in 1376; Paris, France in 1377; Lille, France and Barcelona, Spain in 1382.

While evidence suggests that Oriental decks were often woodcut, this practice did not follow into the west and most Middle Eastern and European decks of cards were initially made by hand and were consequently very expensive. By the 1420s, woodcut cards (with stencilled colours—necessitating the suit symbols be very simple) were widespread in Europe, making playing cards available to all classes of society.

Well-Suited to the Task at Hand
Early accounts of Chinese playing cards tell of three suits, apropos of their origin in paper money: coins (sometimes described as cakes), strings (of coins) and "myriads," a sort of abstract idea representing a large quantity of money. There may have also been a fourth suit representing multiple myriads. There seem to have been some additional cards which depicted royalty or legendary figures and some with virtues such as luck, longevity, and prosperity.

The confusion over where cards first appeared could possibly point to a complex origin. It may be the case that playing cards were initially developed in China, where they had numbers and three suits. The game may then have migrated to India, where cards got colours for the suits (and probably an additional suit so that there could be two black and two red). The idea of the court cards could have developed from chess and moved back to China along the Silk Road. By the time Arabic-speaking traders picked the game up in the later part of the first millenium, all these pieces were in place.

The game spread rapidly, moving to the Middle East by the 12th century and reaching Europe before the 13th.

The Momluk (sometimes transliterated Momluke) Deck (from Egypt and Syria in the 13th and 14th centuries) had four suits, roughly equivalent to modern playing cards: clubs (actually polo sticks), cups, coins and swords. Also, each suit had three court cards, which were not illustrated, in accordance with Islamic law, which prohibited representational art.

Cards for Fun and Prophet
Sometime around 1420, probably in Northern Italy, a fifth suit was invented. This suit was called the trumps, derived from the Italian word trionfi, 'triumphs,' (perhaps related to the Trionfi Parade, which depicted various vices being triumphed over by virtues). These cards contained mystical symbolism and seem to owe some of their origin to the above mentioned Roma cards and also to an Italian memory game (tarocchi) which consisted of flashcards for the learning of such things as classes of society (from the lofty to the lowly), astronomical bodies (sun, moon, stars), and religious figures (such as saints, the Pope, the Devil, for example).

Conventional decks of cards have always had four suits, corresponding to the suits in the Momluk decks. Cups became hearts in France, flowers in some German-speaking countries. Coins sometimes disks, although the Germans and Swiss had them as bells and the French created a simple, diamond shape. Polo-sticks became acorns in the German-speaking parts of Europe and a trefoil (possibly inspired by the acorn) in France. For some reason, the English speakers kept the trefoil design while going back to the idea of the Arabic decks and calling it batons or clubs. The suit of swords was a leaf or shield in many parts of Europe, but remained a sword in Italy and in France. It may be that English-speakers renamed the swords to spades from the Spanish word espada ('sword') or from the German word Spaten, which is a tool.

The deck which is currently most common in the English-speaking world uses suits largely based on the French system and is thus sometimes referred to as the "French-Suited Deck."

From the Chinese gamblers, playing with hand-written slips of paper, to the glitz and glitter of the modern casinos and celebrity poker tournaments, cards have had a tremendous impact on society. Whether fate deals a dead man's hand or we have aces up our sleeves, if we are playing with a full deck or keeping our best poker faces on, cards will probably be an important part of our culture for a long time to come.

*a joke

Innes, Brian, "The Tarot" (Crescent Books, New York, 1987).
Place, Robert M., "The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination" (Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2005).
Cavendish, Richard, editor, "Man, Myth, and Magic" (entries for Gypsy, Cards, Tarot) (Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1995).

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