Most of us are familiar with playing cards—we’ve probably played some card games or tried to learn a magic trick at some point. We all recognize the four suits, the red and black colors, and the stylized images of royalty on the face cards.
However, there’s more to a deck of cards than meets the eye. These simple seeming cards are carefully designed and engineered, and they have a long and storied history. Here are 10 hidden secrets in playing cards that will turn these everyday objects into a fascination.
Hidden Secrets In Playing Cards - The Snap
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Most people would probably say that playing cards have that distinctive “snap” because of their plastic coating, but that’s not actually the case. High-quality playing cards have that springy feeling because of the glue that holds layers of paper together to form the card.
This layered construction makes playing cards more durable, and the glue creates that springy quality that allows them to be easily shuffled and gently curved, perhaps to peek at your poker hand or do a fancy card trick, without being permanently bent.
But speaking of that plastic coating, did you know that it doesn’t actually cover the whole card? Playing cards are printed with all the cards on one large sheet, which is coated with a clear polymer before the individual cards are cut, so the edges expose the paper. That’s why you don’t want to let your cards get wet—those edges will absorb water just like ordinary paper.
What's On The Playing Card Back?
You might think the back designs on playing cards aren’t as important as the faces, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For those who use playing cards professionally, including casinos and magicians, the playing card back design is critical.
Casino operators are concerned with cheating, so they tend to favor more simple designs with perfect symmetry, making it easier to spot a marked card. Magicians, on the other hand, might prefer more complex designs that they can use to their advantage.
In any case, any creator of playing cards should consider the back image for their decks just as much as they do the fronts. After all, playing card front and back end up getting a lot of attention.
All About Edges
The edges of cards aren’t at a right angle to their flat surfaces—they’re actually cut at a slight angle. This also means that depending on the manufacturer, the cards have a slightly bigger front or back.
This may not seem like much, but the bevel actually affects how the cards feel to shuffle. The knife edge helps the cards weave together and slide back into position in the deck more easily. For those who do a lot of card shuffling and manipulation, like card trick aficionados, the direction of that bevel makes a difference, and decks designed for magic tricks will often feature a particular type of edge cut.
French Poker Origins
While playing cards can be tracked back to at least the twelfth century and have likely existed since much earlier, their exact origins are unknown. They likely originated in China, India, or the Middle East. By the fourteenth century they’d spread throughout Europe, and they varied in different countries, with different suits and designs. For example, french playing cards at this time had hearts, leaves, bells and acorns, while early Italian decks used cups, coins, swords, and cudgels.
The suits that we’re familiar with today, spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds originated in France. They stuck around because of their simple, geometric shapes that made them easy to read and to print. Those four symbols are now some of the most recognizable in the world.
Who is the "Suicide King"?
The traditional image of the King of Hearts shows him holding up a sword that appears to be going right into his head. This appearance led to the card being known as the “suicide king.” However, this is a misleading title.
The King of Hearts was based on art by Pierre Marechal in 1565 of King Charlemagne, who was depicted charging into battle with his sword up and ready to attack. But the space on a playing card is limited, and since it was common to align the crowns with the card borders, the sword ended up behind the king’s head, creating the impression that he was stabbing himself.
The One-Eyed King
The One-Eyed King
The next king we’ll talk about is the King of Diamonds, who’s often called Caesar. Unlike the other kings, Caesar is pictured in profile, and he’s not holding his weapon, which is an axe instead of a sword. Why is this king different?
One story about this king is that he’s actually a god: Odin, of Norse mythology. Odin sacrificed his eye in order to gain a higher level of wisdom and understanding. He also doesn’t need to hold his weapon like the other kings—his powers enable him to strike from afar.
The Imperial Orb
Now we’ll look at one more king: the King of Clubs. Originally he was supposed to be holding an orb in his non-sword hand, but this is hard to see in modern designs—the orb often looks like some kind of insignia on the king’s robes, if it’s present at all.
The International Playing Card Society explains that both French and English playing card decks used four famous kings on their face cards: Charles (King of Hearts), David (King of Spades), Caesar (King of Diamonds), and Alexander (King of Clubs). These names were originally included on the cards, though this practice faded over time.
All About the Joker Playing Card
While playing cards have a long history spanning many centuries and countries, the Joker’s history stands out, as it’s the only card with an American origin. Many people may think that the Joker is a derivation of the Fool from tarot, but this isn’t actually the case.
One of the most popular card games in America in the 1800s was Euchre, a trick-taking game. In one version of this game, a blank card was used as a top trump card, or the “bower.” Eventually decks were printed specifically with a new card, the Joker, to be used as the top trump card in Euchre.
The card has since been incorporated into a variety of other card games, where it often serves as a “wild card” that can represent any card, or has other unique rules. Some decks designed for specific games come with multiple Jokers to suit the rules of the game.
While today, Jokers have a wide variety of designs, the classic design keeps with the royalty theme by depicting a court jester. Modern standard decks usually include two Jokers, and they’re often colored to match the deck, with one red and one black.
Why the Ace of Spades Playing Card Stands Out?
If you’re familiar with playing cards you may have found yourself wondering why the Ace of Spades seems special. Of course, all the Aces are a bit unique, as in some games they’re considered high cards, topping even the King, in others they’re simply a one, and in yet others they can be either. However, while other suits depict the Ace with a single pip, the Ace of Spades has a large, ornate symbol.
This wasn’t always the case—in fact, considering the history of playing cards, it’s a fairly new tradition. As the International Playing Card Society explains, this is when England began taxing playing cards that were sold both in England and in America. The Ace of Spades would be stamped on its front to confirm that the tax on that deck was paid.
This policy lasted almost a hundred years, until 1862, when the law was changed. Printers were able to print their own designs on the aces, and so they quickly started using the Ace of Spades as a brand icon, as the Dawsons explain in The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards. Some companies had a variety of designs they used in different decks, but the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) stuck with their famous Lady Liberty design.
Cards of War
The association between cards and the military goes beyond the simple game of “War” that many of us played as children. A deck of playing cards is easy to carry, making it a common item carried by military personnel in the field to provide some entertainment for troops during downtimes.
Sometimes the cards themselves have played a part in wartime conflicts. During the Vietnam war, US troops used the Ace of Spades as psychological warfare. In fortune telling, the Ace of Spades was considered a symbol of death, and the Viet Cong was considered to be very superstitious, so the United States created decks made up of only the Ace of Spades, and troops scattered the cards throughout the Vietnam jungles, trying to scare their enemy.
In World War II, playing cards were used to smuggle maps to prisoners. When the cards got wet, the top layer could be peeled away, revealing a map that would help them escape safely.
More recently, in 2003 during the Iraq war, playing cards were used as a form of propaganda. The USPCC created cards with images of Iraqi leadership: Iraq’s 52 Most Wanted, and sent them to American troops.