King (playing card)

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King cards of all four suits in the English pattern

The king is a playing card with a picture of a king displayed on it. The king is usually the highest-ranking face card. In the French version of playing cards and tarot decks, the king immediately outranks the queen. In Italian and Spanish playing cards, the king immediately outranks the knight. In German and Swiss playing cards, the king immediately outranks the Ober. In some games, the king is the highest-ranked card; in others, the ace is higher. Aces began outranking kings around 1500 with Trappola being the earliest known game in which the aces were highest in all four suits.[1] In the Ace-Ten family of games such as pinochle and schnapsen, both the ace and the 10 rank higher than the king.[2]


French Rouen pattern on the left, Spanish Toledo pattern on the right

The king card is the oldest and most universal court card. It most likely originated in Persian Ganjifeh where kings are depicted as seated on thrones and outranking the viceroy cards which are mounted on horses. Playing cards were transmitted to Italy and Spain via the Mamluks and Moors.[3][4] The best preserved and most complete deck of Mamluk cards, the Topkapı pack, did not display human figures but just listed their rank most likely due to religious prohibition. It is not entirely sure if the Topkapı pack was representative of all Mamluk decks as it was a custom-made luxury item used for display. A fragment of what may be a seated king card was recovered in Egypt which may explain why the poses of court cards in Europe resemble those in Persia and India.[5]

Evolution of the King of Hearts from the Rouennais pattern to the English pattern

Seated kings were generally common throughout Europe. During the 15th century, the Spanish started producing standing kings. The French originally used Spanish cards before developing their regional deck patterns. Many Spanish court designs were simply reused when the French invented their own suit-system around 1480.[5] The English imported their cards from Rouen until the early 17th century when foreign card imports were banned.[6] The king of hearts is sometimes called the "suicide king" because he appears to be sticking his sword into his head. This is a result of centuries of bad copying by English card makers where the king's axe head has disappeared.[7][8]

Starting in the 15th century, French manufacturers assigned to each of the court cards names taken from history or mythology.[9] This practice survives only in the Paris pattern which ousted all its rivals, including the Rouen pattern around 1780.[10][11] The names for the kings in the Paris pattern (portrait officiel) are:[12]

King of spades fr.svg
King of hearts fr.svg
King of diamonds fr.svg
King of clubs fr.svg
David Charles Cesar Alexandre

Most French-suited continental European patterns are descended from the Paris pattern but they have dropped the names associated with each card.[10]

Example cards[edit]

Kings from Russian playing cards:

Kings from Italian playing cards:

Kings from Spanish playing cards:

Kings from German playing cards:

In Unicode[edit]

The kings are included in the Playing Cards:[13]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Parlett, David (1990). The Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 252.
  2. ^ McLeod, John. Ace-Ten Games at Retrieved 25 February 2016.
  3. ^ Tor, Gjerde. "Mamluk cards, ca. 1500".
  4. ^ Wintle, Simon. Moorish playing cards at World of Playing Cards. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  5. ^ a b Dummett, Michael (1980). The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth. pp. 10–64.
  6. ^ English pattern at the International Playing-Card Society. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  7. ^ "The Rouen Pattern".
  8. ^ Wintle, Simon. Suicide King at the World of Playing Cards. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  9. ^ "The Four King Truth" at the Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b Mann, Sylvia (1990). All Cards on the Table. Leinfelden: Jonas Verlag. pp. 115–124.
  11. ^ Pollett, Andy. France and Belgium at Andy's Playing Cards. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  12. ^ Paris and Rouen pattern figures at the International Playing-Card Society. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  13. ^ "Playing Cards - The Unicode Standard, Version 13.0" (PDF). Unicode. 2020. Retrieved 6 April 2021.