Playing card

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A hand of playing cards, ace through five.

A playing card is a piece of specially prepared heavy paper, thin cardboard, plastic-coated paper, cotton-paper blend, or thin plastic that is marked with distinguishing motifs and usually used as one of a set for playing card games, performing magic tricks and flourishes, for cardistry, and in card throwing. Playing cards are typically palm-sized for convenient handling, and usually are sold together as a deck of cards or pack of cards.

A face-up deck of cards in dealers grip

Playing cards were first invented in China during the Tang dynasty.[1]



A Chinese printed playing card dated c. 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty, found near Turpan, measuring 9.5 by 3.5 cm.

Playing cards may have been invented during the Tang dynasty around the 9th century AD as a result of the usage of woodblock printing technology.[2][3][4][5][6] The first possible reference to card games comes from a 9th-century text known as the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang dynasty writer Su E. It describes Princess Tongchang, daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang, playing the "leaf game" in 868 with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess' husband.[4][7][8]:131 The first known book on the "leaf" game was called the Yezi Gexi and allegedly written by a Tang woman. It received commentary by writers of subsequent dynasties.[9] The Song dynasty (960–1279) scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) asserts that the "leaf" game existed at least since the mid-Tang dynasty and associated its invention with the development of printed sheets as a writing medium.[9][4] However, Ouyang also claims that the "leaves" were pages of a book used in a board game played with dice, and that the rules of the game were lost by 1067.[10]

Other games revolving around alcoholic drinking involved using playing cards of a sort from the Tang dynasty onward. However, these cards did not contain suits or numbers. Instead, they were printed with instructions or forfeits for whomever drew them.[10]

The earliest dated instance of a game involving cards with suits and numerals occurred on 17 July 1294 when "Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards [zhi pai] and that wood blocks for printing them had been impounded, together with nine of the actual cards."[10]

William Henry Wilkinson suggests that the first cards may have been actual paper currency which doubled as both the tools of gaming and the stakes being played for,[3] similar to trading card games. Using paper money was inconvenient and risky so they were substituted by play money known as "money cards". One of the earliest games in which we know the rules is madiao, a trick-taking game, which dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). 15th-century scholar Lu Rong described it is as being played with 38 "money cards" divided into four suits: 9 in coins, 9 in strings of coins (which may have been misinterpreted as sticks from crude drawings), 9 in myriads (of coins or of strings), and 11 in tens of myriads (a myriad is 10,000). The two latter suits had Water Margin characters instead of pips on them[8]:132 with Chinese characters to mark their rank and suit. The suit of coins is in reverse order with 9 of coins being the lowest going up to 1 of coins as the high card.[11]

Persia and Arabia[edit]

Despite the wide variety of patterns, the suits show a uniformity of structure. Every suit contains twelve cards with the top two usually being the court cards of king and vizier and the bottom ten being pip cards. Half the suits use reverse ranking for their pip cards. There are many motifs for the suit pips but some include coins, clubs, jugs, and swords which resemble later Mamluk and Latin suits. Michael Dummett speculated that Mamluk cards may have descended from an earlier deck which consisted of 48 cards divided into four suits each with ten pip cards and two court cards.[12]


Four Mamluk playing cards.

By the 11th century, playing cards were spreading throughout the Asian continent and later came into Egypt.[8]:309 The oldest surviving cards in the world are four fragments found in the Keir Collection and one in the Benaki Museum. They are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries (late Fatimid, Ayyubid, and early Mamluk periods).[13]

A near complete pack of Mamluk playing cards dating to the 15th century and of similar appearance to the fragments above was discovered by Leo Aryeh Mayer in the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, in 1939.[14] It is not a complete set and is actually composed of three different packs, probably to replace missing cards.[15] The Topkapı pack originally contained 52 cards comprising four suits: polo-sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten pip cards and three court cards, called malik (king), nā'ib malik (viceroy or deputy king), and thānī nā'ib (second or under-deputy). The thānī nā'ib is a non-existent title so it may not have been in the earliest versions; without this rank, the Mamluk suits would structurally be the same as a Ganjifa suit. In fact, the word "Kanjifah" appears in Arabic on the king of swords and is still used in parts of the Middle East to describe modern playing cards. Influence from further east can explain why the Mamluks, most of whom were Central Asian Turkic Kipchaks, called their cups tuman which means myriad in Turkic, Mongolian and Jurchen languages.[16] Wilkinson postulated that the cups may have been derived from inverting the Chinese and Jurchen ideogram for myriad ().

The Mamluk court cards showed abstract designs or calligraphy not depicting persons possibly due to religious proscription in Sunni Islam, though they did bear the ranks on the cards. Nā'ib would be borrowed into French (nahipi), Italian (naibi), and Spanish (naipes), the latter word still in common usage. Panels on the pip cards in two suits show they had a reverse ranking, a feature found in madiao, ganjifa, and old European card games like ombre, tarot, and maw.[17]

A fragment of two uncut sheets of Moorish-styled cards of a similar but plainer style were found in Spain and dated to the early 15th century.[18]

Export of these cards (from Cairo, Alexandria, and Damascus), ceased after the fall of the Mamluks in the 16th century.[19] The rules to play these games are lost but they are believed to be plain trick games without trumps.[20]

Spread across Europe and early design changes[edit]

Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Four-suited playing cards are first attested in Southern Europe in 1365,[10] and are likely derived from the Mamluk suits of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks, which are still used in traditional Latin decks.[21] As polo was an obscure sport to Europeans then, the polo-sticks became batons or cudgels.[22] Their presence is attested in Catalonia in 1371, 1377 in Switzerland, and 1380 in many locations including Florence and Paris.[23][24][25] Wide use of playing cards in Europe can, with some certainty, be traced from 1377 onward.[26]

In the account books of Johanna, Duchess of Brabant and Wenceslaus I, Duke of Luxembourg, an entry dated May 14, 1379 reads: "Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, wherewith to buy a pack of cards". In his book of accounts for 1392 or 1393, Charles or Charbot Poupart, treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France, records payment for the painting of three sets of cards.[27]

From about 1418 to 1450[28] professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Playing cards even competed with devotional images as the most common uses for woodcuts in this period. This new popularity caused some 15th century religious leaders to begin denouncing playing cards, along with throwing dice, as an extension of gambling.[29] Most early woodcuts of all types were coloured after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, stencils. These 15th-century playing cards were probably painted. The Flemish Hunting Deck, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the oldest complete set of ordinary playing cards made in Europe from the 15th century.[30]

As cards spread from Italy to Germanic countries, the Latin suits were replaced with the suits of leaves (or shields), hearts (or roses), bells, and acorns, and a combination of Latin and Germanic suit pictures and names resulted in the French suits of trèfles (clovers), carreaux (tiles), cœurs (hearts), and piques (pikes) around 1480. The trèfle (clover) was probably derived from the acorn and the pique (pike) from the leaf of the German suits. The names pique and spade, however, may have derived from the sword (spade) of the Italian suits.[31] In England, the French suits were eventually used, although the earliest packs circulating may have had Latin suits.[32] This may account for why the English called the clovers "clubs" and the pikes "spades".

In the late 14th century, Europeans changed the Mamluk court cards to represent European royalty and attendants. In a description from 1377, the earliest courts were originally a seated "king", an upper marshal that held his suit symbol up, and a lower marshal that held it down.[33][34] The latter two correspond with the ober and unter cards found in German and Swiss playing cards. The Italians and Iberians replaced the Ober/Unter system with the "Knight" and "Fante" or "Sota" before 1390, perhaps to make the cards more visually distinguishable. In England, the lowest court card was called the "knave" which originally meant male child (compare German Knabe), so in this context the character could represent the "prince", son to the king and queen; the meaning servant developed later.[35][36] Queens appeared sporadically in packs as early as 1377, especially in Germany. Although the Germans abandoned the queen before the 1500s, the French permanently picked it up and placed it under the king. Packs of 56 cards containing in each suit a king, queen, knight, and knave (as in tarot) were once common in the 15th century.

During the mid 16th century, Portuguese traders introduced playing cards to Japan. The first indigenous Japanese deck was the Tenshō karuta named after the Tenshō period.[37]

Later design changes[edit]

Imperial Bower, the earliest Joker, by Samuel Hart, c. 1863. Originally designed for use in a specific variant of euchre, it contains instructions for unfamiliar players.

Packs with corner and edge indices (i.e. the value of the card printed at the corner(s) of the card) enabled players to hold their cards close together in a fan with one hand (instead of the two hands previously used[citation needed]). The first such pack known with Latin suits was printed by Infirerra and dated 1693,[38] but this feature was commonly used only from the end of the 18th century. The first American-manufactured (French) deck with this innovation was the Saladee's Patent, printed by Samuel Hart in 1864. In 1870, he and his cousins at Lawrence & Cohen followed up with the Squeezers, the first cards with indices that had a large diffusion.[39]

This was followed by the innovation of reversible court cards. This invention is attributed to a French card maker of Agen in 1745. But the French government, which controlled the design of playing cards, prohibited the printing of cards with this innovation. In central Europe (Trappola cards) and Italy (Tarocco Bolognese) the innovation was adopted during the second half of the 18th century. In Great Britain, the pack with reversible court cards was patented in 1799 by Edmund Ludlow and Ann Wilcox. The French pack with this design was printed around 1802 by Thomas Wheeler.[40]

Sharp corners wear out more quickly, and could possibly reveal the card's value, so they were replaced with rounded corners. Before the mid-19th century, British, American, and French players preferred blank backs. The need to hide wear and tear and to discourage writing on the back led cards to have designs, pictures, photos, or advertising on the reverse.[41][42]

The United States introduced the joker into the deck. It was devised for the game of euchre, which spread from Europe to America beginning shortly after the American Revolutionary War. In euchre, the highest trump card is the Jack of the trump suit, called the right bower (from the German Bauer); the second-highest trump, the left bower, is the jack of the suit of the same color as trumps. The joker was invented c. 1860 as a third trump, the imperial or best bower, which ranked higher than the other two bowers.[43] The name of the card is believed to derive from juker, a variant name for euchre.[44][45] The earliest reference to a joker functioning as a wild card dates to 1875 with a variation of poker.[46]

Modern deck formats[edit]

French Hearts
Suit Hearts.svg
Italian Cups
Seme coppe carte trevisane.svg
Seme denari carte trevisane.svg
Seme bastoni carte trevisane.svg
Seme spade carte trevisane.svg
Spanish Cups
Seme coppe carte spagnole.svg
Seme denari carte spagnole.svg
Seme bastoni carte spagnole.svg
Seme spade carte spagnole.svg
Swiss-German Roses
Bouclier jeu de carte.svg
German Hearts
Bay herz.svg
Bay schellen.svg
Bay eichel.svg
Bay gras.svg

Contemporary playing cards are grouped into three broad categories based on the suits they use: French, Latin, and Germanic. Latin suits are used in the closely related Spanish and Italian formats. The Swiss-German suits are distinct enough to merit their subcategory. Excluding jokers and tarot trumps, the French 52-card deck preserves the number of cards in the original Mamluk deck, while Latin and Germanic decks average fewer. Latin decks usually drop the higher-valued pip cards, while Germanic decks drop the lower-valued ones.

Within suits, there are regional or national variations called "standard patterns." Because these patterns are in the public domain, this allows multiple card manufacturers to recreate them.[47] Pattern differences are most easily found in the face cards but the number of cards per deck, the use of numeric indices, or even minor shape and arrangement differences of the pips can be used to distinguish them. Some patterns have been around for hundreds of years. Jokers are not part of any pattern as they are a relatively recent invention and lack any standardized appearance so each publisher usually puts their own trademarked illustration into their decks. The wide variation of jokers has turned them into collectible items. Any card that bore the stamp duty like the ace of spades in England, the ace of clubs in France or the ace of coins in Italy are also collectible as that is where the manufacturer's logo is usually placed.

Usually the cards have their pips printed only in the upper left corner assuming holding them with right hand. Such design may be uncomfortable for left-handed people who may prefer all four corners of the card to be used.[48][49]

French-suited decks[edit]

52 French playing cards with jokers

French decks come in a variety of patterns and deck sizes. The 52-card deck is the most popular deck and includes 13 ranks of each suit with reversible "court" or face cards. Each suit includes an ace, depicting a single symbol of its suit, a king, queen, and jack, each depicted with a symbol of their suit; and ranks two through ten, with each card depicting that number of pips of its suit. As well as these 52 cards, commercial packs often include between one and six jokers, most often two.

Decks with fewer than 52 cards are known as stripped decks. The piquet pack has all values from 2 through 6 in each suit removed for a total of 32 cards. It is popular in France, the Low Countries, Central Europe and Russia and is used to play piquet, belote, bezique and skat. It is also used in the Sri Lankan, whist-based game known as omi. Forty-card French suited packs are common in northwest Italy; these remove the 8s through 10s like Latin suited decks. 24 card decks, removing 2s through 8s are also sold in Austria and Bavaria to play schnapsen.

A pinochle deck consists of two copies of a 24 card schnapsen deck, thus 48 cards.

The 78 card tarot nouveau adds the knight card between queens and jacks along with 21 numbered trumps and the unnumbered Fool.

Symbols in Unicode[edit]

The Unicode standard for text encoding on computers defines 8 characters for card suits in the Miscellaneous Symbols block, at U+2660–2667. Unicode 7.0 added a unified pack for French-suited tarot nouveau's trump cards and the 52 cards of the modern French pack, with 4 knights, together with a character for "Playing Card Back" and black, red, and white jokers in the block U+1F0A0–1F0FF.[50]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Maltese playing cards. Bonello, Giovanni (January 2005). Michael Cooper (ed.). "The Playing-card" (PDF). Journal of the International Playing-Card Society. 32 (3): 191–197. ISSN 0305-2133. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 April 2005.
  • Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking British Museum Press (in UK),2nd edn, 1996 ISBN 0-7141-2608-X
  • Hind, Arthur M. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1935 (in USA), reprinted Dover Publications, 1963 ISBN 0-486-20952-0
  • Roman du Roy Meliadus de Leonnoys (British Library MS Add. 12228, fol. 313v), c. 1352
  • Singer, Samuel Weller (1816), Researches into the History of Playing Cards, R. Triphook



  1. ^ "Who invented playing cards? -". Archived from the original on 2017-04-21.
  2. ^ Needham 1986d, pp. 131–132.
  3. ^ a b Wilkinson, W.H. (1895). "Chinese Origin of Playing Cards". American Anthropologist. VIII (1): 61–78. doi:10.1525/aa.1895.8.1.02a00070.
  4. ^ a b c Lo, A. (2009). "The game of leaves: An inquiry into the origin of Chinese playing cards". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 63 (3): 389–406. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00008466.
  5. ^ Needham 2004, p. 328 "it is also now rather well-established that dominoes and playing-cards were originally Chinese developments from dice."
  6. ^ Needham 2004, p. 334 "Numbered dice, anciently widespread, were on a related line of development which gave rise to dominoes and playing-cards (+9th-century China)."
  7. ^ Zhou, Songfang (1997). "On the Story of Late Tang Poet Li He". Journal of the Graduates Sun Yat-sen University. 18 (3): 31–35.
  8. ^ a b c Needham, Joseph and Tsien Tsuen-hsuin. (1985). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing. Cambridge University Press., reprinted Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.(1986)
  9. ^ a b Needham 2004, p. 132
  10. ^ a b c d Parlett, David, "The Chinese "Leaf" Game", March 2015.
  11. ^ Money-suited playing cards at The Mahjong Tile Set
  12. ^ Playing card basics at the International Playing-Card Society website
  13. ^ Dummett, Michael (1980). The Game of Tarot. Duckworth. p. 41. ISBN 0-7156-1014-7.
  14. ^ Mayer, Leo Ary (1939), Le Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 38, pp. 113–118, retrieved 2008-09-08.
  15. ^ International Playing Cards Society Journal, 30-3, page 139
  16. ^ Pollett, Andrea "The Playing-Card", Vol. 31, No 1 pp. 34–41.
  17. ^ Mamluk cards. Retrieved on 2015-05-10.
  18. ^ Wintle, Simon. Moorish playing cards at The World of Playing Cards. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  19. ^ The Mamluk Cards. Retrieved on 2015-05-10.
  20. ^ No trump trick-taking games at
  21. ^ Donald Laycock in Skeptical—a Handbook of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, ed Donald Laycock, David Vernon, Colin Groves, Simon Brown, Imagecraft, Canberra, 1989, ISBN 0-7316-5794-2, p. 67
  22. ^ Andy's Playing Cards - The Tarot And Other Early Cards - page XVII - the moorish deck. Retrieved on 2015-05-10.
  23. ^ "Trionfi – Tarot and its history".
  24. ^ "Trionfi – Tarot and its history".
  25. ^ J. Brunet i Bellet, Lo joch de naibs, naips o cartas, Barcelona, 1886, quote in the "Diccionari de rims de 1371 : darrerament/per ensajar/de bandejar/los seus guarips/joch de nayps/de nit jugàvem, see also le site
  26. ^ Banzhaf, Hajo (1994), Il Grande Libro dei Tarocchi (in Italian), Roma: Hermes Edizioni, pp. 16, 192, ISBN 978-88-7938-047-8
  27. ^ Olmert, Michael (1996). Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History, p.135. Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-684-80164-7.
  28. ^ "Early Card painters and Printers in Germany, Austria and Flandern (14th and 15th century)".
  29. ^ Roya, Will (16 October 2018). "The History of Playing Cards: The Evolution of the Modern Deck". Retrieved 2 July 2019.
  30. ^ "The Cloisters Playing Cards, ca. 1475–80". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  31. ^ "Early Playing Cards Research". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  32. ^ "The Introduction of Playing-Cards to Europe".
  33. ^ History of Playing-Cards at International Playing-Card Society website
  34. ^ Wintle, Simon. Early references to Playing Cards at World of Playing Cards.
  35. ^ Barrington, Daines (1787). Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity. 8. Society of Antiquaries of London. p. 141.
  36. ^ "knave, n, 2". Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989.
  37. ^ Andy's Playing Cards - Japanese and Korean Cards. Retrieved on 2015-05-10.
  38. ^ International Playing Cards Society Journal 30-1 page 34
  39. ^ Dawson, Tom and Judy. (2014) Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards. 2nd Ed. Ch 5.
  40. ^ International Playing Cards Society Journal. XXVII-5 p. 186; and 31-1 p. 22
  41. ^ Fryxell, David A. (2014-02-07) History Matters: Playing Cards. Family Tree Magazine.
  42. ^ "Playing cards featuring logo of the FJ Holden". National Museum of Australia.
  43. ^ Parlett, David (1990), The Oxford Guide to Card Games, Oxford University Press, p. 190, ISBN 978-0-19-214165-1
  44. ^ US Playing Card Co. – A Brief History of Playing Cards ( mirror)
  45. ^ Beal, George (1975). Playing cards and their story. New York: Arco Publishing Comoany Inc. p. 58
  46. ^ Parlett, David (1990), The Oxford Guide to Card Games, Oxford University Press, p. 191, ISBN 978-0-19-214165-1
  47. ^ "Standard pattern notes". Archived from the original on Dec 11, 2018. Retrieved 2015-05-10.
  48. ^ "Lefty's "Always right" double deck of playing cards".
  49. ^ "Sinister Deck: The Left-Handed Card Deck With Famous Lefties".
  50. ^ Unicode – Playing Cards Block (PDF), retrieved 2014-11-08

Cited sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Playing card societies (collectors and researchers)

History of playing cards

Playing card iconography

Museums, Institutes and Organisations

Playing card collections online