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The history of playing cards

Portable. Playable. Popular. Playing cards are the greatest gaming invention of all time, simply perfection in the form of a 52-card deck.

Songs have been written about just about every playing card you can think of, including the Joker, Ace of Spades, Jack of Hearts, Queen of Diamonds, and more. The cards tracked down Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, singled out the volunteer and confused the public in the hands of a skilled magician.

They fit in your pocket. They entertain. They gather strangers. They are an essential tool in any casino’s arsenal – both online and offline. Poker, baccarat, Caribbean Stud and blackjack are just a few examples of what happens when you combine some ingenuity with a game of cards.

Origins of playing cards

The precise origins of the first playing cards are undefined. Most scholars believe that China is probably the origin of the first playing cards. Dice and tokens have a history dating back thousands of years BC because they are (obviously) not made of paper.

As with most inventions, the medium was key. Woodblock printing on cloth and paper was commonplace in the Tang dynasty, in 7e China of the century. The first reference to a “sheet game”, believed to be played with sheets of paper, dates back to 868 AD. What the game and its cards looked like is lost forever.

The first specific reference to printed maps dates back to July 17, 1294 AD. In a report, two players were arrested; nine maps and the wooden blocks used to print them were seized. Even the earliest maps followed a “court” structure; with high cards represented by kings, queens and a vizier. They won out on the humble glitches.

Hanging out in Europe

Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the 14e century. At that time, these were hand-painted luxury products; imported to Spain and Italy by merchants of the Islamic Mamluk dynasty, who controlled the trade routes between Asia and the West.

Card games are quickly becoming the favored pastime of the upper classes. Highly fashionable, they were the medieval equivalent of the latest state-of-the-art game console.

As woodblock printing techniques improved, became faster and more efficient, more maps were produced, slowly and surely finding their way along the inland European trade routes.

The generic hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades format is believed to have evolved due to its visual simplicity and ease of printing. Stencils were used to create the designs and the icons are easily recognizable. Six hundred years later, they are still in use. If it ain’t broke…

Lithograph of one of the first card games.

A new case

Until the advent of playing cards, board games generally limited play to two people and dice games, devoid of any real intellectual stimulation, almost always involved gambling. Card games can be played for fun and in groups. They were also popular with women.

Card games inevitably led to more gambling. European governments have taken up the challenge in different ways. In France, the Palace of Versailles was transformed into a giant casino, generating revenue and playing cards, on the advice of King Louis XIV’s finance minister, Cardinal Mazarin.

Other legislations banned the manufacture of playing cards altogether or made their production a state monopoly. In the UK, the Stamp Act of 1765 meant that every game was stamped. The tax stamp appeared on the ace of spades, indicating that the tax had been paid. It is believed that is why this map is often highly decorated.

Upper bridge

Today, the largest playing card manufacturer in the world is the United States Playing Card Company. The Kentucky-based company was established in 1867 and manufactures more than 100 million games each year. No wonder, when you know that casinos change their cards every 6 to 8 hours. Rejections are “cancelled”; either deformed by a drill hole, the corners cut off, pulped or sold as souvenirs.

Today, the standard 52-card deck is the most popular variety of playing cards in the world. Each king in the game represents a great king from history: Spades – King David, Hearts – Charlemagne, Diamonds – Julius Caesar and Clubs – Alexander the Great. In the middle of the 19e century, Jokers were added to the pack as a high-ranking perk.

To play online

Playing cards first appeared on the Internet in the mid-1990s, when online casino innovators InterCasino and Cryptologic solved the random number generator (RNG) problem, to make online casino gambling as random than the actual game.

Four aces displayed on a mobile phone.

Nowadays, RNGs are very complex algorithms that guarantee fair play. Skeptics now also have the option of enjoying a live casino experience; using real maps broadcast on your desktop.

But how random is chance? Here is one (last) mind-blowing fact about playing cards.

It is almost impossible to shuffle a deck of cards twice in the same way. If every man, woman and child on the planet shuffled a deck of cards – every second – it would take 24 trillion trillion trillion times longer than the current age of the universe to produce every variation of the deck.

The number looks like this: 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000.

Happy brewing!