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).