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It’s card playing day on December 28!

 

Photo by Roger H. Goun licensed CC BY 2.0

Cut the deck! December 28 is Card Playing Day. Why not celebrate by challenging your friends to a card game like Crazy Eights, Go Fish, or Old Maid? In the meantime, shuffle through these fun facts about playing cards!

Playing cards goes way back

French uncut cards with line drawings of kings and queens.
French cards (like the ones above) look similar to the playing cards we use today. These cards are made of paper and have yet to be cutAndre Perrocet [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s believed that playing cards were invented in China around the year 1000. The cards were made of wood, rather than the thin, plastic-coated paper that we use today. In fact, some decks were even made of bone! As for the first printed paper playing card deck? Those came on the scene in the 1300s.

Cards have changed over the years

A set of Kings splayed showing all four suits.
Four Kings from all four suits are shown. Photo by Philippa Willitts licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

The first playing cards were hand-painted with artwork. It wasn’t until the late 1200s that cards began to include numbers and suits instead of art. Early cards didn’t feature the suits we’re used to — hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Instead, the cards featured everyday objects like coins, swords, or cups. Around the late 1400s, playing cards in France began to include the four suits that we’re familiar with today.

There’s a story to those suits

Vintage playing cards.
Photo by John Sheldon licensed CC BY-NC-ND

Some people say the four suits on playing cards represent the four seasons — with hearts representing spring, clubs signifying summer, diamonds for fall, and spades for winter. However, some believe the suits are a symbol of society in the past. In this case, hearts represent members of the church, diamonds are for the wealthy class, clubs represent the working class, and spades signify the military. When it comes to the number of cards in a deck, it’s thought that the 52 cards represent the 52 weeks in a year.


Interested in playing cards? Learn the world's easiest magic card trick.


The kings, queens, and jacks have a story, too

Old French cards featuring the Queen of Spades and the King of Clubs.
If you look closely at the French vintage cards above, you will see the name Pallas (a Greek goddess, who was raised alongside goddess Athena) typed on the Queen's card, while Alexander (as in Alexander the Great) appears on King's card. Photo by William Cresswell licensed CC BY 2.0

The face cards in playing card decks were designed after people in history or mythology. For instance, the king of diamonds is said to represent Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. The queen of spades signifies Athena, the warrior goddess in Greek mythology. And the jack of clubs is said to be Sir Lancelot, who was a knight in a British legend.

All decks are not created equal

Circular, yet colourful cards with symbols instead of the four suits.
This is the oldest full deck that is known. It is believed they are from 1470–80 from Southern Netherlands. Notice how there is no spades, clubs, hearts, or diamonds? By Unknown. Date: ca. 1470–80 Southern Netherlands [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The oldest known deck of cards in the world dates back to the 15th century. It’s a 52-card deck from the Netherlands. The cards belonged to a collector, but he decided to sell the deck in 1983. He sold it to a museum in New York for nearly $150,000!

There are several ways to shuffle cards

One of the most popular ways to shuffle cards is a technique called the overhand shuffle. To do this, you slowly shuffle the deck from one hand to the other. For instance, if you’re holding the deck in your right hand, you grasp a group of cards from the bottom of the deck with the thumb and fingers of your left hand. Then you move those to the top of the deck that’s still resting in your right hand. You repeat this over and over again.

The overhand shuffle, one of several ways one can shuffle a deck of cards.
The overhand shuffle is shown above. Photo by Jeffrey Smith licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

There’s also a common shuffling technique called the riffle. In this method, the deck is split in two and held next to each other with your thumbs facing inward. Then you flick and release the cards held by your thumbs, so that the cards weave to form one deck again.

Here is the riffle method to shuffle cards.
The hands above demonstrate the riffle method, a popular way to shuffle cards. Photo by Christian Dalager licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

They’re not just for games

They are used for magic tricks too!