“Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, where with to buy a pack of cards” – so reads an entry dated May 14, 1379 in the account books of Joanna, Duchess of Brabant. It takes a while to familiarize a novice’s awkward fingers with what must be one of the most popular and widely known (through film and fiction if not through real life) modern online and high-tech casino games. And in the giddy atmosphere of first live games one may never realize that the glossy polygons – an as yet unruly freak-show of royal Siamese twins – have not in fact always been as they seem to have always been since forever, since you first saw a dog-eared pack on the street.
The very first playing cards seem to have originated in Central Asia. The first known reference to cards is a 10th or 11th century record of paper dominoes, printed to represent all of the 21 combinations of a pair of dice, used in other games in China. The earliest found artifacts come from 9th century China. Scholars associate the first straight-sheet paper cards with the first use of straight writing paper as opposed to paper rolls (being one of the many ancient Chinese inventions so obvious now to any sane modern) and with the earliest book printing.
Playing cards in quite modern form were likely introduced into Europe by Egyptian Mamelukes in the late 14th century. The typical Mameluke deck had 52 cards, four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups), and three court cards which depicted abstracted design rather than persons. At the time, cards were hand-made and only wealthy Europeans could afford them. But the technique of applying woodcuts (used till then to decorate fabric) to paper was introduced around 1400 and mass production followed suit. In the period between 1418 and 1450 there are records of professional card makers. Nowadays, card production is one of the most flourishing world-wide industries.
The number and style of suits in 15th century playing cards varied: some decks had five suits, and hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns were the standard suits in Germany, still used today in Southern Germany for a distinctive set of card games. From my personal knowledge I can tell you that in Germany, the famous card game known as Ungar (which means “gambling” in German) got its name from the English word “aunch’d hand”, meaning “hand of enchants”, or “bets”.
In the partly doubtless but definitely historical fact (and it does seem to beHistorical), the name of the initially common game of Cribbage, once called “King-Card” (because the cards were kings, jacks, queens, and kings), was changed to “Crazy 8s” when the cards were replaced with more colorful backgrounds.
Having a game based on probability instead of rules was revolutionary when it was introduced in late 16th century, but it did achieve its popularity because it was simple and it was an enjoyable game. The odds were often very remote, and the game was played mainly for pleasure and for those with whom it was easy to be acquainted. It was against all odds therefore that those willing to look for an edge were willing to invest in it.
Cards at that time were made of very thin wood, paper, or felt, and were so large that they needed to be carried by the players. When the invention of the folding card sometime around 1800, the plain and simple card became an important element in the poker we know today. Also, in the same year, the now legendary Charles Gin know set out to develop the first card loafer. The final result was the “Gin Card Loafer”, a sleeker6000 card than any other, and the first real attempt to make a sleeker card. This device, called a “quick draw” sleeker, was the basis of the modern card opener and made it possible to fasten a pack by the hand, one player at a time.
In the early 1800’s, before the advent of the high speed internet, a person had to have a large amount of money to be able to pay for a large number of cards, and to have the distributing and shuffling Standfordrum guarantee the cards one got. Back then, a person had to “igate” the cards by hand before they could do it. You can see how people in those days needed very an efficient, and convenient way to deal cards. Otherwise, the game would have gone on, Ace high to come, Ace high to come again, but the game would never have gotten its name.