November 10, 2015

Tek This Out!: Let's Face It - The History of Playing Cards

We’re all familiar with the traditional deck of playing cards. There’s 52 of those bad boys in a deck, but have you ever really looked at them? What’s the deal with the face cards?

Funny you should ask! Believe it or not, there’s an interesting story behind them.

Each of the four kings represents an actual ruler from ancient history. The king of diamonds stands for the wealthy Julius Caesar; the king of spades represents David of Israel, whose sword was modeled after the weapon he took from Goliath; the ruthless Alexander the Great (or Charlemagne, depending on who you ask) is the king of clubs; the king of hearts represents Charles VII of France, who was the only one of the four to actually see his face printed on a playing card. It is believed that he had plenty of time to play cards once he fell ill with a fever and was bedridden for much of his life.

The emotionally disturbed Charles VII had an inkling that since the king was the 13th card in the deck, it was causing him bad luck. So next time you lose all your money at the poker table, just blame him!
Maybe Charles VII was just upset because he looks 100 pounds heavier on playing cards.
According to the novel ‘Cowboys Full’ by James McManus, queens and jacks also stand for historical figures, albeit in a much looser fashion. The queens of spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs respectively represented Pallas Athena (the Greek goddess of war and wisdom), Rachel (the woman who Jacob waited 14 years to marry), Judith (Jewish heroine who cut off the Assyrian general’s head), and ‘Argine,’ which was an anagram of ‘Regina,” the Latin term for ‘queen.’

Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.

Surely, much of these figures’ looks have been lost in translation since playing cards aren’t exactly painted by Michelangelo (no offense, nameless playing card designer). Nevertheless, we never take a second to stop and think about where jacks, queens and kings actually came from.

Now you can impress everyone at the table with your playing card knowledge on your next trip to Las Vegas. I’m sure your fellow gamblers won’t mind at all! Sure, they might actually smack you the next time you say ‘hit me,’ but you just hit them with some serious facts. So who’s the real winner?


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